Morrison argues that American literature should be understood in terms of its relationship to what she calls "Africanism," a word that points to "the entire range of views, assumptions, readings and misreadings" of Eurocentric thinking about Africa and Africans. While explicit attention to African people is largely absent from the canon of American literature, Morrison claims that literary texts are by necessity constructed in relation to the legacy of Africanism in America. Once this realization is made, it becomes possible to reimagine the American experience. In terms of representation, Morrison suggests that the way fictional characters and plots are created is in reaction to this unseen Africanism.
Morrison's central example is drawn from Willa Cather's late novel, Saphira and the Slave Girl. Although a community of enslaved Black women is at the heart of this novel, Morrison points out that the humanity of these characters is subordinate to the desire of the invalid white slave owner, Saphira, who "escapes" her bodily infirmity through her power over her slaves. In particular, Morrison points to the problem of the slave mother, Till, who is made complicit by Saphira in arranging the rape of her own daughter, Nancy. Till's instincts as a mother are largely unrepresented in the novel; they become visible only when we consider Saphira's inability to understand that Till might put her daughter's safety before her duty to her owner. Morrison argues that this blindness occurs both within the characters and within Cather herself, whose description of the story and Nancy's eventual escape can be read as a way of borrowing African experience to highlight and define White identity.