Art meets activism: How Toni Morrison’s ‘Jazz’ sings for radical empathy

Cutting Room Floor

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Fiction may be imagined, but it often captures what’s most real. I feel literature has a unique power to illuminate facets of the human experience that other forms of media do not: It’s how I’m brought closest to narratives that are separate from my own. 

Currently, in this moment of the Black Lives Matter movement, activism is particularly acute in the wake of the death of George Floyd May 25. I’ve found myself turning to novels to round out my understanding of his death, the police brutality in this nation, other racial injustices ingrained in our present and, more largely, the African American experience.

As a white person, I think about my place in all of this. It is not about me, yet very much about me. What’s to know? What’s to feel? What’s to do?

I’m learning that, to be truly informed, the effort involved is twofold. There are factual truths to learn, but there are also more subjective truths to take in. Reading helps me with the latter.

That being said, Toni Morrison has played a very rich role in how I’ve educated myself on racism and Black history. Most recently, I’ve read her novel “Jazz,” published in 1992.

Set in 1920s Harlem, the plot twists, turns and dives deep into lives of primarily Black characters across states and generations. Their stories are human. Their stories are our history. Their stories compose the foundation of the country and the economy that America is today. Mainstream media and discourse do not do this justice.

“Jazz” aligns with its melodic title in its moments of peace, but these are not without the violence that is so central to its plot. As a mechanic of fiction, this violence can’t lead you to assumptions about characters. The violence is to be understood, and this takes work. In fact, 229 pages worth, and then some.

By the time I finished the first page, I’d already read that Joe Trace had an affair with and killed Dorcas, an 18-year-old white woman, and that Violet Trace stabbed Dorcas’ face at her funeral with a knife. And this was just a taste, really, of the trouble to ensue.

Morrison writes of violence, but also with violence. Her words threw me between decades and characters, but this splintered account allowed me to increasingly grasp a generational tumult. What makes “Jazz” powerful is the mosaic it is of what cannot be unfelt. 

Such as the bleakness of when Violet and her mother Rose Dear are living in a shack, with only okra, dried beans, berries and squirrels for food. Or the heartache of when Joe throws himself into a hedge because he hears a “scrap of song” from someone he believes is his long-lost mother, as he’s tormented by his past and forever fixated on finding her. 

Interestingly, the characters of “Jazz” maintain a certain grace despite the violence they’re involved within. The endearing names, such as Felice, Violet and Rose Dear, manifest themselves — although at first seem ironic. Morrison here crafts likability, and I often found myself rooting for characters to reach the resolve they deserve. 

Perhaps what I mean to say is that there breathes a certain harmony throughout their struggles and their triumphs. A harmony that is difficult to explain, but I’d venture to call it jazz.

For instance, in an early passage, Violet and Joe are on a train to New York. As they enter the North, the curtains separating the colored people from other diners are pulled back. The two begin to dance, “tracks controlling their feet” and eyes to “the City that danced with them.” 

This jazz swells again in a closing chapter. Women tap their heels on the pavement streets and men play their instruments on the rooftops. Music floods the ears, lungs and hearts of this Black urban life. Jazz composes space to simply be, its rhyme the pulse of Black culture and history.

I finished the book, then assessed the notes of 2020. The political landscape is a flurry of protest, conversation and emotion. But I feel more equipped for how to exist in this landscape because of Morrison’s words. 

I recall in the novel when Felice is at a party with Dorcas. Felice is harassed for the color of her skin and Dorcas stands up for her. They fight a fight together. And Felice thinks to herself, “It felt good.” 

This moment, among others, strikes a chord of hope in me.

Morrison’s gifted me knowledge and deepened my empathy. She enforces how the world can glisten if you don’t know all that’s there. And as such, what I know of the Roaring ’20s has been rewritten. 

Literature is my means to read, then feel, then act. “Jazz” may be back on my bookshelf, but it’s shown me the sharp edges of violence and the soft contours of harmony — which will not leave me. I am not a protagonist, but I am still to take part in progressing the story forward.

Contact Kathryn Kemp at [email protected].