Morrison's Jazz as migration narrative

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Toni Morrison’s Jazz as a migration narrative : 

Presented by Roman Kacala Toni Morrison’s Jazz as a migration narrative

Contents: : 

The Great Migration – historical and economical background. Jazz – the setting. Migrant protagonists: Joe, Violet and Dorcas . The City and the migrants: Expectations; Isolation/Displacement, Music – jazz, City and communal spaces – streets, apartments. Conclusion. Contents:

The Great Migration – background : 

The Great Migration – background What did you think we were before you began to think of us as human beings? Well, in a way, we thought of you almost as a very superior pet. A deep South dialogue between black and white. (Groh, 1972, p. 9)

The urban migration of blacks, like that of whites, has been a movement rooted in economic necessity and population pressure. In the case of blacks, the population about doubled in two generations after the Civil War. The land could not sustain such numbers, and by the 1890s a drift to the cities was well under way (Groh, 1972, p. 47). : 

The urban migration of blacks, like that of whites, has been a movement rooted in economic necessity and population pressure. In the case of blacks, the population about doubled in two generations after the Civil War. The land could not sustain such numbers, and by the 1890s a drift to the cities was well under way (Groh, 1972, p. 47).

Slide 5: 

In the rural South (…) race repression went hand in hand with an intricate master – servant relationship which embraced every area of life. (…) It was a closed system, tightly controlled by both law and custom. Economically, it amounted at best to dubious paternalism, at worst to harsh exploitation. In every human sense it was disastrous (Groh, 1972, p. 10). Jim Crow laws – segregation at the turn of the centuries.

Slide 6: 

In 1940 only 2 per cent of eligible southern blacks were permitted to vote in major elections (Groh, 1972, p. 25). There were times and places in which the typical black school received only one-tenth the funds allocated to a white school down the road (Groh, 1972, p. 26). After 1920 there was an absolute decline in ownership [of the land], which has continued in a steep, almost unbroken line until the present time (Groh, 1972, p. 32). Agricultural disasters helped to prepare the way – floods and boll weevil devastation produced hard times in the South – but the larger impetus came from World War I. Industry boomed, the pipeline of European immigrant labor was all but choked off, and blacks began streaming in to fill the vacuum. The next census found black population up two-thirds in New York, one-and-a-half times in Chicago, three times in Cleveland, six times in Detroit (Groh, 1972, p. 49).

Slide 7: 

It is difficult to overstate the impact of this migration on the North and on the course of black history in America. (…) In the second decade of the century alone, New York’s black population increased by 66 per cent, Chicago’s by 148, Cleveland’s by 307, and Detroit’s by 611 (Katznelson, 1973, p. 32). With the exception of Chicago, no city felt the impact of the black migration from the South more than New York. In 1890, 36,617 New Yorkers (including those in the yet unconsolidated boroughs) were black; in 1900, 60,666; in 1910, 91709; in 1920, 152,467; by 1930, New York City's black population numbered 327, 706. In 1890, one person in seventy in Manhattan (where most of the city’s blacks lived) was black; in 1930, one in nine. By 1910, New York’s black population was the second highest for any American city; by 1920, it was the largest in the country. In 1890, Harlem was a semi-rural, all-white, upper-class community; in 1930, James Weldon Johnson correctly described Harlem as ‘the Negro metropolis’ in America (Katznelson, 1973, p. 62).

Jazz – the setting : 

Jazz – the setting

Slide 9: 

Jazz (1992) is Morrison’s most explicit migration narrative to date. It revisits the theme of black mobility and modernity. In so doing, it explicitly revises some of the most important tropes of the migration narrative – tropes that Morrison helped to define through her creative and critical writings (Griffin, 1995, p.184). In Jazz, Morrison still considers the major moments of the migration narrative: the catalyst to migration, the initial confrontation with the urban landscape, the navigation of that landscape, and the construction of the urban subject. Nevertheless, she challenges her own notions of the possibility of the city for the migrant and she introduces a new notion of the ancestor (Griffin, 1995, p. 184). 1926, Harlem, New York; 1888-1906, the South – Vesper County; 1910s East St. Louis.

Slide 10: 

The wave of black people running from want and violence crested in the 1870s; the ‘80s; the ‘90s but was steady stream in 1906 when Joe and Violet joined it. Like the others, they were country people, but how soon country people forget. When they fall in love with a city, it is for forever, and it is like forever (Morrison, 2005, p. 33). Immediately, now that they were out of Delaware and a long way from Maryland there would be no green-as-poison curtain separating the colored people eating from the rest of the diners (Morrison, 2005, p. 31).

Migrant protagonists : 

Migrant protagonists

Slide 12: 

Joe and Violet Trace, the central migrants of the text, migrate from Virginia to New York in 1906. Their Virginia is a place of towns with Old Testament names, dispossession, violence, and orphaned children. After arriving in the North, their experiences in the South still shape their decisions. For instance, because both Violet and Joe were abandoned by their mothers, they associate freedom with a childless urban life. Whereas in the earlier migration narratives the South is often the site of family, here it is filled with motherless children (Griffin, 1995, p. 185). The race riots of East St. Louis are the catalyst of the migration of the text’s third significant migrant, Joe’s teenage lover, Dorcas (Griffin, 1995, p. 187).

The City and the migrants : 

The City and the migrants

Expectations: : 


Slide 15: 

Joe and Violet, like all the novel's characters, are bound to the track of Northern, urban, African American life. Lured from their rural Southern roots by the promise of economic opportunity and racial liberation, they are hooked by the City's music and throbbing energy (Page, 1995, p. 56). Violet and Joe left Tyrell, a railway stop through Vesper County, in 1906, and boarded the colored section of the Southern Sky. When the train trembled approaching the water surrounding the City, they thought it was like them: nervous at having gotten there at last, but terrified of what was on the other side (Morrison, 2005, p. 30).

Slide 16: 

They weren’t even there yet and already the City was speaking to them. They were dancing. And like a million others, chests pounding, tracks controlling their feet, they stared out the windows for first sight of the City that danced with them, proving already how much it loved them. Like a million more they could hardly wait to get there and love it back. Some were slow about it and travelled from Georgia to Illinois, to the City, back to Georgia, out to San Diego and finally, shaking their heads, surrendered themselves to the City. Others knew right away that it was for them, this City and no other (Morrison, 2005, p. 32).

Isolation / Displacement: : 

Isolation / Displacement:

Slide 18: 

The City (…) becomes an acting site of reconstruction, of potential and actual articulation of some traumatic traces of the past. And as the controlling entity behind the distracted and inscrutable voice, it sends the reader on a frantic, often sterile search for the missing fragments in the characters' lives, eventually providing a discourse of replacement (Paquet-Deyris, 2001, p. 221). ‘”Off somewhere trying to sound like they ain’t from Cottown.” (…) Knew both of them from way back. Come up here, the whole family act like they never set eyes on me before’ (Morrison, 2005, p. 19). Alice had been frightened for a long time – first she was frightened of Illinois, then of Springfield Massachusetts, then Eleventh Avenue, Third Avenue, Park Avenue. Recently she had begun to feel safe nowhere south of 110th Street, and Fifth Avenue was for her the most fearful of all (Morrison, 2005, p. 54).

Music: : 


Slide 20: 

Without familial ties, Joe, Violet, and Dorcas are migrants who seek to create themselves anew in the city. Without the maps provided by Southern ancestors, they are ill-equipped to navigate the urban landscape. They, along with all the migrants of Jazz, are like the music for which the book is named. These migrants explode onto the cityscape, capturing its character, its rhythm, forever changing it, and it forever changing them. They go to Harlem in search of safe space only to find that the safety of that space is very tenuous (Griffin, 1995, p. 187). The music of the city, the black jazz music that comes to define the city and the era, serves as a source for constructing a black urban subject. It helps to create a subject in opposition to the one that the City attempts to create: in opposition and yet somehow still defined by it. Power constructs the resisting subject. Jazz music embodies and gives voice to their experience (Griffin, 1995, p. 191).

Slide 21: 

In content, jazz becomes a metaphor for the migrants. The final vision of this narrative is a vision where migrants and their music are influenced by but also profoundly influence and redefine the city to which they migrate (Griffin, 1995, p. 192).

City and communal spaces – streets and apartments: : 

City and communal spaces – streets and apartments:

Slide 23: 

The narrative's deliberately ungendered, unspecific voice and its avatars take center stage against a Harlem backdrop. But what it consistently calls “the City” with a capital C only indirectly functions as historical back-ground. It seems to be doing much more than encoding Afro- American place. The metropolis in 1926 is a vast receptacle of actual, historical, vocal, and memorial traces. (…) Just like the Middle Passage of slaves across the Atlantic, the City of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s is some sort of “zero moment” in black history. The “disremembered and unaccounted for” (…) stories of times past can only re-emerge as loose fragments patched up by an uncertain if forceful narrator. And the context the narrator provides for these migrants' dreams also precludes any smooth re-presentation of “the glittering city” (…) and its “race music” (Paquet-Deyris, 2001, p. 219).

Slide 24: 

Violet navigates the city by splitting her personality; Alice Manfred tries to navigate it by becoming deaf and blind to it. Joe Trace tries to buy “safe space” by buying Dorcas’s affections and renting a neighbour’s apartment for their weekly trysts (Griffin, 1995, p. 191). Harlem is not as safe a space as the migrants anticipated. Even those spaces considered most safe, those sites of the “South in the city,” are possible sites of victimization. This is especially true for women. (…) the apartment buildings of Jazz seem to constitute community, hospitality, and home. (…) However, (…) it is significant that this attempt to describe community lacks specificity of a name. Neither the neighbourhood nor the city is named, and those five-story apartment buildings do not even have an address (Griffin, 1995, p. 189).

Slide 25: 

Bibliography: Griffin, Farah Jasmine (1995) “Who Set You Flowin’?”: The African-American Migration Narrative. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Groh, George (1972) The Black Migration. The Journey to Urban America. New York: Weybright and Talley. Katznelson, Ira (1973) Black Men, White Cities: Race, Politics, and Migration in the United States, 1900-30, and Britain, 1948-68. London, New York: Oxford University Press. Morrison, Toni, (2005) Jazz London: Vintage Books. Page, Philip (1995) ‘Traces of Derrida in Toni Morrison’s Jazz’ African American Review 29 (1), pp. 55-66. Paquet-Deyris, Anne-Marie (2001) ‘Toni Morrison’s Jazz and the City.’ African American Review 35 (2), pp. 219-231.

Thank you : 

Thank you

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