Toni Morrison’s Jazz: Contextualizing Kyriarchy

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s Jazz opens with the wake of a young woman named Dorcas.  The novel’s central character, Violet Trace, arrives at the wake, knife in hand, with the intent of disfiguring the young woman in the casket for having slept with Violet’s husband. The husband, Joe Trace, is also  the man who fired the shot resulting in the teen’s death.  It is hard to imagine a narrative with a more sensational beginning, but the work does not rely on melodrama.  Indeed, the opening sequence seems to be the very antithesis to how the novel works.  It is a subtle narrative that slowly unpeels the layers of the story and demands that the reader make an effort to empathize with people who, on the surface, seem utterly undeserving of sympathy. In the end, we see that they are victims themselves in many aspects.  We may not come around to embracing Joe and Violet, but their  story helps illuminate the trials of the people within their community.

 

JazzThough a peripheral character, Felice, a friend to Dorcas, plays an integral role in illustrating the oppression endured by people with African heritage in the Jim Crow era, as well as how they subverted this oppression.  After Dorcas’ death, it is stated that Joe Trace is the man who shot her.  But Felice  suggests that Trace is not exclusively responsible for her death.  Dorcas’ death is the result of the prejudicial treatment endured by people with African heritage.  Felice states that she “called the ambulance… but it didn’t come until morning”, though Felice “had called twice” (Morrison, 210).  Felice suggests that because “colored people [were] calling” (210), the ambulance was delayed.  The bullet did not kill Dorcas directly.  Instead, Dorcas “bled to death” (210).  This death could have been prevented had the ambulance arrived on time, and so the cause of the death is explicitly linked with discrimination rather than exclusively with Trace’s actions.

 

 

WonBVilenceDorcas shares a degree of complicity in her own death, but her motivations are perhaps a subversion of white oppression.  Dorcas asked those around her not to “‘call anybody’”, pointedly choosing against  police involvement (209).  Dorcas’ motivations for not contacting the authorities are not explicit.  She may have simply wanted to avoid her aunt finding out about her being at a club or she may have wanted to save Joe from the fallout of his crime.  Felice’s narrative offers some insight.  She recalls reading an article about “white policemen who were arrested for killing some Negroes” (199) and then hearing it referred to by her father.  Felice’s father implies that “for the everyday killing cops did of Negroes, nobody was arrested at all” (199), so when such an arrest was made, it was ‘news’.  When placed in this context, another potential motivation arises for Dorcas’ decision.  Sharing the same social and cultural history as Felice, Dorcas would have recognized that involving white police would escalate the tragedy.  A body count of one was enough for Dorcas and she was willing to sacrifice personal justice in order to spare those around her from being exposed to more potential tragedy.

 

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

Felice’s narrative centers on her attempts to retrieve a ring she had loaned to Dorcas, a ring that served both as a symbol of oppression and as the subversion of that oppression.  While visiting a retailer with her mother, Felice notes that her mother had to show a note from her white employer, as otherwise the store would not allow the presence of a person of colour on the premises.  Once in, Felice’s mother looked at some rings that were on display, but a clerk “came over and shook his head” (202), forbidding her to look at the merchandise because of the colour of her skin.  The clerk then tried to absolve himself of culpability in the discriminatory act by adding that it is “‘just policy’” (203).  The scene beautifully and tragically demonstrates the banality of evil which Hannah Arendt speaks to in her classic monograph: Eichmann In Jerusalem: A Report On the Banality Of Evil.  Like the Nazi soldiers, the clerk shrugs off his discriminatory practices, citing ‘policy’ as though he were a participant in the Milgram Experiment.  He is employed by a company that practices discrimination and has no qualms about exacting their policies personally, participating in what I like to call ‘complacent consumption’.

 

The Milgram Experiment.

The Milgram Experiment.

In this instance, the ring serves as a metonym for discrimination.  This casual experience was stolen from Felice’s mother based on the colour of her skin.  She had to get permission to enter the store, and then, even the simple act of looking was treated as a crime.  In reaction to having this experience stolen from her, and raw from being treated as an assumed thief, Felice’s mother steals the ring.  Felice later receives the ring from her mother, and though her mother claims that her employer gave it to her, Felice asserts that her “mother stole [the] right” (202), presumably out “of spite”.  When Felice discovers that the ring is buried with Dorcas, she decides to tell her mother she understands what her mother did and that it is “what she did, not the ring, that [Felice] love[s]” (215), demonstrating that Felice recognized the theft as an act of protest and still recognizes her mother as an honest person (215).  We see that when dealing with other people, even people outside of her perceived race, Felice’s mother is honest.  When dealing with people who subjugate her to discrimination, Felice’s mother has a different moral code.

 

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

The world in which Felice lives is filled with both white people “‘that feel sorry for [her] and [those] that don’t’”, and as he mother notes, both “‘amount to the same thing’” (204).  The experiences Felice details, such as the delayed ambulance, the homicidal police and the discriminating clerk, all demonstrate forms of overt and covert discrimination present in the text.  Much of the novel deals with interactions between people of colour, and so, interracial relations are excluded from much of the narrative around Dorcas, leaving a gap of understanding for some readers.  It is through Felice that readers gets a clearer understanding of the nature of the oppression endured by the characters who people the novel.

 

light-in-augustThe novel digs into a back story involving a man named Golden Gray.  His father was Black and his mother white.  She was intending on giving her child away, but when born, there were no visual markings that made explicit his African heritage.  The character is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s Joe Christmas from his novel Light In August.  It is here where Morrison’s story telling is at its zenith.  Gray is as enigmatic as Faulkner’s Christmas, and discovers that his father is equally so.  When he meets his father, he is posed with the choice: will you be white, or will you be Black.  It is a choice predicated on assumed binaries.  One must be one or the other.  The advent of the term ‘African American’ serves to eventually recognize such binaries as flawed as one can embrace both their nationality and ancestry at the same time, but for Gray and his father, the world they lived in was binaric.  Gray must choose whether he will be a passive participant in this world and facilitate its systems of oppression while situating himself in the best position possible, or do what he can to subvert such oppression.

 

William Faulkner

William Faulkner

The narrative voice is an interesting tool for the novel. It is unclear who is speaking in most instances, though after reading Felice’s narrative, it can be fairly assumed that Violet is the narrator for the rest of the work (though this is not accepted by all readers).  Though all other parts of the narrative are clearly spoken by somebody, it is only Felice’s that are bookended with quotation marks, and so one must assume that where the other narratives are spoken directly to the reader, this section is spoken to the reader through another narrator.  Within this narration Felice quotes Violet and Violet is seen to be speaking of herself in third person.  The reader can then assume that the narrator may very well be Violet since the narrator seems to have access to information that only Violet would have access to.  There is also a scene in the novel where the narrative voice joins with Violet.  There is the potential that Violet has a disorder that is causing her to speak like this.  She is referred to by many as ‘crazy’ within the novel, which speaks to  an ableist rhetoric.  This, coupled with the fact that Violet speaks of herself in third person, suggests that there is a distinct possibility that she may suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder Dissociative Identity Disorder.

 

 

Toni Morrison is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Toni Morrison is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

The novel carries a depth that is not present in most works.  It speaks to the kyriarchal nature of oppression, especially from the point of view of Black women.  There are sequences where women are encouraged to tolerate infidelity, and say things like “Hit me, but don’t quit me” (59) and Dorcas even engages in a relationship where she is overtly mistreated and feels like she has to win over the man who is, though not overtly abusing her, certainly is mistreating her.  It speaks to the history and the arbitrary nature of oppression.  It speaks to violence against women, and the constructs that encourage tolerance of such violence, and it does all of this while telling a beautiful tragedy.  It is multifaceted, one whose complexities I do not fully understand or comprehend, but one whose genius is easily recognized and whose intrinsic beauty engages the reader.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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