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Reflection and Analysis on Three Books by Social Theorists

Robert Waxman


This paper discusses social theories in Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers by Kwame A. Appiah, and Culture and Imperialism by Edward W. Said. The paper is divided into three sections; one for each of the books included in the assignment. Included is a discussion and analysis of two interconnecting themes from these theorists. Additionally, there is commentary offered in the Conclusion section on the two major themes examined in this paper. In this paper, there is a review and summary of the three books mentioned in the Abstract section. Particular attention focuses on two main themes: the human propensity to judge others by their race, and the human desire to propel domination over other nations. In Playing in the Dark (1993), Morrison discusses the American literary narrative of "whiteness" judging "blackness" and the creation of racial stereotypes that denigrated the "Africanist presence" in America. She also refers to literature by white authors who portrayed white domination over black slaves without conscience and who characterized slavery as a "normal" part of American life. In Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), Appiah proposes unifying solutions to social problems such as racial hatred, fanaticism, intolerance, isolationism, and lack of compassion. He draws on a wide range of humanistic resources and denounces racism and many other forms divisiveness among people. Appiah offers universal ethics and values for human beings to aspire to in the future. In Culture and Imperialism (1993), Said cites many sources from fiction, non-fiction, religion, art, literature, music, film, and many other fields to argue his points on various aspects of culture and imperialism. He discusses the issues of race and domination over others in his arguments pertaining to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He also speaks of the importance of cultural identity and its reemergence after a dominating nation has departed from an occupied nation.

Playing in the Dark (1993) by T. Morrison

Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark (1993) includes a collection of articles from her 1990 Harvard University lecture series. Morrison uses a phrase that she coined called "the American Africanist presence" to explain the continuous history of African American characterizations in fictional works and other writings. She also focuses on the turbulent relationship between African Americans ("black" people) and Europeans ("white" people) and the resulting impact on society. She believes that the coexistence of these two groups have heavily influenced American literature. The chapters from the Harvard lectures are honing-in on the same question: how has the "Africanist presence" affected the progression of American literature? In other words, how has a minority culture of African ancestry affected the majority culture of European ancestry? Morrison is very frank about this comparative examination and without pretense discusses this topic as "literary blackness" in juxtaposition to "literary whiteness". This is one of the main themes of Morrison's book and the primary theme discussed in this paper. Morrison wants Americans to understand the black experience in America. In an article from The New York Times entitled "The Clearest Eye" (Steiner, 1992), the writer quotes Morrison on the problem of ignoring racial issues in American literature:

Black characters in classic American novels have been marginalized as their real-life counterparts. The "shadow" darkening American fiction, in her view, has been a critical non-topic because "the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous liberal gesture." But, "excising the political from the life of the mind is a sacrifice that has proven costly...A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only ‘universal' but also ‘race free' risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist. All of us, readers and writers, are bereft when criticism remains too polite or too fearful to notice darkness before its eyes.

Morrison says that it was not until the 20th Century that a fully developed black character appears in American literature. She summarizes the Africanist experience as moving from slavery, to oppression, to the object of hatred, to becoming a minority in search of freedom and equal rights. She finds the Africanist experience to be in contradiction with basic American principles. These contradictions cause Morrison (1993) to speak out against hypocrisy in Playing in the Dark:

For some time now I have been thinking about the validity of a certain set of assumptions conventionally accepted among literary historians and critics and circulated as "knowledge." This knowledge holds that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States. It assumes that this presence - which shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of the culture - has had no significant place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture's literature. (p. 5)

Morrison is not only concerned about the lack of inclusion of black culture in American literature; she is also pointing out that the minimal number of black characterizations became degrading stereotypes of the Africanist presence. Lack of education, poverty, and low social status contributed to their stereotypical image in American literature. However, Morrison contends that these social and economic issues would have been remedied had the issues of slavery and color not been overriding factors (1993, p. 49). From slavery, a demeaning and inferior characterization of African Americans evolved. By having dark skin, the issue of color presented a major obstacle for African Americans seeking to rise above the black stereotype and literary characterizations. Morrison (1993) posits that the issue of slavery is a surmountable hurdle to overcome, but not the issue of color:

The distinguishing features of the not-Americans were their slave status, their social status - and their color. It is conceivable that the first would have self-destructed in a variety of ways had it not been for the last. These slaves, unlike many others in the world's history, were visible to a fault. And they had inherited, among other things, a long history on the meaning of color. It was not simply that this slave population had a distinctive color; it was that this color "meant" something...In any case the subjective nature of ascribing value and meaning to color cannot be questioned this late in the twentieth century. (p. 49)

In summary, Playing in the Dark (1993) is a commentary on the progression of perceptions and descriptions of African Americans in American literature. It is also a commentary on the progression of American consciousness. Morrison supports her claims by referring to well-known black literary characters conceived of by Hemingway, Twain, Melville, Cather, and others. She points out similar propensities, images, and personality traits among black characters in American literature that resulted from white perceptions of the Africanist presence. Morrison concedes that some great American writers were not aware of the racism they were perpetuating. She considers the notion that either they were naïve observers, or they were attempting to be honest in their personifications of African American characters. However, Morrison sharply criticizes these writers and explains the racial harm they caused with their debasing characterizations. She sends a message to current and future writers that they have a responsibility to correct the black stereotypes of the past by thoughtfully using language, images, and modern perspectives in situations involving the Africanist presence.

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006) by K. A. Appiah

Appiah's book Cosmopolitanism (2006) grapples with moral issues that cause conflicts among people and nations. He expresses a desire for world peace and says that a set of common values based on understanding the needs of "the other." Appiah offers corrective possibilities to prejudice, bigotry, blind hatred, and divisiveness based on propaganda and false information. He denounces racism and refers to his own experiences in Ghana to make his points on this subject. However, Appiah has cultural pride and maintains his sense of nationalism. He understands the value and meaning of national customs, traditions, and beliefs. In an article from The Harvard Book Review entitled "A Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism" (Jin, 2008), the writer comments on Appiah's description of his Asante family in Ghana:

Appiah takes pains to show that Asante beliefs about spirits and witchcraft are as common and natural in Ghanaian society as Christian beliefs about God and angels in the United States. A cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world, would not be content to simply brush off Asante's beliefs as "their way" and continue down his or her own, but would take the time to talk to a Ghanaian and try to understand how he or she thinks. Cosmopolitanism is, above all, a philosophy of open conversation. Through this type of open conversation, Appiah is striving to find a solution to genocide and war. He believes that his cosmopolitan philosophy could have an enormous impact on closing the gaps between people who resort to violence. By viewing humanity as having more similarities than differences, he is postulating that a universal connection exists among the pluralistic nature of cultures and societies.

Appiah refers to a universal set of truths for humanity that are applicable to all people regardless of race, religion, gender, class, sexual orientation, profession, etc. (2006, p. 96). He speaks of "basic mental traits that are universal - in the sense that they're normal everywhere" (2006, p. 96). Appiah (2006) also refers to the Donald Brown's book Human Universals, which focuses on similar characteristics among human beings:

As with all scholarship, it contains claims that other serious scholars would deny. It is hard, though, to resist the evidence that, starting with our common biology and the shared problems of the human situation (and granted that we also share cultural traits because of our common origins), human societies have ended up having many deep things in common. Among them are practices like music, poetry, dance, marriage, funerals,; values resembling courtesy, hospitality, sexual modesty, generosity, reciprocity, the resolution of social conflict; concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong parent and child, past, present, and future. (pp. 96-97)

Appiah discusses the idea that each person is a "citizen of the world" and therefore, should live by the Golden Rule and global ethics (2006, p. 60). However, he also is aware of many individuals who are not cosmopolitans and do not believe in universal principles and will not accept differences among people. He is aware of the challenges to cosmopolitanism in his chapter entitled "the Counter-Cosmopolitans" (2006, p. 137). In this chapter, he denounces the intentions of Al Qaeda and Christian fundamentalists and points out that both groups are detrimental to the cause of universalism. Appiah (2006) understands the problem of considering "the reasons" why people claim are historically cruel to one another:

This is what happens when you start to give reasons. Faced especially, with an audience that includes some of those you are claiming do not matter, you are drawn into explaining, even to them, why you are going to do unto them what you would not have done unto you. Once you start defending your nation (or race or tribe), you will be drawn into explaining why your people's being on top is really better for everybody, even those you are abusing. (p. 152)

In summary, Appiah's philosophy of cosmopolitanism connotes "universality plus difference" (2006, p. 151). He contends that those who ignore universality are "the enemy." His message is for humanity to seek a higher consciousness and focus on universal truths to open a conversation between all people of the world. However, Appiah appreciates cultural values and the pluralistic nature of each society. He is not looking to homogenize humankind. Rather, he is seeking to establish a set of universal ethics and bring the world closer together in a peaceful manner. He has an optimistic worldview that uses basic human values to benefit the majority of humanity.

Culture and Imperialism (1993) by E. W. Said

Said's book Culture and Imperialism (1993) covers a wide expanse of issues concerning the intertwined histories of cultures, a consolidated vision for imperialized and non-imperialized nations, resistance and opposition of cultures, and freedom from domination in the future. He supports his views with references from a myriad of literary sources (fiction and non-fiction) and includes numerous quotes from scholars and well-known authors. He explains that Culture and Imperialism (1993) is not just a sequel to his book Orientalism (1979), but also an attempt to move into new areas of scholarship (1993, p. xii).

Three essential words need definitions in accordance with the worldview of Said: culture, imperialism, and colonialism. Accordingly, Said (1993) defines culture as,

As I use the word, "culture" means two things in particular. First of all it means all those practices, like the arts of description, communication, representation, that have relative autonomy from the economic, social, and political realms and that often exist in aesthetic forms, one of whose principle aims is pleasure. Included, of course, are both the popular stock of lore about distant parts of the world and specialized knowledge available in such learned disciplines as ethnology, historiography, philology, sociology, and literary history. (p. xii)

In contrast to Said's definition of culture, Varisico (2004) takes issue with Said's position and states that Said has moved far afield from modern American anthropological discourse:

I offer here the reading of an American anthropologist, a writing back to - in large part writing against the ‘culture' that informs Culture and Imperialism. Several questions guide my analysis. Which anthropological texts on the culture concept does Said consult? I refer to those that are cited or conspicuously absent in his writings rather than the range of academic books adorning his bookshelves (p. 94)...Apart from bric-a- brac(keting) Levi-Strauss, Said does not incorporate or respond to anthropological discourse on this topic [culture] in Culture and Imperialism. (pp. 100-101)

Next, Said (1993) offers his definitions of imperialism and colonialism:

As I shall be using the term "imperialism" means the practice the theory, and the attitudes of dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory; "colonialism" which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements in on distant territory...In our time, direct colonialism has largely ended; imperialism, as we shall see, lingers where it has always been, in a kind of general cultural sphere as well as in specific political, ideological, economic, and social practices. (p. 9)

Varisco (2004) does not agree with Said's definition of imperialism and criticizes Said for not taking into account modern anthropological scholarship on this topic:

In dismissing anthropology's imperialist-by-default heritage, Said fails to acknowledge the role of those anthropologists who have used their ethnographic and biological research to resist harmful racist and ethnic characterizations and to critique European colonial parties. I find it ironic that Said, a distinguished professor at Columbia University, should have failed to note the pioneering deconstruction of the category of ‘race' by Franz Boas. (p. 96)

Varisco is criticizing Said's definitions of culture and imperialism. Varisco (2004) asserts that there is a place for humanism in the anthropological study of culture, however; he says that Said is offering is offering rhetoric "on what it means to be human" (p. 110). Additionally, Varisco criticizes Said for failing to read "the best voices" on this subject and says that Said is "sugar-coating" the concept of culture (p. 110).

For the purposes of this paper, this student has chosen to focus on Said's views on how a nation recovers from the effects of oppression and domination after the exiting of an imperialist nation. This theme of regaining unity is congruent with the major themes brought forth by Morrison and Appiah in their books. Said speaks of the issue of race and how its presence ignites friction between the oppressor and the oppressed. Attitudes of white superiority stemming from Western culture gave imperialists a moral justification for their actions. These prejudicial feelings caused the dominated culture to respond with actions of defiance and resistance. However, once independence from the imperialist nation occurred, a need arose for the formerly oppressed culture to recover from the humiliation of colonialism (Said, 1993, p. 210). Additionally, there was a need within the society to form ideals, so the people would aspire toward unity. According to Said, "The basis is found, I believe, in the rediscovery and repatriation of what has been suppressed in the natives' past by the processes of imperialism" (1993, p. 210). He also points out that the process of decolonization is a difficult and complex process. Following liberation from the imperialist nation, issues arise such as political direction, differences in histories and geography, and social ideologies that need to be resolved (1993, p. 219). Interestingly, after the British left India in 1947, the country was not ruled by "prophets, and romantic rebels but in India's case, by Nehru, a state builder, ‘a state-builder, pragmatic and self-conscious'" (1993, p. 264). Said contends that Gandhi and other agents of change can help restore independence to a nation, but they are not day-to-day managers who can effectively decolonize a country. According to Said,

...the peasants and the urban poor are ruled by passions, not reason; they can be mobilized by poets like Tagore and charismatic presences like Gandhi, but after independence this large number of people ought to be absorbed into the state, to be made functional in its development. (1993, pp. 264-265).

In summary, Said opens a dialogue in Culture and Imperialism (1993) that presents "point and counterpoint" from literature, film, and history regarding the causes and effects of imperialism on dominated cultures. He offers cultural criticism that focuses on major problems affecting millions of people throughout the world. His humanistic approach includes a discussion of the political, social, economic, ideological, historical, and literary influences that have shaped world cultures. He is sensitive to the plight of weaker cultures and the abuses they suffered at the hands of their oppressors. Said expresses his optimism by offering insights into the healing process of decolonization. He also comments on how a newly independent culture can redefine its future identity and aspire to weaving itself together into a unified whole.


The two interconnecting themes in this paper that encapsulated within the following questions:

1) Why do human beings tend to judge others by their race?

2) Why do "strong" nations desire to hold dominion over "weaker" nations?

Morrison suggests that "whiteness" is judging "blackness" in America by continually reminding the populace of racial stereotypes found in the literature of critically acclaimed authors. She is making the point that through the eyes of white writers the Africanist presence is misrepresenting the past and harming the image of today's African Americans. Morrison confronts the issue of why some white Americans judge African Americans because of their race. She argues that the literary history of America finds white writers' predispositions toward white superiority and black inferiority. She is not directly accusing all white writers of having a premeditated prejudice toward African Americans, and she says that much of their writing was unconsciously derogatory. However, Morrison affirms that the perpetuation of prejudice toward African Americans continues to the present day through the negative images of the past that remain in "great" American literature.

Interestingly, Morrison does not engage in a detailed discussion on the societal factors that shaped white writers' characterizations of African Americans. She is focusing on white people judging black people because of the color of their skin, however; she is not considering the educational, economic, social status, and cultural issues, which are causes of racism. As for Africanist experience during the mid-1800's, on issues of education and economics, most African Americans coming out of slavery had little formal education or monetary wealth. Therefore, in terms of social status, most African American could not have had a high standing in American society.

The blame for African American's low social position in the years following the abolition of slavery rests squarely on the shoulders of white imperialists. However, the dark color of their skin is just one issue that led to the demeaning portrayal of African Americans by white writers. Other contributing factors to the stereotypical literary characterizations of African Americans may include the fallout from slavery, which caused lack of education, no wealth, low social status, non-conforming cultural values, etc. Therefore, an imperialist propensity on the part of white Americans to dominate Africans is historically a primary cause of suffering for most African Americans. The human tendency to judge others by their race is another major cause of suffering for African Americans. By having dark skin, they felt the effects of racism in a social and culture context, which shaped perceptions of the African American in an unfair and unjust manner.

Appiah offers optimism and idealism on the issues of racism and domination of cultures. He says that the key to transforming feelings of racial hatred and national superiority is through establishing universal human ethics on a global scale. He views racism and imperialism as steps along the evolutionary ladder of human thought that will no longer have a place in the future of world consciousness. Appiah is trying to speed-up the evolution of consciousness by writing about his perceived solutions to cultural divisiveness and conflicts among nations.

The notion of cosmopolitanism brings to the forefront differences in politics, religion, gender, race, etc. Appiah says that these age-old contentious areas of conflict can be resolved with open discussions, compassion, tolerance, patience, humility, and a willingness to listen to "the other." He claims that a set of universal moral standards would resolve these issues over time. With his emphasis on the Golden Rule, the negative thinking that pervades the minds of racists and imperialists would end. People would no longer judge each other by skin color and nations would not seek to invade and colonize other nations. The critical mass thinking would transform, and in its place would come a unitary consciousness based on a common set of human ideals.

The problem for Appiah is finding historical references to back-up his claims. With humanity just concluding one of the bloodiest centuries in recorded history, there are serious questions about Appiah's optimism. Over the last one hundred years, two world wars were fought killing millions of people, and in the new millennium, wars and on-going skirmishes continue as a way of life for millions around the world. Is it possible that Appiah is simply naïve by maintaining a Voltaire-like view of humanity? It would not be difficult to argue this position. However, Appiah can point to the success of the women's movement in America over the last eighty years as a sign of progress. He can also point to the Berlin Wall coming down without a shot fired. Additionally, he could argue that racism on the decline with the election of the first African American President. Furthermore, he could argue that the eventual withdrawal of military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States is an anti-imperialist action. Therefore, Appiah is suggesting that the philosophy of cosmopolitanism will assist in extinguishing the destructive notions of racism and imperialism by having confidence in his perception that human goodness is an innate quality common to all.

In Culture and Imperialism, Said draws on a myriad of sources from progressive thinkers involved in politics, religion, art, literature, music, film, and many other fields within the humanities to frame his worldview. Among his many interests, he speaks out against the continuing conflicts between the Palestinians and Israelis. Within this debate, the issues of racism and imperialism are important factors affecting the peace process. Said is also outspoken on the simplistic Western stereotype of Muslims. Since Said is a Palestinian and a Muslim, he has a stake in helping to resolve these issues.

Said has travelled to Israel many times and has a considerable following among both Arabs and Jews (Lancaster, 1999, p. C. 01). He claims to be one of the few major Arabs to have talked openly about the need to recognize the importance of the Holocaust, and one of the few Palestinians who has spoken to large Israeli audiences in Israel (1999, C. 01). His actions show that he is critical of the racism coming from both sides, and he supports the anti-imperialist notion that Israel should agree to the formation of an independent Palestinian state. In this case, Said is attempting to resolve racist and religious conflicts that originated in Biblical times, while also attempting to change the complex and imperialistic political policies that originated with the creation of Israel in 1948. With his vast knowledge of cultural issues, and his common sense approach for maintaining the dignity of oppressed peoples, Said is a unique position to influence the thinking of many individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Appiah, K. A. (2006). Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Brown, D. (1991). Human universals. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Jin, J. (2008). A philosophy of cosmopolitanism. [Review of the book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers, by K.A. Appiah]. The Harvard Book Review. Retrieved from http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674673779

Lancaster, J. (1999, October 26). Origin of an outspoken Palestinian; Edward Said's memoir reveals the personal life behind the political. The Washington Post, C. 01. Retrieved from http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy.humanisticpsychology.org:2048/pqdweb?did=45820850&sid=2&Fmt=3&clientId=20668&RQT=309&VName=PQD

Morrison, T. (1993). Playing in the dark. New York: Vintage Books.

Said, E. W. (1993). Culture and imperialism. New York: Vintage Books.

Steiner, W. (1992, April 5). The clearest eye. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/05/books/the-clearest-eye.html

Varisco, D. M. (2004). Reading against culture in Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism. Culture, Theory & Critique, 45(2), 93-112. doi: 10.1080/1473578042000283817