Jazz Writing: Identity and Multiculturalism in Jazz Literature

By Sawyer A. Theriault
2011, Vol. 3 No. 06 | pg. 1/2 |

Jazz is not a solitary art. Its form does not only reveal itself in the music. Jazz finds manifestation in many other forms of expression, including the powerful narratives encompassing jazz literature. In all of its modes, jazz narrates a people’s emotional reaction to oppression, expresses the artistic abilities of African-Americans, and provides a voice for those whose voices have been beaten into submission.

William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman’s A Handbook to Literature defines narrative as “an account of events” (314). The narrative of jazz, however, captures more than just an account of events. It tells the stories of a people who developed a music that transcended racial boundaries and is an art that allowed for the emergence of self-expression in an overtly oppressed race.

Jazz literature narrates the African American experience in a white world order, telling stories of struggle, triumph, and the formation of a Negro identity that defied negative perceptions of blackness.

"America is woven of many strands. I would recognise them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many. This is not prophecy, but description." - Ralph Ellison

Perhaps jazz literature’s most critical influence lies in the culture from which it developed; an American culture. The works that stem from jazz literature, particularly those emphasizing the issue of self-identity, create a space for multiculturalism, or “the belief that a society should respect and promote all the various cultures or ethnic groups of which it is composed” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 577).

Indeed jazz literature provides the narratives of the effects of white ignorance, and more vitally, a pedagogical institution to understand and overcome it. Specifically, James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls, and Ralph Ellison’s “As The Spirit Moves Mahalia,” exemplify the transcendent power of self-identity within jazz literature.

Duke Ellington Big Band

Before analyzing the cultural significance of these works, though, one must first begin to understand the debilitating effects of what Charles Mills calls “white ignorance.” The value of jazz literature and its racial, cultural and societal implications have been dismissed among American mainstream education. Charles Mills addresses the widespread disregard of racial epistemologies as derivative of a tradition of “white ignorance.”

In his essay “White Ignorance,” Mills explores the “the social suppression of pertinent knowledge,” that has formed both “false belief[s] and the absence of true belief,” among whites regarding African Americans (Mills, 16 and 20). He explains this “spread of misinformation,” among a “larger social cluster,” as a crucial contributor to an anti-multiculturalist perspective. After all, how can one learn to appreciate and integrate other cultures when his or her awareness of that culture does not exist in truth?

Mills goes on to explain his idea of how an “ignorance, a non-knowing, that is not contingent, but in which race – white racism and/or white racial domination and their ramifications – play a crucial casual role,” among American society (20). An understanding of Mills’ theory accentuates the importance of jazz literature and the forms of self-identity those works provide.

In James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, the theme of identity is salient. Like many renowned authors, Baldwin’s recurring literary themes stem from his personal upbringing. Theme –which in “poetry, fiction and drama [is] the abstract concept that is made concrete through representation in person, action, and image,”– is a pivotal tool for Baldwin’s work (Harmon and Holman, 476).

By analyzing the thematic characteristics in The Amen Corner, the audience begins to understand the importance of self-identity in the play. In order to fully appreciate the relevance of Baldwin’s drama, the reader must first approach the important biographical aspects of the author’s life, which reveal themselves in his fiction. Perhaps one of the most important of these aspects was the absence of a supportive father figure in Baldwin’s life. His father, David “showed his wife and children little affection,” and as a result “Baldwin was timid and shy, and fearful of his father” (Bloom, 17).

Although David fiercely embraced the church, using its pulpit as a catalyst to pronounce his hatred for whites, Baldwin, who also found solace in religion, rejected his father’s extreme views. As he wrote in his essay “My Dungeon Shook” his father “had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him” (Baldwin, 4).

Still, Baldwin followed in similar footsteps to his father and began preaching at the age of fourteen at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly, where he “first learned how to use rhetoric effectively” (Bloom, 21). Where Baldwin once cowered in fear of his father, the power of preaching instilled a sense of confidence in the soon to be author, and an individual identity began to emerge in him.

In The Amen Corner, Baldwin presents the search for identity through the character David and his refutation of the church, using jazz as his vehicle to do so. Just as jazz music allowed African American’s a form of self-expression that had been historically denied to them, so too does it provide David a counter-identity to the religious one thrust upon him by his mother. The parallel Baldwin creates –between both African American’s and David’s use of jazz as a counter-identity to oppression– conveys this work as jazz literature.

This identity materializes as David realizes that his mother cannot arbitrate his individuality, and that his calling is not in the church. Margaret, David’s mother and the pastor of a small church in Harlem which doubles as their tenement home, has lived a life vowed to religion and the “Lord’s Word.” When David was just a child, Margaret left her husband Luke, “convinced his sinning ways were beyond hope, and wanting to save herself and her son” (Bloom, 71). Margaret deceived David into believing his father left him and his mother. When Luke arrives on their doorstep, however, David realizes that his mother had left his father. By this point in the play the other ministers in the church have begun to realize how “David’s done started straying from the Word,” and no longer wishes to play piano for his mother’s sermons (Baldwin, 48). In a discussion with his father, he explains that a jazz combo has asked him to play piano with them:

"That’s when I stopped praying. I really began to think about it hard. And, Daddy – things started happening inside me which hadn’t ever happened before. It was terrible. It was wonderful. I started looking around this house, around this church – like I was seeing it for the first time. Daddy – that’s when I stopped believing – it just went away. I got so I just hated going upstairs to that church. I hated coming home" (42-43).

David’s decision to renounce the church and the “Word” of both God and his mother illustrates, for the first time in his eighteen years, an authentic form of self-expression. He pronounces his individuality by ceasing to conform to religion, a lifestyle that has been aversely compelled upon him, and embracing a thing which he truly loves: playing jazz. By pursuing his interest in playing music, David reveals a personality that has been forced to lay dormant for his entire life, while simultaneously representing a metaphorical figure of multiculturalism.

The metaphor, or association of one idea to another, resides in David’s transcendent ability to follow his own ambition. His countering of the life his mother wishes for him resembles African Americans pursuing his or her own identity, making a space for themselves in white America. As Devon Boan suggests, “the black experience in America is more [than] likely…to share an emotional framework with whites” (105). David, as a metaphorical figure, embarks on a life to create an identity within America that will inevitably cross the boundaries of white and black.

The reader may draw direct parallels to Baldwin’s own life in this exposure to David’s identity. As is evidenced in David’s character, Baldwin “charges the individual with full responsibility for his or her moral identity” (Roth, 284). In seeking out a life of musicianship, David has taken the responsibility of defining himself, and no longer lets others determine his future. Similarly, Baldwin rejected his father’s suggestion to drop out of school and become a preacher, and instead aspired to a life of art that was his own creation; his own identity. In this process of self-creation and revelation, Baldwin exemplifies his repudiation of “received definitions as the basis for self-knowledge or social action” (Roth, 284).

In other words, he believes self-knowledge and progress comes from within the individual, not from some outside source soliciting their own interests. Just as David announces, “mama, I’m leaving this house tonight. I’m going on the road with some other guys,” and claims his individuality as a musician, so too does Baldwin claim his identity as a writer. In each instance, both Baldwin and David are in pursuit of something that will ultimately result in a wider recognition for the two of them by both black and white audiences.

In creating The Amen Corner, Baldwin has presented a work of jazz literature that focuses on the theme of identity, which fosters an attitude of multiculturalism. This multiculturalist standpoint is promoted by jazz literature’s appeal to a “dual audience” (Boan, 105). In particular, because this jazz literature “does reflect a diversity of styles and themes borne of the author’s…balancing of a dual racial audience,” Boan believes those two audiences will “move closer to each other in their reading of [the] work” (105, Boan). This multiculturalist effect is experienced due to Baldwin’s demonstration of self-searching through David’s character and the personal empowerment evidenced by his decision to defy his mothers’ religious subjugation.

Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf, also exhibits the personal empowerment conveyed through the discovery of self-identity. Though Shange’s “choreopoem” – a term she coined in composing the work which resulted from staging the poetry through dance, and the author’s coming to “understand these twenty-odd poems as a single statement” (Shange, XIV) – may be discussed in terms of drama, the series of poems that comprise the script calls for an analysis of the work as jazz literature.

As Carolyn Mitchell asserts in her essay “A Laying on of Hands, “the verse portraits of [Shange’s] ‘choreopoem’ introduced a type of American performance art that expresses and incorporates women’s and African American cultures” (258). Perhaps the most evident qualification of this work as jazz literature, however, is Shange’s rejection of standard form and invention of an artistic expression of identity. In her essay “Contemporary African American Women Writers,” Dana A. Williams indicates the way in which “we see Shange’s artful escape of boundaries and her exploration and rewriting of form, two features that are among her greatest contributions to black women’s writing” (74). Similarly, jazz music, from its very initial stages as blues and work songs, has evolved through an “escape from boundaries” and a creation of its own form and standards; its own identity.

Shange’s resistance to conformity in for colored girls may be seen in both the structure of her dramatic script, and the poetry that composes it. Specifically, the search for identity within these features reveals Shange’s originality. For instance, each “colored girl” in Shange’s piece was unwillingly thrust into “dark phrases of womanhood/ of never havin been a girl” (Shange, 3).

The lack of a childhood and the individual growth that takes place throughout childhood has traumatically impeded each of the character’s ability to recognize their own identity. Particularly in the opening poem of the piece, the lady in brown speaks for all of the “colored girls” when she says, “she’s been dead so long/ closed in silence so long/ she doesn’t know the sound/ of her own voice/ her infinite beauty” (4). In this early stanza, the reader may understand the lady in brown’s “voice” as symbolic of her identity. Because a symbol “combines a literal and sensuous quality with an abstract or suggestive aspect,” the unawareness of her literal voice also represents a dearth in the cognizance of her self (Harmon and Holman, 467).

Shange’s use of symbolism throughout for colored girls, specifically in this stanza, reinforces the issue of identity in poetic verse. By using symbols such as the lady in brown’s “voice,” the author illustrates each character’s search for literal identity through figurative speech. The presentation of the script through poetry avoids complying with standard dramatic form, offering itself as an individualized expression for each of the ladies while also baring the corresponding attributes of Shange’s writing and the jazz idiom; a feature which elucidates this work as jazz literature.

Shange also utilizes the theme of sexuality and gender-inequality in her poems to convey the pain-transcending power of establishing self-identity. These seven women, all of whom have been subjugated to the “complications that arise when a [person] who is Black and woman finds herself trapped in a sociopolitical order that resists such ambiguities…” are defined by (male) society in terms of their their sexuality and gender (Mance, 130). The lady in yellow describes her graduation night, the night she lost her virginity:

"bobby started looking at me/ yeah/ he started looking at me real strange/ like i waz a woman or somethin/ started talkin real soft/ in the backseat of that ol buick/ WOW” (Shange, 10).

Bobby, whom the lady in yellow earlier describes as her past “sweetheart,” beholds her as a sexual object. His intentions are clearly aimed at the end result of sex, illustrated in the lines “in the backseat of that ol buick/ WOW” (10). The lady in blue then asks “you gave it up in a buick?” and the lady in yellow responds “yeh”, confirming what took place in the car. Though the sex with Bobby is not physically forced upon the lady in yellow, the social pressure of not yet having lost her virginity coerces her willingness to have sex that night.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

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The period of time from the Bebop era to the present—mid-1940s onwards—has been an era of great cultural evolution in the United States, and in few groups more so than the African American community. A factor... MORE»
During the height of the Cold War, the US State Department sponsored a series of racially integrated “Jazz Ambassador” tours in order to project proof of American talent and egalitarianism abroad. Representing... MORE»
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