Friday, November 16, 2007

Everything is Now - Toni Morrison

We've discussed house rent parties in pre-WW2 Harlem here before. Toni Morrison's novel 'Jazz' is set in Harlem in the 1920s. First published in 1992 it is an imaginative reconstruction of Harlem life rather than a contemporary decsription. Nevertheless her depictions of parties ring true, not just for Harlem but for many other times and places:

Before the lights are turned out, and before the sandwiches and the spiked soda water disappear, the one managing the record player chooses fast music suitable for the brightly lit room, where obstructing furniture has been shoved against walls, pushed into the hallway, and bedrooms piled high with coats. Under the ceiling light pairs move like twins born with, if not for, the other, sharing a partner's pulse like a second jugular. They believe they know before the music does what their hands, their feet are to do, but that illusion is the music's secret drive: the control it tricks them into believing is theirs; the anticipation it anticipates. In between record changes, while the girls fan blouse necks to air damp collarbones or pat with anxious hands the damage moisture has done to their hair, the boys press folded handkerchiefs to their foreheads. Laugh­ter covers indiscreet glances of welcome and promise, and takes the edge off gestures of betrayal and abandon...

Two arms clasp her and she is able to rest her cheek on her own shoulder while her wrists cross behind his neck. It's good they don't need much space to dance in because there isn't any. The room is packed. Men groan their satisfaction; women hum anticipation. The music bends, falls to its knees to embrace them all, encourage them all to live a little, why don't you? since this is the it you've been looking for.

Her partner does not whisper in Dorcas' ear. His promises are already clear in the chin he presses into her hair, the fingertips that stay. She stretches up to encircle his neck. He bends to help her do it. They agree on everything above the waist and below: muscle, tendon, bone joint and marrow coop­erate. And if the dancers hesitate, have a moment of doubt, the music will solve and dissolve any question...

Anything that happens after this party breaks up is nothing. Everything is now. It's like war. Everyone is handsome, shining just thinking about other people's blood. As though the red wash Hying from veins not theirs is facial makeup patented for its glow. Inspiriting. Glamorous. Afterward there will be some chatter and recapitulation of what went on; nothing though like the action itself and the beat that pumps the heart. In war or at a party everyone is wily, intriguing; goals are set and altered; alliances rearranged. Partners and rivals devastated; new pairings triumphant. The knockout possibilities knock Dorcas out because here- with grown-ups and as in war­ - people play for keeps.

Also of interest: A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem

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