The Black Cat: Africanist Presence Shown Through Violence

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In Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark, she explores the ways that non-white presence was established in the United States and the means by which this presence shaped national identity. This blackness was crucial in developing the foundation of the nation’s literature. Rather than offering thin explanations regarding white literary uses, Morrison discusses how American self-examination revolved around blackness being at the center of literary strategies. When Morrison states, 'I was interested, as I had been for a long time, in the way black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them. In fact I had started, casually like a game, keeping a file of such instances'(8), she explains how black people are usually expressed through the lens of a white individual, rather than the other way around. Morrison points out that although there was a lack of critical analysis from early black individuals, it seems that blackness provided an essential “understanding” to literature.

Although these black communities had been ignored, misinterpreted, and looked over numerous times, American writers had created a fabricated Africanist Presence in order to improve the status of white individuals, which, in part, can be described as the characteristics of proto-American literature regarding the black community. Morrison provides the reader with awareness in regards to the inadequate portrayal of black individuals in American literature. Morrison also offers an imperative reinterpretation of the black persona, in order to provide an awareness to the reader, remapping and redefining what it truly means to be American.

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Violence as seen in the story of “The Black Cat” written by Edgar Allan Poe, shows the pattern of how white society has inflicted violence on black communities, and when these communities attempt to defend themselves, are faced with injustice and are afflicted with even more brutality. We see this when “I seized him: when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth” (231). We can deduce from this interaction that the cat is afraid of his owner, or in other words “master”, and we can draw similarities to those of a slave. The cat merely felt threatened, and decided to defend itself, angering the narrator even further. We have seen examples of this throughout history, far too often. As black communities struggle to resist maltreatment and oppression, white society disregards their struggle and inflicts prejudice. The animalistic nature of the cat relates to the dehumanization of black people reduced only to bodies.

This idea of violence perfectly summarizes the story at hand, drawing back to the idea that animals indicate the absence of human integrity and ethics. The violence, which led to murder, steamed from the narrators loss of reasoning and descent into a disturbed mental state. When the second cat enters the story, his perverseness heightens when he murders his wife. This second cat also symbolizes the deterioration of the slaveholding south through it’s “whitening”, depicting a potential political revolution. Following this act of obstinacy, the cat betrays the narrator to the police, demonstrating an immense role reversal shown between irrational humans and rational animals. The prominent usage of violence in this story exhibits how Poe considers the act of murder to be essentially animalistic, thus, inhuman. In addition, this act of assault draws back to the murder of the first cat, essentially being lynched, drawing parallels to African Americans and their horrendous mistreatment. There are many instances that illustrate the use of Africanist Presence through violence, such as; lynching, and the sense that the black is virtually drawing the unnamed narrator to commit gruesome crimes. It is explained in the story that the narrator is initially docile and tender, but describes that as the black cat becomes more integrated into his life, he is tortured and eventually destroyed. The violence pursued onto the black cat demonstrates how black in itself represents evil thoughts, and insanity.

In addition, black cats are seen as bad omens from which we can draw parallels to slaves being perceived as mere property and ownership. The more prominent of the two, lynching, can be drawn to the lives of almost every slave in African American history. Poe paints a distinct picture, one in which the narrator is the slave owner, and the cat, a slave. Although not all slaves were treated in this horrific manner, many faced the brunt of their masters rage, and the slave owners justified these actions by depicting these slaves as “animals” any way.

When the narrator describes the cat as well, he uses distinguished human attributes in order for the reader to imagine the cat as a slave. This persona helped early America draw similarities between animals and slaves, playing into America's fears and anxieties of the dark.

This description of the dark allows America to feel a sort of validity in their uneasiness for the dark, whether it be lack of light, or regarding to ones skin color.

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