Humanities for the Hood

Since the first day of class when I found out that Toni Morrison claims to write for Black people, I have been dissecting her works in search of any indications as to why. I wondered if Morrison’s claim to write for Black people was a way of turning her work into forbidden fruit for non-Black people, especially White people, enticing them to read it. I also pondered on the possibility that Morrison makes Black people her target audience to eliminate the notion that reading is a White thing, and to get them to read.

On my quest, I have landed on another theory. Throughout the texts that we have covered in class up to this point, a recurring theme has been that of Humanity. Morrison recreates reality in her novels and embeds in them a plentiful amount of life lessons. I notice this most while reading Jazz. Morrison flips the idea of justice on its head when she decides to exclude police officers and the law from her novel that is set in 1920s Harlem. The exclusion of law and order forces both the victims and the suspects within the novel to deal with their problems on a personal level.

Joe Trace, after murdering Dorcas, is left to face a community that knows of the crime (or harm) that he committed, as well as his wife who still surprisingly shares a household with him. I wonder if Joe would have suffered more in prison than he is suffering at home, where he is crying and weeping every day.

On the same token, Violet is not arrested for desecrating the corpse of her husband’s late mistress. Instead, she is thrown out of the funeral home, and right back into society. Not too long after the matter, Violet ends up paying visits to the mistress’s aunt (Alice Manfred) and the two manage to converse with each other despite the obvious reason for turmoil. There is definitely tension between them, considering Alice’s violent thoughts, but they are still able to converse in peace.

These incidences raise several questions:

Firstly, which is the harsher punishment, being caged in a cell with a bunch of people who, like yourself, have committed crimes, or waking up every day in a society that reminds you of the harm that you inflicted on another person?

Another question: which is more humane, being thrown into a cage for years to pay your debts to society or to allow for you to remain in your community and be dealt with by the people, as well as your conscience?

Now, regarding Violet and Alice, is it better that they are dealing with their conflict on a personal level, or would it have been better if the law intervened?

Would Alice feel best knowing that Violet is incarcerated, receiving punishment for what she does to Dorcas, or is their current way of dealing with their issue better?

I believe that the two women spending time with each other and alleviating the tension personally does more justice because it allows for the both of them to gradually attain some peace. If Violet were to be imprisoned, or jailed, and never make an attempt to come into contact with Alice, it is very possible that Alice would end up holding a deep grudge towards her, and the conflict would never be fully absolved.

I believe that these questions, which are raised in Morrison’s novel contest the criminal justice system in America, and at the same time, raise many provocative discussions about humanity.

Furthermore, throughout Jazz, like I mentioned in class, there are several life lessons that I picked up on. In the late chapters, Violet states that one should take control of his/her life, and demonstrate agency, rather than allow for himself/herself to become a pawn of society. Also, while speaking to Felice, Violet expresses the importance of being truthful and honest with one’s self, and not developing personas to please other people.

While reading these passages, like when I read texts in my Humanities courses, I am easily able to apply the messages to my life. This is due to their universality when addressing humanity.

This leads me to the theory, and question, that I have been pondering. Is it possible that Toni Morrison’s intention in writing for Black people is to provide them with their own set of Humanities texts?

The Humanities curriculum, even in this school, is composed of texts that are written by old White men, and some White women. Literature by Black people has been near non-existent. Perhaps, with the exception of the narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which itself is a response to whiteness. Maybe Morrison hopes to change this.

Correspondingly, the fact that we are reading Morrison’s work alongside Dante (who is a prominent figure in Western Humanities) should tell us something. Morrison writing in response to Dante, is essentially Morrison writing in response to Western Humanities.

Perhaps, Morrison knows that Black people do not like to read, and that reading has been made out to be a White thing, and that by making Black people her target audience she could get them to read. Morrison may have also noticed that Black people are deprived of Humanities texts, since the texts are (just about) all produced by people who look nothing like them, so she takes on the role of Dante, and John Locke, and Mary Wollstonecraft and Virgil and creates her own humanities texts.. but for Black people.

When I started reading Morrison’s work, I appreciated it for its unique style, and brilliance in structure and content. NOW, amongst those reasons, I will be reading Morrison’s work to better myself as a person, as I believe is the purpose of the works in the Humanities curriculum.


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