Jazzing it up in the 1920s

Toni Morrison’s Jazz takes place during what is known as the Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Great Migration of the 1920s and ‘30s. The hopeful idea of starting new was a prominent feature that came with this time period. The main characters Violet and Joe, a fifty-year-old couple, suffer major strains on their relationship when Joe has an affair with an eighteen-year-old girl named Dorcas, and then proceeds to kill her. Even so, Violet and Joe push to continue their relationship, though both aren’t particularly happy–just hopeful. The story leaves behind a tone of love and longing that is representative of the 1920s. Jazz is an important book because it represents the black experience during this time of hope and hopelessness. Toni Morrison makes a point of “…writing for black people in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio,” (Hoby) which shows that the injustices African-Americans have overcome throughout history are an important aspect to Morrison’s writing, specifically during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s in her book Jazz. Throughout the book, the dynamic of the relationships portrayed and the extreme racial tensions that took place during the Jazz Age show that Jazz could not have taken place during any other time period.

The manner in which relationships are depicted in Jazz is evidence of the time period. After Violet learns of the affair between Joe and Dorcas, after Dorcas’ death, Violet is angered at a dead girl–a girl who was murdered by her husband–and all Violet wants is to mend her relationship with Joe. At one point, Violet converses with Dorcas’ aunt Alice explaining her perspective on her and Joe’s relationship. Alice tries defending Dorcas by saying, “‘She wasn’t the enemy,’” and Violet responds with, “‘Oh, yes she is. Then, when I didn’t know it, and now too… Wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t fight for your man?’” (Morrison 85) Violet’s response to Joe’s affair showcases a strange dynamic within the relationship. The couple’s pairing may have been out of the norm for today’s standards, but it represents the time period when it comes to marriage in the ‘20s and ‘30s. In the 1920s, data taken from the National Vital Statistics System shows that the divorce rate in the United States was only 8 out of every 1000 couples much unlike today’s divorce rate of roughly 24 out of 1000 for those aged 25-39. Even though divorce rates skyrocketed in the 1920s compared to 1890, when only 3 of every 1000 couples divorced, there was still a large disapproval of couples that got divorced. The only option in Joe and Violet’s case is to attempt to mend their relationship and live unhappily together while Joe tries to recover from his mistakes.

Within the first few days after Joe kills Dorcas, everyone in town knows who killed her, though it wasn’t apparent at the scene of the crime. Joe is a complete wreck, so when, “…anybody pass[ed] through the alley next to a certain apartment house on Lenox might have looked up and seen, not a child, but a grown man’s face crying along with the glass pane… Strange as it was, people finally got used to him… while he sat month after month by the window…” (Morrison 118) And yet, Joe is not prosecuted, nor does he go to jail. In fact, at no point does a police officer question anyone about Dorcas’ death. From the time when Dorcas’ best friend, Felice, calls an ambulance to when the ambulance arrives the next morning, Dorcas had died. The lack of urgency that any person of authority had when receiving a call from an African-American at the time was disgraceful. The medics blamed it on, “The ice, they said, but really it was because it was colored people calling.” (Morrison 210) As of 2014, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, ambulances are required to reach their destination within 8 minutes and 59 seconds of being dispatched, no matter who calls, much unlike the racist occurrences of the 1920s. Jazz could not have taken place in another time period, since first responders must now follow a certain protocol, which wasn’t fully developed until the 1960s. The racist idea during the 1920s were not particularly subtle, costing lives and relationships as told by the tale of Golden Gray.

In the book Jazz, a story emerges about a young man named Golden Gray who was born a child of a white woman and black man. The woman, Vera Louise, is disowned by her family and Golden Gray grows up believing he is only white and superior to other races. His world changes drastically when he is told the truth after he turns eighteen. Golden Gray is rightly surprised in learning that he is of another ethnicity–it probably felt like a complete change in identity–but the way he handles this new information represents the beliefs of the time period. His whole life, Golden Gray had looked down upon African-Americans, so when he learns he is half black, he feels angry and dirty. Golden Gray had the mindset of hatred, as if it was his father’s fault he was born a race he didn’t want to be. He had so much spite and repulsion towards his father and new identity, he even, “… went to find, then kill, if he was lucky, his father.” (Morrison 143) Though racism still occurs today, certain beliefs cannot be reciprocated from the 1920s to now, like the immense hatred and sense of superiority Golden Gray had towards his father because his father was black. This ties into Toni Morrison’s objective to be a voice for the African-American experience in the 1920s. Beliefs that seem outrageous to most now were a commonplace during the Jazz Age. It is important to recognize the changes American society has made within the past 100 years as well as the oppressive culture many people lived through less than 100 years ago. The intention of Jazz is to show this change and acknowledge how African-Americans lived during the 1920s. Without this setting, Jazz would be a completely different book.

Toni Morrison’s intent when writing Jazz was to, “recreate a migratory experience, an immigrant’s experience of movement to cities, when they were the places to go, when there were, as you say, infinite possibilities.” (Denard 54) The book shows the struggles of life for African-Americans post-slavery, the time directly between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movements when unfair sharecropping, racial prejudice, and Jim Crow laws were rampant throughout the United States. When reading about the Jazz Age, it’s easy to think life went on the same way it does in The Great Gatsby, or almost any other classic novel set in the 1920s. Jazz tells the story of the black experience in the ‘20s that allows readers to acquire a deeper understanding of the struggles of African-Americans instead of only reading stories about flapper girls and Gatsby-style parties. Overall, there is no way the book Jazz could have taken place in another time period. The African-American experience portrayed in this book, including how racism and discrimination are handled and the dynamic of every relationship, is specific to the 1920s. The intent of the book is to show what life was like then, not now, therefore Jazz fits directly into the time period of the Jazz Age.

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