Ascending Through the Texts

I will be the first to admit that I do not have much background knowledge on the Harlem Renaissance coming into Lewis’ book. I do take some blame for this myself as I haven’t done thorough independent research on Harlem in the 1920’s, but I’m going to shed most of the blame on current high school curricula. However, as I am beginning to read When Harlem was in Vogue I am quickly learning much more about Harlem and its history as a host of a civil rights revolution.

Jumping off of what Erin said in her post, I also read the first chapter (and the prefaces, as they were quite helpful too) mainly focusing on the historiographical style that Lewis is using. But, partially because it is the assignment and partially because I have been doing this with most texts I’ve encountered since I began reading Morrison and Dante, I have been thinkING about Jazz and Purgatorio in tandem with Lewis’ book.

Themes of movement have a significant presence in all three books. There was one line in particular in When Harlem was in Vogue that struck me as Lewis was explaining the parade in Harlem that took place on February 17, 1919. On this day, the Fifteenth Regiment of New York’s National Guard marched north on 5th Avenue from 61st Street into Harlem. As Lewis explains, the majority of the men in the regiment were African American, and the regiment had won a myriad of different awards and recognitions for their service and bravery during the war. Lewis describes the soldiers’ march as “a heroes’ ascent through Manhattan to Harlem,” (3). The word ascent is what I feel is most important here. According to the map of Purgatory (which is blurry, but you get the idea), the bottom layers of the mountain are for the people who committed the worst crimes (sins?) during their life (but not bad enough to be sent to Inferno). As one ascends up the mountain they get closer to Paradise and their time in Purgatory (which I like to think of as hell-but-not-hell) lessens.

Now here comes the really exciting part: In Jazz, Morrison connects the two motifs of African Americans marching up the streets of Manhattan to Harlem to that of souls climbing up Mount Purgatory towards Paradise. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how she does this in the novel yet because I need to do some more close reading, but I have already found, and will hopefully continue to find while reading through Vogue, Jazz, and Purgatorio more evidence that Morrison is making this connection. On the second page of the forward of Jazz, Morrison explains that “[Jazz] music insisted that the past might haunt us, but it would not entrap us. It demanded a future — and refused to regard the past as ‘… an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack and no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle.’” The idea of the past haunting but not entrapping is exactly what Purgatory is. The soul must perform certain tasks that were given to them because of their wrongdoings in life; their past is haunting them in death. But time exists in Purgatory (unlike in Inferno), therefore the past does not trap them because after one spends a designated amount of time in Purgatory they will be sent to Paradise.

Choosing the setting of Harlem in the 1920’s already insists on there being an ascent happening within the streets of Harlem. These ideas are scattered and I need to continue reading about the time period in order to get a better grasp on the events of the time and it’s representation in Jazz. But this is what has been going through my head so far while reading. As Erin said in her post, “It’s only chapter one.”

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