International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Trauma and World Literature: Toni Morrison’s Jazz

05/31/2017
by By Howard Lipke, Ph.D.
In this contribution to the column we return to the work of Toni Morrison. Her novel Jazz tells the stories of African-Americans living in New York City in the period between the two world wars, and the travels and travails that brought them to the city. There are stories that include many horrors of sexual oppression and racism, including the rioting attacks on African-Americans in East St. Louis in 1917. They show the varied ways in which the people find solace, meaning and pleasure. One of the central characters, Violet, has a reputation in her community that lead her to be sometimes known as “Violent.” Early in the novel, at the wake of her husband’s young lover (who he, himself, had murdered), Violet takes a knife to the face of the dead woman. As Violet remembers her action she thinks about the attack as being carried out by “that Violet” her younger self who had the physical and emotional strength to survive the brutality of her life in the rural South. 

As powerful as the passages below are, they only touch on the full effect and complexity of Morrison’s exploration of identity, ambivalence and what we clinically call dissociation. Ultimately, Violet’s complex response cannot be taken out of its political context as a defense against the cumulative effect of intolerable subjugation.
 
“…she sat in the drugstore sucking a malt through a straw wondering who that other Violet was that walked about the City in her skin; peeped out through her eyes and saw other things. Where she saw a lonesome chair left like an orphan in a park strip facing the river that other Violet saw how the ice skim gave the railing’s black poles weapony glint. Where she, last in line at the car stop noticed a child’s cold wrist jutting out of a too-short, hand-me down coat, that Violet slammed past a white woman into the seat of a trolley four minutes late.”(p. 89)
 
 Later in the contemplation, after she was subdued by the ushers at the wake:
 
“By then the usher boys were joined by frowning men, who carried that kicking, growling Violet out while she looked on in amazement. She had not been that strong since Virginia, since she loaded hay and handled the mule wagon like a full grown man. But twenty years doing hair in the city softened her arms and melted the shield that once covered her palms and fingers. Like shoes taking away the tough leather her bare feet had grown, the City took away the back and arm power she used to boast of. A power that Violet had not lost because she gave the usher boys, and grown men too, a serious time.” (p. 92)
 
In this section of the novel Morrison also describes that Violet as forcing a beloved pet parrot, out of her home into the winter:
 
“‘I love you’ was exactly what neither she nor that Violet could bear to hear. She tried not to look at him as she paced the rooms, but the parrot squawked  a weak ‘Love you.’ through the pane.” (p. 92)
 
A little later Violet thinks:
 
“But, if that Violet was strong and had hips, why was she proud of trying to kill a dead girl, and she was proud. Whatever she thought about that Violet, and what that Violet saw through her own eyes, she knew there was not shame there, no disgust.” (p. 9

Reference

Morrison, Toni (1992) Jazz. New York: Vintage

Thanks to Elaine Alvarez, MSW for her helpful comments.


 

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