- Spiritual, Blues, and Jazz People in African American Fiction: Living in Paradox
The art forms of the blues and jazz have influenced literature from Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea to Philip Roth's The Human Stain. A. Yemisi Jimoh situates these idioms in the history and culture of their origins. The historical component of Jimoh's book is extremely thorough. She begins with blackface minstrelsy in the 1840s, moves to the urban migration of African Americans in the early twentieth century, and covers the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The historical background illuminates the music of each period and the black literature that emerged from it. Spirituals, as emanating from the slave experience in the nineteenth century, contain the memory of suffering and struggle. The blues of W. C. Handy's "Memphis Blues" or Mamie Smith's 1920 recording of "Crazy Blues" reflect the reality of urban life, and particularly lynching, experiences that help to shape the black esthetic. In a similar fashion, the jazz of the 1960s, as Jimoh argues, parallels the individualistic humanism that affirms every person as a free, self-contained expression within the context of broader themes. Although spirituals, blues, and jazz have become universal artistic modes of expression, performed on a world stage, Jimoh unearths the roots of these forms in African-American experience.
As impressive as the historical scope of her study is the breadth of literature that Jimoh analyses. She begins with Paul Laurence Dunbar's 1902 work, Sport of the Gods, and closes with James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," although the latest work Jimoh reads is John Edgar Wideman's Sent for You Yesterday (1983). Her coverage of over eighty years of literature includes seminal authors like Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison. Jimoh's idea is that spirituals, the blues, and jazz are layered in each novel. Spirituals, for example, represent the struggle of characters to reconcile themselves to a slave past, while the blues contain the individual within a mass (urban) movement against which he or she strives for personal identification. This blues, while it holds the hope for better things, can be a lonely place, as is the case with the blues of Larsen's protagonist Helga Crane, who "does not abandon her Blues idea that she must become an individual piece in a larger pattern" (68). Through the presence of spiritual, blues, and jazz characters in the novels, as well as through the symbols contained in the ubiquitous jazz and blues clubs in novels like Wallace Thurman's The Blacker the Berry, Jimoh shows how African-American authors have used black music as part of their broader literary project. [End Page 483]
The glaring flaw of Jimoh's book is that she does not integrate the long-standing tradition of theoretical writing on black music, particularly the blues, into her readings of the various works of literature. Jimoh's oversight is ironic because she cites the majority of these works, many of which directly relate to African-American literature, in her references. Although it is apparent, for example, that Jimoh agrees with LeRoi Jones's reading of spirituals and the blues as emerging from the experience of slavery, Blues Peoples remains only a subtext to Spiritual, Blues, and Jazz People in African American Fiction. In a similar way, Albert Murray's The Hero and the Blues, which asserts a profound role for the blues in literature as the extension of heroic expression, remains an untapped resource. The absence of this deeper analysis is felt in Jimoh's treatment of Invisible Man, particularly in the relationship between Jim Trueblood and the blues. Jimoh argues that Trueblood, the black sharecropper who is shunned for impregnating his own daughter, represents "a mind that is psychologically anesthetized" (137), and by doing so she overlooks Houston A. Baker, Jr.'s reading of this passage in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. As Baker sees, the triangulation of desire between the black characters, Trueblood and Invisible Man, and the white philanthropist, Mr...