“Racially Inflicted Language” and the Archives

Matthew Teutsch
5 min readSep 5, 2022

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…

Matthew Teutsch

Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.