Life Studies

Jazz

by Toni Morrison
Knopf, 229 pp., $21.00

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

by Toni Morrison
Harvard University Press, 91 pp., $14.95

The facts are simple and brutal, you can read them any day in the newspapers. If you read them and if you feel they are published for you. The suggestion that news in America is often just white news, or news for whites, occurs again and again in Toni Morrison’s work, nowhere more strongly than in her novel Beloved (1987), where a former slave knows that the mere presence of a black face in a paper is the sign not only of disaster but of more than customary horror:

A whip of fear broke through the heart chambers as soon as you saw a Negro’s face in a paper, since the face was not there because the person had a healthy baby, or outran a street mob. Nor was it there because the person had been killed, or maimed or caught or burned or jailed or whipped or evicted or stomped or raped or cheated, since that could hardly qualify as news in a newspaper. It would have to be something out of the ordinary …

Of course, this man’s reaction belongs to Cincinnati in 1873, and the news itself is eighteen years older; but it is a theme both of Morrison’s new novel, Jazz, and of her lectures given at Harvard in 1990 and published as Playing in the Dark, that things may not have changed as fast or as much as we think or hope.

A newspaper can turn your mind,” the narrator of Jazz says, but Alice Manfred, the character she is worried about, seems to have her mind fairly straight. Alice reads about the violence of the world, and also, between the lines, finds an angry resistance to it.

Every week…a paper laid bare the bones of some broken woman. Man kills wife. Eight accused of rape dismissed. Woman and girl victims of. Woman commits suicide. White attackers indicted. Five women caught. Woman says man beat. In jealous rage man.

Are these broken women mere victims? “Natural prey? Easy pickings?” “I don’t think so,” Alice repeats. Some are, no doubt, and the novel tells us the story of one of them, Alice’s niece Dorcas, a girl who likes to push people into “something scary,” and who, when shot by a man she has driven too far, allows herself to die. But other black women in Jazz are arming themselves, physically and mentally, and in this they have caught a current of the times, a not always visible indignation that says enough is enough. It is an indignation that is glimpsed in new forms of protest and political organization and heard in the freedom and sadness and hunger of jazz. There are extended flashbacks in the novel, but its main “times” are the 1920s, or rather a period which Morrison dates from 1917, the year of major riots in East Saint Louis and a commemorative march in New York. The novel’s most intimate, violent events occur in January 1926. There …

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