Renaissance in Harlem City in the Viewpoint of Toni Morrison’s Jazz

“Jazz”, a novel by Toni Morrison, is a chronicle of the lives and struggles of the African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance in the United States. The novel begins with an African-American community in Harlem New York in the year 1926. What makes it a credible commentary on that specific period in the history of the United States and that of the African-American people is the vivid description of the author of the “glittering city (Morrison 1992)” of Harlem, the setting of the novel.

Not only was the description accurate and vivid in accordance to the historical account of Harlem Renaissance but most importantly it has become a novel that encodes the way of life of every African- American during the said historical period. In the novel, the “City” has always been very important in the representation of the Black community, not only as a city within the city but the very essence of Black existence during the 1920’s. The historical backdrop of this novel is the 1920’s United States better known as the “Age of Prosperity” for most Americans because of the end of the First World War.

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Americans lead a new way of living that is free from German Imperialism. After the war, the African American soldiers looked forward for their freedom but never had one. Even after slavery was abolished, African Americans still have to work in cotton and sugar cane plantations. During this period, about 90% of the African Americans in the South were suffering and they viewed the North as a place of dignity, opportunity, and freedom.

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This period paved way to “The Great Migration” where African- Americans migrated from south to north en masse particularly Harlem, New York.

Even when they confronted another kind of racism in their new community, they somehow led a better and more decent life. The rise of the Harlem Renaissance heralds a paradise that is discrimination-safe for the African- Americans. The Harlem Renaissance as Depicted by Harlem City in “Jazz” As stated earlier, the city has become the sole instrument of the novel in making its account of the historical period vivid and interesting. The city represents many different aspects of the African-American life which makes this novel a credible account of the African-American life during the Harlem Renaissance.

By using the Harlem City as the setting of the novel, it makes the novel more grounded to the historical period where it is based from. This essay will examine the importance of the “City” in the development of the novel as well as its effects to the reader’s interpretation of it. Our first account of the city is found in Chapter 1 of the novel. In the words of an omniscient narrator: A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It’s the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it.

When I looked over strips of green grass lining the river, at church steeples and into the cream-and-copper halls of the apartment buildings, I’m strong. Alone, yes, but top-notched and indestructible—like this City in 1926 when all wars are over and there will be another one. The people down there are happy about that. At last, at last, everything’s ahead. The A&P hires a colored clerk. Big legged woman with pink kitty tongues roll money into green tubes for later on; then they laugh and put their arms around each other. I like the way the City makes people think they can do what they want and get away with it.

I see them all over the place: wealthy whites and plain ones too, pile into mansions decorated and redecorated by black women richer than they are, and both are pleased with the spectacle of the other (Morrison 1992). The first sentence suggests that the narrator sees “this” city as different and unique among the cities that he has been as suggested by the article “a”. This city, he contends, makes him dream big things and actually keep in touch with it. Basing on the backdrop of the novel, the Harlem Renaissance has brought about changes in the lives of the African- Americans.

The Harlem City in particular has become a new haven for the African-American migrants from the South to find a new and better life that is free of all the oppression and discrimination that they experienced. This dream is not specified by the narrator. However, I see dreaming (whether tall, big, or small) as something that is treasured by the African- Americans for only in this city that they were able to dream whatever dreams they have for themselves as an individual and as a group of people. To be able to dream is already a dream come true for the African- Americans who sought for another world for cultural recognition and self identity.

Though the dream was not specified, it can be deduced that this dream is that of the freedom to actually dream. Moreover, it is freedom to live in a place where they can be who they are. The second sentence further speaks of the African- Americans newfound life. The narrator speaks of the city as the reason of his strength. This presupposes the fact that the narrator felt that he was weak prior to his arrival in the city. In placing the novel into the historical backdrop of Harlem Renaissance, African- Americans especially in the South were treated as inferiors in relation to the Whites.

They were seen as weak and a lesser class of humans by the Whites. Furthermore, they were reduced to slavery as if brandishing them that role as their only role in America. However, as the passage suggests, this inferiority and weakness has been replaced by pride and strength. As a matter of fact, not only was the city a haven where discrimination and oppression among the African- Americans were inexistent, it has also become a place where they can dwell and live like normal Americans as suggested by an employment of an African- American woman as a clerk in A&P.

The role of slaves as a stereotyped job of African- Americans is already eradicated in the city. As a matter of fact, Blacks and Whites are in the city devoid of any differences and were living harmoniously with each other as suggested by the last sentence of the passage: the Whites and the Blacks are pleased to just accomplish their roles (richer Black women decorating the houses of the Whites). The words “top-notched” and “indestructible” in the third sentence suggests the confidence that the African- Americans gain in living in Harlem.

They see it as the end of their struggle for equality and the end of every possibility of oppression. As told by the narrator, even when he is alone he felt that the city is with him. Because of this, both of them (the city and the narrator) feel indestructible. The city has become a sanctuary for African- Americans from all the oppression and discrimination. If we look back in history, the Harlem has been the place where most of the African- Americans from the south migrated for they found the city as a place of greener pastures.

They find Harlem City as a place where they can start new lives and celebrate their unique cultural identities. Lastly, the fourth sentence sums up the real feeling and sensibilities of the narrator and the African- Americans in general on living in the City. The narrator says that the people are really happy not only with the end of the war and the struggles but also of their newfound freedom in the city. The phrase “at last” suggests that this happiness and freedom have always been yearned by African- Americans.

They finally experienced the happiness that they always sought for in Harlem City. In this sense, the city has become an embodiment of an emancipated African- Americans from their battle for equality. The Harlem Renaissance has always been considered as the spiritual coming of age of the Black community where African-Americans were able to foster group recognition and self determination. The Element of Setting in Historical Fiction The difference between settings and events that are based on historical facts and those based on the imagination of the author is mainly objectivity.

Events in a historical fiction are always patterned in real and hard facts of history. While other elements of the story such as characters and plots might be different, there would always be a cast from which the author will based his or her settings, characters, and plots. It is not a requisite that the whole set of facts should be accurately depicted such as writing histories, it is already enough that the facts are presented accurately to serve the purpose of a historical backdrop for the development of a work of art such as fiction.

Historical novel need not lie in the historical worlds they create but in the relationship between the world and the chief actors. Historical novels can be meticulous in depicting the larger contexts of an era while creating either the chief actors in that world or giving them undocumented thoughts and actions (Berkhofer et al 1997). ” In the novel, Morrison patterned the event to that of the Harlem Renaissance. From the beginning of “The Great Migration” as illustrated by most of the major characters moving from the South to the North.

Moreover, it is also evident in the passage cited above that the narrator is new to the place which indicates that he is a migrant. He sees the place as something different and strange which suggests that he is new in the place. However, there is no indication that the characters were patterned into some particular historical figure. But it is apparent that even though there were no particular persons involved in the development of the characters, they are still patterned towards possibilities and tendencies of the people that lived in that particular era, that is, African- Americans during the Renaissance.

The sensibilities and actions of the characters are always influenced by the happenings and the circumstances of the times. For instance, the narrator’s attitude and feeling towards the city is a typical African- American reaction to a place that has brought freedom to their community. On one hand, events and settings that are based on the imagination of the author are highly subjective. They are basically unrestrained and unconfined that the author is free to just create and invent any event, setting, plot, and characters without having to sanction these elements to facts or history.

The possibilities are endless so that authors would not need to concern themselves with accuracy nor loyalty to any source. Historical Literary Criticism as a Tool in Understanding “Jazz” It has been argued that historical point of view or knowledge as a method in literary criticism would render our interpretation of literature more objective. With historical literary criticism, our interpretation of the text is sanctioned on the subject’s relevance, relationship, and influence of the historical period where it is written.

It is not merely a baseless interpretation; it is an interpretation with a historical ground. This is for the reason that history is “ a bedrock of objective facts and data that give credence to any empirical discipline. ” It is believed that literature that is based on history would be more realistic. “The objective ground of history is precisely that which enables the subjective elements which constitute literary texts to function beyond the aesthetic (Green 1995). In other words, our knowledge of the historical events, figures, and background would make our interpretation more accurate for it is more objective.

Not only would it provide a ground for the understanding of the facts and events of the past but also of that particular period’s attitudes, perception, thoughts, and ideologies about the world. In the novel, Harlem Renaissance is not just used as a historical background to quantify or justify the tendencies of the characters and the vividness of the setting and events, but also the commentaries and ideologies that the African- Americans have during the period.

For instance, the novel incorporated the historical event of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance not only to give the novel more accuracy and objectivity but also to assert the Black’s attitude towards racism and their yearning to assert their identities through music and other forms of art with the help of the “glittering city (Morrison 1992)”. The reader’s knowledge of the historical background of a work of fiction would help him/her understand the contexts of the novel that would render his/her interpretation in an objective path. As earlier mentioned, historical background and details would make a work of literature more grounded.

However, this is not the case with anachronism. This is the worst sin that a historian or a historical fictionist could commit. To represent something outside the supposed context of the historical period would thwart the interpretation and knowledge of the readers upon the text and the historical event itself. In the novel, there are no cases of anachronism for Toni Morrison is a reliable source of the lives of the African- Americans as she is one of them herself. As far as the city life is concerned, she has not only depicted it clearly but also reflected its ideologies very accurately as stated in earlier paragraphs.

Though it would be difficult to avoid anachronism for every writer will always interpret historical facts in their own subjective ways, it is highly recommended that writers especially historical fiction writers which has purposes of being objective rather than just being aesthetic should stick to the original. In this way, they would not only remain faithful to history where it is basing its vividness, accuracy, and reliability but also serve a higher purpose of informing readers the ideologies and sensibilities of every historical period and figure that has shaped the world.

Updated: Jul 07, 2022
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Renaissance in Harlem City in the Viewpoint of Toni Morrison’s Jazz. (2016, Sep 21). Retrieved from

Renaissance in Harlem City in the Viewpoint of Toni Morrison’s Jazz essay
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