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.

Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”

Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” 1926. Modern

American Poetry,

http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/mountain.htm.

Summary of Work
Langston Hughes discusses his belief that black poets should not be ashamed of themselves as black people or strive to be white in any way in order to be a successful poet. He speaks of a young poet with much potential who told him that he didn’t want to be known as a “Negro poet,” and it made him incredibly sad because he knew what type of upbringing this man had had. Hughes states that people like this grew up in affluent black homes and had parents who were constantly striving to be white, using examples of black people who enjoyed jazz and dancing and clubs as the worst sort of people, the type of people that this young man should stay away from. Yet, it is precisely this desire to get away from one’s own culture that is so problematic in Hughes’ mind, especially if a black person wants to be a good writer. For him, culture is a large part of writing, and so the desire to be white and to rid oneself of one’s culture is antithetic to being a great poet or writer. Instead, a writer should embrace their culture, learn that “black is beautiful,” and pursue writing about what they want within that black cultural framework.

Discussion of Work
I find that this work is very indicative of the times it was written in, and yet is still prescient today. The idea of “black is beautiful” is important, particularly in the circumstances Hughes outlines: shame about one’s skin color, race, and culture is never a good place to come from as a writer, and acceptance of oneself is necessary in order to live a full life. And yet, the piece itself seems to impose restrictions upon writers, restrictions that we in fact see historically during the height of the Harlem Renaissance: the rule of insisting on creating “black” art means that if a writer decides to write about a topic that is not about African American life, they will not be considered an artist or a quality writer by the black academic and literary elite.

Yet this idea of African American writers embodying their culture so much that it becomes the sole focus of their writing has certainly had staying power in the academy and in the general literary world. The African American writers who seem to have staying power or are popular are writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Colson Whitehead, to name a few. These people are writing about black history, black experience, and black culture, and are finding ways to represent silenced voices. Writers who choose other topics, like Ishmael Reed, are often missing from African American literature course reading lists, precisely because of this idea that black writers must write about black subjects in specific historical, oppressed or deteriorating positions where their characters must overcome violence and injustice. But writers like Reed write quality literature which encompasses stories not specific to black historical and current representation. Indeed, Reed is one of those authors who would have bothered Hughes because he insists that his racial identity should not be indicative of his writing choices and quality.

Certainly, the idea of writing about what you know is an important one, and yet it is also detrimental when it does not allow for writers to break the boundaries of what other groups, including subgroups of the same race, set for our writers. It becomes exclusionary of different types of experiences, excluding even the groups of black elites or white-skinned black people that Hughes discusses in his essay. It speaks directly to what bell hooks stated about the importance of allowing multiple experiences, because when we only allow for specific stories to exist about a culture and people, we isolate large groups of people and lose their voices in the conversation.

Barbara Christian, “A Race for Theory”

Christian, Barbara. “A Race for Theory.” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, 1988,

pp. 67-79.

 

Summary of Work
In her article “A Race for Theory,” Barbara Christian outlines her concerns about the current academic need to constantly be creating theories to discuss old, canon literature and other critical theorists: “‘For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?'” she asks (77). In asking this question, she discusses how theory has subordinated looking at literature itself, and there are only an elite few who are being published because of their ability to create new literary theories to discuss older philosophers and critical theorists. This means that very few people are determining what the larger world of academia should find valuable and important to discuss. Consequently, this largely leaves out writers of color and current writers, instead always hearkening backward to older works of white, European literature.

By only allowing Western philosophical structures of critical theory, other forms of theorizing are left out. For black literatures, Christian states that “theorizing . . . is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, because dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking” (68). When such a form of theorizing is not allowed to be written about or explored in the academy, it silences many scholars who have much to contribute and instead allows for gross generalizations to abound in literary theory regarding various cultures and experiences. In place of such a structure, Christian suggests theorists should shift their focus “to the intricacies of the intersection of language, class, race, and gender in literature” that is inclusive of many different ways of reading literature, including literature currently published and literature from different cultures.

As academics have chosen to privilege the white, Western European and American works of literature, they have created a binary of minority and major or centered, and that creates a skewed view of literature. By refusing to accept world literatures as part of the major narrative, academics writing about literature have missed out on discussing many histories and messages, some of which they have recently come across even though the rest of the world has known about them for decades. Literature studies have recently decided to include more world literatures, but only a few, and has finally decided that literature is, in fact, political (even though it always was). And yet, perhaps because of the centering of the Western gaze, many academics have failed to ask important questions about why this change has occurred, why it is now okay to accept literature as political and influenced by social and cultural surroundings. Literary theories contribute to the problem by mystifying the process of that change through strange language that only an elite few can access. And as the focus has become more and more on discussing this mystifying language in critical theory, fewer and fewer scholars are discussing literature. Christian sees this as a response to the rise of minority literatures in our current cultural moment, and the focus on theory is a way to continue to exclude those literatures from academic study.

While she sees theory as necessary, Christian finds it problematic because it becomes very prescriptivist and elitist. Theory desires “to make the world less complex by organizing it according to one principle, to fix it through an idea which is really an ideal,” and often this “dehumanizes people by stereotyping them, by denying them their variousness and complexity” (75). Instead of creating such methods that require monolithic prescriptivism, Christian suggests that academics get back to the literature and learn from the history and language provided in that literature. A focus on literature means that each novel will require constructing a new critical approach rather than applying old philosophical, prescriptivist theories to novels without considering how the novel itself can teach readers how it is meant to be read and discussed.

Discussion of Work
This short essay details many of the previous concerns I’ve discussed in small groups with my colleagues: the academy does not value new scholarship unless it can be placed in the theories of philosophers like Foucault, Freud, and Derrida. Our choices for writing feel limited, even when we feel we have much to say, because we cannot break from the critical theory realm if we wish to be published in peer reviewed journals. Even areas such as gender and race studies utilize the same prescriptivist methods of theory to discuss works in a broad and generalized sense, spending more time with the theory than with the literature they are discussing.

I do not mean to suggest that this is the case with all theory, however. Since this piece was written, I have, in my academic reading, found many more discussions of Toni Morrison and other black female writers, and there have been discussions of the literature through close reading and a focus on language and culture rather than through specific theorists. Writing was coming out the same year that this was written which offered those tools, specifically thinking of Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s work Signifying Monkey. Still, when compared with White Western literature written in the same period as Morrison and Walker and other black and minority writers, there is far too little discussion and theory going on regarding these writers’ works, forcing them further and further into obscurity.

Morrison is the one writer who has largely escaped this lack of theoretical discussion, largely due to her worldwide acclaim from winning a Nobel Prize. And yet, shouldn’t other writers who have less acclaim than the top level awards also be given similar amounts of consideration? There are many white authors who are given just as much consideration as Morrison and have far fewer awards to their names. While there has been improvement in the field of academics regarding the consideration of what have been deemed “minority literatures,” many of the concerns Christian voiced are still large concerns within academia today, where teaching and discussion of literature is devalued in preference of critical theory creation and publication.

Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America

Marcus, Greil and Werner Sollors, editors. A New Literary History of America. Belnap P of Harvard UP, 2009.

Summaries of Selected Sections

“The Problem of the Color Line”

This section briefly overviews the different viewpoints between Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Washington’s work was a combination of a slave narrative and a rags-to-riches narrative that called for blacks to allow segregation and white supremacy until they had worked hard enough to prove that it should be eradicated; the work glossed over many important points about the struggles in the South during the Reconstruction years. Du Bois’ work made a detailed attack on Washington’s ideology and addressed the color line as the problem of the century. Du Bois created a black intelligentsia that previously never existed in the country, and he also worked to found and build the NAACP, leaving his position at Atlanta University in order to do so.

“The Invention of the Blues”

This section gives a broad overview of the blues as a genre, particularly focusing on the fact that we do not know who specifically created it and that, as the claim, the evidence for it starting in the Delta is largely anecdotal (can you feel my skepticism yet at this entry?). The entry includes W.C. Handy’s description of the first time he heard the blues and Ma Rainey’s description of the first time she heard it. They also discuss Samuel Charters being the first person to write a book on the subject, Country Blues, and how folklorists such as the Lomaxes went South and recorded numerous musicians.

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”

This section details Irving Berlin’s start from humble origins to writing Broadway musical scores. He started as a singing waiter, and when Tin Pan Alley became successful, he tried his hand at it and was making a living writing coon songs, stereotypical and racist songs about black people and their wanton ways. All of these songs were ragtime music, and the press eviscerated the music. Then, Berlin wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and it was not only popular, it stayed popular. It changed the format of American popular songs, and the form would become the mainstay for a half a century. The song broke him out of having to write coon songs, and he was able to transition into a variety of songwriting and scoring. The most impressive thing about the song is that it persists in its popularity even today, and most people can sing the song if it is played for them.

“A Modernist Moment”

This section overviews the Armory Show in NYC, where artists in the Modernist period were displayed to the public, from Van Gogh to Matisse to Duschamp and Picasso. Art was bringing new perspectives on what art itself was; it was no longer meant for noble topics, but also for everyday and common topics. The Paterson Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden is also highlighted, with a discussion of how art brought together with striking workers made a statement about the time period as well as the economic moment, despite the failure of the performance to raise money for the strike. Finally, Poetry magazine, founded by Harriet Monroe and run by she and Ezra Pound, offered a revitalization of poetry in America, but also around the world as Pound inserted his thoughts on what poetry ought to be and Monroe searched for talent through an open door publishing policy: if it’s quality, we’ll publish it.

“Mamie Smith’s ‘Crazy Blues’”

This section suggests that we should take another close look at Mamie Smith’s blues recording, even though it is not considered an actual blues song among scholars and musicians. This suggestion comes because when looking at the history surrounding Smith and her recording, we can see that the song is important because it was a formal notice of a broken racial barrier: black people could now record their music for sale and entertainment. Sophie Turner, the white blackface performer, was actually the first white woman to record a successful blues song, and this is important because it may have been, if we look past appropriation, the first crack in the barrier to recording black music: since Turner’s recording was successful, they were less worried about recording black music. While Smith was a vaudeville performer who was never considered one of the great blues singers of the era, her song and musical choices are important for the racial barriers they maneuver and the racial issues the song codes into itself and the tone of the lyric.

“Jean Toomer”

This section provides a spotlight on Jean Toomer’s life and writing. He struggled to feel that anything he wrote was good enough to publish, even declining to be published in a landmark book of poetry. Those who knew him would describe him as a strange man. He would frequent salons run by James Weldon Johnson, and he would work odd jobs just long enough to know what it was like to work them before he quit to read and write some more. He was in Washington D.C. taking care of sick grandparents, who practically raised him, and he was going mad. He decided to take a job as a temporary principal at a school in Georgia, and it is there that he learned more about black communities in the South, which inspired his writing of Cane. Toomer himself was mixed race and had very light skin, meaning he was often mistaken for white but did not fit in there once his ancestry was known, but he also did not fit in the black community. Still, his work is considered the inauguration of the Harlem Renaissance, and was hailed again during the Black Arts Movement before and after his death.

“T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence”

This section discusses the writing and lives of T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, particularly their crossing paths as Eliot moved to get away from America and its culture and Lawrence moved to it in hopes of a nationalist dream and pending publications. While Eliot had issues with his publication of Wasteland and the culture’s misunderstanding of his work and its seriousness, Lawrence was happy for the audience that would allow for his more sexual or deviant works to not just be published, but be popular. Eliot worked in finance during the financial dismantling of Europe after WWI, and Lawrence enjoyed freedom from discrimination with his German wife Freida in the USA. However, Lawrence became disenchanted with America the more and more he saw the treatment of Native Americans and the injustices; he came to the conclusion that the white American could never come to a cultural understanding with the Native American, and that similarly, he would always be Other from Americans as a European. Eliot would always call out and deplore dryness and sterility in writing as well as a nationalist spirit, while Lawrence would allow that nationalist spirit to create illusion.

The Great Gatsby

This section discusses the fear, dislike, and discrimination against new money in Fitzgerald’s work The Great Gatsby. Much as immigrants are discriminated against in America today, Gatsby and the other residents of West Egg are disliked by the East Egg residents, who are old, established money. The murder of Gatsby and the subsequent newspaper articles about how he deserved what he got are reminiscent of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, where the Italians were convicted of robbery and murder even though they most likely did not commit the crime. The fear of immigrants still looms, just like it does in Gatsby when Buchanan talks about the rising of the colored races to supplant white people. But much like the dream of Gatsby making it in America, what is inspiring about the book is the author himself. Fitzgerald embodies the opportunity available in America with his riches and success as a writer, a career that is not thought of as one that will lead to a prosperous life.

“John Dos Passos”

This section discusses how Dos Passos was both disenchanted by capitalism and communism in America, and how he, in his dissatisfaction with many things and growing his writing in his early twenties, went to Europe and then the Soviet Union and found a fellow writer who shared his ideas about how to structure his work. The rest of the section is dedicated to discussing the structure of the USA Trilogy, particularly The 42nd Parallel, and how the narratives cut off and come back and intertwine while the newsreels and camera eye biographies add a layer of complexity: on their own, they would have been gimmicky, but together, they create a uniquely layered complexity of American literature and life.

“Arthur Miller”

This section details the realist theater that is Arthur Miller’s legacy. Focusing particularly on Death of a Salesman, readers learn of his desire for people to feel that performance was immoral and to see how it conflicts with the American Dream even as it seems to uphold it. In fact, the illusion of the American Dream is also explored. Willy in the play is the ultimate performer, one who has cared more about what other people see and think than what he is actually building. As he breaks down, the rules of realism in theater break down: the scenes are regularly interrupted by music, which signal Willy’s entry into his memories, and all the other characters become supporting roles; when he runs out of memories and illusions, Willy breaks the fourth wall before killing himself. This and the other works of Arthur Miller, in their discussions of the problems of performance, set the stage for works like Sondheim’s Gypsy and Kushner’s Angels in America.

Gone with the Wind and Absalom, Absalom!

Coming out in the same year, these two novels would have very different successes, mainly that Margaret Mitchell’s work would become radically popular and well read, whereas William Faulkner’s work wouldn’t sell well and wouldn’t become a film. Yet they both look at the South and its problems. Mitchell’s work unveils the economic failures and class superiority issues in the South, but then by the end of the work has put the romantic lens back on the South; her book would be further romanticized in the film, and its success proves the obsession and enchantment of the American populace about the pastoral American South. On the other hand, Faulkner’s work sets out to dismantle the problems of racism and slavery that built the American South and continue to pervade its society. He discusses issues of miscegenation and racial hatred that blanket the South and points out the fact that America’s success was built on slavery. His work was prophetic in its dealings with what would later, in the 1970s, be hailed as a national dilemma.

“Jelly Roll Morton Speaks”

This section deals with Alan Lomax being encouraged to invite Jelly Roll Morton to talk about his songs and older music and to sing and play for him to record. Lomax was initially reluctant given his interest was not in a popular jazz singer of the past but of folk music, but when Jelly Roll sat down and sang a song Lomax requested and then started to give a history of it and his life and how Jazz was created in Storyville, Lomax recognized the importance of recording Morton’s story. He spent weeks recording Morton talking and singing, and it was the birth of oral history, using sound recording to allow people to tell their own stories free from transcription and the pauses that inevitably come with that.

“Billie Holliday, ‘Strange Fruit’”

This section describes how Billy Holliday, more of a Jazz singer than a blues singer, was able to instill the blues throughout her work in the way she sang her songs and what messages she communicated through them. Her work, much like her life, embodies the suffering and the lives of African Americans that exist in the lyrics and notes of blues music, and even more so in the fact that there is no reasoning or scapegoat for the suffering described. The blues were a way for Holliday and many others to both rid themselves of the blues and describe and embody their experiences as they sent messages to the next generation.

“Up from Invisibility”

This section discusses Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and its themes, particularly on communism and African American cultural elements. While Ellison insisted the book was not autobiographical, this section posits that perhaps it was at least somewhat autobiographical given Ellison’s time at Tuskegee, move to New York, his support of Communism and Stalinism for years, and his later renouncement of those viewpoints. In 1939, Ellison worked with old documents that contained information about African American history and folklore, and this greatly influenced his work; while the work has many blues and jazz tropes, it also contains a lot of folklore which embodies the ideas and tropes expressed in stories and characters such as Brer Rabbit and other trickster figures. He refused to allow his writing to be defined by victimhood and suffering, and instead focused on the rich traditions that would bring African Americans up from invisibility.

“Tennessee Williams”

This section focuses on how Tennessee Williams inserted grand emotional performances and personal experience into his plays. Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire was a combination of two of his lovers, and he admitted to all his female characters being some embodiment of his sister, mother, and even himself at the time of writing. People have said that Blanche is essentially Williams on stage with the theatricality and the sexual theatricality. Williams was always openly gay, something that was a big risk in the time period, and his work deals with homosexuality in ways that could have had his plays banned from screen adaption or seriously revised for screen adaption. His work was very open about sex during a time when such discussions were rarely, if ever, public. Yet Williams would be criticized by LGBT people and activists for his work being constructed around heteronormative tropes; he would always defend his work as being for a broader audience than just LGBT communities. All of his work is set in the South, and much of his work deconstructs the myth of Southern Aristocracy, as can be seen with the loss of Belle Reve and the falling apart of the Southern Belle Aristocrat.

“The Birth of the Cool”

This section discusses the Aesthetic of the Cool, the idea that an artist should be able to do very difficult acts while making it look as if it takes no effort at all. While some form of this idea exists across time and cultures, the phrase “Cool” was slowly brought into use in regard to jazz music. Miles Davis was the catalyst for this idea, with his focus on blending instruments together and using instruments like the tuba and French horn over the tenor sax in his band. His trumpet melodies float over the accompaniment and blend with the other instruments in ways that jazz as “hot music” did not. He also did not perform like other jazz musicians, even turning his back upon the audience while he played. Even though Miles Davis’ first records did not sell well, they are considered landmark records for the era. And even after Davis was done with his ideas and had moved onto new ones, his work had influenced jazz permanently.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

This section discusses the life of Malcolm X as he wrote his autobiography. He had been regularly denounced as a hate monger and demagogue, and he had even been exiled from Elijah Muhammad’s sect of black-centered Islam. Alex Haley had written a short bio piece on him for Playboy, and then he was invited by Doubleday to work with Malcolm X to write his autobiography. Haley’s work was rejected after Malcolm X’s assassination, but Grove Press picked it up. It is now firmly established in the literature canon, but that poses problems, as it is not simply a work of social science or literature, as it combines postmodern narrative elements into a work of nonfiction, something that had never been done before. There are also questions about narrator reliability given that Malcolm X upheld lies and then recanted them later in the narrative when he revealed Elijah Muhammad’s sins. Foucault calls this type of narrative parrhesiastes, where a speaker uses the most direct way to tell what he believes regardless of the full truthfulness of the tale being told.

“Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker”

This section discusses these three authors in relation to each other and the women’s movement of the 1970s. They told stories of black womanhood, a part of life that was a gaping hole in literature. They provided stories about what it was like to be a black woman in America, and showed the trauma that chased them in the South and in the North; but they also showed unique and strong women who had interesting stories to tell for their own sake, stories worth telling. They received criticism from all sides for the way they portrayed the black community and particularly black men, but they persisted in telling their stories. They also paved the way to the rediscovery of black female artists, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen, from previous generations.

“Toni Morrison”

This section discusses Morrison’s work in the framework of her being put on the cover of Newsweek. She was the first black woman to be featured on the cover since Zora Neale Hurston, and she was the first black author to be chosen for a Book of the Month club book since Richard Wright. Her work, with so many central black female characters, speaks to a new literary tradition that told untold stories, stories about pariah women who live a life outside of religious and community rule structures. Yet while her work, fictional and nonfictional, deals with many important racial issues, she has not become a public figure like James Baldwin did, who she claims as her main influence. She has done more than write amazing prose. She, as an editor for Random House, has helped a great number of African American authors bring their work to the public eye. She has won many awards, culminating with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.