Study Guide

Jazz Race

By Toni Morrison

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Immediately, now that they were out of Delaware and a long way from Maryland there would be no green-as-poison curtain separating the colored people eating from the rest of the diners. (2.10)

Yuck. Segregation was a disgusting and shameful chapter of American history. Like all the Big Historical Stuff in Jazz, segregation is referred to in a casual manner. Since it's a historical novel, the characters in Jazz don't respond to the injustices of their day with the same incredulity that we do.

The wave of black people running from want and violence crested in the 1870s; the '80s, the '90s but it was a steady stream in 1906 when Joe and Violet joined it. (2.14)

History lesson: So the South in general was super-racist toward black people after the Civil War (and before and during) so a lot of black people decided that they would move to the North toward friendlier areas with more miserable weather. This is called the Great Migration, and our protagonists, Joe and Violet, are among the last wave of the Great Migration.

Everybody with fingers in a twenty-mile radius showed up and was hired on the spot. Nine dollars a bale, some said, if you grew your own; eleven dollars if you had a white friend to carry it up for pricing. (4.19)

Yeah, more casual references to how messed up the world is. A bale of cotton goes for nine dollars (not even very much back then) if you're black, but you get a substantial pay raise if you hand in the exact same bale of cotton and happen to be white.

Whitepeople literally threw money at you—just for being neighborly: opening a taxi door, picking up a package. In fact, there were streets where colored people owned all the stores, whole blocks of handsome colored men and women laughing all night and making money all day. (4.27)

And this is why the City is so appealing: You can make a living doing hospitality work, and there are black people that are making seriously decent money operating their own stores and generally having a good time. Compared to Virginia, New York City is heavenly.

Blues man. Black and bluesman. Blacktherefore blue man. (5.4)

Morrison engages in some wordplay to highlight the impact of racism. If you're black in 1926, you'll feel blue, because racism is seriously messed up. And you know what is literally black and blue? Bruises. Which we'd say every major character in this book carries as a result of racism.

One was the secret of kindness from whitepeople—they had to pity a thing before they could like it. (5.20)

Well that's a bleak thought. This lesson comes straight from Hunter's Hunter's mouth, and it refers in part to Hunter's Hunter's interaction with Golden Gray when he helps Wild deliver her baby, and also to Vera Louise's decision to keep Golden Gray when he is a vulnerable infant instead of putting him in an orphanage.

Then long come a summer in 1917 and after those whitemen took that pipe from around my head, I was brand new for sure because they almost killed me. (5.28)

Gross history time, part one million: Joe gets beaten badly during a riot, and is only saved because someone stops a group of white men from "finishing him off." Oh, and Joe didn't do a thing to deserve it. Just racism being disgusting, as per usual.

They were bringing in swarms of colored to work during the War. Crackers in the South mad cause N****es were leaving; crackers in the North mad cause they were coming. (5.29)

The Great Migration in a nutshell, everyone: People are miffed in the South because a part of the labor pool is leaving, and people are miffed in the North because the labor pool is expanding so rapidly. Also, everyone is being racist. Ugh.

Her state of mind when she moved from Baltimore back to Vesper County must have been a study. She'd left Wordsworth, the county seat, a slave, and returned in 1888 a free woman. (6.2)

True Belleleaves with her scandalously pregnant "mistress" and goes to Baltimore, and by the time she comes back to Virginia, she's free. This gives you a bit of the time-span we're dealing with: Jazz covers more than a fifty years.

Realizing the terrible thing that had happened to his daughter made him sweat, for there were seven mulatto children on his land. (6.8)

Yeah, Vera Louise's dad puts the hypocrite in hypocritical. He's scandalized that his baby girl not only gets pregnant out of wedlock, but with a black man, yet he's totally had affairs of his own with several different black women. You know, that he enslaves. So we're guessing they didn't have much of a choice in the matter? So disgusting, so infuriating.

He had always thought there was only one kind—True Belle's kind. Black and nothing. Like Henry LesTroy. Like the filthy woman snoring on the cot. But there was another kind—like himself. (6.27)

Golden Gray not only has a cool name, but he also has a newly minted identity complex. He thought he was white for his entire life, and now, with the understanding that he has a black father, he's thrown for a loop. Not only does he not know who he is, he's no longer clear on the distinction between black and white. Welcome to the real world, Golden—it's complicated.

"I know what you came for. To see how black I was. You thought you was white, didn't you? She probably let you think it. Hoped you'd think it. And I swear I'd think it too." (7.17)

Not surprisingly, Hunter's Hunter isn't totally tickled by the idea of having a son that the mother hid from him. But then again, Vera Louise's father did force her to go into hiding.

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