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Herman Beavers

Herman Beavers is a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was formerly director of the African American Studies Program. His special interest in jazz studies has led him to focus on Morrison, as well as Ernest Gaines and James Baldwin. A poet as well as a scholar, his books include Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of James Alan McPherson and Ernest J. Gaines.

Novel Discussion

A Brief Survey of Aurality in African American Literature

Dr. Herman Beavers: I want to start by talking about aurality. You’ll note that the word “aurality” is homonymically similar to “orality.” Of course, listening and talking are associated with different parts of the body. One is necessary to making one’s wishes and feelings known; the other is necessary to being in a community, to knowing what others long for—it represents an avenue to empathy.

The importance of achieving Voice has long been a point of interest in African American literature; it has been less the case that contemporary readers consider the long history of descriptions of listening in this body of work. One need only look to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass [1845] to see this. Early on in the narrative we get this passage from Douglass, describing the moment when he discovered “the pathway from slavery to freedom.” He hears his master, Thomas Auld, speak the infamous line: “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell.” [Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. 78] Douglass relates Auld’s words “sank deep into [his] heart.” [Douglass, 78] In a fashion, that mirrors a common rhetorical device of the nineteenth century, where listening was not understood as a physical practice but rather one located in proximity to the emotional seat; listening was a measure of the “openness” of the heart as receptacle. Douglass locates the critical consciousness Auld incites in him, not in the brain, but in the breast. Furthermore, listening to Auld’s words incites Douglass to strive for physical and intellectual freedom: listening “only served to inspire me with a desire and a determination to learn.”

We could cite other examples, where listening, aurality, assumes an important role in human community. For example, at the end of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God [1937], Phoebe, having heard Janie’s tale, responds, “I done growed ten feet taller, just listenin to you, Janie. Nobody better not low talk you in my hearing.” [Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, 1937, rpt. 1998, 192]

We need to understand aurality as being an important analogue to orality, to speaking, because placed into the context of the U.S., where black people were property, the idea of being able to speak is certainly important. Speaking was policed, not because black speech was necessarily thought of as threatening, but rather because of the effect black speech might have. While those in power could control speech, they could only control listening by imposing silence.

A further example, and one that gets us closer to a discussion of Morrison’s Jazz, is James Baldwin’s classic story, “Sonny’s Blues” [1957]. There, Baldwin’s narrator notes, “All I know about music is that not many people ever hear it” [Norton Anthology of African American Liteature 1747]. This is a paradox, of course, because what Morrison’s novel is about is a music that becomes easily heard and overheard and quickly related to sexual desire and the pursuit of pleasure. But Baldwin’s story, thought of from the perspective of a writer who spent his formative years as the child of a preacher, makes the effort to suggest the antiphonal power of music. Indeed, when he describes Sonny’s presence among the bass and drums, what transpires is a conversation. We hear the bass speak and the drums say something back.

And finally, one cannot talk about music as metaphor without mentioning Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man [1953] with its narrator who sits in “hibernation” listening to Louis Armstrong’s “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue.” In Ellison’s hands, we find his narrator descending into the depths of the song.

Toni Morrison’s Jazz

As one can guess, there was as much pressure on Jazz as there was on Tar Baby, although for different reasons. Jazz followed Morrison’s receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature; in many people’s eyes, she had reached the zenith of literary achievement.

One could ask the question: why turn—after a novel like Beloved—to a subject as wide-ranging, nebulous even, as jazz? In part, we need to understand that Morrison’s intent is to pick up where she left off. If the climax of Beloved lies in the moment when the women’s singing in the road in front of 124 Bluestone Road banishes the ghost, then we must consider that in many ways, Morrison’s next novel takes up where its predecessor ended. However, we have to contend with the ways that “song” transforms when transplanted from rural space to urban space. The act of listening, and the use of the voice, undergo profound changes. What this means for us is that we are introduced to events in Jazz through the aegis of sound.

One of the things you have to distrust when reading Toni Morrison is cognition. What you really have to buy into with Morrison are the processes of memory at levels that we don't necessarily understand. Memory is a conscious thing. She's not into the idea of remembering, which is when your mind consciously goes back and picks something out of the past. She is into the workings of memory in ways that have to do with things floating to the surface and then disappearing. They float to the surface and become a little more coherent. Then they disappear. This novel does work like that.

It's pretty clear to me that in Morrison's earlier life she was a poet. This is a novel that ruminates on the art of writing a novel. Writers routinely engage this kind of evaluation of practice.

Participant: I think of this more as literary criticism than literature.

Participant: One of the things I think would be interesting for you to do and have your students do is to show them a photograph—remember, this book starts from a photograph—on Thursday. Have them write about it on Thursday. Show them another photograph on Friday but don't have them write about it until Tuesday. All they have is what sticks in their head. That seems to me a basis for what goes on here. You have these people who've seen this event. They tell a story. At the end, they realize that it's not exactly what the photograph was. In my mind, I embellish and change things. There you can use the idea of the jazz. They have a basic concept in their head of the photo. Then everyone begins to improvise. That's the structure. That's the way to get the kids into the structure of the novel. Show them the difference between if you respond immediately versus if you let your memory deal with the event.

Dr. Herman Beavers: I like that. One of the things that you might do is show them photographs from different periods. You might want to show them from late in the nineteenth century where you had to pose because the shutter didn't open fast enough to capture people in motion. You had to actually sit there for enough light to come into the lens. Then show something later where somebody's in motion. Where lens technology has improved enough to where you can show action shots. See what happens. Part of what Morrison says this book comes out of is a James VanDerZee photograph. When VanDerZee made the photo that prompted this book, it was a time when you did not have candid photography. Today it is considered morbid that he was taking photographs of dead people—but there was no problem holding the pose in that situation.

Any other questions? If you want to jump into the book, I'm all for that.

Participant: My problem with Jazz is purely financial in that I know that if I approach my administration with the prospect of introducing Morrison into our curriculum, I'm going to have to choose one book. Quite frankly, it wouldn't be this one. Is there a reason that it should be? Am I missing something here?

Dr. Herman Beavers: If this were not Morrison, we would not be trying ways to review this text. Even I would say in a situation where one is beset by the actual administrative policies that get books into students' hands, it's not necessarily the choice that I would make either. I say that with a qualification. In my view, this book is worth the administrative wrangling. This book so thoroughly challenges our understanding of modernism as it emerged in the early part of the century. That would be a reason for teaching it. We get a whole new understanding of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and a lot of people coming out of that period that we would not have without this book.

Participant: Morrison is an incredible teacher. She teaches kids how to read metaphorically just in the text. You almost don't have to do anything. She does a lot of the teaching.

Dr. Herman Beavers: Part of what she's saying is, we will have a real dilemma on our hands if we stop trusting children. Part of what I want to say is that's the reason why I would want to get it into children's hands. As a book that ruminates on the novel, it ruminates also on that moment when the novel in the United States becomes the ascended literary form. Even though we think of modernism as something that was driven by poets, once Hemingway gets on the scene and says everything comes out of Huckleberry Finn, he completely changes the playing field. At that point you no longer think about the ways in which poets are influencing novelists and novelists are influencing dramatists. You no longer think about that. Now what you think about is a hierarchy of genres, and the novel is at the top of that hierarchy. Ultimately black writers will lose in that formulation. There are other battles on other fronts to be fought with other genres, not just a novel. I think this novel helps you have that discussion. You have to get your administration to see the big picture. This is not something you'll complete in one step. This is one step in a series of other steps.

Participant: For me, the truth in all of her writings is in the metaphors. I've noticed that a lot of what I'm marking here are truisms. For example, on p. 12 in Jazz, we see that if the tiptoer is Joe Trace, the photograph of Dorcas is not bad:

Her face is calm, generous and sweet. But if the tiptoer is Violet the photograph is not that at all. The girl's face looks greedy, haughty and very lazy. The cream-at-the-top-of-the-milkpail face of someone who will never work for anything; someone who picks up things lying on other people's dressers and is not embarrassed when found out. It is the face of the sneak who glides over to your sink to rinse the fork you have laid by her plate. An inward face— whatever it sees is its own self. You are there, it says, because I am looking at you.

That, to me, is where even if we have problems with what's true what's not, this is true.

Participant: But what about perspective? I think Morrison’s “ifs” are really important there—every person has their own truth. Remember that Felice says that Mrs. Manfred [Dorcas’s aunt] doesn’t lie, and she said that Dorcas “was ugly. Outside and in” (205).

Dr. Herman Beavers: For me, the exchange that starts on p. 207 between Violet and Felice is very telling. On some level I would want a classroom that includes young girls to hear this exchange:

I [Felice] laughed but before I could agree with the hairdressers that she was crazy, she said, "What's the world for if you can't make it up the way you want it?
The way I want it?
"Yeah. The way you want it. Don't you want it to be something more than what it is?"
What's the point? I can't change it.
"That's the point. If you don't, it will change you and it’ll be your fault cause you let it. I let it. And messed up my life."
“Messed it up how?”
"Forgot it. [….] 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. . . . My grandmother fed me stories about a little blond child. He was a boy, but I thought of him as a girl sometimes, as a brother, sometimes as a boyfriend. He lived inside my mind. Quiet as a mole. But I didn't know it until I got here. The two of us. Had to get rid of it."
She talked like that. But I understood what she meant. About having another you inside that isn't anything like you. Dorcas and I used to make up love scenes and describe them to each other. It was fun and a little smutty. Something about it bothered me, though. Not the loving stuff, but the picture I had of myself when I did it. Nothing like me. I saw myself as somebody I'd scene in a picture show or magazine. Then it would work. If I pictured myself the way I am, it seemed wrong.
“How did you get rid of her?”
"Killed her. Then I killed the me that killed her."
“Who's left?”
"Me." (208-209)

For me, that exchange alone is worth the price of a ticket. Part of what that exchange is about—in the 1980s we would've called it self-recovery—is a discussion about freedom. A book written in the middle of the culture wars, this is an important discussion to have. "Killed her then killed the me who killed her. Who was left? Me." When you think about the kind of duress that young girls are under, that's a supremely important dialogue to put in front of them. For boys too, but I think more so for girls. When you compare that with what Dorcas says—"He didn't like my laugh, but I think he likes my laugh now. I'm getting a look now. I have a personality."—when you think about that, what is it that twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-old girls are doing? They're doing that. That's why that discussion, for me, is so important. Ultimately, what Violet says to this young woman is it doesn't have to go down the way you think that it's going to go down. Something different can happen.

Participant: The discussion we're having about Jazz—isn't it the same discussion you can have about all of her novels? I have coworkers who hate Toni Morrison, who never got to the second page of Song of Solomon. Every one of her novels is a challenge. The kids have to know that. We're talking about high school students here. If we're frustrated and we have degrees, we have to lead the students in some way. They also need to understand that it's going to be a challenge for them. It goes back to her words, as far as I'm concerned. The reason I read it over and over again is because I never get tired of the artistry of Toni Morrison. The messages and everything else are almost secondary to the way that she poses those messages. She hasn't lost her touch as far as her artistry is concerned. Everything that she's written flows like that.

One of the things that we have to imbue our students with is that she's an artist. She doesn't have to make it easy for us. A lot of our students may have never read a novel anyway. They're coming in here and are going to read something by one of the most gifted writers in the English language, and they're going to have to buy into and take ownership of reading the thing. The fact that it flows all over the place, that's what happens when we talk. Students have to buy into this. I don't think any of her novels are more difficult than the others. They're all difficult. You have to work at it.

Participant: Getting back to your comment that this novel is way out there, when you look at structure and what Morrison does in all of her novels, what makes me excited when I go back to a novel is picking up those threads. For example, the red, white, and blue backdrop is in every one of them. I look for it and always find it. The multiple narrators, various perspectives, and metaphors. She develops it differently in this novel, but it's still there. It's just a classic Morrison. I think that's one thing to reconsider.

Participant: We get caught up in trying to convince kids that they must like what they're reading. I think we can teach kids to appreciate the language, the ambiguity of the ending, and the elements of the writing without trying to convince them that they like what they've read.

Participant: I say this to my students all the time—that life is frustrating and full of difficult things that don't have simple answers. When you get frustrated, get used to that and let yourself get frustrated. If you don't know the answer, deal with it. Even if you never get the answer, that's okay as a life lesson. I think Morrison is perfect for that. I like not knowing what some of Morrison's metaphors mean. It's something I can think about. It's part of the frustration that I think is healthy to feel as a human being.

Dr. Herman Beavers: I think of a moment in Song of Solomon, which is a book I picked up and put down three times before I actually sat down and read it. I got to that place where Railroad Tommy is having that long discussion with Guitar and Milkman about this thing that they're never going to have. In terms of this conversation, that's an important conversation to have with a young person. Part of what we need to deal with, with students in high school or college, is we have to be ready to accept what they come up with. They'll throw it back at you with, "Doesn't literature mean anything we want it to mean?" Toni Morrison is a difficult writer to have that conversation with a young person about because she is so demanding. It probably means we need to spend some time deconstructing the idea of difficulty. What is that?

Participant: I surveyed my kids at the end of this year. I had taught them for two years, and we did Beloved and Song of Solomon. Some of the questions I asked were which books taught you the most, which did you like the most, which was the easiest to read, and which was the most challenging. Song of Solomon showed up all the time on easiest and most rewarding. Invisible Man showed up on easiest. They got it. These are not AP/honors kids. These are kids who might be placed in remedial classes sometimes. If they get it, they get it.


Giselle Anatol: As Dr. Beavers mentioned in his lecture, when Morrison saw the photograph by the famous photographer James VanDerZee, she was captivated by what it suggested. In the photo, a young woman lies in a casket. She had been shot by her lover but refused to tell his name before she died. Morrison wished to write about that passion. Some might say that the novel is too depressing to be called Jazz, and that it should be called Blues instead. But Morrison is working on many different levels here—when you think about it, it’s a pretty amazing literary experiment.

First, she refers to the power to jazz to create and to make things up. In a way, it gives new life in its techniques of improvisation. Jazz is also described almost spiritually: “Young men on the rooftops changed their tune; spit and fiddled with the mouthpiece [… and when they] blew out their cheeks it was just like the light of that day, pure and steady and kind of kind. You would have thought everything had been forgiven the way they played” (196). The music is “pure”; it is associated with forgiveness; it can make musicians holy: “[The musicians were] sure of themselves, sure they were holy […. They] lifted those horns straight up and joined the light just as pure and steady and kind of kind” (197). Later on that page we see that the music can “penetrate Joe’s sobs” and soothe his pain; it has the power to heal. Joe and Violet achieve intimacy by the end of the story. Felice feels as if she is some kind of voyeur looking at them (214).

Like in a jazz piece, the characters in Morrison’s novel are given their solos—their moments to flourish—but they always return to the “musical arrangement” of the narrator, who acts like a conductor, trying to control the tale as the soloists break free. The practice of improvisation is also used in the narration: words, phrases, and ideas carry over from one chapter to the next, like a strain of the tune being taken up and improvised on by the next musician. On page 87, we find Violet listening to Alice; Violet is described as “a woman sitting by her [Alice’s] ironing board in a hat in the morning.” The next chapter begins “The hat, pushed back on her forehead, gave Violet a scatty look” (89). The first chapter ends: “He is married to a woman who speaks mainly to her birds. One of whom answers back: ‘I love you’” (24). The next chapter begins: “Or used to” (26). The section on Golden Gray would also be a good example of improvisation—his story is told, and then told again in a slightly different way.

We also find a lot of jazz-like phrasing in the novel. Look at page 119. In the middle of the narrator's discussion of Joe and Violet, we get:

“Blues man. Black and bluesman. Blacktherefore blue man.
[Louis Armstrong had a famous song called “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue.”]
Everybody knows your name.
Where-did-she-go-and-why man. So-lonesome-I-could-die man.
Everybody knows your name.”

Notice the rhyming, the repetition of lines. It’s like the lyricism of the narrator talking about being crazy about the City: “There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help stuff” (7).

Think, too, about the specific references to jazz, jazz records and songs like “The Trombone Blues,” and jazz musicians in this work. Alice is staunchly opposed to jazz, as were many religious fundamentalists, because they saw it as the music of sex and seduction. Alice calls it “lowdown music”—songs that “dropped on down to places below the sash and the buckled belts” (56). For her, it is music associated with unlawfulness and chaos: “It made you do unwise disorderly things. Just hearing it was like violating the law” (58). Note that jazz came to be associated with sex, violence, and illegal activities because black neighborhoods had been set aside for prostitution and gambling. This emphasized stereotypes of African Americans as uninhibited and promiscuous. Simplistic readings of the songs as purely about sex, or completely innocuous, “fun” entertainment, failed to uncover the complex emotions and experiences that were masked by the apparent frivolity. There were songs of anger and resistance, anti-lynching protests. Women sang migration songs, questioning their traditional place in the domestic space, as the staying force that anchored men who were allowed to roam about the country. Women sang about sex and their sexualized bodies, sometimes in rebellion against middle-class notions of propriety and double-standards for men and women, sometimes to assert a sense of emotional and physical independence. These songs helped to portray the entire experience of people, not “cleansed” of sex, and recognized that to think about Blackness in U.S. culture, one could not not address the issue of sex. The singers thus reclaimed their bodies as sensuous objects to be controlled by their own eyes, voices, and song.

“The Jazz Age” was a term coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I believe. African Americans and their music were not a part of his conception, though—according to popular images of the time, black people were either servants, silent and invisible, or the musicians/entertainment at lavish parties, initiating a mood of desire and longing. The true focus of Fitzgerald’s work was Long Island debutantes, flappers, and young men in tuxedoes. As Farah Griffin lays out in her book Who Set you Flowin’, for Fitzgerald, the period between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression (May 1919 to October 1929) was a time when “a whole race [went] hedonistic, deciding on pleasure” (218n). There was no consciousness of the intense struggles of African American people. Jazz thus becomes Morrison’s attempt to reclaim the Jazz Age and expose the African American presence.

The Great Migration

We have seen many examples of migration in Toni Morrison’s novels so far. In The Bluest Eye, Cholly wanders the South before meeting Pauline, and then they both travel North. Remember that the lack of acceptance and the social isolation that Pauline encounters in the northern, urban African-American community is part of what causes her alienation from her family and her sense of Self. Morrison also describes “good girls,” like Geraldine, who migrate north “from Mobile [AL]. Aiken [SC]. From Newport News [VA]. From Marieta [GA]. From Meridian [MS]” (81). Sula leaves the Bottom to go to college and explore the world. In Song of Solomon, Jake/Macon I and Sing leave the South and end up in Pennsylvania; Milkman must travel back to Shalimar to discover his roots; and we also have the story of the flying Africans—those who endured forced migrations, whether from Africa during the slave trade or when sold from plantation to plantation, and then embark on voluntary journeys to freedom. This would be the case in Beloved as well. Tar Baby gives us migrations from the United States to the Caribbean, from France to the Caribbean, and from small towns to big cities and back.

Jazz is the most specific migration narrative to date. Joe and Violet Trace migrate from Virginia to NYC in 1906. Dorcas migrates from St. Louis to NYC.

In history, there were many factors that led to the incredible numbers of African Americans leaving the rural South for the urban North. “Push” factors included racism and tyranny; lynchings; drought, boll weevils, and other natural disasters that hindered agricultural production; inescapable poverty. “Pull” factors included burgeoning wartime industries and the promise of employment in the North; exaggerated stories of prosperity from family and friends; promise of social equality. Here are some numbers, by decade:

1890 – 1910 = “The Migration of the Talented Tenth”
1910 – 1920 = “1st wave” = 300,000 people
1920 – 1930 = “2nd wave” = 1,300,000 people
1930 – 1940 = “3rd wave” = 1,500,000 people
1940 – 1950 = “4th wave” = 2,500,000 people

Other Historical References

East St. Louis Race Riots

Dorcas’s parents are killed in the East St. Louis race riots. When the U.S. declared its decision to enter World War I, thousands of African Americans immigrated to St. Louis to work in aluminum factories with government contracts. About 12 weeks after the 1917 declaration of war, nearly 200 black people were killed by angry white mobs. Many were clubbed and hanged, others were burned out of their homes. Three weeks later, African-American scholar-writer-activists W.E.B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson led a silent march in Harlem. Women wore white and men wore black and grey—mourning colors. About 10,000 people participated, either marching or looking on. Dorcas’s Aunt Alice recalls the details on page 57.

African-American soldiers in World War I

African Americans were largely in support of war. Black soldiers wanted to exhibit their loyalty and dedication to their country. They wanted to prove their worthiness of full citizenship, deserving of U.S. rights. They believed that because they had given themselves (many gave their lives) to the war effort, when they returned home, things would be different: they would be fully accepted. The 1st African-American combat troops went to France in early 1918. The 369th unit, the “Hell Fighters,” won the Croix de Guerre and returned to the States in 1919. They were celebrated with a parade up 5th Avenue. However, in 1919, lynch mobs also murdered 76 African Americans—the worst numbers in 15 years. Ten black soldiers still in uniform were lynched. Returning soldiers were more militant about their rights, and many whites wanted to keep blacks “in their place.”

Harlem Renaissance (1920s and 1930s)

This was a period of tremendous African-American cultural production (music, visual arts, literature, folklore collection). Many northern cities boomed, but Harlem in particular flourished as an artistic, economic, and political center of the Black community.

Alain Locke’s collection, The New Negro, was extremely influential. Locke asserted art as individual, as without overt political responsibility (purely aesthetic, in the name of self-enjoyment the channeling of creative spirit). The New Negro artistic movement corresponded to the rise of a black middle class—citizens concerned with issues of propriety, and being accepted as “true” Americans by mainstream culture. This led some to define themselves against immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean and also against southern migrants who represented a poor, uneducated “folk culture.” Morrison’s focus on the migrant working class revises the literary/visual-arts image of this movement.


The novel is full of orphans—parentless children whose mothers and/or fathers die (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively). Dorcas’s parents are killed in the riots; Vera Louise is disowned, and so her parents are dead to her; Rose Dear and May lose their mother when Vera Louise chooses to take True Belle away; Rose Dear, who is Violet’s mother, commits suicide in the well, and even before this, her depression leads her to nurse that cup instead of her kids. Wild is another fascinating character—she refuses to stay inside; she refuses to nurse Joe.

In the end, Violet’s and Joe’s demons seem to get exorcised. They both find themselves in the symbolic presence of their mothers: while they are in bed together, Joe sees a shape in the darkness that “forms itself into a bird with a blade of red on the wing. Meanwhile Violet rests her hand on his chest as though it were the sunlit rim of a well and down there somebody is gathering gifts […] to distribute to them all” (225). In turn, the couple can become sort of surrogate parents to Felice. Violet teaches her to look at trees and make up the world the way she wants it, and Felice compares Joe more favorably to her father (214).

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