In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison highlights the ways that language obfuscates yet also illuminates he Africanist presence at the heart of American literature. Morrison delivered the lectures that would constitute Playing in the Dark in 1990, and she foresaw possible backlash from her ideas. She chose to risk backlash because the point she sought to make was vitally important. As she puts it, “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, and definitive.” While Morrison focuses on writers, we can extend her observation because the language we use everyday constitutes “racially inflected language.”
Thomas Gray’s preface to The Confessions of Nat Turner is but merely one example of the impacts of such language. Gray describes Turner as “a gloomy fanatic” who lived within “the recesses of his own dark, bewildered, and overwrought mind” where he crafted “schemes of indiscriminate massacre to the whites.” Later, Gray even questions why Turner and close to 200 other enslaved individuals killed white men, women, and children. Gray and others view Turner as “bewildered and confounded.” They don’t consider that his enslavement, and the enslavement of others, had anything to do with the rebellion. Instead, Turner’s motive alludes Gray and the white community. In this manner, Gray dismisses any possibility that Turner and others wanted to be treated as humans, not chattel, and Gray paints Turner’s actions as stemming from an “overwrought mind” detached from reality.
Gray’s language is not, in any way, out of the ordinary in the ways he presents Turner and others as “savages,” as affronts to civilization. Rebecca Hall, in Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, details researching rebellions that took place a century before Turner’s rebellion in Virginia. One of the revolts occurred in New York in 1708 when Sam, an Indigenous man, and a “Negro fiend,” as she is labeled in the legal and historical record, led a revolt that ended in with seven whites killed and four enslaved individuals executed. This revolt also led to “An Act for Preventing the Conspiracy of Slaves” in 1708. Hall details working to track down the name of the “Negro fiend” to tell her story; however, no matter where she turns, she cannot find the woman’s name.
While the historical record names Sam, the refusal to name the woman silences her, causing us to not know her story. Rather, we must, as Hall does, reconstruct it based on what we know from the legal record but also what we know from the historical record. This may not be the “true” story, but it does provide a voice to the woman who led the revolt in 1708 just as Toni Morrison’s Beloved provides Margaret Garner with a voice. Language does more than just silence the woman. Before Hall reconstructs her story, the woman lies dormant, under the ground, waiting to return and tell her story much like the skeleton hand sticking out of the ground at the construction site in New York earlier in the text.
Hall’s detailing of research in the archives, of the silence between the lines, reminds me of working with students in the archives while I was at Auburn University. There, I had students, in my Early American Literature courses use the archives to illuminate the texts that we read in class. They spent two-three days in the archives researching and finding materials to connect with our readings. Auburn’s archives contain numerous collections of enslavers, some more detailed than others. Most contain bills of sale, lists of enslaved individuals, and other items. Students may have see these types of items before, in a page or a computer screen, but they had never touched them, seen them in person.
The archives, while ostensibly working to provide a voice to the past, silence the past as well. One item I encountered in the archive was a single scrap of paper with writing on both sides. One side contained a tabulation of nine figures which added up to 1,042. It also contained the name “Captain Jeff Dale, Wilcox County” beside the tabulation. The other side contains only five words on the top right of the page: “Bill of sale for negroes.” The nine numbers represent people. We do not know their names. We have no indication of who they were. We only know the monetary amount that Wilcox and the other individual in the transaction ascribed to them. We don’t know who they loved. We don’t know what they did. We don’t know what happened to them. We only know them as numbers.
The language of the numbers strips these individuals of their humanity, relegating them to nothing more than crooked lines in a column on a scrap of paper. Their worth deemed nothing more than those numbers. When I think about “racially inflicted language” this is what I think about. I think about the silencing of individuals, and I think, as Hall does, about their lives. They lived. They laughed. They loved. They endured pain. They cried. They deserve our remembrance.
A while back, Jaydn Dewald, a colleague of mine, asked me to participate in a reading here on campus. For the reading, I decided to write a short story, “Paper,” inspired by that scrap of paper I found in the Auburn Archives. I decided to write a story highlighting the ways we use “racially inflicted language,” and I took inspiration, partly, from Morrison’s “Recitatif.” Even though I did not know the individual’s names, as Hall didn’t know the woman’s name, I sought to give them a voice somehow, even if that voice was not necessarily their own.
Language constructs the world around us. It impacts the way we see the world. It impacts the way we describe. It impacts the way we see others. This last point is the most important. When we demonize individuals through language, it causes us to demonize countless individuals that we come in contact with. It causes us to dehumanize others instead of viewing them as equal to ourselves. We need to think about the words we use, before we use them, and the impact that those words have on the world we live within, the world we create through the language that we use everyday.