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Canadian Review of American Studies/ Revue canadienned'etudesantertcaines Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, pp. 87-107 Reading Toni Morrison's Jazz: Rewriting the Tall Tale and Playing with the Trickster in the White American and AfricanAmerican Humour Traditions JenniferAndrews "It's like humor: You have to take the authority back; you realign where the power is." (Morrison 1994, 245) 87 Jazzisthe subject of numerous scholarly articles which explore awide variety of topics, including how Morrison uses jazz music and its rhythms to shape her text, 1 what the sex of her unnamed narrator might be,2 and how the novel depicts the daily realities of city living for those African Americans who migrated northward to Harlem during the 1920s.3 Published in 1992,Jazz is the second novel of a recently completed trilogy4 that describes the history of African Americans from slavery onward, a legacy of dispossession which has had a dramatic effect on subsequent generations. InJazz,this search for identity is examined through the stories of Violet and Joe Trace, a couple that moves to Harlem to improve their standard of living. Abandoned by his 88 Canadian Review of American Studies Revuecanadienned'etudesame:ricaines mother at birth, Joe tries to fill this void in New York with the affections of ayounger woman, Dorcas, whom he eventually murders. Using a first-person narrator, Morrison's novel provides a retrospective look at the lives of Violet, Joe, and Dorcas, and explores the events that led to her death. Certain scenes in Jazz,however, remain relatively untouched by critics because of their seemingly enigmatic relationship to the text's main plot. The narrator's fantastic story about the unlikely meeting between Golden Gray, a young man born into wealth and privilege, and an African-American woman living in the wilderness, a tale located at the centre of the text, is one such example. 5 Borrowing from the narratives that True Belle, an AfricanAmerican slave, has relayed to her granddaughter, Violet, the narrator creates a story in which Golden Gray, who is journeying southward to confront the black father he has never met, encounters a very pregnant and injured black woman, known as Wild. Gray takes Wild to his father's cabin, where she gives birth to a baby boy, thought to be Joe Trace. The narrative can be read as an imaginative reworking of the traditional American tall tale, in which a white male triumphs over the natural world, but Morrison adds several twists by inserting a mixed-blood male hero and a black female trickster, embodied by Wild, into her text. Morrison's strategic reformulation of elements from the American and African-American humour traditions in her novel raises various questions which form the focus of this article: Why does Morrison include this tale in Jazzand what purpose does it serve in the narrative as a whole? In addition, how does Morrison's rendering of the relationship between the trickster figure of Wild and selected female characters in the Harlem community challenge readers to rethink two quite different humour traditions? Examining how Morrison's 1992 noveI,Jazz, revises the humour traditions initially established by white settlers to the New World and their AfricanAmerican slaves may, at first, appear to be a contradiction in terms. The gravity of the topics Morrison explores in her text, including murder, -racial conflict, and the legacy of slavery, seem to resist the levity that is usually associated with humour. But, as Morrison suggests in the epigraph above, 6 humour can be used to take control, maintain power, or overthrow those who have claimed authority. Humour is a serious and often subversive political tool that African Americans have employed for centuries to ensure JenniferAndrews I 89 their survival. 7 InJazz, Morrison looks at how humour can bind individuals within a community despite the threat of racial oppression. More specifically, she considers how some African-American women take humour into their own hands: by telling their own tales, which often differ substantially from the stories of their male counterparts, by finding strength in shared laughter, and in some cases, by becoming tricksters themselves. Telling tales and depicting trickster figures are not new additions to Morrison's fiction. 8...


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