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The Short Form

White People Writing Black People

Toni Morrison on how some white writers are brilliant at writing black people:

In not using black characters, but using the aesthetic of blacks as anarchy, as sexual license, as deviance. In his last book, The Garden of Eden, Hemingway’s heroine is getting blacker and blacker. The woman who is going mad tells her husband, I want to be your little African queen. The novel gets its charge that way: Her white white hair and her black, black skin . . . almost like a Man Ray photograph. Mark Twain talked about racial ideology in the most powerful, eloquent, and instructive way I have ever read. Edgar Allan Poe did not. He loved white supremacy and the planter class, and he wanted to be a gentleman, and he endorsed all of that. He didn’t contest it or critique it. What is exciting about American literature is that business of how writers say things under, beneath, and around their stories. Think of Pudd’nhead Wilson and all these inversions of what race is, how sometimes nobody can tell, or the thrill of discovery? Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom! spends the entire book tracing race and you can’t find it. No one can see it, even the character who is black can’t see it. I did this lecture for my students that took me forever, which was tracking all the moments of withheld, partial, or disinformation, when a racial fact or clue sort of comes out but doesn’t quite arrive. I just wanted to chart it. I listed its appearance, disguise, and disappearance on every page—I mean every phrase! Everything, and I delivered this thing to my class. They all fell asleep! But I was so fascinated, technically. Do you know how hard it is to withhold that kind of information but hinting, pointing all of the time? And then to reveal it in order to say that it is not the point anyway? It is technically just astonishing. As a reader you have been forced to hunt for a drop of black blood that means everything and nothing. The insanity of racism. So the structure is the argument. Not what this one says or that one says . . . it is the structure of the book, and you are there hunting this black thing that is nowhere to be found and yet makes all the difference. No one has done anything quite like that ever. So, when I critique, what I am saying is, I don’t care if Faulkner is a racist or not; I don’t personally care but I am fascinated by what it means to write like this.