Harlem on Her Mind: Toni Morrison’s Language of Love
May 12, 1992
Imagine a world in which love never dies, only fades in and out like a musical phrase, varying and deepening with each return. This is the place Toni Morrison has created in her latest novel, Jazz, a supple, sophisticated love story which explores the possibilities of romance as both a natural phenomenon and a literary form. Filled with the familiar elements of a Morrison book — mournful, vivid characters, natural and unnatural disasters, an operatic (occasionally soap-operatic) orchestration of history and myth — Jazz nevertheless takes a different direction from Morrison’s earlier works. Less controlled, more improvisational, it picks up her favorite subject, human freedom, and spins out of it not only an inventive story but also a new way to write. Whereas in her other books she has sometimes been too possessive of her characters, hovering over their movements, explicating their every thought, in Jazz she loosens up and lets her inventions soar. She does this in part by giving herself a persona. Half gossip, half visionary, her nameless narrator interrupts the story, reimagines whole passages, draws attention to herself one moment, then casually returns to her tale the next. In the process, Morrison realizes her own limits, and sets her characters free.
Jazz tells the story of Violet and Joe Trace, married for over 20 years, residents of Harlem in 1926, “when all the wars are over and there will never be another one.” Violet works as an unlicensed hairdresser, doing ladies’ hair in their own homes, and Joe sells Cleopatra cosmetics door to door. They live in an apartment building on Lenox Avenue “where the sidewalks, snow-covered or not, are wider than the main roads of the towns where they were born.” When the novel opens, Joe has shot his 18-year-old lover, Dorcas, and Violet has disfigured the dead girl’s body at her funeral in a fit of rage. Joe, who was not caught, is in mourning, crying all day in his darkened apartment, and Violet has taken on the task of finding out whatever she can about Dorcas. As the narrator says, “Maybe she thought she could solve the mystery of love that way. Good luck and let me know.”
Instead of solving the mystery of love, Violet finds that “not only is she losing Joe to a dead girl, but she wonders if she isn’t falling in love with her too.” She befriends Dorcas’s Aunt Alice and borrows a photograph, which she places on the mantelpiece and visits in the middle of the night. Like Sethe in Beloved, Violet gradually loses herself to the memory of a dead girl, in this case not actually her daughter, but a substitute for the child she and Joe never had. The “private cracks” in Violet’s personality, which had begun to show before Joe’s affair, deepen after Dorcas’s death; Violet has been unhappy for a long time, drowning her sorrows in Dr. Dee’s Nerve and Flesh Builder and the empty I love yous of her domesticated parrot. Joe, too, has been searching for something; convinced that he alone remembers the days when he and Violet were happy, he is “hungry for the one thing everybody loses — young loving.” Jazz, which skips around temporally, sometimes sending notes drifting through the narrative before we can understand them, basically moves backwards in time, revealing in the history of Violet and Joe’s relationship, and in the relations of their ancestors, how they came to be in the strange predicament of the present, isolated from each other, themselves, and their dreams.
The novel’s present is a time of overwhelming energy, confusing to some, enlivening to others, a moment in history when blacks, having streamed into New York from the South at the end of the 19th century, call Harlem their own, and their music has “dropped on down, down to places below the sash and the buckled belts.” “Just hearing it,” one of the book’s characters thinks, “was like violating the law.” Everyone in the story is moved by jazz in one way or another; it’s always playing, always pouring down from windows or up from nightclubs. It inspires Dorcas’s Aunt Alice to raise her niece with the puritanical strictures that later cause her to rebel into the arms of Joe Trace. It moves Dorcas to yearn for the kind of love Joe can’t give her. It is what the girl hears, and what she thinks about, when she dies.
Morrison’s New York embodies the spirit of jazz. Free, but frightening in its freedom, it’s a place where the night sky “can empty itself of surface, and more like the ocean than the ocean itself, go deep, starless”:
A colored man floats down out of the sky blowing a saxophone, and below him, in the space between two buildings, a girl talks earnestly to a man in a straw hat. He touches her lip to remove a bit of something there. Suddenly she is quiet. He tilts her chin up. They stand there. Her grip on her purse slackens and her neck makes a nice curve. The man puts his hand on the stone wall above her head. By the way his jaw moves and the turn of his head I know he has a golden tongue. The sun sneaks into the alley behind them. It makes a pretty picture on its way down.
New York is a character in Jazz, always referred to, respectfully, as “the City,” and it becomes a metaphor for the book itself, a way for Morrison to talk about the novel as she’s writing it: “All you have to do,” she says of the City, “is heed the design — the way it’s laid out for you, considerate, mindful of where you want to go and what you might need tomorrow.” New York, like jazz, and like Jazz, has an uncanny way of describing itself in the act of being. I once heard someone say that walking the gridded streets of Manhattan was like walking inside an architectural drawing. Similarly, Jazz contains stories within stories, and within these, or outside them, “everywhere and nowhere,” is the voice of the nameless narrator, endlessly commenting on her imaginings and then disappearing into them herself.
As the novel shifts back in time, Morrison gives us the stories of Violet and Joe’s childhoods, and even further back, the unresolved love story of Joe’s mother, Wild, and the white man, Golden Gray, whom Violet’s grandmother raised. Violet and Joe, both born in the South, met picking cotton in Palestine, Virginia, when Joe fell out of a walnut tree in the middle of the night, practically into Violet’s lap. Morrison leads us to believe that there is something inevitable, almost mythically necessary in their meeting. Without pressing the point too hard, she makes it clear that strains in their personalities and their pasts determine their dreams, and therefore their tragedies.
Violet, whose mother, Rose Dear, threw herself into a well, was raised by her grandmother, True Belle, a former slave who moved to Baltimore (leaving Rose Dear behind) when her owner, Vera Louise, moved there to have the baby she had conceived with a black man. By the time True Belle entered Violet’s life, she had spent most of her own raising a little boy, half black but white-skinned, named Golden Gray, and she filled Violet’s head with stories of this perfect, unattainable prince. “My own golden boy,” Violet later remembers, “who I never saw but who tore up my girlhood as surely as if we’d been the best of lovers.”
At the center of the novel is the story of Golden Gray’s journey to find his black father. It’s told with the dreamy, fable-like quality of a parable. Morrison has to strain to fit it into the rhythm of the rest of the book, but in the end it reveals so much about her project that it seems essential. On his way to find and kill his father, the spoiled, self-satisfied Golden Gray passes a pregnant black woman collapsed and bleeding on the road, and after much deliberation, decides to bring her to his father’s house. In Morrison’s description of the event, which she tells from several points of view, including, momentarily, that of the horse Golden Gray is riding, the incident takes on the exalted power of a myth, but it’s a myth told with a certain tentativeness, in a voice that admits its own limitations.
Telling the story of Golden Gray’s encounter with the woman, the narrator interrupts herself several times, remarking on her own unreliability, hesitating to go forward, as if the story were too painful to recount. “Now I have to think this through,” she says, “even though I may be doomed to another misunderstanding.” She explains:
Not hating him is not enough; liking, loving him is not useful. I have to alter things. I have to be a shadow who wishes him well, like the smiles of the dead left over from their lives. I want to… [l]ie down next to him, a wrinkle in the sheet, and contemplate his pain and by doing so ease it, diminish it. I want to be the language that wishes him well, speaks his name, wakes him when his eyes need to be open. I want him to stand next to a well… and while standing there in shapely light, his fingertips on the rim of stone… There then… from down in it where the light does not reach… some brief benevolent love rises from the darkness.
This passage expresses a remarkable amount of compassion for a character whose arrogance prevents him from wiping the caked blood from a black woman’s face. The language in which Morrison couches her compassion is subtle: the way “wishes him well” becomes a wishing well, the way the wishing well turns into the page we are reading, and the reader becomes “him,” the rider, looking into the darkness of words and seeing a brief benevolence rise to the surface, wrinkling the sheet of the page. The poetry of this paragraph is shifting; vulnerable, easily overlooked. Jazz, which contains other passages as carefully wrought as this one, can be at times almost painfully exciting to read.
It can also be disjointed, unconvincing, even irritatingly repetitive, but afterwards the poetry of the book stays in the mind, while the rest drifts into the background, like incidental music. Jazz replays the old plot of rupture and reconciliation, and still it surprises, lifting at the end to a moment of beauty. Morrison, who usually tells us at the beginning of her novels what will happen, here lets her characters come into their own, confident enough to surrender them to the mysteries of romance. It’s a novel that you wish you could read for the first time twice, but one that asks for second and third readings, the kind that come from knowing something about the nature of the work. Similarly, Violet and Joe have to accept that they can live their story for the first time only once. Then they will be able to find each other, to be, in the book’s words, “inward toward the other.” In imagining Joe and Violet’s adult love, Morrison reaches to find a language that will harmonize doubt and desire. The voice she discovers is sumptuously incomplete, quavering between happiness and despair. It is enough simply to listen.
In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison again reaches for a new language, only here she seeks to expand the vocabulary of literary criticism. This slim volume, consisting of three straightforward, illuminating essays, argues for the expansion of the study of American literature to include an investigation of the ways in which “the major and championed characteristics of our national literature” are “responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence.” Seeking to look at American racism in a new way, to consider its impact not on its victims but on those who perpetuate it, Morrison calls for a criticism that will explore the way Americans have chosen to talk about themselves through the reflexive use of a fabricated Africanist persona. In other words, as Morrison puts it, “The subject of the dream is the dreamer.” The Africanist persona in American literature is a projection, and to investigate it as such reveals a great deal about that literature and the nation that produced it.
Morrison makes two major points in the book, but they are really two ways of saying the same thing. The first, that the championed characteristics of American literature — “individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence coupled with an obsession with figurations of death and hell” — are responses to an “Africanist presence” which predates our national literature, seems to me useful but limited, because it is impossible to prove. (It is also unclear whether Morrison means to include a Native American presence.) The second point, that “American writers were able to employ an imagined Africanist persona to articulate and imaginatively act out the forbidden in American culture,” can be demonstrated and deepened.
Morrison does this through close readings of classic American writers — Cather, Twain, Hemingway — and their texts burst open at her touch. Discussing Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Huckleberry Finn, To Have and Have Not, and others, she explores the ways in which Africanist personas have been used by others to engage in “power without risk,” “a safe participation in loss, in love, in chaos, in justice.” Morrison takes this investigation even further in her second essay, in which she traces the American romance with romance. Looking at 19th-century American literature, she observes that “for a people who made much of their ‘newness’ — their potential, freedom, and innocence — it is striking how dour, how troubled, how frightened and haunted our early and founding literature truly is.” As Morrison goes on to explain,
Romance… made possible the sometimes safe and other times risky embrace of quite specific, understandably human fears: Americans’ fear of being outcast, of failing, of powerlessness; their fear of boundarylessness, of Nature unbridled and crouched for attack; their fear of the absence of so-called civilization; their fear of loneliness; of aggression both external and internal. In short, the terror of human freedom — the thing they coveted most of all.
Writers writing about other writers tend to write about themselves, and here Morrison is no exception. While this explicates the underside of American romanticism, it also describes Morrison’s central concern as a novelist. The terror of human freedom and its consequences — for blacks, whites, men, women, anyone who has been denied it or afraid of it — is as much the subject of Playing in the Dark as it is of Jazz.
Joe and Violet are both trapped in dreams of their past — nightmares, really — which cause them to hurt each other and prevent them from believing that they have power over their own lives. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison explores how the temptation to enslave others instead of embracing freedom has shaded our national literature, and how an acceptance of this truth will enable us to see that literature’s struggles and fears, and so better understand its exuberance. In both works her wisdom is to locate strength in what appears to be weakness. She sees in Violet, in Joe, in Huck, and in Jim dangerous and thrilling urges toward surrender and escape, and she loves them as much as she chastises them for this. They are contradictory characters, like people. In subjecting them to her generous attention, she doesn’t so much set them free as acknowledge that they already are. ■
By Toni Morrison
PLAYING IN THE DARK: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
By Toni Morrison
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 6, 2019