Blackness, history & love · Books

Strange flowers

JazzJazz by Toni Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The music happens in the background… while the folks are front and centre, every blemish inside and out on view, though modestly shaded and wrapped in gentlest understanding. Part of that understanding is history, not excavated, but unfurled or traced carefully with one finger, because it is still alive and hurting. Kinship structures the story, which curls around time, helical, branching… it is a sinewy vine, hacked at in places yet blossoming out, covering itself with fresh, lush, resurgent life. A leaf is an organ. One leaf’s flourishing nourishes the whole. But fallen sisters and brothers are mourned…

Where did this violence come from? Joe and Violet kill and mutilate a teenage girl… and then Morrison makes us love them. Audre Lorde said “When people share a common oppression, certain kinds of skills and joint defenses are developed. And if you survive you survive because those skills and defenses have worked. When you come into conflict over other existing differences, there is a vulnerability to each other which is desperate and very deep”*. The violence of racism is digested into intraracial violence. The blood-fed and tormented vine – no wonder – bears bitter fruit.

*Interview with Adrienne Rich, in
Sister Outsider

One thing that struck me was the contrast between Acton and Joe. The cruel, self-centred young man fits the patriarchal expectations of Dorcas, raised by an Aunt who restricted her to protect against what she saw as a sinful youth culture. Joe, seen through his wife’s eyes, is different, special, richly worthy of love, and his own telling inspires deep sympathy and liking. But it’s Joe, not Acton, who destroys Dorcas, literally killing her, because it is easy, much too easy, to deal death, much too hard to reject what white supremacist capitalist patriachy teaches: that black women are expendable, that men are entitled to unconditional female loyalty.

Missing mothers and a missing motherland for black people in America are imperfectly substituted by fellow orphan migrants to Harlem, where some kind of safety in numbers and mutual support are found. Trauma remains unarticulated, too painful for conversation, instead flowing into, being answered by the music, which flowers irrepressibly, dark blooms dripping scent and nectar, mild aphrodisiac intoxicants.

Our narrator lives in Harlem too passing on the tales she knows, but sometimes she lets their owners tell them first or again. This is how it felt to me and then this is how I see it. The gatherer, the teller, bears an authority that comes with responsibility; she does it justice by reminding her hearers that there is no single story, only herstories and histories variously nourished and starved and intertwined.

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