Navigating Foreign Waters: The White Reader and Ethnic Literatures [Essay]

In a small city in Western Massachusetts, where reading for pleasure is a fashionable pursuit, there are three used book stores, nestled beside a cafe, a pizza parlour, and a bicycle repair shop, respectively. The people here don’t waste their time on anything but a “sure thing,” and I can’t blame them for their partiality, there are too many books and too few reading hours to save the best for last. While waiting for an uncomfortably dogmatic “DON’T WALK” signal to transform into the friendly silhouette of a pedestrian, I turn to the local beside me and, with the appearance of a true out-of-towner, ask her to recommend a bookseller in the downtown Historic District. She raves over Raven Used Books for its monthly features but, she warns, “They can be a little pricey …The books are cheaper on Federal Street, but you’d better know what you’re looking for.”

Federal St. Books is packed; the paperbacks and hardcovers rise up from floor to ceiling, tucked into built-in shelves, snugly situated on freestanding bookcases, on makeshift milk crate cubbies, tossed into cardboard boxes marked $1/$5/$10 each. When I cross the threshold, the dissonant jingle of bells announces my arrival and, at once, I feel overwhelmed by choice. whatamilookingforwhatami lookingforwhatamilookingfor. After a few paces down aisle one, I catch on to the store layout, organized alphabetically by author’s last name, but fail to note the sudden shift in my cognitive process. Thoughtful considerations, like preferred genre or desired emotional response, are entirely irrelevant to my search because, instead, I’m asking: Who do I know? Who do I trust?

About one quarter into my ABCs, I catch myself thinking out loud  “F-F-Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Frost.” With a skim of the dust jacket summary, I pick up Light in August for keeps; the novel’s poetic-sounding name and famous-sounding father lure me with ease. After patting myself on the back for my keen selectivity, I mosey over to the checkout counter with Faulkner in hand, leaving a few dozen unknowns behind to collect dust. I hadn’t intended to discriminate against Foster, Floyd, Flynn, etc., I just never saw them.

Human thoughts and actions are shaped by cognitive schema, which contain the attributes associated with a category membership; however, some signifiers are more central than others. For example, when separating littérature from common speech, “Faulkner” serves as a prototypical characteristic in and of itself, connoting merit, not by an analysis of the text’s technical qualities, but by association with something implicitly Literary. In his landmark essay “What is an Author?”[1], Michael Foucault introduced the concept of the “author function,” which suggests that an author’s name performs a “classificatory function,” permitting one to “group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others” (549). In navigating an over-saturated literary market, modern consumers must narrow their scope by systematically eliminating large subsets of the book population. Often, this is most effectively done by drawing an arbitrary line between “must-reads” and books which aren’t even worth the paper they were printed on. During my excursion to Federal St. Books, I succumbed to information overload and relied on the author function to construct a false dichotomy between the essential (notable author) and the worthless (unknown writer). My primary criterion for purchase was not content, style, or even cost, but reputation; I bought Faulkner just like a pair of Keds or a carton of Quaker oats, out of brand loyalty.

One month later, just off the main drag in a chic college town, I amble into an overpriced bookstore and, despite my frugality, peruse its racks of new editions. A handpicked sampling of classic literature is lewdly displayed on every end cap, and I nearly cave to the power of their seduction, nearly throw down $11.95 for Ernest Hemingway by For Whom the Bell Tolls. As my gaze shifts from Ernest’s 36-point, boldfaced moniker to the “contemporary fiction” aisle marker above me, I realize that every “classic” was once contemporary; even Hemingway began his career as an unknown, aspiring writer just like me.

I never feel more safe, or more vulnerable, than when in a room full of unfamiliar faces. It makes my skin crawl to be so thoroughly scrutinized, to be stared at so hard, but there is comfort in knowing that no one can judge you for being a slut in high school or for coming from a single parent home. I swear I saw the hardcovers trembling in their dust-jackets as I drilled the line, standing like new soldiers at attention, their shoes freshly shined, pages crisp and uncreased. For once, my response could be entirely aesthetic, informed by unrestrained emotion, an uninhibited, unexplainable lust.

I instantly gravitate toward three thin-spined beauties, each with a title poetic yet simple, Love, A Mercy, Home; those abstract nouns always shut me up, the sheer weight of them, pregnant with metaphysical questions –Who am I? What do I live for? Where do I belong? In an unsolicited act of kinship, I cradle Home in the crook of my arm, remembering two summers ago, when Daddy sold our house, moved 1,000 miles west, and left me feeling utterly homeless. An electric flash interrupts my nostalgic trance, glowing yellow, at first, but then mellowing to a cool, steady blue. The colors simultaneously complement and contrast, spilling together to spell out Everything is Illuminated.

Like river stones nestled into damp sand, I overturn each novel gingerly, unsure of what may lie beneath, but hoping for a salamander. The back cover of Everything is loaded with the standard fare: quotes of praise, “Brilliant,” “not since … A Clockwork Orange,” etc; one hundred word synopsis, headshot. The author, wearing hip, round frame glasses and a white pocket tee, looks like a gawky, 21st century Franz Kafka: young, handsome, Jewish. The shelf flag beneath Home indicates its status as a new release; it probably won’t be available in paperback for at least six months. Something about hardcover editions, perhaps the added weight, makes them seem more heavy, more serious. The front cover, in line with the title, is simple, minimalist: mauve serif-script on a cream backdrop. The backside, where one would expect a deluge of promotional language, features a portrait of the author which expands to fill three-quarters of cover space.  Light pours from above, illuminating outward from the crown of her head, casting dark shadows on her ebony cheekbones, sharpening the curved lines of her profile: forehead, nose, upper lip, lower lip, chin. She carries herself more seriously than New Age Kafka who, ensconced in a La-Z-Boy, somehow manages to appear casually pensive. Later, when I put her back on the shelf with Love, and leave instead with the bespectacled fellow under my arm, I assure her that my decision isn’t personal but she knows, even if I don’t, that it is.

I massaged the fissures of her face with my thumb and forefinger, not noting the “otherness,” the darker gray, in her skin tone; yet, somehow, in that moment, Home lost my trust. Hers was a familiar face, a famous face with a famous name. And, the truth of it is, I snubbed her. She is Toni Morrison, the [black woman] author of Home, The Bluest Eye, Beloved; [the first black woman] winner of the Nobel Prize in 1993, a black woman. I knew the brand. Even read her once in high school. It was during an impromptu unit on African American Literature, my teacher’s last stitch effort to acknowledge Black History Month, which I read Beloved, followed by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by a white woman; and Angelou’s poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Mrs. Lincoln made the mistake of using slave narratives to teach a bunch of white kids about racial oppression; by the end of February, we were about done taking the blame for our white slaveholding ancestors, and the racist ideas which they held nearly 200 years ago. In a school district with a minority population of less than 2%, our racial dialogues often degraded into the polarization of “them” versus “us.” Why are they so obsessed with being black? Are they trying to make us feel guilty? We didn’t like the way it felt to be invisible or, when visible, demonized for our whiteness; we hated “black” literature for making us feel white.

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination Morrison asks:

What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be “universal” or race-free? (Morrison xii)

Toni Morrison is the name of an author, but it is an author’s name which functions with nuance. As an individual, as the human person which “Toni Morrison” signifies, she is both African American and female. Unlike Faulkner, whose status as whitemale endows him with the privilege of being genderless and raceless, Morrison’s race and gender are considered inseparable from her identity and, therefore, inseparable from her work. Though the audience she intends to reach may be black, e.g., herself as an aspiring young writer, her children, her community, she must cater her style and voice to the preferences of white readers if she hopes to be commercially successful. Her critical success equally depends on a positive response from white readers, because the standards of “great” writing are set by white academics who look to white literature (Shakespeare, Dickens, Hawthorne, etc.) for example. The black woman writer finds herself in a double bind: she can write from her own experience (the black experience) and risk alienating herself from white readers or she can silence her racially/culturally specific voice at the expense of turning her back on her people and her identity.

When I returned to campus in the fall, called upon to play “student of English” for another year, I relinquished my consumer identity to the summer sun; I wouldn’t be choosing my own reading material for the next sixteen weeks. On the first day of classes, a season removed from my most recent encounter with Toni Morrison, her name appeared on my course syllabus: Home, in Literary & Cultural Theory. It seemed my destiny to romance this novel, as though she had written of our missed connection on Craigslist, and someone told her where to find me. The second time I met her face-to-face, she looked at me like I was a heartbreaker, or maybe I imagined she did, and I blushed inwardly with shame. I had been buying a prototype, a raceless and genderless prototype, which screamed: “notwhite, notmale, not for you!” As a white reader, my privileged status had coddled me; for years, I read stories of white protagonists and their white problems, never pausing to question the absence of non-white characters. After all, they had been there, just written into the margins, like Tituba of The Crucible or Jim of Huckleberry Finn. I discriminated against Morrison for moving her perspective from the periphery to the center, for speaking in her own voice, and not mine. Backed into a corner with my closed-mindedness toward ethnic literatures, I felt a sense of duty to appreciate Home whether it personally resonated with me or not.

In the second week of the semester, when our class gathered to discuss our reactions to Home, everyone consensually agreed that we had loved the book. Even I, who had been determined to feel alienated from the text, was seduced by Morrison’s evocative narrative. I congratulated myself for reading without bias, for acknowledging the right of all people to tell their own stories. However, as my classmates and I shared our versions of “this is what I liked about Home,” I couldn’t help but wonder if we had missed the point. Before our English major-esque discussions of narration, theme, and authorship began, our professor asked us each to choose a passage from Home to read aloud, offering no parameters to guide us aside from our own intuitions. I heard thirteen voices that day, and thirteen different speeches, all very different in tone and delivery. I sat there smirking to myself, bemused by how closely each passage resembled its speaker: the musician-in-residence described a bebop ensemble, the human dictionary opted for a breadth of vocabulary and word-play, the class clown, a humorous exchange of wits. We had all found ourselves in the text, navigated through foreign waters by latching on to every piece of familiar driftwood, and had created thirteen individually tailored reading experiences. For me, and the same appears true of my classmates, the most meaningful moments were those I had lived before: friendly banter with new acquaintances, emotional responses to powerful music, feelings of vulnerability and nostalgia. My ability to empathize with the characters allowed me to find meaning in their experiences, but in reading through “the personal,” rather than approaching the text objectively, had I really been exposed to a new racial/ethnic perspective?

As we made our way around the semicircle, I read over my passage again, and then once more, trying to get into character; after all, I would be speaking for Cee, and I wanted to do my favorite character justice. But, when I opened my mouth, my voice came out, not hers; something, deep inside, was telling me that these words were mine:

So it was just herself. In this world with these people she wanted to be the person who would never again need rescue. Not from Lenore through the lies of the Rat, not from Dr. Beau through the courage of Sarah and her brother. Sun-smacked or not, she wanted to be the one who rescued her own self. (Morrison 129)

Now, I’ll spare the long bit about my life story but, with a history of trusting the wrong people, and a present conviction to refuse all handouts, I really got what this girl was going through. As I read her role, I appropriated it for my own catharsis, play-acted as Cee for a couple hundred pages and made like my trauma had been validated. While the connection I felt between her and I seemed uncanny, the truth is, most young women are probably predisposed to seeing themselves in Ycidra Money. The bones of her narrative resemble the trials of many twenty-somethings in their first years of independent womanhood: find a man, “play house,” lose a man, go broke, take a handful of jobs in the service industry, look for more fulfilling work. She reminds us of jerk boyfriends, patronizing family members, and the journey of self-discovery that we had to make on our own. I liked her because, in many ways, she represented the “every woman,” offering a portrait of strength, rather than submission, that I admired and could model myself after. I stole her story and made it mine with a “Wow, I’ve been there too!” But, I hadn’t really been. Cee’s struggle was more loaded than the average young woman’s pursuit of autonomy, hers was the task of keeping faith even as racial oppression attempted to break her.

When unexpectedly prompted to choose a passage for recitation, I had little time to negotiate my decision, and fell into a systematic process, coding each page for impressionistic terms, the words that hit like bricks: “rescue,” “sun-smacked,” “self,” “courage.” And in that moment, it didn’t matter who had written Home, or why, because I liked it for the same reasons I would “like” any text, because I could find my story between its lines. The average reader evaluates texts in terms of their “likeability,” and asks others to recommend books based on that criterion: “How did you like Home?”/ “Oh, I just loved it!” Sold. But, what does it take to fall “in love” with a novel? Love requires a leap of the heart, a sinking of the stomach, a cheek flushed with anxiety; it is a sickness which is, in itself, a cure, a nausea to fill an insatiable emptiness. Evocative texts mimic this sensation, producing a simultaneous vulnerability and invulnerability, in words which hit so close to home that they hurt but, yet, leave a residual connectedness well worth the pain of remembrance. In a process akin to selective hearing, one unconsciously combs texts for familiar content, filtering out unwanted, irrelevant information while retaining that which engages with his or her personal experiences. An author who seeks popularity, then, must write of experiences accessible to all readers, and publish works which are universally likeable.

In applying the universality equals quality standard to ethnic literatures, we risk marginalizing the nuances of an underrepresented point of view. If I loved Cee for the insights she offered into my character, but erased the parts of her story that we didn’t share, I had failed to recognize the discrepancy in our privilege. Being of the same gender did not mean that we shared an essential “women’s experience,” because she, unlike me, wasn’t oppressed exclusively “as a woman,” but as “black,” “woman,” and as “black woman.” In an act of penance, I had given Toni Morrison license to offer me a perspective I could not conjure on my own but, as a reader thrust into the unknown, I relied on the familiar to lead me, showing favoritism to the aspects of the narrative that mirrored what I already knew.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michael. “What is an Author?” Criticism: Major Statements. Ed. Charles Kaplan and

William Anderson. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 544-558.

Morrison, Toni. Home. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Morrison, Toni. “Preface.”Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

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