Toni Morrison, Jazz

Morrison, Toni. Jazz. Vintage Books, 2004.

Summary of Work
A complex tale that goes over the relationships between Violet, Dorcas, and Joe while they are living in Harlem. The story starts out with Violet, the wife of Joe Trace, going to Dorcas’s funeral. Her husband had fallen in love with the 18-year-old girl and in his passion shot her. When Violet gets to the coffin, she slashes Dorcas’s face and has to be pulled down to the Church floor. That same evening, she lets all the birds in the house free, including the Parrot that says “I love you.” Joe had never been prosecuted for the murder because Dorcas’s aunt knew that it wouldn’t do any good to hire the cops when Joe was already grief stricken and Violet was too. The local women’s committee determine that after the scene Violet made at the funeral and her current attempt to get revenge on her husband by having a boyfriend, they will not give her financial aid.
Violet sees that the tactic isn’t working so she goes about trying to win her husband’s love again. But since Joe remains absolutely silent, Violet decides she needs to do something different. She tries to find out more about Dorcas, asking her teachers and friends about her, and learning how to dance her favorite dances. She even obtains a photo of Dorcas, and both her and her husband often stare at the photo.

It had been eight years since the WWI Armistice, when soldiers came home and the women’s group were always out making sure that people in the community had all they needed. It was a cold winter when Dorcas died, and despite the cold, Joe and Violet take turns staying up in the night to just stare at the photo of Dorcas. Joe does not have a job, and Violet keeps them afloat as a hairdresser. She goes to individual homes to do hair, and keeps her days as busy as possible so she doesn’t have to feel miserable. The community knows that Violet has tendencies to do crazy things, including when she sat in the middle of the street and wouldn’t move, when she kidnapped a baby she had been asked to watch for a minute, and when she would speak nonsense when she was a child. This current change in her has Joe annoyed and depressed.

Joe and Dorcas met in October and had a three month affair, and even after her death he can still remember all the love and sadness that came with that affair. He tries to think of Violet after the death, but he does not love her and cannot do anything but remember dates for the significant, loving events in their relationship. Joe had seen Dorcas before in a candy store, but sees her again as he is going to sell makeup to some women, and he whispered to her then. He met Violet working the fields in Virginia and moving to NYC together in the early 1900s, twenty years before Dorcas’s death. After twenty years of trying to make this marriage work, he decides to give up, and he rents another room for six hours a week so he can sleep with Dorcas and talk to her about his life. Dorcas understands him, particularly his stories about his mother and not knowing her: she had a violent relationship with her mother, constantly fighting. She also talks about her apartment catching on fire and losing her dolls, and about wanting to go to Mexico with Joe to dance and live a good life. Joe always gives Dorcas presents before they part.

Malvonne is the woman who rents the room to Joe for his affair. She is a woman who loves gossip, and she cleans offices of white businessmen every night. She has a grocery bag full of unsent letters from her neighbors that her nephew stashed away, and she reads them, taking action only when the information in the letters is urgent or has important information for the recipient. She had taken care of her nephew, Sweetness (AKA Little Caesar or William Younger), but when he moves out, his room is empty. Joe wants to rent it for a couple bucks a month and free repair work, but she at first refuses, not wanting to take part in an affair in any way, even though she dislikes Violet. Joe convinces her that he will just use the space for conversation, and that Violet won’t know because she’s always too busy with work, and so she allows them to use the space, but will not pass any messages.

Dorcas’s aunt Alice Manfred took care of her after her parents died in the East St. Louis riots. Alice took Dorcas to the Silent March protest over the riots, remembering how Dorcas’s father was trampled to death and her mother, in agony, ran home and her home was set ablaze, killing her. Dorcas, rather than deal with the grief of losing her parents, focused on her lost wooden dolls. Alice believes that jazz music was sinful and a cause of the violent riots, but Dorcas loves the sounds. Alice works as a seamstress, and Dorcas goes to the neighbors, the Millers, to be cared for. They are good friends with Alice and spend a lot of time talking about fashion and music. When she became a teenager, Dorcas started to rebel against her Aunt, and she goes to a dance party with her friend and they dress up to look older. They enjoy watching brothers who can dance well, and when the music goes from fast to slow pieces, Dorcas approaches the men to dance, but is deterred when she sees them whisper and their smiles disappear. However, when Dorcas meets Joe a year later at her home, Alice has a premonition that something bad is going to happen.

After the funeral, the community has renamed Violet “Violent,” but Alice is no longer surprised to see Violet show up at her home. Alice mistrusted cops and so never dealt with the law, and she grew withdrawn, becoming overly focused on newspaper stories about rape and murder and assaults of women. She feels that these women weren’t defenseless, and yet also feels betrayed over Joe’s corruption of her niece. Alice first received a note from Violet under her door a week after the funeral, and Alice was upset, scared, and confused. But Violet is looking for a place to rest, and Alice provides it. She can’t stop staring at the photo of Dorcas at Alice’s home. Alice asks if Joe was violent, and Violet said no, he’d never beaten her, and after that Alice feels the need to get to understand Joe and Violet. But as she learns more, she becomes uncomfortable, which is why she gives Violet the photo of her niece. But Violet keeps coming back every day, so Alice starts mending the woman’s clothing and Violet continues to wonder about Joe. After at first feeling exasperated about the visits, Alice comes to enjoy them, and the two women are able to speak honestly to one another. When Violet asks if Alice would ever fight for a man, she remembers back to when her husband was unfaithful and she was enraged for months, but didn’t do anything before he died, and his mistress came to the funeral dressed in white; she connects with Violet and realized she’d have done the same thing Violet did to her husband’s mistress if she’d have gotten the chance.

Violet thinks back first to her slashing Dorcas’s face and then to releasing the birds, and then to her life in Virginia with Joe. She remembers he family being robbed and losing everything, and how her mother, Rose Dear, stopped talking. True Belle, her grandmother, moved from Baltimore to help out, but Rose still committed suicide. Her husband came into town just days later with money and gifts. When Violet was a late teenager, True Belle sent her and her sisters to go pick cotton for a few weeks, and when she was sleeping under a tree, Joe fell out of it while he was sleeping. They talked all night, and by the end of the three weeks, she sent the money she earned with her sisters and moved to stay close to Joe. They determine to move to NYC together about a decade later. They didn’t want children, and Violet was plagued with miscarriages, but when Violet gets older she feels she wanted children and mourns her last child she miscarried. After all these musings, she asks Alice if she should stay with Joe, but Alice doesn’t give her a clear answer.

Joe was born at the end of the 19th century and grew up with an adoptive family, where he had a friend and brother in Victory Williams. Joe grew up helping hunters and he loved the woods. When he met Violet and married her and worked as a sharecropper to find himself in more and more debt, he changed his attitude and then decided to buy land, but found that he was being asked for too much money, so he moved with her to New York and they found a place in Harlem. He worked at hotels and sold cosmetics, and after the riots, he danced down the street with the soldiers returning from war. But all of a sudden, he loses Violet, who starts sleeping with a doll hugged to her at night, and he becomes lonely. He meets Dorcas, with long hair, bad skin, and all sorts of marks on her face from the blemishes. They remind him of the trails in the woods he used to walk on as he searched for Wild, his mother. He remembers the end of their relationship, with him following her to a dance, and then continuing looking for her in places each day. He finds her one last time, where she says awful things to him and he realizes that he’s not a young man, and that he is chasing a woman when young men don’t have to chase; women come their way. He continues to remember how Dorcas looked, with her worn shoes and the marks on her cheeks and the presents he bought her. He remembers taking Dorcas’s virginity.

True Belle had been a slave in Virginia before she left to Baltimore, although she returns to Virginia a free woman. Her family is in squalor because the state repossessed everything when Rose’s husband disappeared. True Belle was on an estate of a white man whose daughter got pregnant by a black man and was disowned, and True Belle moved with her after being disowned. She was forced to leave her daughters on the plantation. The daughter, Vera Louise, names her bastard child Golden Gray because of his golden curls. True and Vera spoil him, but when Vera reveals to him on his eighteenth birthday that his father is black, he wants to know more but Vera refuses to speak, leaving True to tell the story. When she tells him that his father is Henry LesTroy, Golden goes to meet his father, intending to kill him, and sees a naked black woman on the road in the rain and when she is falls unconscious, Golden is so revolted by her color that he considers leaving her, but because she is pregnant he decides to take her in the carriage. He worries that she will get his clothing dirty. Despite these feelings, he did love True because she took care of him, but he still can’t deal with having a black father because it changes his entire identity. When he comes upon a home he thinks is his father’s, he leaves the pregnant woman in it, waiting for Henry to return. He gets drunk waiting, and when someone comes in, it is a black boy. The boy mistakes Golden for a white man who is there to talk to Henry, and Golden has him first look after his horses and then he looks after the unconscious woman as Golden remembers his rage at realizing his father is black and True telling him that rather than destroy his mother’s clothing he should go see his father.

When Henry comes home and learns Golden is his son, he comes to realize why Vera left, but before they can start talking the pregnant woman on the table goes into labor. The woman bites Henry so he names her “Wild,” and she rejects the child. The black boy, Honor, is told to get his mother to come take the child. Wild never leaves the area, but haunts the fields. This child is Joe Trace. Joe always feels Wild is his mother, though he is never told so. He tries to find Wild three times, and the last time she says something to him to answer his question, but he cannot understand because he cannot see her with the fading daylight. After this, he works all the time to stop thinking about it, and that’s where he met Violet. After the fields are set afire, he never learns about what happened to Henry (AKA Hunter’s Hunter).

Joe thinks back to his hunt for Dorcas, and remembers he never meant to kill her, but didn’t expect to find her with a young slick man, either. He also thinks of his mother at this time and how it felt similar to hunt for her with no success.

Dorcas is dancing with a coveted man in a packed apartment, and she feels incandescently happy. She’s worried Joe will be looking for her, and that he’ll come to the party. She feels bad about her cruel words, but needed to get away from him. She had told him he made her sick even though she’d meant to talk about being uncomfortable with the affair. She didn’t mention about the young man, Acton. She remembers Felice frowning at her when she had mentioned Joe. The differences between Joe and Acton are stark, with Joe accepting her no matter what and Acton asking for her to look and be specific ways, and she loves that and loves dancing with him and how jealous it makes other women. She knows that Joe will see her with Acton and realize she is with him now. Dorcas narrates her death, talking about dancing with Acton and seeing Joe, getting shot, and falling into Acton’s arms and being put on a table. Acton is upset that her blood got on his coat. Everyone is asking who shot her, and Dorcas believes she tells Felice it was Joe. As she dies, she can only make out music and oranges on the dining room table.

Felice comes to Violet and Joe’s home one afternoon with sweetmeats and music. Felice was raised by her grandmother because her parents could only come home once every few weeks from work, and then her father liked to read and her mother liked to go out dancing and to church. When Dorcas started seeing Joe, she figured it out despite Dorcas trying to hide it. Felice doesn’t think Violet is crazy because when she went to visit her while looking for a missing opal ring after she had let Dorcas borrow it to impress Acton. Felice didn’t attend Dorcas’s funeral out of anger, but also wanted to see if she could find the opal ring, and so started going to Violet and Joe’s to see if she could get it and to talk about Dorcas to Joe. She says that Dorcas let herself die rather than get medical help, so it was her fault she died from the bullet wound. She cries as she talks about it, and Joe and Violet invite her to dinner and Violet says the ring was on Dorcas’s hand when she was buried. When Felice visits for dinner again, she gets to talk to Joe alone, and when music starts playing, Violet comes in and she and Joe start dancing while Felice watches, and before she leaves, she promises Violet she will come let her do her hair.

Discussion of Work
This narrative is structured much like a jazz song, with the main plot being the driving beat, but each person’s story being its own riff or solo in the song and the narrative, expanding upon the original story and adding unique information and tune to the narrative. Time is not linear in this narrative, with Dorcas sometimes being dead, sometimes alive, sometimes not even born as the narrative of Violet and Joe’s families are told. The story weaves a tale of tragedy and love through matriarchal lines across generations, showing how female love can heal, and irresponsible men often destroy what the women have built in their families. Infidelity destroys families, but it isn’t a death sentence to the family unit: with proper communication and time to grieve, the family can be rebuilt, showing a resiliency of these black women as they deal with trauma.

Miscegenation also makes a brief appearance, bringing front and center the issues of race and racism within their own family histories. Discovering his blackness completely rips Golden apart, who has been raised with a sense of racial superiority that, when turned upon him, he cannot deal with. The only way to deal with it for Golden is to destroy his own father, to commit patricide to erase evidence of his black heritage and make him white again. Readers never learn if, after the birth of Joe, Golden ever really speaks with his father or comes to terms with his blackness; Golden merely disappears from the narrative into the space of whiteness, away from the struggles that his black family faces.

Regarding my dissertation topic, dance plays a distinct role in this story, with faster jazz dances and slower blues idiom dances like the Slow Drag featuring. The dances, like the musical structure of the story, have a sense of temporality about them. The faster jazz dances are at first indicative of Dorcas’s age and inexperience: she is not invited to dance even the slower dances because it is apparent that the complexity of the fast dances is too much for her, and she doesn’t fully understand what she sees as men dance before her, even though she can appreciate it. With age and regular attendance at house parties, she becomes a better dancer. She is able to fully embrace her youth through dancing, as it arouses both her sensual feelings for young men and her excitement about her own body. For Joe, these dances allow him to relive a part of his life that he thought he had lost; it allows him to forget his loneliness for a time and feel young again, almost turning back time, or if not turning back time, then at least extending the moments he has. His affair with a woman half his age is another way of turning back time, and much as the new music confuses the older generation, his relationship confuses his understanding of his life, turning it to pieces as he tries to participate in a relationship with a woman from a different generation with different wants and trends. It is not until after Dorcas’s death and the introduction of Felice that he is again able to connect with and dance with Violet, representing a healed relationship. Felice fills a hole for both Violet and Joe: Felice can be Violet’s daughter she never had, and Joe can be a father figure rather than a lover to the girl, showing her that there is happiness amid all the sorrow.

Bernard W. Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. U of

Massachusetts P, 1987.

Summary of Work
This work gives a critical analysis and historical overlook of the development of the African American novel from slave narratives to the novels written in the 1970s during Postmodernism. The work takes a mix of historical, anthropological, and cultural analysis as Bell analyzes the development of the African American novel. Bell determines that there are four unique qualities that run throughout the AfAm novel that separate it from the regular American novel: double-consciousness, referring to the biracial identity of black people as black and American; socialized ambivalance, meaning “the dancing attitudes of Americans of African ancestry between integration and separation, a shifting identification between the values of the dominant white and subordinate black cultural systems as a result of institutionalized racism” (xvi); double vision, which is the use of irony and parody in the art form in order to deal with the hardships of life; and folklore, or the artistic forms and communicative process which are unique to African American cultural communities.

For the purposes of my area of study, I have skipped over the chapters with a focus on nineteenth century writers and moved into the twentieth century writers. The beginning of the twentieth century into WWI was the era of naturalism for the novel, which kept some of the sensationalism of romanticism from the nineteenth century, but focused much more on social issues of the day and spoke more to reality. This is particularly true of African American novels, which “combine the themes of love, marriage, and success with the protagonist’s struggle for freedom from color and caste discrimination in a cyclical quest to fully realize his or her rights and potential for growth as a person of biracial and bicultural identity” (79). These ideals were further promoted by the idea of having a Talented Tenth, the New Negro movement, and a higher class of art from African American artists that harbored elitism even as white America was moving away from those ideals itself. Two authors representative of naturalism during this time period are W.E.B. Du Bois, who’s novels failed in being very enjoyable reads, but succeeded in providing a sociological take on current issues; James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was a psychological form of naturalism which enjoyed enough success to initially be considered an actual autobiography. They dealt with the same problems of existing in a white world and succeeding as a black man, especially the irony of interracial relations when one could pass as white. They deal with the cultural tensions and biases of the rising middle class of black people in America.

With the Harlem Renaissance came a new belief of what black art forms, especially written forms, should do: they should celebrate black life, achievement, and show the complexities of black cultural existence. It was an era where black men were still being lynched in large numbers each year, and race tensions were as high as ever, but expression without fear or shame was a driving theme of the Harlem Renaissance writers.

Jean Toomer represents poetic realism at this time period. Considering himself neither white nor black but an American, he often came into conflict with others over the labeling of his work and what he was doing. He termed himself an essentialist rather than a realist or classicist, particularly meaning that he believed in the transcendent nature of the soul and that he believed in truth through intuition, and that he was a believer in Eastern practices of mysticism. Cane, Toomer’s masterwork, is a mix of prose and poetry, creating a poetic novel that on the surface may seem pastoral, but is much deeper than that because there can be no return to the country life or pre-industrial life, and the characters are complex. Mystical visions of life combine with folklore and cultural history and knowledge to create an undercurrent of a metaphysical journey. His work modeled those of Robert Frost and Sherwood Anderson, and he, like them, worked on experimenting with utilizing regional and local materials in high artistic works.

During the time of both nationalism and assimilationism, with the cry for a back-to-Africa movement in Garvey and a melting pot theory on the other hand, authors such as Nella Larsen began to explore what it meant to have dual identities as a response to both of these movements. Against both assimilationist beliefs and the nationalist formations, Larsen’s books explore what happens to people when they force themselves to accept one or the other of these options.

During this time in the Harlem Renaissance there was also a turn to Folk Romance, or more specifically forms of ancestralism or pastoralism and even at times primitivism within novelistic writing. The writing was meant “to express the historical struggle of black Americans to achieve a dynamic synthesis of their individual and collective double-consciousness” (113). Thus, the African American pastoral was different than the regular pastoral because it encompassed both rural and urban settings, utilizing the near past to discuss the African American psychological and social struggles. Zora Neale Hurston’s work is full of folk romance. This could be in part because of her lifetime refusal to relinquish her heritage and folk origins that made up her identity. Their Eyes Were Watching God is the pinnacle of her work, her best folk romance. The work explores the life of Janie and her dreams and hopes as she marries different men and those dreams either get taken away through violent means to herself or to the one she loves (Tea-Cake having to be shot because he attacks her after getting rabies). The narration switches from third person to first person and has a variety of different narrators (with mixed success), making Hurston better able to discuss the sacrifices that black women have made from slavery forward in order to survive and help their men, and what happens when black women refuse to sacrifice and instead pursue their own interests. The whole of the novel also centers the oral folk traditions of the black South.

Unlike Hurston and other folk romantics, authors like Langston Hughes stuck to a form of folk realism that looked narrowly at specific, everyday lives of black people, focusing on common social rituals rather than larger, more universal truths. While the stories in isolation do not tell all of the black experience, they do offer perhaps a successfully “realistic portrayal of the ways in which ordinary black folk used religion, music, humor, and language to cope with adversity than their counterparts” (129).

With the coming of the Great Depression and the rise of the ideas of socialism and communism in America with it, there was a greater realization of the disunity of the races than there had been in the 1920s, with as many as 60 percent more black people being unemployed than white people (152). While many black people and their leaders were wary of the Communist party because of their oversimplification of racial issues in favor of economic issues, Richard Wright became a party member because he felt it gave him and black people a chance to gain a unity that had been lacking, and that the unity would help solve many of the racial and economic problems of the time. The writers of this time also benefitted from the Federal Writer’s Project, and Hurston, Ellison, Wright, and many other black writers were able to get funding for their writing projects.

Wright was a naturalist writer, and he rejected “both the concept of black consciousness and the values of Afro-American culture,” which is evidenced in his writing, including Native Son (155). In Native Son, he looks closely at poor black life in the South Side of Chicago, and discusses fear and freedom as sources of weakness and strength: weakness in the bad things it leads to, strength in the power of action. While many critics see the work as part of black nationalism, the double-consciousness throughout the work would speak against that theory or belief. Instead, the work shows how racist beliefs that white people have consistently spoken and acted upon have become internalized in black people to the point that they may even go commit crimes like Bigger Thomas as an act of self-realization or freedom. The themes and issues Wright explores in Native Son make his work the “naturalistic vision of the social paradoxes that bind white and black Americans” (166). The work is a play between Marxism and Freudian psychology.

The 1950s saw a move from Naturalism to a revitalization of cultural discussions of myth, rituals, and double-consciousness of the black experience. At this point, black authors began writing and experimenting with non-racial themes as well. Authors such as Ralph Ellison discuss that they came to the realization that what T.S. Eliot was doing with cultural myth and ritual could be done in black culture as well, and that it could be done with different materials, their own cultural heritage. Ellison’s one novel, Invisible Man, solidifies this change in novel writing as Ellison creates a modern epic by utilizing African-American history and cultural traditions, particularly traditions of blues and jazz music. In Ellison’s work, African Americans become a metaphor for the human condition.

James Baldwin’s novels carry on a similar work, but through religious overtones and discussions, which he was better able to carry on because of his childhood religious background. Baldwin’s early interviews, writings, and discussions look very similar to Richard Wright’s beliefs outlined in Native Son, and indeed, Baldwin’s self-professed literary father was Wright. However, he grew as a novelist and became interested in focusing on more components of black life than the political, even though he still kept the narrow viewpoint of Wright by exploring specific narratives of specific characters rather than a more general search for a generalized black experience. His work is “spiritual and sexual,” exploring “not the terrifying possibilities of hatred, but the terrifying possibilities of love” (219). He relies on the social structures and myths given him in black churches and in black music as he writes his narrative, integrating more cultural discussions than were prevalent in naturalism. Specifically, Go Tell It on the Mountain is a story that exposes “the moral foundations of the institutional pillars of the black community” (224).

With the rise of the Black Power and Black Arts movements, and the rise of feminism and the Women’s Rights Movement, the African-American novel made a move toward Modernism and Neorealism as a response to the turbulent times. While Neorealism kept the forms of realism, it was “also a philosophical and political attitude toward the human condition” (246). Thus, there is far more hope for humanity in African American novels of this strain than of the novels written by other races of people. Alice Walker embodies this hope with her work, which seeks to uplift both men and women (leading her to call herself a womanist rather than feminist). Her work splits the line between realism and romance, and The Color Purple in particular utilizes the folk realism and romanticism embodied by the work of Zora Neale Hurston. Her work has a sexual egalitarianism to it that is unique in comparison to other novels written during the same time period.

Poetic realism, the act of realism including “imaginative power, compression, and lyricism of language,” moves toward the problematic reality of reality being largely shaped by consciousness (269). Thus, much like Jean Toomer, those writing in a Poetic Realist tradition are seeking to find the sensations or feelings of truth rather than to lay it out as reality. This form of realism is best embodied in the work of Toni Morrison, who’s Song of Solomon utilizes a nonlinear narrative and haunting tales of the Dead family and their surroundings to discuss the fact that no matter how terribly a race or group of people is treated, it seems like they are never turned into beasts. The poetic language in Sula explores the pain and suffering of African Americans while also exploring the topics of sexuality and freedom in newly-minted linguistic ways.

Finally, when it comes to Postmodernism, the African American novelists depart from the white novelist traditions of the work of art as meaningless and instead “are deeply concerned with fictive visions that focus on the truths of the perversity of American racism and the paradoxes of Afro-American double-consciousness” (284). They reaffirm the power of the folk tradition as a way of seeing and knowing important truths to navigate through the perversities of life. These features mix with fabulation, romance, fantasy, and satire to create the literature of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the time when this book was written. The work of John Edgar Wideman, particularly highlighted by the short story collection Damballah, blurs the distinctions between “history and fiction, novel and romance, orality and literariness” through his blending of “epistle, legend, myth, fable, biography, and autobiography” in his fiction (312). By doing this, he has a recurring theme of understanding that what we think we are is just as, if not more, important than what we actually are when it comes to identity. Ishmael Reed challenges his readers to break free of the idea of a monolithic narrative for the African American novel, and he uses a Neo-Hoodoo aesthetic in order to blend a variety of cultural writing techniques and challenge readers “to be as culturally egalitarian and imaginatively bold as the author” (331).

Discussion of Work
This book’s main strength is in its discussion of these authors and the evolution of the African American novel within the context of social and political happenings: by offering a brief historical overview in tandem with the development of new literary movements and returns to older movements, Bell is able to show how the African American novel is as tied to them as is the novel in general. The work provides much needed representation of black authorship in a scholarly field that for too long overlooked their additions and achievements and how they influenced the development of the novel. I largely agree with what is said in this work regarding the topics and critical discussions of the authors chosen for the work, and so I have little more to say about it than has been highlighted in the summary. However, I do believe that structurally, the book may be trying to do too much in that it tries to feature too many authors. While it is certainly necessary to offer up multiple authors’ works to show the breadth of the literature from each literary movement, the number of authors chosen leads to less of an in-depth discussion about many of them, and altogether excludes works that might be discussed from other authors.

Susan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog

Parks, Susan-Lori. Topdog/Underdog. Theater Communications Group, Inc, 2001.

Summary of Work
Lincoln has just come home from work to see his brother, Booth, practicing a poor 3-card monte. Lincoln works at an arcade, dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, whiteface and all. He takes a lower pay rate because he is a black man, but is happy for the work. His wife, Cookie, left him, and he is living with his brother now. The home has no electricity or plumbing, but it is a place to sleep. He is the sole support to pay the rent. His brother steals things to live on.

Booth tells Lincoln that he wants to go by a new name, and Lincoln asks what, but at first Booth won’t tell him. Lincoln says whatever it is to make sure he can pronounce it or he won’t ever be able to get a job. This prompts Booth to tell him that his new name is 3-card, because he’s going to be the best 3-card monte dealer in town. Lincoln tells him that he had better practice more and start small and learn one thing at a time. Booth responds that he would learn faster if Lincoln would teach him.

Lincoln used to be the best 3-card monte dealer in town, bringing in thousands each month, but one day when he ignored a feeling that he was going to get shot and then his friend got shot during a hustle, he determined to never touch the cards again, believing that if he did it would lead to his death. He may have lost everything, but now he has the chance to be a new man. He tries to get Booth to see that there is that same opportunity for him. Booth, however, is intent on getting his woman, Grace, back. He tells Lincoln that he stole a diamond ring and that he’s going to get her to forgive him for his infidelity and marry him. He also tells Lincoln that he needs to move on because the lodging for him was only supposed to be temporary.

The next day, Lincoln comes home upset; the arcade is looking at cutting jobs, and since Lincoln has only worked there for eight months, he knows that he’ll be among the first to be fired. Booth has stolen a set of suits and gives Lincoln one in an attempt to cheer him. He also tells him to practice his act and build it up some so that he can’t be replaced by a wax doll. He needs to practice falling and jolting around a little when he gets shot in the arcade game to liven things up so he’s indispensable. Lincoln asks Booth to help him practice, but Booth says that he’ll help him when he gets home if Lincoln waits up, and that he should get into his costume to practice while he’s away. Lincoln does so, and practices once or twice, but then gets drunk and passes out in the chair he sleeps in.

When Booth gets home from his date, he tells Lincoln that he had sex with Grace and she didn’t make him use a condom. He also says he gave her the ring and she begged him to marry her. Lincoln calls him out on it and says that he knows he didn’t have sex with her because Booth went in the other room to look at dirty magazines. Booth gets angry at him and just says that he has an insatiable sex drive and that it’s too expensive to hire whores. He does try to help Lincoln a little, but then Lincoln accuses him of being a saboteur rather than an aid. Booth again tries to convince him to start running the 3-card monte hustle and to help him learn to run it so they can make more money together. Lincoln again asserts that he’s done with that life. Still, the cards call to him.

Later in the week Booth has stolen a whole apartment’s worth of things in order to impress Grace for a dinner, and he tells Lincoln to get out of the house and that he’ll have to move out because Grace will be moving in when they get married. Lincoln says he’ll get out tomorrow, but that he wants to sit in the house. He’s lost his job. He was let go and replaced by the wax dummy of Lincoln. It is 3 AM and Booth is trying to convince himself that he hasn’t been stood up, but Lincoln finally gets him to realize it. They talk about their childhoods as they look through the photographs they have in an album, and they wonder if their parents had it all planned out to leave them. Both of their parents slept around, and Booth saw his mother’s infidelity and Lincoln saw his father’s, even sleeping with one of his mistresses. They talk about how their mother, when she left, gave Booth five hundred dollars, and when their father left, he gave Lincoln five hundred dollars. Each of them were told not to tell the other that they had that money. Both of them are miserable, and after Booth and Lincoln eat, they remove everything off the makeshift table, revealing the cardboard card playing surface. As Booth goes to bed, Lincoln again picks up the cards.

The next morning, Booth sees Lincoln with the cards, and Lincoln tries to teach him about the game and the process of the hustle. When they go out again, Lincoln goes and starts hustling again, earning five hundred dollars in a day and feeling like himself again for the first time rather than a man in another man’s clothes. He comes in the home to tell Booth, but he doesn’t see him so he sits and counts his money time and time again. But Booth is there and comes out and tells him first that it had been a mistake and that Grace thought their date was the day after, not last night, so it was a misunderstanding. He gets Lincoln to admit what he did, and he tells Lincoln to try it on him again. Lincoln lets him win the first time, and then Booth says that it’s not real because there’s no money bet. So Lincoln puts his money down, but Booth says it’s still not real because he hasn’t matched the money. He goes and gets the money his mother had given him all those years ago. Lincoln is genuinely surprised Booth still has that money. He asks him if he’s sure he wants to play it, and Booth insists. He lets Booth win the first round, but then he loses the second, and Lincoln gets all the money.

Lincoln laughs but consistently insists he is not laughing at Booth. He tells him how the first rule is the rule that Booth never learned: that a competitor is beat the moment they step up to the table in a hustle. Booth, furious that Lincoln is trying to open his money and take it from the knotted nylon, tells Lincoln that he actually killed Grace. Lincoln, surprised and now worried, offers the money back to Booth, but he won’t take it. He keeps talking to Lincoln, telling him that he’s lost everything, and how dare he laugh at him and try to steal his inheritance from him when he squandered his. He pins Lincoln in the chair and puts a gun to his head. Lincoln tries to tell him to calm down and that he can have his money and it’s okay, he didn’t mean it. But Booth shoots him and kills him. He then realizes what he’s done, and he cries, holding Lincoln in his arms, realizing he has now lost everything.

Discussion of Work
The setup for this play is interesting, particularly because of the way the script itself is written: there is very little stage direction, the setting and time is labeled “here” and “now,” and there is direction on how to speak specific lines and how to add pauses in the space of time (the pauses are marked by the characters’ names in bold with no text underneath them). Much of the language is written in dialect form and hyphenated during the 3-card monte speaking sequences. I am unsure why it is written this way, other than to perhaps first ensure that this play is timeless—that it could happen anywhere and to any set of black men—and to second more firmly place the work within a black literary tradition.

The play explores the limited opportunities for black men in the cities, or anywhere, and what they end up resorting to in order to survive. Even the family unit that they very briefly experience first in childhood and then in adulthood falls apart due to the inability for them to meet societal and personal expectations. From stress from broken families to lack of opportunity for a career to poor living conditions, these men may never have a chance. And the ones who try to change their situation are drowned out by the actions of those around them who feel that they cannot change and that the only option in life is criminality to survive. Consequently, they all hoard what is most important to them, whether that is memories of love or if it is money. All of these issues also inevitably lead to violence, which bursts in Booth when he loses what he finds most precious, not just his money, but his memories of his mother that are tied to that money.

The brothers also act as a symbol of America: Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth and what they stood for. Lincoln stands for hope and a push toward progress for all in America, not just white people. The fact that Lincoln “whites up” to play the role of Abraham Lincoln speaks to Abraham Lincoln representing all men, not just white men. Lincoln inhabits a dual identity. Then, Booth is the frustrated man who feels that his world is falling down around him and that the only way to beat the system is to destroy anyone who gets in his way to having money or opportunity. His killing of his brother, then, is a re-enactment of the shooting, but also a re-enactment that indicates the failed hopes of Abraham Lincoln: while he had good intentions, it was just too naive to believe that white people would ever let black people have an equal footing in America.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

Summary of Work
Cora is a slave girl on the Randall plantation in Georgia. Her mother, Mabel, ran away and was never found, and she had been left alone as a young girl. Her grandmother, Ajarry, had a plot of land that she used to garden and had passed on to Mabel. Cora determined she should keep that space as well, and when a man tried to put a doghouse on it, she tore it down with a hatchet. She was considered pariah there from then on, and placed in the Hob, the lodging cabin for the women who were considered odd or wrong in some way.

On a celebration for a slave man’s birthday, a slave named Caesar approaches her and asks if she will make a run North with him. At first she thinks he’s crazy or trying to trick her, but after being beaten for protecting a slave boy from the plantation owner’s drunken brother Terrance and then learning that her master is dead and Terrance has taken over running the plantation, she agrees to go with Caesar. As they try to leave, Lovey, a young slave girl, runs after them and insists on going. They make it through the swamp and are in the woods when they are ambushed by slave catchers. Lovey is caught, but Cora and Caesar escape, critically injuring a young boy of 12. When they get to town where there is a station master for the Underground Railroad, they learn that the boy they hurt is likely to die, and there is a mob looking for them.

They escape to South Carolina, where they are given new names and life stories, and Cora, now Bessie, first works for a family and watches the children, and then is hired to work as an actor in the museum for American History. She acts out African life, then the passage on a slave ship, and finally plantation life. She feels awkward and ashamed over it, but learns that she has the power of staring and forcing white people to realize that she can look at them just as they can look at her, but perhaps her gaze has more power. Caesar works at a factory, and they get to where they are comfortable with life and decide to stay, even though there are many trains that would take them farther north. Cora enjoys learning to read and having her own money and a bed to sleep in as well as a black community to enjoy. However, soon after making that decision, Sam, the barkeep who is also the station master, warns them that they shouldn’t get too comfortable: there is talk of forced sterilization of black people. Cora knows this, having gone to the doctor previously and felt like she was going to be forced to choose their “birth control” method.

Not long after Sam’s warning, Cora overhears that there is a slave catcher named Ridgeway searching for a pair of runaways who murdered a boy. This scares her, as she knows who Ridgeway is: he’s a famous slave catcher who wasn’t able to catch her mother, and he has a vendetta against her because of it. She runs to Sam, who is at the bar, and he tells her to go hide in the house at the platform, and he’ll try to get to Caesar. However, before Sam gets home, the slave catchers get there first and burn his house down, leaving Cora trapped. She doesn’t know how long she starves for before there is a small train coming down the line. It passes without stopping and she runs after it until it stops. It is a maintenance train, and she learns that the Georgia line is shut down and that the trains to this station have been cancelled, so he cannot help her more than drop her off at the next station, which is in North Carolina.

That station is technically closed as well, and black people are being hunted and lynched and placed on the “freedom trail” to rot in the trees for miles and miles. The station master hides her in his home for months because there is no way to get her out. She witnesses a lynching and it sickens her, and every week there is a town picnic with this ritual. Watchers regularly check houses, but she is well hidden in the attic. She spends time reading and gets better at it, and although she has read the Bible, she prefers almanacs. Then, one day, she accidentally tips over her chamber pot and she worries that the housekeeper, who is not one of the abolitionists, might have heard her. Nothing happens. Then she gets sick, and the man’s wife brings her down into a bedroom to help her get better and they send the housekeeper away, claiming that the husband has a disease that’s very communicable and they can’t have her getting it or being in the house, doctor’s orders.

That Friday when the picnic comes, the wife of the station master tells her that she can stay in the room and rest as long as she stays away from the window. She is grateful until their home is unexpectedly raided by watchers and she is discovered hiding under the bed. Ridgeway has led them. The station master and his wife are tied to the tree and presumably burned to death, and she is plunged into bondage again. They are going to Missouri to catch another slave before they head back to Georgia: Ridgeway hadn’t expected to find her but had just wanted to capture whoever was there with the Underground Railroad. He talks to her, and when they get another slave man, Jasper, they are constantly hitting him because he won’t stop singing. Ridgeway ends up shooting him and splattering Cora with his blood.

They stop in Tennessee, which has been largely destroyed by yellow fever and fires, and Ridgeway and his black freeman, Homer, make her put on a new dress and go to dinner with Ridgeway. A black man sees her in chains and in the nice dress and shoes and won’t stop staring. After they eat and she uses the outhouse, they go back and travel again, because their other companion refuses to stay where he thinks there is yellow fever. That night, the man grabs Cora out of the cart and cage in order to have sex with her, but Ridgeway is on to him and stops him. During the fight she considers running, but doesn’t. Then, three black men show up with guns and a fight ensues to set her free. Homer escapes, the other man dies, and Ridgeway is badly beaten and chained in the forest.

She escapes again on the Underground Railroad to Indiana, where she works on the Valentine plantation: Valentine is a biracial man who looks white and was able to inherit land from his father, which he sold and then moved further West to buy another plantation where he could harbor fugitive slaves and work with the Underground Railroad to ferry people further north if they desired. Cora stays there, asking people if they have seen her mother. No one has, and Cora goes on hating her mother for leaving her. She also feels guilty about all the people who have died for her: station masters, the 12-year-old boy, Lovey, Caesar, and possibly Sam. Meanwhile, she learns how to read and write much better than she had, and she lives a very free life in comparison to what she had done previously. Sam shows up one day, and she is thrilled to learn that he is alive. He is going to head West after one last job for the Underground Railroad. She falls in love with Royal, one of the men who saves her. One evening, he takes her to an old house and they go into the cellar; he shows her the old station there that is no longer in use. He doesn’t even know where it leads. He wants to show her because she has been on the railroad so much and had such a complicated journey. Royal is always helping with the Underground Railroad, and he brings her almanacs when he can. His last gift to her is the next year’s almanac. She lets him kiss her and she tells him about her life, apologizing when she gets to the part where she was gang raped. He tells her she shouldn’t be sorry for anything, but that those men who have done these things to her should.

One evening during a plantation debate meeting (they are regularly held with special guests and feasts), there is a raid. The white townspeople, who have built around the plantation, hate that there are prosperous black people next to them, and they hate them more because they know that there are fugitive slaves there. The white people combined with many slave catchers start shooting into the church and first kill the speaker whom they hate, and next Royal when he goes to aid him. Cora holds Royal in her hands as he dies, and he tells her to run to the station he showed her and live free. One of the Valentine sons tears her from Royal’s dead body to get her out of the gunfire, and when she gets out, Ridgeway and Homer catch her. Homer was dressed like a plantation worker, and had been in the meeting. She fights them but is put in chains again, and Ridgeway forces her to tell him where the Underground Railroad station is. She shows him, ashamed that she is revealing the secret to a slave catcher. Thinking of Royal’s trust in her, she grabs onto Ridgeway and shoves them both down the stairs, to the dismay of Homer. The fall breaks Ridgeway’s femur bone and has it sticking out of the leg, and his head also cracks his head open. Cora also is injured, but nowhere near as badly. Homer goes to Ridgeway and forgets about Cora as Ridgeway asks Homer to write down some things.

Cora gets the cart going and rides away down the line until she can go no further and has to sleep. In the morning she is too sore to maneuver the cart and so walks the rest of the way. She comes out in the woods, but she isn’t sure where she is. She cleans herself in the river and takes some water, and then sits by a road. There, three carts pass her, and a black man is in the last one. He offers to take her with him to the West, and she accepts.

This novel also has vignettes throughout it that tell about the lives of individual characters, including Mabel. Mabel made it through the swamp before she felt guilty about leaving her daughter. She knew she could make it back before the alarm sounded, and she determined to head back, happy with her little taste of freedom. But on the way back she gets bitten by a poisonous snake and dies on a patch of moss in the swamp.

Discussion of Work
This novel is a form of abolitionist narrative: a commentary on slavery and on white supremacy, but also a commentary on the courageous and honorable acts of a few white people and what good that it does. Cora, the main character, spends a lot of time wondering why white people who have good and prosperous lives would risk everything for her and other black slaves: everyone she asks tells her that she should know.

Whitehead also refuses to eliminate historically accurate language from his novel, using racial slurs and other oppressive and racist epithets in his work as dialogue: the linguistic choices may seem unnecessary to some, but it adds an important layer of authenticity to the work to display the horrors of the slave trade and plantation life as well as the extreme dangers and fears that came with being a fugitive slave. It allows for a more historically accurate novel, as this may be said to be historical fiction as well as abolitionist.

Whitehead experiments with nonlinear narrative as well, putting in biographical narratives to break up the main narrative. He often does this at times when the tension is high: when Cora has just been caught or when there is rising tension about her safety. The discussions of the white plantation owner Terrance Randall is particularly jolting, because it includes detailed descriptions of how he had slaves tortured and killed for running away. These details do not come altogether directly with the biographical narrative of the Randalls, but come as a combination of the biographical narrative and the main narrative of the story. While at first the choice to break up the narrative in this way may be frustrating for readers, what it highlights is that no matter who’s story is being told, the horrors of slavery were the same everywhere, and affected everyone it touched, white or black person.

One particularly important scene is where Cora learns the power of her gaze. It is reminiscent of bell hooks’ discussion of the black gaze on the white subject; she states that it is unnerving for white people because they never think of black people as agents that can look upon them, but objects to be looked upon. When they discover that black people can look at them, it upsets their supremacist attitudes because they are forced to realize that even enslaved or without full rights, they are capable of being active agents and of asserting their power for either agency or freedom, or both. This also happens regularly throughout the novel with dance. The slaves put on a specific dancing show for the masters, which is almost mocking in its attitudes, in order to please their owners. But when the masters are away, their dancing completely changes in its form and tone, becoming a way to express their freedom to move their bodies in some small way and to engage with their community. The black dancing body has the same power, then, that the black gaze has, but with a slight difference: white people aren’t always aware of the parody or mocking going on with the dancing, meaning that it gives a momentary power reversal where they have power over their masters, mocking them and judging them and asserting freedom and agency without ever being reprimanded or punished for it.

Amiri Baraka, “Legacy”

Baraka, Amiri. “Legacy.” Poetry Foundation,

poetryfoundation.org/poems/42557/legacy-56d221281526a

Summary and Discussion of Work
Legacy discusses the many different situations that may be described in blues songs, from the homeless man sleeping outside or wandering in the littered back alleys and deserted streets of the early morning hours in the south to getting drunk and traveling from town to town, finding each the same as the last. Blues itself, intended to deal with the complex and often contradictory or ironic realities of black life, offers Baraka a laundry list of options to discuss living conditions and life experience in the South. The subtitle of the work, “(For Blues People),” indicates that this poem is specifically for those who need to hear the message Baraka is conveying: the poem is for those people who are living in the conditions he describes as well as those who are experiencing life the way he describes in the poem. Starting the poem with poverty-stricken living conditions, he asserts that life is lonely and unable to offer much to the blues people than the wandering and possessionless life that they already have.

True to the blues tradition of travel, the narrator describes a person riding out to another space, but the rider still remains in a nowhere space or a twilight space: everyone around is sleeping, and the rider goes unnoticed as they ride through the space toward some supposed better spot or end, whether it be good or bad (represented by the sea). This is similar to the blues songs, which affirm living and state that it is worthwhile, but offers no real scapegoat for the conditions; Baraka’s narrative does differ slightly in that the sea represents some form of hope or greater option, but fits in with the idea that the point of travel was to find better life and hope for it, and then come to find that it is no different than the last space they exited.

 

Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. U of Missouri P, 2001.

Summary of Work
This autobiography of Langston Hughes’s life details some of his life experiences from his early twenties into the end of his twenties and the beginning of the Great Depression. When he was a child, his parents split, and he lived with his mother for a time. He remembers having his parents try to get back together in Mexico, but that was the year of the great earthquake in Mexico City, and so his mother got scared and they went back. He was sent to live with his grandmother in Kansas and to go to school, and she was a proud woman who would never do service jobs for white people to earn a living. When she died when he was just before his teenage years, he went to go live with his Aunt. During this time his Aunt took him to a Christian church, where they were praying over people to be saved. Everyone had gone up but him, because he believed he would get to see Jesus in the flesh, and he did not want to be dishonest about coming to Jesus. Finally, filled with guilt that he is the only one who hasn’t been saved, he comes to the front at the alter, and his Aunt is overjoyed. That night, he cries over having lied. His mother remarried, and he liked the man. Hughes was elected the poet for his school (it was integrated) because people made assumptions that all black people had rhythm and could dance, so they must be able to write poetry. He wrote his first poems there. He admits that his entire life, he rarely majorly edited poetry once it was down on the page. He also admits that most of his poetry and other work was written when he was miserable or unhappy rather than when he was happy.

In his late teenage years, his biological father wrote to him that he wanted him to come down to Mexico. His mother was upset about it, but he went anyway. There, he found out that his father was considered very American because all he cared about was money, but he was wiser than other Americans that came to Mexico because he was interested in keeping and saving his money. He hated Mexicans and many black people, and all poor people. Hughes was fairly miserable his first year there, because his father was always trying to force him to hurry places, and because he had to do bookkeeping and was no good with numbers. He got so angry at his father that it made him physically ill and he couldn’t eat for weeks, which landed him in a hospital that cost his father $20 a day to keep him there. After he was feeling better, his father sent him back to the US.  But the next time he went down to stay with his father, he spent more time to learn Spanish and became better friends with the Mexicans in town. A German woman also stayed with them (she later became his father’s wife), and she made the space more pleasant. His father expressed that he wanted to send him to college somewhere in Europe and have him come back to Mexico to be an engineer, but Hughes said he wanted to be a writer and did not want to go learn things he was no good at. His father told him that writers made no money and that if he was going to pay for college, Hughes would go where he wanted him to. He would also not be allowed to leave Mexico until he agreed to his father’s wishes.

So in order to escape, Hughes started tutoring Mexican children so they could speak English. Word spread that he was good at his job, and soon he was able to raise his rates and take on as much work as he wanted. He also got offered two jobs at colleges to teach English, and he took both jobs because scheduling worked for him. While working these jobs, he is lucky to narrowly escape death because a man who the German woman’s relation was working for thought that the German girl was sleeping with Hughes, and he, enraged, came to the house, shot the girl in the head three times, and went in search of Hughes to kill him, but couldn’t find him because he wasn’t home. The girl miraculously survived, and the man was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Hughes had made quite a bit of money, and he started thinking that he did want to go to college, but in NYC at Columbia. He and his father fought about it, but eventually his father agreed to send him there. On the train to New York City, he was mistaken as Mexican and when he said he was black, white people in the South would not serve him. He remembered the struggles of living as a black man in the US, and contemplated why it was so difficult for white people to interact with black people in the US when it was so easy for them to do so in other countries. He spent a year at Columbia, only to find he really disliked college, and so he quit and started looking for a job. But his father at that point had cut him off, his mother was looking for work and struggling, and he could not find a job that would take him, even if it were available, because he was a black man. He finally found a job working at a shipyard, and in the meantime he was having some of his poetry published by Crisis magazine. Alain Locke wanted to meet him and he had met several major figures of the New Negro movement, but he told Locke no because he was nervous and because he knew that Locke wouldn’t be able to get his way around the docks very easily and it could kill him if he weren’t careful. Before Hughes sets off to sea on his first voyage, he tosses all his books from college into the ocean, ridding himself of their weight both literally and figuratively.

Hughes set sail to Africa eventually and landed in many ports to find that the Africans did not consider him a black man because his skin was more brown than black. This astonished him, and he also saw the terrible effects of colonialization. He recalls having to watch a prostitute and a young girl coming on board in hopes of receiving money, and receiving no money but being forced to have sex with all the men on board who were interested, which was a group of about 30 men. He tired of this type of exploitation as well as the economic exploitation. As they were about to leave, he bought a red monkey, and many of the other soldiers did as well. There were adventures on the ship with those monkeys getting loose and winding up drowned or in missionaries’ beds or in the masts, but eventually all were caught. There were also many more antics and debauchery, and all the men were fired upon returning to the US. Hughes made his way to Cleveland, where his family was staying, and found himself penniless in order to make it there with the monkey, named Jocko, who he had bought for his younger brother. His mother was very upset to have it in the home, but his stepfather and brother liked it, so the monkey stayed. Then his stepfather’s mother came to town, and his mother had an ally to protest about the monkey. Then when his stepfather had the monkey out on the town one night and it got scared and destroyed the carpeting of a pool table, it cost them 25 dollars to have it replaced, and his mother was furious. Not long after Hughes left to go back to sea, she sold the monkey.

His second voyage, he got off to stay in Paris, but found himself unable to get a job because he was not a musician, dancer, or performer. He makes friends with a Russian dancer who got sick and whose company had dissolved, and who had no money. They share a cheap room, and she finds a job before he does. He finally gets a job as a doorman and then, through someone who liked his poetry, found a job as a dishwasher and then a cook. When the club he is working at goes nearly bust, they tried to fire the head cook, and he brought out a knife and threatened everyone, and they let him stay. And when they tried to fire Hughes, he threatened them again, so he got a job as a waiter. During his time there, he saw many fights and other antics. The Russian lady got a job at La Havre, and she leaves him, very sad. He then falls in love with a girl named Mary, who is very well-to-do. But when her father finds out what she’s been doing, first she is very chaperoned, and then she is forced to leave. Soon after that, he spends some time with Alain Locke, who is in town, and then when one day he is waiting on a famous poet, he shares his work. The poet “discovers” Hughes, and then he became wildly popular and many people came to the club looking to get a photo with the poet. He has more poems published but is never paid for them.

When the club had to close down for refurbishment and because of lack of business, he goes with some Italians to see Italy. He has enough money to enjoy his time, and Locke is also there and takes him to Venice and they enjoy their time. However, while in Genoa, he has his passport and all his money stolen, and the US embassy and consulate refuse to help him, so he lives homeless and in poverty, unable to get a job that will pay him enough to either get back to France or to find safe passage to America. He finally gets passage as a workman on a ship bound for NYC, and he is nearly kicked off in Spain for being late back to the ship, but he makes it back to the US with a quarter more than he had in France when he first landed. He makes his way to Washington, where his relatives are, and they want him to work in the Library of Congress, but it has too many needed qualifications and Hughes needed work, so he started working doing wet wash laundry for twelve dollars a week. His mother and the relatives had a dispute, and so he found them different accommodations, and they struggled to make ends meet. Carl Van Vechten contacted him and helped him publish a book of poetry at this point, but the elitist community would not welcome him or his mother because they were poor.

He makes his way back to Harlem in hopes of going to college, but he can’t get a scholarship. He talks of meeting Van Vechten and Jean Toomer, who could pass as white and refused to be labeled a “Negro Artist” much to critics’ dismay. He also met Zora Neale Hurston, who he had a good relationship for years until a dispute over a co-writing project. He speaks of Vechten and his parties, the decadence of the Harlem Renaissance and how the area was a victim of its own image. Hughes finally makes a bit of money off of some poetry, works as a personal assistant for a time, gets patronage to go to college at Lincoln, and visits and explores the South and takes a short voyage to Cuba and Jamaica, which he liked very much and would have kept doing if he hadn’t had to go back to college. During his final college years, he wrote a survey of the issues of the color line at Lincoln college, where all white professors taught a nearly all black student body. The founder of the college came up to him at graduation to tell him that as time passed, he would see that there was no way for him to do what he did in founding the school unless he could have had white patronage and made concessions. Hughes disagreed with him.

Around this time, he also received patronage to write and finish his novel Not Without Laughter, which he wishes would have been better because it is about the best of his family members. He receives a major literary award for it. He tries to write other things, but the white patron dislikes his work, and finally they part ways, and it makes him sick like he was with his father. He remembers all the decadence and security he experienced and remembers seeing the other people in the street starving because of the depression, and he remembers the disgust the white chauffeur had over being forced to drive a black man places. He went to the doctor to see what was wrong and spent a lot of money doing it, was told first he had a Japanese tape worm, and then told by a white doctor that he had no such thing. Then he got tonsillitis and had to have them out, using up the last of his money from the Park Street patron. After that, he immediately got better from his illness brought on by anger over the patron. It is during this time that he had his dispute with Hurston over the play they had been working on, and while it had been in production, it had to be shut down over the dispute. After that he went to Haiti and decided that he would make money writing for a living, and at the time of writing the autobiography, that is what he had done successfully.

Discussion of Work
This book gives an adventurous story about Langston Hughes’s life during his twenties. Its major dealings in terms of themes that cut across works of African American writing are the color line, economic oppression and poverty, travel narratives, and artistry, particularly writing and music. Hughes regularly comments on the struggles of being a black man, particularly when it comes to finding housing or a job. While he knows that other races are discriminated against, he knows they also have an easier time finding work, which makes all the difference. And he struggles with the knowledge that many of the black elite are not interested in changing the situation because they feel that there can be no progress unless they tell the white people what they want to hear. He states that while the Harlem Renaissance was happening, the majority of the black communities in America felt nothing change in their situation or economic or social standings. Economics and travel go hand-in-hand for Hughes, who travels in order to get money, which he can never keep as he comes back to the US, or even as he simply travels from one country to another. Job opportunities do not change, and while he doesn’t experience the same type of color prejudice, he does experience it in that the natives of the countries he visits dislike him for being a threat to their jobs.

Artistry is the other large portion of this narrative. He shows several of his poems and discusses when he wrote them and why. Much of his work was strongly influenced by blues songs and structures, which can be seen throughout much of his poetry with the AAB writing format, just as many blues lyrics are written. He also talks about how dance and music were a rich part of many black people’s lives, specifically citing the many rent parties and house parties he went to, some of which were certainly to help pay people’s rent, but others which were just hosted to be hosted. He provides several examples of printed up tickets for these events. He states that these parties were the spaces where he liked to be because black artistry was not put on display for racist white audiences. His understanding of what it is to be a black man or a black person in general is changed and given more value in an all-black space.

However, he also discusses the problems that come with the assumptions that all black people have rhythm and can dance and sing: he could not dance or sing, and those were almost the only jobs available to him in Europe and even in the US. The stereotype led to success for some, but not for long for many: once they were injured or could no longer work or could not work the grueling schedules or create enough new material, they often died in poverty. It ultimately narrowed black people’s options and avenues for success, even as it provided a rich culture and outlet for many. In discussion of his own work, he also talks about how a narrow view of what black artists should create doomed his work Fine Clothes to the Jew because critics and general public readers alike felt that the dialect and blues structures should not be used in his art: white people saw enough of that elsewhere, and writing was supposed to highlight the best to show people that black artists were capable of high art. The strict rules placed upon what a black artist could write or create further limited what people read, and who could be successful in the field of art.

August Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Wilson, August. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Plume, 1988.

Summary of Work
Set in Pittsburgh during the Great Migration, the play’s central focus is on the characters living and coming and going from the boarding house Seth and Bertha Holly run, a boarding house they inherited from Seth’s father, a Northern free black man. Bynum, a boarder at the house, is performing a sacrificial ritual on a pigeon in the backyard when the play opens, and Seth is upset because he doesn’t approve of the voudon rituals being done at his house. Still, Seth sits and watches Bynum while he waits for Rutherford Selig to drop in. He buys metal from Selig to make pans with, and then when Selig returns, he sells the pans to Selig for him to then sell to other customers. While Seth would love to start a pan selling business, he cannot because he cannot obtain the capital needed to start it unless he offers his home as collateral, a price he is not willing to pay.

When Selig comes by and sells metal to Seth, Bynum comes back in. He hires Selig to find the “shiny man,” because he knows Selig can track and find anyone. But when Selig asks for more details about the man so he can actually go about the task of finding him, Bynum refuses, saying only that he had a mystical experience where he saw a shiny man who led him to his father, and then Bynum’s father taught Bynum a song that gave him the power to bind people together (hence his name). Selig leaves with the information, and those present are doubtful that Selig will be able to find such a person given Bynum’s description.

After Selig leaves, Jeremy Furlow, another boarder, comes back from jail. Seth warns him that he will not allow him to stay in the home if he keeps up his behavior, but Bynum offers Jeremy the idea of entering a guitar contest. Jeremy states that he doesn’t like the idea because of a bad experience, and instead starts talking about perhaps meeting a woman that isn’t desperate and clingy as a way to solve his problems. Just then, another boarder, Mattie Campbell, comes looking for Bynum to have him bring her beau back, but he tells her that she needs to learn to let him go. Seeing the situation, Jeremy starts flirting, and they decide to go out on a date.

When those two exit, Harold Loomis enters with his daughter, Zonia. They are looking for his wife, Martha, and they need a place to stay for a time. When Bynum hears about the situation, he tells Harold he should talk to Selig, because he can find anyone. But Seth is worried about the situation because Harold is agitated; Seth thinks he knows who Harold’s wife is: Martha Pentecost. He doesn’t say anything and decides to mind his own business. Still, Bertha and Seth start talking about the situation, and they decide that Martha had in fact come to stay at their boarding house years previously when she was looking for Bynum, and that she had moved out to go with the church to another town about a year previous. When Selig comes to do his regular business with Seth, Loomis pays Selig to find Martha.

Meanwhile, things are going well between Jeremy and Mattie, and he asks her to move in with him. But then Molly Cunningham comes to the boarding house in search of a room to rent, and Jeremy becomes infatuated with her, threatening to destroy his relationship with Mattie.

That evening, the whole household except Harold are conversing and they get patting juba. Jeremy brings down his guitar to accompany the rhythmic clapping, patting, and dancing. Harold comes in furious, shouting at them to stop, but becomes paralyzed suddenly, having seen a vision because of the religious power present within the history of the juba dance. Bynum acts as a mediator, helping Harold to reveal the vision of bones rising out of the water and walking on top of the water, then sinking to create a wave that washes up the bones onto the shore. The bones become African Americans. Harold is one of the bodies that has been washed to shore and given flesh once again, and Bynum tries to get him to stand and walk. Harold cannot, and he collapses.

Seth, scared by the behavior, tells Harold that he must leave, but he tells Seth that they are paid up through Saturday, and they will not be leaving until then. Molly is also downstairs complaining to Mattie about having to work for other people. She doesn’t understand why Mattie is working if she’s with Jeremy and he can support her. As Mattie leaves, Jeremy enters, having lost his job for refusing to pay a white man what he asked. He is upset over the exploitation of not just himself but of all black workers, but Seth tells him that he needs to get over it and go back to work because he needs the money. Jeremy, not listening, grabs his guitar and says he will go on the road to find a better situation. He starts flirting with Molly after that, and he convinces her to leave town with him for a better life.

In the afternoon, Bynum is singing a song about Joe Turner, the white man who illegally enslaved African-American men to exploit their labor. Harold hears the song and tells him to stop singing it because he doesn’t like it, and Bynum uses it as an opportunity to learn about Harold’s past. He tells Bynum that Joe Turner is the man who kidnapped him and forced him to work for seven years, stealing him away from his newborn child and his wife. During those years, Martha left his daughter with her mother and disappeared, and he has been looking for Martha ever since he got out of bondage.

Mattie, meanwhile, is upset over Jeremy’s leaving, and Bertha tells her she should just forget about him. Harold is attracted to Mattie but is unable to talk to her about it. Zonia is playing in the backyard, and she meets a neighbor boy named Reuben. They talk about how Zonia and Harold are looking for Martha, her mother, and as they are playing, Reuben talks about his friend Eugene, and how he always kept these pigeons, the ones that Bynum keeps using for ritual sacrifice. He has come to free the pigeons, because it is what Eugene had asked him to do, and he feels he must do it to honor Eugene.

On Saturday morning, Zonia and Harold are scheduled to leave, but Martha arrives just in time to catch them. She and Harold talk about their lives and her decision to leave because of how difficult her life had become after he had been imprisoned. Harold tells Zonia that she must now go with her mother, and Martha thanks Bynum for his help in the process. Then Loomis gets angry at Bynum, blaming him for his life and his predicament, and he slashes his own chest in frustration as he mocks Martha’s religion. Then he walks out. Mattie realizes that she is bound to Harold, and she runs after him, and Bynum finally recognizes Loomis as his “shiny man.”

Discussion of Work
This work tells stories about several important historical narratives in African American history: re-enslavement and oppression, migration, and religion, music, and dance and their interconnectedness. The play’s name itself centers the play around the re-enslavement and forced labor of African American men. Readers and viewers alike are forced to see and contemplate the oppression and disadvantage that black people of that time had: if they aren’t re-enslaved like Loomis was, they are disallowed to build businesses and progress, exploited and unfairly compensated for their labor, and forced into less than favorable economic situations. The unfavorable and oppressive situation in the South leads to a migration North in hopes of better treatment, only to find similar hardships once there.

Yet despite all this hardship, the play demonstrates how important it is to understand that for all the economic poverty and oppression, there is a rich cultural life that is lost when only looking at the economics and social politics of the time. Martha represents the Christian influence and importance of the Church in black life, and Bynum represents the still powerful and relevant religious beliefs evolved in the African Diaspora. The two are not opposites of each other, as white Christianity would have us believe, but intertwined and both important in the religious understanding of the characters. Bynum serves as a practitioner who can not only bind people’s souls together (like Martha’s and Zonia’s), but can walk people through difficult portions of their lives and bring them understanding through his suggestions. Dances like the juba, which were originally sacred in origin and then moved into the secular sphere, still have both functions in the African American cultural experience and understanding. The dance then becomes the central turning point scene for the entire play.

Response for Future Use in Dissertation
August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone lives and dies by the songs within the souls of its characters. The song in Bertha’s soul is a home full of laughter and love; the song in Seth’s soul is order, propriety, and creation; and the song in Bynum’s soul is the religious power of binding people together, and bears the great responsibility of helping people find their way in this life and the next. Each of these individuals play an important part in helping Herald Loomis, a man who has lost his song, and therefore his purpose in life, come to understand that his life will only have meaning if he finds his song, his desires and drives, within himself again.

Herald Loomis is a wanderer, a man whose life experience and values are difficult to grasp at any given moment in the play. While from the very beginning he states that he and his daughter are looking for his wife, readers feel uneasy about the reasoning behind this search. Loomis does not move, does not seem to be searching for his wife, but instead waiting for her to arrive; he does not engage in conversation with the others at the boardinghouse, eats his meals alone, and rarely speaks to his daughter except for to tell her to behave. With no growth or movement in his body, and no music in his soul, he seems a dead man in comparison to everyone around him[1].

The Juba scene, then, can be said to be the turning point of the entire play for Loomis, because it is at that point that he realizes he is a dead man, and must do something about it. Juba, as music and dance, is closely related to the Ring Shout, and utilizes religious themes while participants shout, chant, and move in a circle as they dance different movements. Juba needs no instruments: the rhythm of Juba is often patted on the body, as well as on readily available objects. The music for Juba quite literally comes from the movement of the body, offering a direct connection to religious figures through the medium of drum-like music. While the context of Juba does not always have to be religious, in this scene, it is apparent that Wilson intends it to be a religious ritual of spiritual awakening.

Our main cue to know this will be a spiritual awakening is that Bynum, the conjure man of the group, calls the dance, and the others participate in the creation of the music. Wilson writes stage directions for the actors to “include some mention of the Holy Ghost,” and that “It should be as African as possible, with the performers working themselves up into a near frenzy” (52). We are meant to recognize the religious connotations as these characters lose control of themselves and give themselves up to a higher power, which Bynum calls upon through his chanting as he presides over the group. Yet the spirit coming to visit the participants is not a Loa or an Orisha, as might be expected, but a soul Bynum needs to help free from the bondage of past slavery.

Loomis loses his mind as he comes into the room, screaming that the Holy Ghost will burn them up, and then dancing around the room with his pants down as he speaks unintelligibly, as if taken over by spirits. As he gains enough control of himself to try to leave the room, he has a vision of himself, all bones rising up out of the water, sinking down, and then being pushed by a wave onto the beach, the bones now covered in flesh, waiting to be brought to life and stand, yet unable to (53-5). Bynum guides him through this journey, pushing him to realize that he is accountable for his lack of movement, and he must find a way to put himself together and move forward with all the other black figures he sees moving along the beach. “I got to stand up. Get up on the road,” he says, but when he tries, he collapses, his legs unable to bear his weight (56). The change has begun for Harold Loomis and he knows it needs to happen, although he has been resistant to it. His soul has been dead for too long, and he cannot stand up, because he is not strong enough, and he must start to slowly rediscover his soul’s song in order to move again.

Bynum from then on meddles with Loomis through music, singing the song “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” to pull out the story he knows is the story of so many men: taken prisoner for no reason, forced to work in a chain gang, and set loose seven years later, having lost song, spirit, and all material goods in life. Still, Loomis refuses to recognize his value, his calling, and his song. It is not until the very end when not Bynum, but Loomis’ wife Martha, coaxes Loomis’ song out of him as she quotes scripture to him and he, in musical form, responds to each line of scripture she quotes.

Wilson states in the stage directions that what Loomis has learned is his song, “the song of self-sufficiency” (93), and having found that song, he finds himself freed of all his past as he accepts responsibility for himself. Once he came to understand how his song was meant to respond to the call of life’s experiences, he learned how to get up, walk, and respond to life’s challenges, joys, and beautiful moments. The call and response of blues music allows Loomis to reconnect with life in a way that no other medium had allowed him to after the trauma of enslavement. Blues music, then, is the key to processing, coming to terms with, and moving forward from the injustices of life as a black man in the racist South, and a prejudiced America.

[1] Delroy Lindo, at the 10th Anniversary August Wilson Conference in Washington, DC, spoke of the genuine struggle it was for him as an actor to feel he could find the motivations for Herald Loomis. He said that while the director felt that Lindo was a good fit to play the role, Wilson, never satisfied and always looking for the best actors, kept auditioning for the role of Loomis until just before opening, hoping that there might be someone who could capture his character better. But he did not tell Lindo he was doing so; Lindo only found out through the director. Frustrated at the difficulty of the character and angry at Wilson for seemingly not trusting him with the role, he worked harder. Yet he said he never found the motivations in rehearsals. It was not until he got on stage to perform that he felt he had understood and become Herald Loomis. The power to perform in order to find oneself, then, cannot be overstated for this character.