Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Playing on the "Darky": Blackface Minstrelsy, Identity Construction, and the Deconstruction of Race in Toni Morrison's Paradise

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Playing on the "Darky": Blackface Minstrelsy, Identity Construction, and the Deconstruction of Race in Toni Morrison's Paradise

Article excerpt

In a Washington Post interview with David Streitfeld only days before the release of her seventh novel, Paradise (1998), Toni Morrison contends that what she wanted to do with Paradise was not to erase race but to force "readers either to care about it or see if it disturbs them" that race can be so blurred that, without specific linguistic utterance, race can go unidentified. (1) That the relationship between literature and race is of especial significance to Morrison is evidenced not only in this interview with Streitfeld but in countless other interviews, throughout her fiction, and, perhaps, most aggressively, in her collection of essays and lectures Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Lodged in the context of her investigation of how an Africanist presence shapes classic American texts is Morrison's commentary on the role of the writer in articulating crucial moments in American history and in offering "truth" about society even when the literary critic will not. She writes:

   National literatures, like writers, get along the best way they
   can, and with what they can. Yet they do seem to end up describing
   and inscribing what is really on the national mind. For the most
   part, the literature of the United States has taken as its concern
   the architecture of a new white man. If I am disenchanted by the
   indifference of literary criticism toward examining the range of
   that concern, I do have a lasting resort: the writers themselves.
   (2)

Here, we are reminded that even when literary criticism, as it often does, ignores obvious relationships between the production of literature and race (which is also produced), we can still count on writers to highlight that relationship, even if they do so unconsciously.

Morrison's fictional response to Playing in the Dark, one might think, would result in a novel about American (read white American) identity construction and the impact the Africanist presence has had on it. To write such a novel would certainly appease critics who, in their acceptance of Morrison as a great American author, frequently question whether she could or would ever write a novel about white people. (3) In a sense, Morrison does write about white people in Paradise. The coal-black citizens of Ruby mirror white American character so obviously that my first and subsequent readings of the text left me convinced that Morrison had written a novel critiquing American identity and exceptionalism whereby the men of Ruby were little more than white men in blackface. (4) By obscuring race, Morrison is able to critique American identity construction and to show that both blackness and whiteness are produced social constructions, not fixed biological categories. This critique inevitably leads to questions about class and gender, even if only peripherally. Notably, the American art form which makes similar investigations into racial, socio-economic, and gender categories; which produces similar results; and which the novel engages consciously and unconsciously is blackface minstrelsy. A reading of Paradise that considers the novel through the lens of the minstrel tradition amplifies the novel's critique of American identity construction--ironically, the very thing that initiates and sustains blackface minstrelsy.

Recent essays on the novel argue that Paradise is, in fact, about the American experience, told from an African American perspective. (5) Inherent in such arguments still is the element of race, since the goal of these essays is largely to show how race influences perspective, and thus how race influences the making, telling, and retelling of American history. In her prefatory remarks to Playing in the Dark, Morrison poses two questions that are key to our reading of Paradise here: how are "literary whiteness" and "literary blackness" constructed, and "what is the consequence of that construction?" (6) Minstrelsy invokes these same questions; and, like Paradise, minstrelsy further complicates these questions by invoking issues of gender and class. …

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