Leaping into the Fire: Women in United States Race Riots

By Nerad, Julie Cary | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Leaping into the Fire: Women in United States Race Riots


Nerad, Julie Cary, Studies in the Literary Imagination


Wilmington, North Carolina. Atlanta, Georgia. Washington, DC. Boston, Chicago, Detroit, East St. Louis, Knoxville, Los Angeles, Montgomery, Nashville, Newark, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Springfield, Tulsa: some of the many cities that have been home to race riots in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the "Red Summer" of 1919, as it was coined by James Weldon Johnson, there were at least twenty-six documented race riots across the country. (1) Although often constructed as anomalies in an otherwise smooth march of racial progress, these violent eruptions have had long-lasting effects on individuals, communities, and the nation. They shape our national landscape much like a volcano shapes the surrounding land. The moment of violence may fade from--or be (intentionally) buried by--the national consciousness, but the effects linger.

In her 1992 novel Jazz, Toni Morrison reminds readers of the volatility of our national racial landscape. While attending a Harlem parade held in protest of the 1917 East St. Louis riot, Dorcas, the novel's young protagonist, remembers her parents' death in strikingly surreal detail:

    Back in East St. Louis, as the little porch fell, wood
chips--ignited
   and smoking--exploded in the air. One of them must have entered
   her stretched down mouth and traveled down her throat because it
   smoked and glowed there still. At first she thought if she spoke of
   it, it would leave her, or she would lose it through her mouth....
   [W]hile they watched a long parade, the bright wood chip sank further
   and further down until it lodged comfortably somewhere below
   her navel. She watched the black unblinking men, and the drums
   assured her that the glow would never leave her, that it would be
   waiting for and with her whenever she wanted to be touched by
   it. And whenever she wanted to let it loose to leap into fire again,
   whatever happened would be quick. (61) 

In typical Morrison fashion, this passage is layered with complex meanings that reverberate well outside the scope of the scene, setting, or story. A young girl hears the beating drums, sees black men march, and remembers the white violence that took her family and home. She cannot speak her pain, but the fire of love and retribution smolders, lurking deep inside and burning into her consciousness her "place" as a black girl in a white world. Within the immediate context of the novel, Dorcas's life--ever a search for what was lost that day when her parents burned--evinces the long-term effects mass interracial violence can have in the black community. She is orphaned and left homeless by the violence of the East St. Louis riot. And that loss shapes forever her sense of identity. For the remainder of her short life, she is unanchored, angry, and grieving, herself a force of destruction within the black community as she destroys the very things that she seeks to recover: love, family, safety.

But placed within its larger context, the passage enfolds other issues fundamental to a discussion of race riots in the United States. Not only does it highlight the historical victimization of African Americans in such riots, but, with its marching men, it also summons up the sense of black masculinity famously called for by Ida B. Wells in 1892. Morrison's language additionally demonstrates the readiness of women to jump into the fire, both metaphorically and literally, when their families, homes, and communities are threatened. Highlighting the community's pain, as well as Dorcas's individual loss, reminds readers of the lasting economic, psychological, and social scars of mass interracial violence. Finally, the passage addresses the silence women must overcome in order to tell their own stories about their place in mass interracial violence and, in a more general sense, American history. This collection of essays is an interdisciplinary effort to explore precisely such issues.

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