Just as entertainers, through or by association with blackface, could render permissible topics that otherwise would have been taboo, so American writers were able to employ an imagined Africanist persona to articulate and imaginatively act out the forbidden in American culture.
-Toni Morrison Playing in the Dark
From Morrison’s perspective, whiteness is a covering that appears transparent but whose primary purpose is to obfuscate the blackness that exists always just beneath the surface. She asserts that the “forbidden American culture” of blackness is inherent in every public discourse, from the Constitution to Women’s Suffrage movements to finance to America’s colonial project to immigration. “Africanism,” Morrison argues, “is inextricable from the definition of Americanness.”(65) Throughout Playing in the Dark, she makes the case that all American literature is about Africanist personae, even if it is not for them. While, in Morrison’s words, “certainly no American text of the sort I am discussing was ever written for black people— no more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written for Uncle Tom to read or be persuaded by,” it is equally clear that these texts make manifest the forbidden American imaginary about black lives.(16-17) Thus, Morrison might understand the film The Birth of a Nation as a white fantasy (Frantz Fanon might substitute the word “fetishization”) of black folks; an indication that Griffith’s myth of the United States’ foundational whiteness is underlaid by that whiteness’ obsession with black men. Thus, for Morrison, the inherent blackness of white culture is always present.
Frank Wilderson (Red, White and Black) takes a less playful attitude, perhaps agreeing that blackness underlies all white cultural expression, though only because black non-existence is “that outside which makes it possible for White and non-White (i.e., Asians and Latinos) positions to exist and, simultaneously, contest existence.”(65) Counter to what he terms the “second wave” black film theorists, Wilderson understands Black, not as a position of subaltern (dominated, oppressed) subjectivity but as a non-existence. Thus, unlike Morrison, Wilderson would argue that, despite the focus on Blackness, a film like The Birth of a Nation is not telling a story that is secretly about Black people.
Indeed, The Birth of a Nation is uniquely exemplary of Wilderson’s point. In the aftermath of Reconstruction and black enfranchisement, Griffith shows black folks installed in the judiciary and legislative branches of government. An interstitial title card claims to depict a “historical facsimile of the State House of Representatives of South Carolina as it was in 1870” in which blacks outnumbered whites in Congress. While many of the 101 black representatives are played by actors in blackface, the number of African American actors portraying members of congress in this scene likely exceeds the total depictions of black politicians in every Hollywood film produced in 2015. That is, Blacks, when absent from the screen (or the page) may indeed be present, as Morrison argues. Wilderson, however, notes that they are not present for themselves. Instead, they are present as a parody of humanity, represented by shoeless, alcoholics who would impede our nation’s birth through their sub-human negligence. Rather than a playful and lively “forbidden Americanism” under the surface of American cinema and literature, for Wilderson the unspoken and ever-present Black-ness is the accumulated corpses of Blacks/Slaves killed in the production of America’s imagination of itself.(65)
The Whiteness of the possibility of being-for oneself is central to my reading of the first season of the Serial podcast as well. The series imagines itself as a story about Adnan Sayed. He is, after all, the focus of Sarah Koenig’s investigation. Aside from Sarah, Adnan is the only character who is mentioned in every episode of the podcast. Yet, it is clear that the story is, at minimum, a manifestation of Sarah’s fantasy. Isolated moments like her ability to finish Adnan’s story when his call is cut short by a prison guard in “Route Talk” make clear Adnan’s superfluity. Sarah simply picks fills in Adanan’s words by reading a letter he had written to her. This elicits the question: “why do we hear Adnan talk at all if Sarah can ventriloquize for him any time she wants to?” Adnan’s presence in this story, we could argue, is for Sarah, not for himself. When he disappears from the microphone and back into the silence and invisibility of prison, Sarah’s fantasy of him persists on the air. At the same time, it is on the basis of our ability to forget him with impunity that the story of Serial can be told at all. Note that we must understand Wilderson’s raced categories as positional rather than biological. As such, Adnan, though of Pakistani ancestry, occupies the position of Black/Slave by virtue of his incarceration.
For Wilderson, Black can fight against its oppression but does not occupy a position in which a “fighting for” can have meaning.(66)` We might note that this logic underlies, (though is not explicitly expressed nor fully articulated in) the numerous commentaries and essays about the Baltimore rebellion this week. For example, DeRay McKesson’s refusal to condemn destructive protests (”I don’t have to condone it to understand it.”) despite Wolf Blitzer’s goading is a fine demonstration. Similarly, Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby seemed to be tacitly aware of the Wilderson’s formulation by which the infrastructure that is present in black neighborhoods, is not for those black neighborhoods. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ historical case for reparations stops short of Wilderson’s conclusion as he argues that Blacks have been systematically divested of their lives and labor as a condition of possibility for building the United States. Yet, Coates (unlike Wilderson) sees monetary remuneration as a possible remedy. Yet, in his “Nonviolence as Compliance” article during the rebellion in Baltimore, Coates recognizes destruction of property as a response that is neither “wise” nor “correct.” Rather, it is merely a natural outcome given the state of violence within which Black lives exist.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.”
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Nonviolence as Compliance.”
McKesson, Deray. “Wolf Blitzer interviews Deray McKesson about violence in Baltimore.”Youtube video, 3:55, posted by “RawStory,” April 28, 2015.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Mosby, Nick. “Kept It Real: Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby Owns Snobby News Reporter!” Youtube video, 4:54, posted by “NewsMedia,” April 28, 2015.
Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.