Playing in the Dark

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Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
Playing in the Dark.jpg
First edition
AuthorToni Morrison
CountryUnited States
SeriesThe William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in American Studies
SubjectRace, American literature, whiteness
GenreLiterary criticism
PublisherHarvard University Press
Publication date
May 1992

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is a 1992 work of literary criticism by Toni Morrison.


In 1990, Morrison delivered a series of three lectures at the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in American Studies at Harvard University; she then adapted the texts to a 91-page book, Playing in the Dark, published in 1992 by Harvard University Press.[1] The book's three chapters are "Black Matters",[2] "Romancing the Shadow", and "Disturbing Nurses and the Kindness of Sharks".

Subject matter[edit]

Writing in the journal Signs, Linda Krumholz described Morrison's project as "reread[ing] the American literary canon through an analysis of whiteness to propose the ways that black people were used to establish American identity."[3]

Reviewing Playing in the Dark in The New York Times in 1992, Wendy Steiner said: "The moral and emotional force of [Morrison's] explorations is apparent. If the American identity is formed against this black shadow, it is a sign of abject weakness and a cause for shame....The genius of Ms. Morrison's approach is to enlist those very describers and imaginers—white men of letters—in an investigation that can end only in their self-indictment." But, Steiner added, "it is also not a mere denunciation of white culture. Instead, it is a self-help project meant both to map out new critical territory and to rearrange the territory within."[4]

Michael Eric Dyson observes that in addition to this exploration of the "white literary imagination...Playing in the Dark is also about a black intellectual seizing the interpretive space within a racially ordered hierarchy of cultural criticism. Blacks are usually represented through the lens of white perception rather than the other way around...With [Playing in the Dark], a substantial change is portended."[5]


In 2016, Time magazine noted that Playing in the Dark was among Morrison's most-assigned texts on U.S. college campuses, together with several of her novels and her 1993 Nobel Prize lecture, making her one of the most-assigned of all female writers.[6]


  1. ^ Jimoh, A Yemisi (July 2, 2004). "Toni Morrison: Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination". The Literary Encyclopedia. The Literary Dictionary Company Limited. Retrieved August 8, 2016.
  2. ^ Morrison, Toni (October 8, 1993), "Black matters: Toni Morrison is the new Nobel laureate for literature. Here, we print an extract from her writing on whiteness and the literary imagination". The Independent.
  3. ^ Krumholz, Linda (January 1, 1996). "Review of Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination". Signs. 22 (1): 243–248. doi:10.1086/495153. JSTOR 3175058.
  4. ^ Steiner, Wendy (April 5, 1992). "The Clearest Eye". The New York Times. Retrieved August 8, 2016.
  5. ^ Dyson, Michael Eric (1993). Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism. University of Minnesota Press. p. 181. ISBN 9780816621439. Retrieved August 9, 2016.
  6. ^ Johnson, David (February 25, 2016). "These Are the 100 Most-Read Female Writers in College Classes". Time. Retrieved August 8, 2016.

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