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.

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Vintage Books, 1995.

Summary of Work
Ruth and Walter Younger, their son Travis, and Walter’s sister Beneatha and mother Lena all live together in a small, two bedroom apartment on the South side of Chicago. Walter’s father has died, and after months of waiting, they are expecting an insurance check for ten thousand dollars. It is all Walter can think about, and over breakfast, Ruth tries to keep order as Beneatha and Walter fight about what will be done with the money. Ruth is acting strange, and she is particularly hard on Travis when he asks for money he needs for school, and harder on him when he asks to be able to deliver groceries after school in order to make the money himself. Walter gives his son $1 and sends him on his way, much to Ruth’s dismay. Walter wants to go into business with his friends to buy a liquor store, and he is upset that Ruth is always so worried about money but won’t let him do anything to change their situation. He is insistent that his mother will give him the insurance money to go into business. He leaves for work, Beneatha leaves for school (she is in college and wanting to become a doctor), and when Lena comes out, she starts fussing over Ruth and then talking about how she doesn’t know her children anymore. Ruth collapses.

She goes to the doctor and learns she is pregnant, and she is devastated. However, the next day, the check comes, and everyone starts out happy. Lena tells Ruth that she’s thinking about putting some money away for Beneatha so that she can go to school, and then trying to decide what to do with the rest. She thinks she might buy a house. Walter is angry that she won’t invest in the liquor store scheme, and he goes to leave, but Lena makes him stay, trying to get him to listen to Ruth’s important announcement. He just yells at Ruth, and she goes in her room. Lena tells him that Ruth is pregnant, and Ruth comes out to talk about it. She talks to her family about her trip to the doctor, and lets slip the wrong pronoun, indicating to Lena that Ruth actually went to see the woman who would help her get an abortion. Ruth confirms this, stating that with how Walter is acting and the financial state they are in, it doesn’t make sense to bring a child into the world. Lena, feeling like her world is falling apart, leaves the house with the check that has come in the mail.

When Lena returns, she’s bought a house, but in the white area of town rather than the black area. The family doesn’t know what to say, worried about what will happen. Beneatha, meanwhile, has been going out with different men. One, George, is the son of one of the richest men in town, and the family would like to see her keep dating him and potentially marry him. But Beneatha likes Asagai, the Nigerian who is in Chicago going to college to learn about democracy so he can bring revolution to his country. He brings her a beautiful Nigerian set of clothing, and she puts it on, and he comments that her hair isn’t natural, and that’s sad. She goes to the hairstylist and has it cut off. When she returns, all dressed up, she starts dancing how she imagines a Nigerian woman would dance, and Walter walks in and sees her. He is drunk, and starts wildly dancing as he imagines an African warrior would dance. It is this scene that Ruth and George walk in on, and George is flabbergasted at her dress and her hair. She comments that it’s natural, but she goes to change clothing for their date. Walter, still drunk, sits down, sullen. He makes crude comments about George and about how he dresses, and then they leave. Walter continues his bad attitude to Ruth, but they get talking, and he starts making up with her.

Lena, meanwhile, sees how sullen her son is, and she decides to give him the remainder of the money, the 6500 dollars, to invest as he sees fit, as long as he puts 3500 of it in a bank account for Beneatha. He is ecstatic, and becomes a completely different man. He even takes his wife to the movies and dances the Slow Drag with her. The kids get their mother a set of gardening tools to work with, since she now has the space to garden that she always wanted. They all get ready to leave by helping pack, when a man comes to the apartment to tell them that the white community doesn’t want them there, and they are willing to pay them more than they paid for the house to sell. The children are upset, and they tell him no and to leave. A neighbor also comes over with a newspaper to scare them by showing them the headlines of black people’s homes getting burned when they move into white neighborhoods. Not long after that, Walter’s friend comes around and tells him that their other friend and business partner has run off with all the money. They are broke. Walter is dumbstruck, especially because he didn’t follow his mother’s direction and invested the whole of the 6500 dollars rather than set aside the 3500 for Beneatha.

Everyone is upset and angry at Walter for his poor judgment. They start talking about needing to stay in the apartment now, because they cannot afford the mortgage without that extra money. Walter calls the man from the Homeowners Association in order to accept the offer for the house. Lena is sad and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself, and that his father wouldn’t recognize the man he’d become, because he wasn’t a man. And Walter won’t listen. Instead, he puts on a parody of what he’ll say when the man comes, choking himself up with the words as he says it. When the man actually comes, he realizes that he cannot do it, and he regains his dignity and tells the man that they are going to keep the home and that the white community will have to deal with them moving in.

Lena and Ruth talk about how they just watched Walter learn what being a real man is as they get ready to take the moving boxes down and direct the movers on how to carry the furniture. Beneatha talks about how Asagai has proposed to her and that she is thinking of accepting so she can move to Nigeria with him and be a queen, and both Lena and Walter talk to her about how she is too young to be getting married and that she should stay here and marry someone rich, like George. She is upset and still talking about it when she leaves the apartment. Lena is the last one to leave the apartment, happy and yet nostalgic about her husband. She grabs her plant, which has struggled to survive in the apartment environment, and turns the light off on the space.

Discussion of Work
This play explores themes of poverty and discrimination in Chicago: the abysmal conditions of the kitchenettes that black families are forced to live in and pay ridiculous rent for; few economic opportunities; discrimination from the economically wealthy black elite; racism from even poor whites in similar economic situations; and pipe dreams such as the “Back to Africa” movement and better economic situation through education.

The play also explores the meaning of gender roles and expectations within black families. Ruth is as much a breadwinner as she is a housekeeper, and her decisions are what goes for the whole family, often making her husband feel like less of a man when it comes to financial decisions and decisions regarding his own life choices. And yet what Walter comes to understand about his role is that it is owning up to mistakes, standing up and supporting his family both emotionally (when they learn they will be having another child) and physically (when he must stand up to the white HOA representative and when he tries, and fails, to stand up for and do what’s right by his mother’s trust and insurance money). Children’s roles are a main focus of the play, both with Ruth and Walter’s little boy and with Walter and Beneatha as Lena’s children. There is a level of obedience and respect that is expected, and when not shown, it in effect collapses the family unit because the people with the life experience and wisdom are not heeded (Beneatha disregarding marriage advice and basic life advice; Walter disregarding financial advice and friend advice; Ruth disregarding childbearing advice).

For the purposes of my dissertation, dancing features in this play in two separate instances: when Beneatha puts on the Nigerian robes, and when Walter and Ruth slow drag in the living room. The first instance highlights a particularly problematic obsession with Africa and the need to hearken back to African roots. African Americans, while certainly their culture does have African roots, is not African. And the imitation African movements come off as not only false, but disrespectful and comical. Just as Beneatha does not fit within the Nigerian culture that Asagai would have her assimilate to, African Americans cannot magically regain “Africanness” by dressing in native garb and attempting African dance ritual. The second instance highlights what happens when Walter becomes happy about his life prospects again and takes Ruth to the movies and then comes back home with her, still elated about his financial gain. A blues song is playing in the background, and they dance in the living room, much to Beneatha’s chagrin. Still hooked on the idea of going back to Africa, she cannot fully accept or appreciate her own culture, which Walter and Ruth have embraced both in music and physical movement. The space demonstrates that these dances are done in multiple spaces and for multiple reasons, whether they be to release sad or happy emotions, to engage in romantic entreaties, to engage in social convention, or other reasons altogether. The acceptance of the space, dance, and moment create a level of happiness and authentic cultural experience that the African dance scene lacks in its farcical display.

Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture

Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in

African-American Culture. Temple UP, 1990.

Summary of Work
In this critical work, Katrina Hazzard-Gordon traces the history of social dance spaces in African American culture from slavery to the 1980s. Starting with slavery, she discusses how African cultures had specific dances for many different cultural events and even daily events, linking their religious beliefs with dance and movement. As they were enslaved and placed on slave ships, they were often forced to dance for exercise, with or without chains, on the deck of the ship. If they didn’t dance they were beaten, and dancing often hurt them because it would leave large pieces of flesh and wounds on them as the chains ripped at their skin as they danced. Their were many strategies that slave ship captains used to make sure to keep slaves more healthy and alive and to stop insurrections.

When the slaves made it across the sea and were sold, they were mixed with other African cultures, and often the only communication or freedom they had was dance. Many slave masters allowed for weekly dances and several days of dancing on Christmas because they knew that it was a way to stop slave revolts. However, there was also a large risk of revolt because slaves would use these dances as ways to get together and communicate about starting slave rebellions across plantations. For this reason, many slave owners would not allow their slaves to go to other plantations, and drums were banned. Juba and other patting and noisemaking movements replaced drums. Slave owners would also host competitions and have slaves perform for groups of whites as entertainment, and many of the slave owners bought slave musicians to play for both slaves and whites.

After emancipation, dances continued in the form of jook joints: small country spaces where there was drinking, gambling, dancing, music, and barbecuing, among other quasi-legal activities. This is where dances such as the slow drag were created, as there was very little space in these jook joints for dances that took up a lot of space. Many of these jook joints were run by donations, with everyone pitching in. As black people migrated to the cities and began to have more money, they took their traditions with them, and Honky-Tonks and After Hours Joints started up. They were essentially like jook joints, but they were run for profit and often were considered classier or more reputable, at least the Honky Tonks. The After-Hours joints were run after the Honky Tonks closed, and they were places for gambling and bootleg liquor. Politicians bought votes by allowing certain spaces such as these to remain open. Another way around laws was to have private events through membership programs, and so they could have events past 1 AM and not get in trouble due to the private nature of the parties. Large ballrooms like the Savoy also offered spaces for dancing, although the Savoy was shut down because of fears of miscegenation. As disco became more popular, all of these spaces started to disappear.

Rent parties also started to become very big, as black people moved to the cities and struggled to pay the high rents. They would hire a musician and sometimes, if they had the ability, print up tickets for advertisement. They had plenty of liquor and would get a portion of sales, and they also got a portion of gambling money. It would stave off eviction. As rent parties died down, block parties became more popular. In order to buy votes, politicians would sponsor these block parties. Cutting contests would happen here, and it kept rival gangs from all-out warfare in the streets. Older people rarely participated in the cutting competitions, but they encouraged the best young people in their communities. The winners of these competitions would then go on to compete against each other in a larger competition.

However, for the black elite, the dancing was very different. They had more formal dances called cotillions, where debutantes were brought out and paraded. The dances were very much more like Western European dances than they were anything like the dances that were done by the lower economic class of black people. The prices of these cotillions were so high that there was no chance that anyone outside of the black elite would participate. Many of these cotillions were sponsored by businesses, who would get an advertisement in the program and a formal mention during the event. Elite clubs were formed that allowed for only the highest educated and the highest ranking community members to participate in the spaces, further eliminating the contact that the black elite had with the lower classes.

The focus in this book geographically is Columbus, Ohio, a little bit of Chicago, and the Southern plantations. However, places such as these existed across the country. Hazzard-Gordon also states that knowing how to dance and knowing these spaces was considered a litmus test.

Preliminary Notes on Specific Dissertation Use
Ralph Ellison, “responding to charges that black intellectuals have deserted core black culture, [stated], ‘Part of my pride in being what I am is that as a dancer, as a physical man . . . I bet you I can outdone, outran most of those intellectuals who’re supposed to have come back.’ Note that Ellison asserts that his dancing ability clears him of the charge—but he essentially confirms the guilt of others” (118). Malcolm X also found dancing ability to be divisive as Euro-American ideas dominated class division, and the culture used black dancing ability as a way to stereotype black people.

These abilities and spaces are not simply an embellishment in black culture and African American Literature, but such a part of black embodiment that it becomes a code or a rite of passage to be able to participate in the community and to know what’s going on or being said or done.

August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Wilson, August. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Plume, 1985.

Summary of Work
The play opens in a recording studio, with two men, Sturdyvant and Irvin, discussing Ma Rainey’s work. Sturdyvant, the owner of the recording studio, thinks that Ma Rainey is a diva, and he’s upset that her last recording didn’t sell as well as he wanted in the North, even though it sold in the South. He wants nothing to do with talking with the black people in the studio, and leaves Irvin to take car of that. He also requests that Levee, the horn player, have more of a role in the music because that is what is the new sound that’s selling. Aftewards, the band sets up for rehearsal. Levee is late because he is buying new shoes. When he arrives, he immediately starts bantering with the other band members: first about the price of his shoes and how Cutler helped him pay for them; then about how to spell the word music, and then about how the songs should be played. Levee wants to add more of a jazz feel to the music, and he doesn’t want to rehearse songs they’ve played numerous times.

They start rehearsing, but are regularly interrupted by arguments between Levee and Toledo, who reads books and has a lot to say about race relations and black entertainment and advancement. Slow Drag, a man who’s as laid back as his name implies, keeps trying to divert discussion so they can get back to rehearsing, but he fails. In the meantime, Ma Rainey has still not shown up, and Irvin is nervous about it. Just as Sturdyvant is getting angry, Ma Rainey, her girlfriend Dussie Mae, and her nephew Sylvester walk into the recording studio, escorted by a policeman. The policeman tells Irvin that she had hit another car with her car and then tried to run away in a cab, and then assaulted the cab driver when he wouldn’t take her. Irvin tells Ma he will handle it, and he slips the police officer some money for him to forget about taking her to the precinct.

Since the production of the record is delayed from the incident, Irvin gets sandwiches for the band, and while eating, they discuss their pasts. Cutler tells about how Slow Drag, dancing in a competition with a woman one evening, nearly got knifed for dancing with her when the woman’s boyfriend saw them. He talked the guy out of knifing him by saying that he was trying to help the girl win the competition so she could buy him a gold watch. After that, all the women wanted to Slow Drag with him, which is how Slow Drag got his name.

Toledo discusses how black people are the “leftovers” (57) in America, and after a brief discussion about race relations, they start to rehearse Levee’s version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Ma hears it from upstairs and confronts Irvin about it, who tries to convince her that it’s the style people want, but she’s not hearing it. She goes downstairs and tells them what they will be playing, and tells them that Sylvester will do the speaking part at the beginning of the song. Afterwards, Levee goes off, and in his anger, tells the story of watching his mother get gang raped by white men, and how he tried to stop them by getting a kitchen knife and cutting them, and they took the knife and sliced his chest open, nearly killing him. Then he tells about his father selling the home to one of the white rapists so they could get out of town.

Act Two opens with Irvin and the band discussing how Sylvester can’t do the part, and Irvin tells them to stick with Levee’s version of the song and he’ll work it out with Ma. Ma goes to record and sees there’s no coke to drink, and she will not record until she gets one. She waits, and tells Cutler that she knows that she doesn’t mean anything but money to these white men. She says that because of that, she’s going to do everything she can to ensure that they treat her how she wants to be treated even if it kills the white men. She talks about how the blues are a more than a form of expression for her, they are a form of survival, a way to understand life. Meanwhile Levee starts seriously flirting with Dussie Mae.

When they finally get to recording, they first have problems with Sylvester getting the line right. When he finally does, they don’t get it recorded due to technical difficulties with the sound equipment. Ma threatens to leave, and Irvin hurries to get the issues fixed. While they are waiting, the other men in the band tell Levee to lay off Ma’s girl, and try to tell him the problems that it will bring him to meddle with women who are involved already. They also try to tell him that the way he dresses won’t change anything in the eyes of white people, and that they even know black preachers who, very well dressed, were publicly humiliated and harassed by white people. Levee gets angry and says he isn’t an “imitation white man” (94), and he starts in about how he is going to be successful with his music once Sturdyvant lets him record. When Cutler tries again to talk to him about God, he insults Cutler and says that his God, if he is real, can strike him down.

Finally, the issues are fixed, and they finish recording. Afterward, Ma confronts Levee about his playing and tells him that he is to play his horn in a way that fits her music style for the band. When he gets upset at Ma, she fires him. Figuring he doesn’t need the job anyway, he goes to talk to Sturdyvant about his music, and he finds out that Sturdyvant will buy his songs for a few dollars, but won’t let him record. With no job and no prospects, he is upset, and as the band is getting ready to leave, Toledo accidentally steps on Levee’s shoes. Levee, in a rage, stabs and kills Toledo.

Brief Note on Themes
This play is the only one of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays to be based on a historical figure, although he insisted that Ma Rainey was not a researched character. The play itself deals with how the music and entertainment industry treated its black artists, who sold very well and yet were terribly treated and underpaid. Issues of segregation, how popular music is marketed, race relations, economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and black rage brought on by systemic injustice and oppression feature throughout the play. One distinct example is the altercation with the police, where only a white man can pay off the white police officer to keep Rainey out of jail. Still, the power black entertainers held was more than the average black person: Rainey describes being able to be forceful and get what she wants from white men in the business when otherwise she has no power to command respect, or if not respect, then decent treatment.

Music plays a big part of this play, the first of Wilson’s Century Cycle. The purpose of the blues is a theme running through the work. Blues is one of Wilson’s main influences for his work (he stated this many times in interviews during his lifetime). While Rainey outright states how she feels about it, the blues also feature as each of the characters tell their stories of sadness, travel, and life experience. Recording technologies are explored, as glitches occur throughout the process (a known problem for Paramount, since their recordings were regularly poor quality). The recorded and unrecorded blues songs can stand in as a form of cultural memory, music that passes on important information from one generation of listeners to the next.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. Vintage Books, 1995.

Summary of Work
The unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s story begins his narrative in a basement space full of lights listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue.” He tells of his invisibility and how he is just now learning about how to deal with invisibility in his life, and goes on to tell his story from his college days to the present. At the end of high school, he writes a prize-winning essay, and is rewarded with a scholarship if he reads the paper to the powerful businessmen in town. However, instead of getting to read his paper, he is directed with other black boys to the front of a stage in front of a naked dancing woman, and after being humiliated in that manner, forced to strip down and fight blindfolded in a boxing ring at the front of the room. He ends up fighting one on one with one of the boys, and he loses. Afterward, in order to get paid, they have to pick up money, which turns out to not even be real money, off of an electric rug. After all of that, the narrator gets to give his speech, and with one minor slipup in wording about equality (at this time he is so bloodied up that it is hard for him to speak), he is given a briefcase and a scholarship.

While at an unnamed college that heavily resembles Tuskegee Institute, he aspires to be a great figure in the black academic community. He is assigned to drive Mr. Norton, one of the major donors to the college, to the college for meetings, but when he is talking to Mr. Norton, they drive past a poor black family. Upon hearing a little bit about them, Mr. Norton asks for him to stop so he can talk to the man. He leaves upset and ghostly pale and sickly, asking for a drink to help him. In a panic, the narrator takes him the only place he knows that he can get liquor: the Golden Day. It is in a poor side of town, and all the patients from the mental hospital are there. The bartender won’t let him take liquor out to Mr. Norton, so he has to bring him in. This makes the situation worse, and a patient who claims to be a doctor ends up helping Mr. Norton recover enough to get to the college. The incident infuriates the head of the college, Dr. Bledsoe, and after the evening meeting where a blind man gives a rousing speech about the Founder of the college (who is much like Booker T. Washington), the narrator has to go to Bledsoe’s office, and Bledsoe expels him but tells him he will give him letters of recommendation so he may get a job in the North and potentially be able to come back to the college the next year.

He heads to the New York City and tries to get a job using the letters, but is thwarted because the letters contain slander about him that disables him from betting a job. One of the powerful businessmen’s sons informs the narrator about it and offers him advice on employment, which the narrator initially rejects but then checks out. He attempts to work at a paint company, where he first mixes paint and screws up the job, and then gets sent down to the piping system to help there. The job seems to be going well but then goes South when his boss mistakenly thinks he has gone to a union meeting and they get in a fight, causing them to forget about the pipe pressure, which causes an explosion. The narrator is placed in a hospital, where the doctors perform electrical medical experiments on him and he forgets his name and who he is. When he gets out, he wanders the streets of Harlem until a woman named Mary takes him in. He struggles to find a job, but she doesn’t kick him out for not paying rent.

One day when he is walking the streets, he comes across an eviction and becomes involved in stopping the eviction as he stands up on the stairs of the apartment complex and gives a speech to the people outside watching. They overpower the policemen and the evictors and put all the things back into the house, but more policemen come and someone directs him to the rooftop to get away safely. Very soon after, he is approached by Brother Jack to join the Brotherhood and make speeches to get the masses to move against the unjust working and housing conditions in the city. At first skeptical, he is moved to accept the job when he sees Mary and realizes just how poor she is in her situation and how much she has done for him. He is initiated into the Brotherhood and given a new name and home, and he doesn’t have the gumption to say goodbye to Mary, so he simply leaves her money. At this time he also accidentally breaks a money bank (black man eating coins), and he takes it with him as to hide that from Mary as well.

The work with the Brotherhood initially goes well, but he works his way up in the system and the community so fast that Brother Jack and the white members of the group are upset and worried. The Brotherhood brings up false charges against him when a magazine article comes out that turns out to be more about him than the Brotherhood, and then he is reassigned to “The Woman Question.” He is upset, but chooses to do this rather than lose his employment. A rich, married white woman approaches him and talks him into coming to her house to talk more about the Brotherhood, but she actually wants sex. He is nearly caught with her one night, but he realizes the husband doesn’t care what she is doing. Later on, he is assigned once again to Harlem because Ras the Destroyer, the local agitator in the area, is gaining a fast following while the Brotherhood is losing theirs, and Brother Clifton has gone missing.

Nothing that the narrator does to regain Brotherhood support is working, and the black members of the Brotherhood are largely MIA. He spots Clifton on the streets one day selling Sambo dolls, and as he tries to chase him down, he watches as Clifton gets in a fight with police and gets shot. Devastated, he takes Clifton’s body and hosts a funeral for Clifton that everyone can go to, and he makes a moving speech. The Brotherhood are furious, as the speech and memorial are contrary to their plans for the area. It becomes apparent to the narrator that the Brotherhood are not actually out to help black people and black neighborhoods, but to exploit them and their voices when it is useful, but he decides to try “yessing them to death” and trying to be perfect and say whatever it is that the Brotherhood wants to hear to protect his job. He goes to Brother Hambro for training. However, on his way to Hambro, Ras the Destroyer sees him and is after him, and so he must disguise himself in a zoot suit to hide. Everyone mistakes him for Rinehart, the local preacher, rounder, and illegal businessman, and he realizes further his own invisibility and the dual nature of people in his community.

After he gives reports to the Brotherhood that are complete lies but what they want to hear, he decides to go use the wife of one of the Brotherhood members to get ahead. But it turns out that when he gets there, she actually wants him to do a sexual role play where he rapes her. He gets her drunk enough that she passes out and can’t remember that it never happened, and then he tells her he did as she asked even though he didn’t. When he leaves, she follows him out, and she follows him to Harlem, which is in the middle of an all-out race riot. He gets caught in the fray and helps to burn down an apartment building, and afterward thinks of Mary and tries to find her. In his rush he falls down into a manhole, and he gets blocked in as some men cover it. He burns all of his documents so that he can find a way down the tunnel, and ends up in the coal cellar that he stays in, and where he is telling his story from.

Brief Note on Themes
Invisibility as a black person and what that means is the overarching theme of the narrative. Invisibility means being treated poorly, being denied opportunity, being outright discriminated against, and finding that no matter how hard a person works, they will never be able to rise above their circumstances. The theme of invisibility, therefore, intertwines with institutionalized racism and economic issues as well as issues of justice and segregation. If it’s a black political issue, it’s probably in Invisible Man. Music and sound are other themes, and ones that relate to my dissertation. Blues and jazz music are found in both the language and the plot, as are black vernacular dances: eagle rock, slow drag, dances done with knocking bones—those are the ones I can find so far. The music and dances are also often utilized in ways that either act as a freeing agent or a stereotyping agent. Since the book deals with the issues of stereotyping and limited ideological viewpoints and beliefs quite heavily, looking at those topics through music and sound can be a good entry point to discuss ways to comment on ideology and stereotypes.

Questions

  1. The narrator in Invisible Man states that he “discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well” (9). How do we derive meaning from things that aren’t uttered? How do we derive those meanings out of textual sounds?
  2. How are the sounds of cultural history made pejorative through racism in this work? And can that cultural history of music and dance be reappropriated? If so, how? Do we see that happening anywhere within Invisible Man?
  3. How do we describe the sounds of protest, and are those sounds racialized? Does white protest in America take on a different set of sounds than black protest in America, or only different results and consequences?