Toni Morrison’s Home: The Africanist Presence in War Literature

2012 may prove to be the annus mirabilis for Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction. A year that saw the publication of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and David Abrams’ Fobbit is not to be sneered at. Many years may go by before we see even one more war novel as good as any of those three.

Also published in 2012 was Home by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, the author of acclaimed novels such as The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. Home is an odd one whose inclusion in a discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan war literature is not an easy fit. The story of a traumatized African-American Korean War vet who returns to a racist 1950s United States, it invites the question why this novel now? What is Morrison asking us to think about? The only thing that seems to recommend it as an interjection in the national conversation about the current wars is the date of its publication.

I don’t know exactly what Morrison is up to, but I think the answer lies in a long non-fiction essay she published in 1992 called Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison chides literary scholars for not recognizing the “Africanist presence” in American literature and culture. By the “Africanist presence,” Morrison does not mean just black characters in American fiction, such as Jim in Huckleberry Finn. Nor does she indict American authors for not including more black authors or addressing racial issues. Rather, she claims that American letters (and culture, too), start to finish everywhere is informed consciously and unconsciously by the nation’s five-hundred year history of a biracial existence. In Morrison’s view, über-American concepts such as individualism, preoccupation with evil and sin, and anxiety about our nation’s social cohesion owe their distinctiveness and power to white misgivings about the black American presence in the midst of their lived lives and imaginations.

So, according to Playing in the Dark, the Africanist presence is always already everywhere in literature, even in novels where there are no black characters.

Which brings us to Iraq and Afghanistan war literature, which by and large features few African-Americans and presents itself as not particularly concerned with racial matters. Whatever is important to note about the war, it suggests, it certainly is not America’s tortured history of race relations. If anything, we should applaud ourselves that whatever the hell has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, black-white issues haven’t been the problem.

Morrison wouldn’t have it, I feel. If we think we have written race out of our national narrative of war and its aftermath, she suggests, we should probably think again. Home asks us to think that a whites-only story of Iraq and Afghanistan is much less than the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

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