Under the White Gaze: Jim Crow, the Nobel, and the Assault on Toni Morrison

By Reilly, Joseph | Monthly Review, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Under the White Gaze: Jim Crow, the Nobel, and the Assault on Toni Morrison


Reilly, Joseph, Monthly Review


.... [B]efore that personal disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy, the cynical ignoring of the better and the boisterous welcoming of the worse, the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil--before this there rises a sickening despair that would disarm and discourage any nation save that black host to whom "discouragement" is an unwritten word.--W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903.

This year's Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to Toni Morrison recognized an enormously talented African-American artist. But the pathological racism so essential to U.S. history reared itself in grotesque yet predictable ways to mar what should have been a uniform celebration. While the sour grapes of Charles Johnson ("middle-brow fiction") and the notorious denunciation of Steven Moore (Granting the award to Morrison was indicative of "Europe's continued fascination with the exotic"[1]) provided useful ammunition to racist discourse, it was Edwin Yoder's syndicated column of October 13, 1993 ("An eccentric selection from the Nobel folks," International Herald Tribune) that most clearly revealed the persistence of racist notions, assumptions, and practices. Yoder's essay was also representative of a well-established tradition of treating African-Americans as objects of disgrace and embarrassment, always to be doubted even when the white world begrudgingly confirms its approval.

For Yoder, this Nobel amounted to a handout to a struggling African-American trying to get off welfare. That he confesses to never having read any of Morrison's works is beside the point. Morrison is a "journeyman novelist," whose earlier works "showed promise but... has lately drifted." Drifted? The representation here is clear: a wandering African-American, without roots and without history, until the (white) Nobel committee came to her rescue. Indeed, Yoder's African-American is only capable of rescue. He argues that it was not Toni Morrison or any other African-American writer who rescued the slaves from historical obscurity. It was William Styron, "a Southern white male who... rescued black people of the slave era from stereotype and accorded them the dignity of human shape and dimension." Styron's mercy mission, The Confessions of Nat Turner, is itself a perverse revision of the slave experience generally and the historical realities of Turner specifically, and has been written about elsewhere. [2] In Yoder's America, African- Americans remain invisible by their own failures; they have, in fact, written themselves out of history but, through the heroic effort of Euro-American scholarship, have begun to reappear. In a nation where the physical and intellectual landscape has been wholly woven of race-based disdain, could it be any other way?

One thinks back to the treatment of the champion boxer Jack Johnson, found guilty of two heinous crimes: knocking out a white man and marrying a white woman. Du Bois commented on the nature of the crime, which, then as now, continues: "It all comes down, then, after all to this unforgivable blackness. [3] At the time, the New York Times did not mince its affirmation of this pigmentary crime, having already shed its crocodile tears over the racist provocations that led to his white wife's suicide. When Johnson was seen sobbing at her funeral, sobbing for a victim who had made the mistake of crossing the fortified boundaries of alterity, troubled newspapers needed to explain this evidence of his humanity. The white gaze of a New York Times editorial made a most generous formulation to solve the dilemma:

"Animal or not," the Times conceded, "he is not callous." [4] The result of this bloodlust, and this must be kept in mind as regards the assault on Morrison, was not merely a cheap shot against Jack Johnson. The victorious Democrats, led by Wilson, did their utmost to introduce legislation to stop intermarriage between the races. …

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