Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison; drawing by David Levine

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 was a jazz age behind the Jazz Age.

The simplest of public incidents, of the kind that make it into the newspapers, arise from complicated private stories, and such stories, connecting blunt or bitter fact with its riddling context or history, have always been Morrison’s business as a novelist. And not only as a novelist. In her introduction to an interesting volume of essays on the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas affair,1 Morrison distinguishes between “what took place” and “what happened,” where the former is what can be briefly stated in a newspaper, say, and the latter is what we might, after patient thought and considerable investigation, actually understand. We live in a world of what the narrator of Jazz calls “a crooked kind of mourning,”—crooked as a path may be crooked, unavoidably indirect—and the phrase takes us a good way into Morrison’s moral landscape.

The mourning is often for a factual event or the fictional version of a factual event, for what suddenly and undeniably took place: a shooting, a rape, the killing of a child. Its “crookedness” comes from its also being part of what happened and keeps happening, and it is one of the special provinces of the imaginative writer. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison speaks of “places where the imagination sabotages itself, locks its own gates, pollutes its vision,” and her fiction is largely concerned with the geography and (possible) redemption of such places. The mind, for Morrison, could be a friend but is often an enemy, as we learn in Beloved, for instance, where an escaped slave, the woman whose face is in the newspapers, is imprisoned in the horrors of memory:

She shook her head from side to side, resigned to her rebellious brain. Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept? Like a greedy child it snatched up everything.

Even the physical beauty of the real world compounds the problem, disguising the pain and disgrace of the remembered slave farm: “It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too.”

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It is horrifying, of course, that history should show such quantities of material cruelty; no less horrifying, perhaps, that the long legacy of such a history is an imagination too often dedicated to self-sabotage, unable even to mourn except in “crooked” ways that displace or deny the full horror of the death and injury being mourned.

Morrison’s lucid and eloquent first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), portrays a poor black family who live in a rundown storefront in Lorain, Ohio. There is an important difference, Morrison’s narrator insists, between living there and staying there.

They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly. Although their poverty was traditional and stultifying, it was not unique. But their ugliness was unique…. You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question.

Each member of the family interprets and acts out his or her ugliness differently, but none of them understands that the all-knowing master is not God but only history and habit; the projection of their own benumbed collusion with the mythology of beauty and ugliness that oppresses them beyond their already grim social oppression. Throughout Morrison’s novels—those already mentioned, but also Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981)—variously trapped and bewildered characters fight against similar mythologies, alluring versions of what it means to be black or female or poor or free or respectable or Southern. They fight with energy and dignity but usually without much success. The best they get is release from pain or haunting, or an understanding of the life they are about to lose.

The strongest moments in the novels represent what we might call the paradoxes of crookedness: rape, as a form of love in extremis; infanticide as the deepest expression of a mother’s care. The ugly father of the ugly family in The Bluest Eye rapes his daughter but at least, the narrator bleakly says, he “loved her enough to touch her.” For the chief character in Beloved the killing of her baby in order to save her from a return to slavery is both simple and unforgivable, what she had to do and what she cannot forget, the direct result of a deformed history. “If I hadn’t killed her,” she says, “she would have died”: and the tangle of the thought is the exact image of the tangle of her heart and mind.

In sharply evoked crookedness of this kind, tender, horrifying, passionate, and violent, Morrison resolves the dilemma which David Brion Davis identified in these pages earlier this year: How can one register the effects of oppression without making the victims seem merely “dehumanized and incapable,” precisely the passive, inferior beings their oppressors like to think they are?2

In Jazz, for the first time in Morrison’s fiction, there is a genuine escape from crookedness and sabotage, a defeat of mythology, and Morrison herself seems at a loss to describe what has happened—even if she knows precisely what has taken place. Perhaps Morrison is only miming disarray, and in one sense she must be. She has her narrator declare her surprise at her characters’ behavior, as if they just got away from her, as if they managed to end up happy without her permission. “I was so sure, and they danced and walked all over me. Busy, they were, busy being original, complicated, changeable—human, I guess you’d say….” I guess we’d rather not say, and of course we can’t linger too long over this tired trope. When writers (or their surrogates) say their characters have a life of their own, we wonder both what they are actually up to and why they think this faded metaphor still works.

But while Morrison’s narrator is sentimentalizing her characters (it is human to be original and changeable, but no less human, alas, to be blinkered and monotonous), something more interesting is also happening, and to see what it is we need to return to the “facts” of the novel, what the newspapers might have reported for January 1926 on Lenox Avenue and thereabouts.

Middle-aged man shoots and kills an eighteen-year-old girl, they might have said. Wife attempts to slash the face of the girl’s corpse. Joe and Violet Trace have been living happily enough in New York City since they came up from Virginia in 1906, more happily (at first) than they ever expected to. They had heard a lot about Baltimore and Violet at least was afraid New York might be “less lovely”:

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Joe believed it would be perfect. When they arrived, carrying all of their belongings in one valise, they both knew right away that perfect was not the word. It was better than that.

The narrator, a garrulous, intelligent, unnamed Harlem local (“Sth, I know that woman,” she begins), has the same wide-eyed view of the excitements of the (always eagerly capitalized) City. “I’m crazy about this City,” she says. “I like the way the City makes people think they can do what they want and get away with it”; and she likes the way it allows people to become “not so much new as themselves: their stronger, riskier selves.”

The City is smart at this: smelling and [sic] good and looking raunchy; sending secret messages disguised as public signs: this way, open here, danger to let colored only single men on sale woman wanted private room stop dog on premises absolutely no money down fresh chicken free delivery fast.

The City is one of the main characters of the novel, a strangely cheerful urban home for the “wildness” which in Morrison’s other novels has a rural location. “When I see this wildness gone in a person, it’s sad,” she said in an interview.3 Wildness is a “special lack of restraint,” clearly a virtue in those whose lives have been nearly all restraint. And indeed in Jazz, too, there is a rural wild zone, to be found in the Virginia the Traces have abandoned but not forgotten.

Yet of course you can’t become your riskier self without taking risks, and even your stronger self may not be strong enough. Joe and Violet, in their different ways, have got lost among the City’s enchantments. Their happiness trickles away into aging, they scarcely speak to each other. Violet begins to think of the children she hasn’t had, and the meanings of her mother’s long-ago suicide. What the narrator calls “cracks” begin to develop in Violet’s consciousness, “dark fissures in the globe light of the day,” moments when she loses her words and her meanings. And Joe, more traditionally, has a male mid-life crisis, looks for his youth in a young girl; but then also, in rather too novelistic a contortion perhaps, he seems to see in the girl a substitute for the mother he never knew. The girl herself finds a handsome, arrogant boyfriend of her own age, clumsily dismisses Joe, and Joe kills her without knowing which piece of his life he is trying to erase or rearrange. He is not arrested, not even accused, “because nobody actually saw him do it, and the dead girl’s aunt didn’t want to throw money to helpless lawyers or laughing cops when she knew the expense wouldn’t improve anything.” Joe and Violet go on living together, miserable, silent, baffled.

All this matches the narrator’s expectations. She has meanwhile been imagining the lives of these people and others, giving them pasts, lending them voices: Joe, Violet, their courtship and life in Virginia; the girl, Dorcas, whose parents have been killed in the riots in East Saint Louis; Dorcas’s aunt, Alice Manfred, who after her niece’s death strikes up an oddly austere and tender friendship with Violet; Dorcas’s friend Felice, who gets to know and like the Traces, in spite of their strangeness and their sorrow. But the narrator is imagining all or most of this. She is a novelist within the novel, happy with her performance, and doesn’t stint on self-praise.

Risky, I’d say, trying to figure out anybody’s state of mind. But worth the trouble if you’re like me—curious, inventive and well-informed…. It’s not hard to imagine what it must have been like.

It’s not hard to imagine, but it’s hard to get it right, and this is what our chastened narrator learns at the end of the novel. Not before she changes her personality (or at least her style) a couple of times, and has a spell as a sort of highbrow Faulknerian memorialist. The prose gets worryingly close to parody here, and signals a frank shift into a grander literary gear—or signals perhaps the writer’s need of the freedom to make such a shift. The chatty narrator saying, “I know just how she felt,” and “Good luck and let me know,” becomes a theorist saying, “I want to be the language that wishes him well, speaks his name.” And starts to devise sentences like this one:

When he stopped the buggy, got out to tie the horse and walk back through the rain, perhaps it was because the awful-looking thing lying in wet weeds was everything he was not as well as a proper protection against and anodyne to what he believed his father to be, and therefore (if it could just be contained, identified)—himself.

“He” is a young mulatto Violet has heard about from her grandmother. He has discovered (from his white mother) that his father was black, and he has gone in search of him. The “thing” he meets on the way is a pregnant young black woman, who may or may not be Joe Trace’s mother-to-be. The narrator has a fine time evoking this ripely resonant stuff of the past, but does herself seem caught up in one of the very mythologies Morrison keeps trying to get her characters out of: race as trauma, suffered by the character, but weirdly relished by the teller of the tale. Here as in certain moments in Song of Solomon and Tar Baby, but not, as far as I can see, in the other novels, a certain talkiness in Morrison’s language reflects an abstraction in her thought, a move to diagrams about color rather than the working-through of particular painful experiences.

Fortunately, the diagrams are never there for long, and the talkiness is more than compensated for by something like its reverse: a fine willingness on the novelist’s part to inhabit language, to let it do the talking, to see it as itself a freighted form of history rather than a mere means of making statements. The characters in Jazz are said by the narrator to treat language like an “intricate, malleable toy designed for their play,” and to enter a Toni Morrison novel is to enter a place where words and idioms tease each other, and where what is said is richly shadowed by what is not. This is why she doesn’t need to have her narrator announce, “I want to be the language,” etc.

When a character in Song of Solomon promises to “fly from Mercy,” he literally means he is going to try to fly from the roof of Mercy Hospital in a city which I take to be Detroit, but we can hardly miss the suicidal sadness of his project, and mercy is what other characters in the novel long for, sing for, and (occasionally) find.

The very names of Morrison’s characters are a mark of their history, in slavery or out, and the jokes they make about their names are a way of remembering that history and fighting it.4 “Names they got from yearnings, gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, weaknesses,” we read in Song of Solomon. “Names that bore witness.” A list of names follows, starting inside the fiction and moving into the public record: Macon Dead, First Corinthians Dead, Railroad Tommy, Empire State, Ice Man, Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll, T-Bone, Washboard, Gatemouth, Staggerlee, many others. Joe Trace, in Jazz, names himself on the basis of the story he hard about his parents disappearing “without a trace”: he decides he is the Trace they disappeared without.

It is in the flowing, personal language of her conclusion that the narrator expresses her new-found humility about what she knows and doesn’t know, but it is not exactly in language that she discovers it. What she learns is not only that her characters have cheated her expectations but that they have lived and continue to live in ways she needs to know more about: that they are kinder and wiser and more resilient than she is. “I lived a long time, maybe too much, in my own mind,” she says early on, but she is not really apologizing. Her story is skewed not because her mind is where she lives but because her mind has appetites she has not properly considered. “Pain,” she says finally, “I seem to have an affection, a kind of sweettooth for it. Bolts of lightning, little rivulets of thunder…. What, I wonder, what would I be without a few brilliant spots of blood to ponder? Without aching words that set, then miss, the mark?” Morrison’s narrator, like the narrator of Nabokov’s Pnin, has thought harm is the norm, that unhappy endings are both true and what we want. She has seen her characters as “exotic” and “driven,” that is, as characters.

I was sure one would kill the other [she says of Joe and Violet]. I waited for it so I could describe it. I was so sure it would happen. That the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack.

As Morrison knows, and has mostly shown in her novels, the past is such a record for many people, and their present is only this cracked repetition of the past. Yet Joe and Violet Trace finally walk away from misery and remorse into an ordinary settled happiness and affection, a “whispering, old-time love.” What Morrison is saying through this development, and through the defeat of her narrator’s plausible if too lip-smacking narrative predictions, is that forgiveness is (just) possible, and self-forgiveness too. The crooked cannot be made straight but can be survived, left behind. The odds of this happening are not good, of course; they are poor in fiction, and worse in fact. But the odds are there, harm is not everything. Beloved was about the pain and necessity of remembering and forgetting; Jazz is about remembering all we can and yet knowing, when the time is right, how to change the record.

Talking to Dorcas’s friend Felice some time after the murder, Violet Trace asks, “What’s the world for if you can’t make it up the way you want it?” She can’t make it up entirely, but she can make it again, and she has understood that your mind can be your friend as well as your enemy. Violet has messed up her life so far, she thinks, because she “forgot it”:

“Forgot?” [Felice asks].

“Forgot it was mine. My life. I just ran up and down the streets wishing I was somebody else.”

“Who? Who’d you want to be?”

“Not who so much as what. White. Light. Young again.”

“Now you don’t?”

“Now I want to be the woman my mother didn’t stay around long enough to see. That one. The one she would have liked and the one I used to like before.”

To be the woman her mother would have liked: it seems a modest enough goal, but it is precisely the goal so few of Morrison’s earlier characters can reach. An old freed slave in Beloved asks, “If my mother knew me would she like me?” We need to hear the measure of loss in such a question—in the possibility of such a question being asked—if we are to understand the strength of Violet’s new confidence, and what the narrator (and we) can learn from her.

The black community in Beloved thinks of the erratic behavior of white people as “a far cry from what real humans did,” neatly inverting the stereotype Morrison chooses to pursue in Playing in the Dark, in which whiteness, in North American literature, is what is human, and blackness is a deviance, exciting, regrettable, or unmentionable. “Until very recently,” Morrison says, “and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white.” We know a character in To Have and Have Not is white, for instance, “because nobody says so.” We would, if we were in any doubt, know he is a man for the same reason, and we may not have progressed as far as we think since 1937.

This, I assume, is how we are to understand Morrison’s otherwise puzzling objection to the “graceful, even generous, liberal gesture” of “ignoring race.” She herself does not say anything explicit about the race of her readers but that is not the same as ignoring it, and an imaginative understanding of cultural difference, a regard for differently traced histories, will surely take us further than discretion or mere tolerance. “All of us,” Morrison says at the end of her lectures, “are bereft when criticism remains too polite or too fearful to notice a disrupting darkness before its eyes.” And we are still bereft when darkness is all we see, even if the darkness is a romance rather than a phobia.

Morrison recalls a moment in Marie Cardinal’s autobiographical book The Words To Say It, where a Louis Armstrong concert is said to provoke an anxiety attack in the white woman who is the main character. Morrison says she smiled at the passage when she read it, partly in admiration of the clarity with which the experience of the music was evoked, and partly because she (mischievously) wondered what Armstrong was playing that could have had such a wild effect (“gripped by panic at the idea of dying in the middle of spasms, stomping feet, and the crowd howling, I ran into the street like someone possessed”). Of course, as these lectures suggest and as the tone of Cardinal’s language makes clear, it wasn’t Armstrong or the music that released the anxiety, but the way jazz and improvisation expressed a submerged myth of otherness. “Would an Edith Piaf concert or a Dvorak composition have had the same effect?” Morrison agrees they could have. But they didn’t and she must be right in feeling that Armstrong’s color and the black origins of jazz have a part to play in this version of the myth.

No doubt even sympathetic white constructions of myths of blackness are alarming, and one can only admire the mildness with which Morrison says she doesn’t have “quite the same access” to these “useful constructs,” because “neither blackness nor ‘people of color’ stimulates in me notions of excessive, limitless love, anarchy, or routine dread.” But in her eagerness to demonstrate the pervasive presence of the myth in North American life, Morrison loses, it seems to me, the myth’s real dangers and contours, and replaces them with a supposedly buried, infinitely denied power which is just too easy to find.

Morrison calls Africanism a “trope” and a “virus”; it is the way white Americans take over and mystify the life of the “unsettled and unsettling population” they can neither accept nor ignore. Thus American slaves, who all but disappear in white literature as historical victims, reemerge as “surrogate selves for meditation on problems of human freedom.”

There is a “thunderous, theatrical presence of black surrogacy” in American writing which generations of critics have somehow contrived to miss. Morrison finds some interesting, although rather obvious, instances in Twain, Cather, and Hemingway, but she has a harder time with Henry James, and “thunderous” seems loud in any event. The trouble is not the idea of the surrogacy but the tremendous amount of work Morrison wants the idea to do.

How could one speak of profit, economy, labor, progress, suffragism, Christianity, the frontier, the formation of new states, the acquisition of new lands, education, transportation (freight and passengers), neighborhoods, the military—of almost anything a country concerns itself with—without having as a referent, at the heart of the discourse, at the heart of definition, the presence of Africans and their descendants?

The presence of Africans and their descendants is a referent in all this, or ought to be, and it’s an important and too often forgotten one. But what sort of referent is it, and don’t the most important questions get mislaid here? The image of the heart seems to blur what Morrison most needs to keep in focus; it makes the argument vast and indefinite and sentimental all at once.

Morrison’s case in these lectures is not angry and partial, as some have thought, but global and rather wishful. “Africanism is inextricable from the definition of Americanness,” she says. It probably should be, on the grounds that a fudged acceptance of historical responsibility is better than a blank refusal. But is it? The proposition assumes that the guilt of whites with respect to slavery is as large as it ought to be, and that the secret power of blacks bears a real relation to their suffering. This is a noble story, but it isn’t a story Morrison tells in any of her novels.

The story she does tell in Jazz has a similar generosity, but it has a nuance and a complication the lectures lack. This is not only because good fiction says more than even the most intelligent discursive prose. The story itself is different. It concerns not the black haunting of white minds, but the slow and difficult liberation of black minds from black and white oppression, from complicity with the all-knowing master of ugliness.

Morrison’s chief metaphor for this movement is in her title. This is not a novel about jazz, or based on jazz, and I think reviewers’ comments about the improvisatory quality of the writing underestimate what feels like the careful premeditation of the work. Each chapter after the first, for example, picks up an image or other cue from the preceding one, and takes it into new territories: caged birds, hot weather, a hat, spring in the city, the phrase “state of mind,” a look, a person, the words “heart” or “pain.” This is musical and elegant, as if a tune were to be shifted into a new arrangement, but what it borrows from jazz is a sense of flight and variation, not a method of composition.

The novel is dedicated to the taste and the air of jazz, to what jazz says to people who care for it. No one in this book would have an anxiety attack at a Louis Armstrong concert, even supposing they got to a concert. “Race music,” as jazz used to be called, and as a character once calls it here, is the recognizable music of their desire, the sound of their hopes and their dangers. Jazz is risky, like the city, but its risk is its charm. Dorcas’s severe aunt hears “a complicated anger in it,” but also an “appetite,” a “careless hunger.” “Come,” she hears it saying, “Come and do wrong.” Later in the book the narrator listens to young men on the Harlem rooftops playing trumpets and clarinets, and gets a different, easier feeling: “You would have thought everything had been forgiven the way they played.” You would have thought: only an impression, no doubt, but one of jazz’s real gifts to us.

This Issue

November 19, 1992

  1. 1

    Raceing Justice, En-gendering Power, edited and with an introduction by Morrison (Pantheon, 1992). 

  2. 2

    “The American Dilemma,” The New York Review, July 16, 1992. 

  3. 3

    Quoted in Barbara Hill Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison (Ohio State University Press, 1992). 

  4. 4

    The point is well made in Trudier Harris, Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison (University of Tennessee Press, 1991).