Voice Upon Voice: Postcolonial Rhythms in Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

Dr. Sharon Jessee
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Taken together, Beloved, Jazz and Paradise form a multi-layered, post-colonial composition on African American diaspora. Historically spanning at least 150 years from the Middle Passage to the mid-1970’s, the three narratives reclaim major periods of separation and change for African Americans in geographical, genealogical, cultural, spiritual, communal, and psychological domains, and they do so in ways that are, in Toni Morrison’s words, “indisputably black.” I offer a reading of Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise as a project which summons a complex, rhythmic response in order to decolonize and restore the full emotional terrain of African American migration experiences. Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise each designate what I will define as a set of polyrhythms, some of which “cross,” musically speaking, with rhythms from the other texts. Multi-meter and polyrhythm, significant features of African and African American music traditions, are ways of varying and layering the beat, as different instruments and/or voices use different meters at the same time, creating a “heterogenous sound ideal.” While there are ongoing debates about how African American aesthetic productions are related to traditional and newer African ones, the idea that there is “a shared conceptual framework,” in Olly Wilson’s words,has been consistently affirmed.

Moreover, at the interface between black music and Morrison’s fiction is an important disrupting dynamic which is improvisational, critical, criss-crossed, and dissonant. Specifically, rhythm is involved in breaking apart, dividing, or derailing a world of unfreedom and producing modes of resistance to it. As Kevin Gaines notes in “Artistic Othering in Black Diaspora Musics,” African-influenced conceptions of rhythm served as bridges for actual social, cultural and language differences among peoples of African descent, formed vehicles among audiences for political solidarities, symbolically merged histories of struggle, emancipation, and religious practice separated by enslavement and colonization, and infused secular spaces with spiritual and communal meaning. (207-08). Black liberation struggles in the postwar era, Gaines further suggests, contributed “political resonance” to “the rhythmic experience of time as a participatory and universalizing diasporic or pan-African idiom that operated at several levels of meaning” (207).

That Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise together create a culturally transformative project can be illuminated by considering its correspondences to what Said describes as the three major topics in cultural resistance. The “insistence on the right to see the [colonized] community’s history whole, coherently, integrally” is one topic, the goal of which is to “[r]estore the imprisoned nation to itself” (215). The second and third topics also find resonance in Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise: to create “an alternative way of conceiving human history” which Said terms “the voyage in” (216), a “conscious effort to enter into the discourse of Europe and the West, to mix with it, transform it, make it acknowledge marginalized or suppressed or forgotten histories” (216) and “a noticable pull away from separatist nationalism toward a more integrative view of human community and human liberation” (216).

Keywords: Morrison, Toni, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, postcolonial, polyrhythm, African rhythm, pan-African rhythm, African American, Jazz, Said, Edward
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Dr. Sharon Jessee

Associate Professor of English, English Department, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA

Ref: H06P0446