White Melancholia

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side by side series of the covers of Playing In the Dark and White Flights

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Toni Morrison writes that, “for both black and white American writers, in a wholly racialized society, there is no escape from racially inflected language, and the work writers do to unhobble the imagination from the demands of that language is complicated, interesting, and definitive.” For Morrison, the existence of Africans and African Americans in America—what she dubs “the Africanist presence”—has left a distinguishing imprint on American literature, which is part of what makes it uniquely American. By turning the focus away from the object of racism (its victims) and toward the subject (the perpetrators), she asks vital questions about the ways that whiteness depends upon Blackness and how the white imagination is both consciously and unconsciously shaped by white supremacy.

I’ve been thinking about Morrison a lot in the wake of the lynching of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that have spread across the country in recent weeks. Morrison, who died last summer, is no longer with us to share her insight, but the imperative to “unhobble the imagination” remains pressing. The most important questions facing the nation now are about how to safeguard Black lives, and the most urgent questions facing publishing are about how to dismantle the structures that continue to emphasize white stories over all other stories. Yet as a white writer, I find myself most qualified to speak about matters of whiteness. The author Jess Row writes that, when it comes to questions of race, works by white fiction writers of the last several decades seem to be defined by “a series of silences, defensive postures, lacunae, conscious and unconscious self-limitations.” This silence represents a refusal to accept the shame that racial awareness imposes on white writers, a shame that must be recognized if we hope to begin the real work of “unhobbling” our imaginations—an endeavor whose effects are not limited to the realm of fiction.

In Playing in the Dark, Morrison notes that, “A writer’s response to American Africanism often provides a subtext that either sabotages the surface text’s expressed intentions or escapes them through a language that mystifies what it cannot bring itself to articulate but still attempts to register.” She catalogs the way this Africanist presence plays out in works by Willa Cather, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway, and notes that many of the nineteenth-century works are richer for this subtext, as in the case of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, in which the symbolism surrounding images of whiteness opens wider possibilities when considered through a racial lens. For Morrison, this presence is flattest and least interesting—because it’s also the most bigoted—in Hemingway’s later novels. Yet there is a sense in all these examples in which racial awareness seems to undercut the writer’s own intentions, in which Black characters, even when reduced to offensive stereotypes, seem to slip past the writers’ best efforts to control them, and unintended meanings multiply.

In White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination (2019), Row builds upon Morrison’s premise, extending the examination of white literature to the post- Civil Rights era. Row examines some of the seminal writers of the 1970s and 1980s, writers such as Marilynne Robinson, Raymond Carver, Annie Dillard, Don DeLillo, Gordon Lish, Richard Ford, and David Foster Wallace—the same writers who have often formed an unofficial canon within creative writing programs. Whereas Morrison discovers richness in many nineteenth-century texts that dealt overtly with issues of slavery and freedom, Row finds in these late-twentieth-century works an avoidance of race and an associated emphasis on increasingly small or isolated spaces, places that have been almost purposefully stripped of the presence of people of color. Take, for example, the open landscapes of Robinson’s Idaho in Housekeeping, which the author presents as an open wilderness without mentioning the Indigenous people that had to be cleared to make space for the white characters’ spiritual epiphanies, or a scene in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections set in a garden for inner-city youth that features only two white adults—or even how Gordon Lish’s famous editing of Raymond Carver’s stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, usually seen through a wholly aesthetic lens, removed vital details about the ethnic identity of his characters, enshrining a white aesthetic that is then offered up as universal. Row ties this psychic retreat to the physical retreat of white families to the suburbs after the racial unrest of the 1960s. The absence of people of color in most of the works he considers reflects both the lived experiences of many white people, dwelling at greater distances from one another and with less and less contact with people of other races, as well as a conscious desire to seem “colorblind”—to avoid giving offense by not seeming to notice race at all.

Like Morrison, however, Row also argues that there is a deeper unconscious force at work, a need to avoid the “shame” that real racial awareness would impose on white people, which he casts in Freudian terms:

In his 1917 essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia,’ Freud drew a critical distinction between a healthy response to a traumatic loss, in which a person is able to mourn and then move on with life, and melancholia, in which a person returns again and again to the traumatic loss, unable to fully process it. A person trapped in the cycle of melancholia, Freud says, has actually confused the lost object—a person who has died, for example—with a part of his or her own self. Once this happens, it’s impossible for the melancholic person to transfer that attachment to any other object. The ‘shadow of the object,’ as Freud puts it, exists within oneself, in a kind of limbo, neither fully satisfying as something to be loved or fully unsatisfying, as something that needs to be expelled. The worst part of melancholia, then, is the inability even to wish that the lost object would return.

Above all, Row posits white Americans’ racial melancholia as “a failure to love.” White people, Row suggests, in cutting themselves off from people of color, have cut themselves off from their own humanity and failed to recognize that they are doing so. No wonder, then, that the imaginative worlds they create are limited by what the writers cannot allow themselves to see at the expense of their own psychic “freedom.”

Row, a white man, does an excellent job of laying out the problems of white racial melancholia but is least convincing when it comes to offering up possible solutions. He holds out the possibilities of something that he calls “reparative writing,” but is vague when it comes to what that might look like. Row’s novel Your Face in Mine, about a white man who opts to undergo racial reassignment surgery, was probably an attempt in this direction, but, perhaps not surprisingly, left many readers and critics befuddled by its attempts to take on race through a white lens. Row raises the question himself of whether the most appropriate response from white writers at this time might not be silence: “The question of whether to write at all is one white writers should take seriously. To produce art—even explicitly antiracist art—under conditions that reward white subjectivity, center it, and render it harmless and neutral is, arguably, a way of collaborating with and sustaining those conditions.”

Yet White Flights itself is an attempt at reparative writing; in the introduction, Row notes that he has given the advance from the book to a Native-owned artists’ collective and gallery in South Dakota, chosen because of his family’s past as homesteaders in the region in the nineteenth century, a gesture toward the importance not just of imaginative healing but toward the redirection of material and financial resources. The book is most uncomfortable at these moments where Row takes on his own white privilege, where he accepts the risk of making himself “ridiculous,” but that is by design. Row can’t claim the natural authority that Morrison possesses both by virtue of her positioning as a Nobel Prize-winning author and a Black woman. But the work that Row is attempting to do in White Flights seems important to me. It seems like the kind of work that more white writers should be doing.

For both Morrison and Row, American literary output has been marked by an often unconscious awareness of the racial other. If Row is correct that the tendency toward avoidance in recent white literature serves a kind of protective function for white writers (and white readers), acting as a shield against our own shame, then it’s time we face that shame. In Freudian terms, what is repressed must be brought to conscious awareness before real change is possible. This seems like a place to start.