Academic journal article African American Review

Toni Morrison's Jazz and the City

Academic journal article African American Review

Toni Morrison's Jazz and the City

Article excerpt

Out of the three volumes of Toni Morrison's trilogy starting with Beloved (1987) and ending with Paradise (1997), Jazz (1992) may very well be the most vocal. The narrative's deliberately ungendered, unspecific voice and its avatars take center stage against a Harlem backdrop. But what it consistently calls "the City" with a capital C only indirectly functions as historical background. It seems to be doing much more than encoding Afro-American place. The metropolis in 1926 is a vast receptacle of actual, historical, vocal, and memorial traces. "Black Manhattan," as James Weldon Johnson used to call it, shapes up as a space of resistance in which all sorts of cultural practices resurface under oppressive conditions.

Yet the sense of place in Jazz, as Eudora Welty defines it in her essay "The Eye of the Story," [1] is a fledgling, tentative one which only timidly heralds Paradise's discrimination-safe haven. As a new composite, the City is conditioned by the Great Migration from the rural South which started in the 1870s and climaxed between 1910 and 1930. Whatever traces of this former history survive in the text remain fragmentary or else unarticulated. They sometimes even lead to literal dead ends. Derived from James Van Der Zee's eerie collection of photographs The Harlem Book of the Dead, the narrative itself unfolds as a Book of the Dead, a site of traumas forever replayed, revisited by the characters of a new type of black diaspora. Just like the Middle Passage of slaves across the Atlantic, the City of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s is some sort of "zero moment" in black history. The "disremembered and unaccounted for" (Beloved 275) stories of times past can only reemerge as loose fragments patched up by an uncertain if forceful narrator. And the context the narrator provides for these migrants' dreams also precludes any smooth representation of "the glittering city" (Jazz 35) and its "race music" (79). The voice registers--and yet fails to register--the oscillation between narrative construction and invention, or pauses. And as it admits to its own unreliability, it also allows its originally single-voiced authority to be questioned and eventually superseded by multi-vocality. In between narration and silence, its frantic vibrations echo the fierce energy of the turn-of-the-century Underwood Archives photographs in which entire blocks and buildings under construction stand halfway up, transfixed in some indefinite in-betweenness. In 1926 "the City" was already much more than just a black neighborhood within Manhattan; it was not even a city within the city, but the capital of black America. And the sense of place was essentially defined by what it could no longer be, and by what it wasn't quite yet. As the narr ator says, a "city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It's the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it" (7). Some of these dreams however are endlessly deferred in Jazz, quite literally displaced so that they mirror the book's discontinuous narrative sequences.

A Discourse of Displacement

Morrison's sixth novel plays with what could be called an aesthetic of displacement. In the black diasporic tradition, displaced individuals embark on a journey of literal reconfiguring and remembering in New York's fluid framework. The overpowering City frames the story and influences the lives of its inhabitants in much the same way that James Van Der Zee's black-and-white photographs and comments "frame" the dead people he photographed in Harlem funeral parlors in the 1920s. One of his plates shows a dead girl shot by her lover. Toni Morrison chose to call her Dorcas.

She was the one I think was shot by

her sweetheart at a party with a noise-

less gun. She complained of being sick

at the party and friends... [took] her

in the room and laid her down. After

they undressed her and loosened her

clothes, they saw the blood on her

dress. …

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