Ogden Utah’s King of Jazz: Joe McQueen

Joe McQueen, jazz saxophonist, is Ogden, Utah’s King of Jazz. Part of a travelling jazz band, McQueen got stuck in the city in 1945 after the bandleader skipped town and took all their money. He and his wife stayed in Ogden, and he has played jazz there ever since. At 98 years old, he still actively plays jazz in the community, and next month, he will be inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. What follows are excerpts from a transcript of the lecture he gave to a graduate class at Weber State University in Fall 2015, transcribed by Chelsea Adams. We intend to highlight information that is less widely known and published. 


On the Great Depression
I had the experience of growing up during the big depression, which we talk about a recession now, it’s nothing like that was. I see people where I live across the street from me, and I see people coming over there with boxes and baskets of food and all that stuff, you know, so there are so many places that people can go now and get food and things like this, and just about everybody you see has an automobile and all that stuff. But I remember, I’ve seen lines of people standing with a tin cup trying to get a cup of soup, and sometimes the line wouldn’t be taken care of and people would go without, and that would be the only meal they had all day long. So when people start now telling me about talking about hard times, I say take that to somebody else please, because I don’t want to hear it. Nowhere in the world it could be like it was then. Can you imagine cutting a yard that’s as big as half of this campus all day long for one dollar and a sandwich? There was no such thing as a power lawnmower. But that’s really helped me out because I’m as strong as an average forty-year-old and I’m 96. I attribute that to exercising, playing the horn, and the work that I’ve done during my life.

People don’t get a chance to do the things that I had to do to survive. And well, my mother died when I was fourteen, my father left when I was five, and I lived with my grandparents, and they were old, and I had to drop out of school at 11th grade so I could help them. So there are so many things that people now take for granted that it’s just supposed to be, but it wasn’t so back then. You know, when the big depression hit back in 1929, I was 10 years old. All my teen years was during that big depression, and it was something you wouldn’t want to try to go through. I’ve seen ladies up and down the highway with three or four kids just trying to find a place to sleep and food and everything like this. I used to go and my uncle gave me a 22 rifle, and I would go to a place out there, a place my step dad worked for a company that had forty acres of pecan trees, and those pecan trees, they had a lot of squirrels out there. And I have killed as many as forty squirrels in one day and given them to people in the neighborhood so they could have something to eat. Then there was another guy in the neighborhood that killed hogs all the time, and I’d go with him, and he gave me different parts of the hog, and those people would roll over each other trying to get some of that food to eat. And people have no idea about tough times, so I come up here to talk about music, but I have to tell you about all this stuff. It’s what happened.

And in Oklahoma where I was raised, they’d have those dust storms. And two or three times I remember when one of those dust storms were over, we’d shovel the dirt out of the house because the houses weren’t very tight back down there then, and after you shoveled as much as you could you’d take a broom and sweep. There was no such thing as a vacuum cleaner. You didn’t have those things back then, and then after we got all that out we’d take the rug and put it on the clothesline and beat it out the best we could with brooms and things. So people right now don’t have any idea about how good they have things. They have everything handy for you to live with. So be thankful. Thank the good Lord that it’s happening to you that you live in this time rather than back there.

To my idea, it was a learning experience for me, and I’m glad to be able to tell people about what happened. You can read about something but there isn’t anything, the best teacher is experience. If you experience something yourself, somebody can tell you about the same thing, but if you experience it yourself, you know more about it than anybody can tell you about it, you know. When you go through an experience like that, they had what was called dust pneumonia, and a lot of people died from that. My grandmother was a pretty smart old woman. She’d tear up bed sheets and we’d tie them around our face and things and stay inside and block as many holes as we could to keep as much dust out as we could, and not breathe as much as we could. And that was a terrible time.

And I’ve seen rabbits, people were killing them with sticks and things like this, and they’d kill those and eat them. To this day I don’t eat rabbit and I don’t eat squirrel, but I killed a lot of them for other people. Rabbits were eating up everything in sight, you know. You couldn’t have a garden back then. Rabbits would come out and clean out your garden in one night. So it was, that’s another thing that was bad. Let’s go to music.


On Discovering the Saxophone

Image by Sachita Obeysekara

Well, one thing why music is important to me is because I love music. It’s been a part of my life since I was fourteen years old. I had a cousin, I think he would tell you, Herschel Evans, and his mother was my dad’s sister, and he was visiting his mother and I went down to visit her, she was my aunt, and he came home and he had his horn on the bed, and I had never touched a saxophone before. But he was outside smoking, and I picked up the horn and started making some kind of noise and he came in the house and told me, asked me to tell him what I’d done.

And I said I have no idea, I said, it’s the first time I ever handled a horn.

So he said, well, I’m going to show you to run a C Major scale and see what you can do about it. So he did it a couple of times, and then he gave me the horn, but he said wait a minute, you’ve got to have a strap.

Anyway, he showed me how to run a C Major scale and I did it, and he said to me, Joe don’t lie to me. Don’t tell me you never had . . . and I said, I’m not! This is the first time I’ve ever had my hand on a horn. So he said to me, Well, I’ll tell you what, you’re a natural. You quit that football and basketball and play music, and you can do that when you get to be an old man. How true he was! He had no idea, and I didn’t either. Because he died when he was only thirty years old. And so I’ve been playing since I was fourteen, and I started working in the band when I was sixteen, so music has been part of my life all my life.

There was only one time in 1969 I had throat cancer, and I was off playing the horn for about a year, but then I think it was about 1970, because I had the operation in ‘69 in July. And two young men that live not too far from here, the Mayliss brothers, and another guy that is still here, introduced me to them and told them about me playing the horn, and they started insisting on me trying to play.

I said, well I haven’t played my horn in a long time. And he said, let’s go try. So I got my horn out and at first, I tell you what, if you don’t play those things for awhile, these aren’t very good, you don’t have no strength in your lips to get a decent sound. So that’s why you have to practice, practice, practice. So I got my horn and messed around and said, see, what did I tell you? And they said yeah, but we know you can play. So they just kept on talking to me until I finally started back practicing on the horn, and they had to engage me, so I did. I played those two engagements with them.

And that started me back to playing, back in 1970. And during the same time I was right up there on Weber State campus teaching auto mechanics. And uh, I’ve been playing the horn all the time since that time and before that time. And I’m 96 and still doing it.


On Playing Music

Joe McQueen playing at the Viridian, 2017. Photo courtesy of Lex B. Anderson.

Well, I’ll tell you something else like I said at my church. I don’t read music. Musicians ask, how do you play those things if you don’t read music? I can hear. I can hear good. My guitar player, I think you met him, I had a CD playing in my van, and he said, we need to play that. And I said yeah, okay.

And he said, well, when we going to rehearse?

And I said, why don’t you take it and listen to it? I’ve already got it.

He said, What do you mean?

And I say, I just heard it.

When did you hear it?

I say, I heard it just then.

He said, What? You telling me?

I said well, if you want to get to taping it, come down.

And he said, I can’t do that.

Incidentally, this guy named his little boy after me. And so that’s what I say. The good Lord blessed you in so many different ways. I always had a problem reading music. Until this day I can’t read music and I don’t try. But I can play dang near anything I can hear. And the thing about it is with me is when I play what I hear, I play what I feel. And that’s what people who talk about, about me playing music. Most the stuff that I play, you can take that to the bank. It’s all coming from here.

In high school I was faking just like I do now. The teacher had me trying to play a bass tuba, and I was going by what I could hear. We were playing marches. And I would blow what I thought it should sound like. The music teacher came up one day and said, Joe.

And I said, yes sir.

And he said, you weren’t playing that march quite right.

And I said well, maybe I wasn’t, but I was playing what I thought I heard.

And he said, well, why don’t you read the music?

And I said, because I can’t read it. I tried it and I can’t read it. And I tried reading music a thousand times. I’ve been up there, and I don’t have, there’s something about reading music to me, is I don’t have enough time to really apply myself to read it because as soon as I get to trying to read the music, if I hear two or three notes of that thing and know what the tune is, I’ll go ahead and play it by ear. And I don’t know, just all my life it’s been that way.

I go down, my pastor asks me sometimes to go down and play in the church, and I go play some of those hymns, and I can hear them when they sing and I take my horn and play them. And that’s all, the good Lord just gave me that talent.

I can play tunes right now that I played in high school. Yeah. Like I’m saying, and here’s the reason. These guys tell me about me teaching, and I say I’m not teaching. But they say, you teach all the time. You tell us how to do it and play this, that, and the other. We didn’t get that in school. We tried to learn like that but we can’t do it. That’s why we’re trying to learn with you. But the good Lord just gave me something. I can hear something, and it just pops into my head, and I’ve been playing the horn long enough, that I can just go in and play it, and it’s something I never called.

Don, Don was my drummer for 25 years, and Don was always talking about, you sure played something great tonight, and this and that. And I said well if you heard it then I’m glad you heard it because you might not hear it again. You know, I play whatever I feel in a given time. Some little tune, like one on this CD, I play the same tune, you probably wouldn’t hear me play it like it’s on that CD. I play something different ever doggone time. And just because, like I said, I don’t read the music. When people play music, there were some guys in the band down there that could read anything, but if you took that music out from in front of them you might as well take the horn away from them. They couldn’t play without the music. Oh my God, I say, how happy I am I don’t need it. Really.


Help from Ray Brown
You know what I can do that most of these other guys can’t do? I can play in almost any key. Keys don’t matter to me. Sometimes I tell them guys, we will be playing the tune in one key, and Joe will be starting out in another key. You know, so that’s another thing I say, the good Lord just blessed me with a talent that most people don’t have, and I thank God every day for the talent he gave me.

The reason I can do that, I don’t know if you have heard of Ray Brown, he was one of the greatest bass players in this country, he dead now. But I had two cousins down in California and they cooked a lot of food and had a piano and everything, and musicians walked down there because they could go down there and rehearse and all that stuff. Well Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson and Ed Thigpen were down there, so I went down there and they told them about me playing the horn and they wanted me to come, let’s play something. And I said, I can’t play with you guys. And he said oh man, come on over and play some blues. So we played blues, and I said, well, I can play blues in this key and that key, but I don’t, you know.

And Ray Brown took me off to the side and he said, let me show you something. He had a piece of manuscript, and he said now, you start off right here on this note and you be playing it in B flat and move right on down and play it in this key and this key.

And I said, I don’t read the music.

And he said, well, you know what that starting note is, that’s it.

And I said, that won’t work with me.

And he said, yes it will. So you try it. He said, then you’ll find sometime that there’s one tune that I play all the time, it’s called C Jam Blues. You would think it would start on C but it starts on A.

There’s a difference but I know, I can hear where that thing starts. I can get the starting note on just about any tune and go on and play it.


Duke Ellington and Jimmy Rainey
One of the greatest drummers we had, he couldn’t read music, but he could play. There’s a lot of people who couldn’t read music, but they could play. They played by ear.

I had a drummer who Duke Ellington wanted to know how I ever got in touch with him. And I said, we were raised together, and his name was Joe Dehorney but Ma Rainey named him Jimmy Rainey. And I have pictures where he’s on there. I’d say Jimmy was 5’7”, 5’8”. I think he weighed 140 pounds at the most, soaking wet. But he was hard as nails and that guy could keep a tempo like you could not believe. And we used to play fast tempos, and he would do it and chew that gum. That tempo’s not going to drop and if you think it’s going to drop, you crazy! He played carnivals for a lot of time, and they played all that fast stuff for carnivals, and he was a good tap dancer. Duke, we had a session one time on 25th Street and Duke Ellington was there, and we was playing one of them up tempos, and Duke was sitting up there waiting on the tempo to drop. Pretty soon he turned around and looked at me and said, where did you get that drummer from?

I say, well, I’ve been playing with him since we were kids.

And he said, I can’t believe that guy, man! That tempo’s still up there and he hasn’t dropped it a bit.

And I said, nah, he won’t drop it. I said, you sit here and listen to him.

And there were a lot of guys getting big money from drumming. But Jimmy Rainey was kind of like me. Jimmy couldn’t read a note as big as this bottle, but he sure played drums and his timing was excellent, you know.


Who He Played With
Well, some of the best ones I can name is Charlie Parker, he was one of the greatest alto saxophones. And Dizzie Gillespie, one of the greatest trumpet players. Count Basie, he wasn’t one of the greatest piano players, but he had one of the best swinging big bands. Of all those big bands going, if you heard Basie’s band you know right away it was Basie. Herschel played with Basie, and Lester Young. I’ve got a reed in my horn case that Lester Young gave me. Plastic reed I can’t use it, but he gave it to me, and a lot of guys, like I said, the guys that I really enjoyed playing with, we never played a job with them, we just jammed with them, and that was Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and Ed Thigpen.

That was the best trio that I think I’ve ever heard. And that Oscar Peterson, he was amazing! How big he was, great big hands and things, but on that piano, he was so fast, God Almighty he played good. And Ray Brown, he had beat, and then Ed Thigpen was another Jimmy Rainey. He was a heck of a drummer. They were pretty good. But I played with a lot of bands that I enjoyed playing with. A lot of musicians. There were some musicians that I played with that some other people probably never heard of. There was a little old guy, died out in Arizona, Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, he played a kind of, I don’t know what kind of style it was that he played, but it was really a swinging style of music. He played alto saxophone and sang a lot.


Breaking Down Segregation
I was going to play anywhere. You weren’t going to tell me I couldn’t play. You don’t tell me. That’s the one thing that’s bad.

I was right here, you people might not know this. But I’m one of the guys who broke down that stuff here in Utah, where everybody couldn’t go where I played. If they didn’t let everyone come in where I played, I wouldn’t play there. And I’ll attribute all that to Annabelle Weekly, who was one of my best friends, and she was in the car with me when I had the wreck down there, and she died and I didn’t. That’s why I say you never know what’s going to happen. And when I told her that I was playing in a place, and I had two friends who came out there, and this guy told me they had to get out, told me to tell them. And I said I’m not telling them anything. I said, if you want them to get out, you tell them.

So he told them get out, and I told the people in the audience, I have an announcement to make when we get through playing. So I guess everyone was going to stay and see what I had to say. And we got to, and I had two guys playing with me, a drummer and a bass player, and the bass player’s wife and children were there and the drummer had some people there too. And they were two white kids. And they said man, let’s quit playing. And I said no, we’re going to play the job out. We’re going to get through playing. If we play the job and he doesn’t want to pay us, I’ll get the police and make him pay us. But anyway, he paid us, but I told the people, my announcement is that we won’t be back here ever again. I won’t be back here again ever. We will be playing somewhere but we won’t be here.

So I went and told Annabelle. I still have the key to the Porters and Waiters Club that she gave me, and she said, you go down and open up downstairs anytime you want. You just let me know in the daytime so I can prepare food. She had a restaurant upstairs. I started out with one night, and I wound up playing every night in the week, because every night was like this, jam-packed. And I had never heard this term in my life before I went down there, one of those young white kids told the cops to come down there and break things up. They didn’t want all this mixing of the races and things down there, so they was going to break it up. And this one kid got up and say, I’m free, white, and 21, and you can’t tell me where to go and what to do. Here come another one, and another and another and another, the girls, and they was all up at the door in them cops’ face and they didn’t know what to do. They just stood and looked.

They went up and told Annabelle, and she said, what you want me to do? People come down here all the time and everything like this. So they saw they couldn’t break it up, and from there, that’s what started breaking down that color barrier right here in Ogden. It was in 1963.

So then, some of those guys I’d been playing for, the going rate was $10 a night. You played four hours for $10. But Annabelle told me Joe, you can have all the money on the door. You’ll have to get somebody down there, down the stairs to take tickets and someone up the stairs to sell tickets. And I said, I’ll have guys on the bar down there. She had a license for liquor and selling food upstairs and drinks downstairs, so she gave me all the money on the door. And God, I was making more money on the door. At fifty cents a head, that place would hold about 250 people. And then I raised the price up to seventy-five cents and then to a dollar and it was still that way every time I opened up. And when others wanted me to play at their place, I’d say, are you going to pay me the kind of money I make down here? Are you going to let everybody come in your place?

And they said, we’ll let everybody come in our place, but paying you that kind of money . . .

And I said, why would I want to play for you when I can stay down here and make this kind of money?

They finally found out if they was going to get Joe McQueen they was going to pay some money to get him. And that still goes. I do not play for nothing.


On Serving People
Try to see if you can figure out somebody to help anytime you can. If you can help someone, help them. You might see someone you don’t think, don’t look down on people because they don’t have what you have. They might not be as clean as you are, they might not be, but they’re still human beings. And it wouldn’t hurt you to help them if you see they’re needing some help. And I don’t care who it is with me, I try to help them in a minute, still, to this day. And my wife used to tell me on the highway, you’re going to get enough of those people down the highway, you don’t know if they might . . . and I said, well, you think like you want, because I’m going to stop. And uh, I have stopped on the highway a lot of times and helped people because I know a lot about cars.

I worked on cars until I was eighty years old. I had my own garage. When I got eighty I could get down but it was hard getting up. So that’s when I put it down. But I’m going to tell you this story about helping someone. I was on my way down, my aunt was ill, and I was going down to see about her, and I stayed overnight in Lyman, Colorado. When I got up in the morning it was so cold you couldn’t believe how cold it was, and they said it was around ten below, and when I left out of Lyman about fifty miles over and was still in Kansas, there was a guy on the highway and I could just see him shaking. He had the hood up on the car. It was a ‘47 Cadillac. I remember exactly what kind of car it was. And he had the hood up but he didn’t know what the heck was wrong. And so I was in my truck at that time and I pulled up and backed my truck up and said hey, go and get in my truck so you can get warm. I left the motor running. And he had his wife and two kids, and they was all covered up with blankets.

And as soon as I looked under the hood I saw what was wrong. On those automobiles, they have vacuum lines that do a lot of things under the hood of the car. And on those ‘47 Cadillacs it was, we called them tomato cans but they were vacuum cans, and it was about eight inches long and about four inches around. On each end there was a lever on it that plugged the lines. One of those levers had come off and the door underneath the dash that let the heat in wasn’t opening because that vacuum wasn’t in, and as soon as he went and got in my truck and got his wife in there, I put that hose on there and got in the car right away. The heat came. And I went to the back of my truck because I always carried tools and tape and I taped those things up and I sat in his car a little while because in just that short period of time I was out there, it was terrible.

And that guy was a friend of mine until he passed. He lived in Evanston, Wyoming, and he was on his way to Oklahoma City and I was on my way to Oklahoma, and so he followed me all the way to Oklahoma City and he told me when I got ready to come back, to call him and he’d meet me out there on the highway. And I said I don’t know exactly when I’m going back. And he said, well, I’m going to stay down here until you call me. He gave me a number to call and said, when you get ready to come back I’ll meet you out there. I’m going to follow you all the way. And that guy used to have a big garden up in Evanston, and he’d come all the way down from Evanston and bring me all kinds of vegetables and things.

See, that’s, it never bothers you to help people. If you see somebody you can help, help them, and the good Lord will tell you, love thy neighbor as thyself, you know. And that’s a statement that kind of throws a lot of people because you say, well, people don’t think about it, just in regular terms they think I’m not going to buy my neighbor a car. I’m not going to buy my neighbor a new suit. That don’t mean for you to do that. It mean you do everything else you can do to help them. They might need you to come and help them. Maybe they might need to go to the doctor and they don’t have a car and you have. They might need to go to the grocery store or something. Anything you can do to try and help somebody, that’s what the good Lord meant when he said to honor thy father and mother. And love thy neighbor as thyself, and all those things help you. They really do. I’ll say that all the time because I know I’ve lived by that code all the time and I’ve never had something that I needed someone to help me that somebody didn’t come and help me.

Special thanks to Dr. Michael Wutz, who organized the lecture and got permission from Joe McQueen for it to be published on this website. 

Claudia’s Blues: Blues, Jazz, and the Affirmation of Self in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison’s much acclaimed debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), examines the devastating effects of white supremacist values and aesthetic ideals on an African American community living in Lorain, Ohio in 1941. Perhaps more importantly, the novel also explores alternative aesthetic modes that form the basis for new ways of imagining racial identity in the post-Civil Rights era. Specifically, while Morrison’s novel reflects a blues impulse in its tragic-comic affirmation of Claudia MacTeer’s childhood experiences, it utilizes jazz aesthetics, specifically the techniques of “riffing” and “quoting,” as the means to extend a pointed cultural critique of the ideology of whiteness.

By “blues impulse,” I am referring to the creative reconceptualization and ironic re-presentation of pain (the tragedy of loss, of injustice, of mere bad luck) that allows such pain to take on not only a new meaning, but also a new ontological value. As the novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison has observed, “the blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism” (129). The blues impulse, in other words, seeks to find transcendence not in the detachment and abstraction of an “objective” explanation of tragedy, but in the rich density of subjective understanding that results from one’s protracted engagement with and creative reconceptualization of pain. Consequently, it is not merely the individual’s own painful experience that is altered through the blues impulse; the individual’s interpretive frame is also transformed. As Houston A. Baker puts it, the blues impulse offers new “interpretations of the experiencing of experience” (7).

Morrison explicitly highlights this interpretive potential of the blues during an early scene in which the narrator fondly recalls listening to her mother sing while cleaning house. Claudia explains that the “greens and blues in [her] mother’s voice took all the grief out of the words and left [her] with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet” (26). Throughout The Bluest Eye, the tragic-comic perspective of the blues impulse allows the narrator to cultivate both a space of intimacy in the recollecting of her own painful experiences in childhood and a broader affirmative perspective on racial identity that challenges dominant social norms and values. In another scene, for example, the adult narrator looks back on an episode of childhood illness, locating in the experience a complex array of emotions, contradictory perspectives and interpretations. Notably, the scene initially emphasizes the child’s perspective: Claudia’s discomfort in a drafty room (“Once I have generated a silhouette of warmth, I dare not move, for there is a cold place one-half inch in any direction” [11]); her absorbed fascination with the strangeness of her own bodily excretions (“the puke swaddles down the pillow onto the sheet—green, gray, with flecks of orange” [11]); and her emotional and intellectual confusion as she attempts to understand the source of her mother’s anger (“My mother’s voice drones on. She is not talking to me. She is talking to the puke, but she is calling it my name: Claudia. . . . My mother’s anger humiliates me; her words chafe my cheeks, and I am crying. I do not know that she is not angry at me, but at my sickness” [11]). For the child, Claudia, the experience is painful largely because of her lack of control and her limited understanding. She does not, cannot, as a child, comprehend the fear in her mother’s tone or the frustration behind her mother’s words. For Claudia’s family, like most families in her community, life amounts to an existential struggle, a “peripheral existence” (17). As the narrator explains, “Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about . . . on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses, and hang on, or creep singly up into the major folds of the garment” (17). It is only retrospectively that the adult Claudia can “squeeze” from her childhood experience a tragic-comic lyricism:

But was it really like that? As painful as I remember? Only mildly. Or rather, it was a productive and fructifying pain. Love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup, eased up into that cracked window. I could smell it—taste it—sweet, musty, with an edge of wintergreen in its base—everywhere in that house. . . . And in the night, when my coughing was dry and tough, feet padded into the room, hands repinned the flannel, readjusted the quilt, and rested a moment on my forehead. So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die. (12)

In this exquisite passage, we witness the dilation of interpretative possibilities. Pain is not divorced from love, but, as “fructifying,” is its material condition of possibility. Morrison does not attempt to resolve or relieve the child’s earlier experience of anguish through sentimentalism; on the contrary, the extended use of depersonalizing synecdoche in the passage is meant to distill the experience of love as a physical act. In Claudia’s blues, the initial ambiguity of linguistic expression gives way to the ontological density of physical tenderness: the explicitly auditory and tactile images “feet” and “hands” are experienced by Claudia as presences, the self-evident truth of “somebody . . . who does not want me to die” (12).

The emotional complexity of the scene of Claudia’s childhood illness effectively challenges the anemic white ideal of family represented by the Dick and Jane reading primer that opens the novel. Moreover, I would argue that this scene, like many others in the novel, codifies the blues impulse as a strategy for the ontological affirmation of blackness, more generally. If, as Ellison argues, the blues impulse is principally characterized by the commitment to working through painful experiences in an effort to find transcendence in tragic-comic lyricism, then it also implies a concomitant belief that psychic and somatic sources of pain may be powerful indices of one’s being. Morrison seems to suggest this idea when she describes the old women who come to visit Cholly’s Aunt Jimmie, women who give voice to a “threnody of nostalgia about pain” (137).

They licked their lips and clucked their tongues in fond remembrance of pains they had endured—childbirth, rheumatism, croup, sprains, backaches, piles. All of the bruises they had collected from moving about the earth—harvesting, cleaning, hoisting, pitching, stooping, kneeling, picking—always with young ones under foot. (138)

For these women, the various pains they have endured persist in memory as vital markers of their presence in the world and irreducible evidence of their “Becoming” (138). Painful experiences thereby form the phenomenological fabric onto which the patterns of memory, history, and identity are woven. By emphasizing the blues impulse as an affirmation of the ontological value of pain—and the complexity of human experience more generally—Morrison aims to critique oppressive ideologies that limit the scope of human experience and expression in the name of spiritual transcendence or aesthetic beauty.

Throughout The Bluest Eye, the ideology of whiteness is associated with a disavowal of complex emotional experience, and specifically, the attempt to discipline the body and the mind into conformity with a set of unrealistic, arbitrary, and oppressive standards. The character Geraldine, for example, represents a pathological adherence to the white (supremacist) ideal. Geraldine and women like her are said to live their lives in a state of somatophobic hyper-vigilance against what they perceive to be signs of threatening bodily excess, or what the narrator calls “Funk” (83): “Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies” (83). A generic description of unruly and abject corporeality that “erupts,” “clings,” “drips,” and “crusts” is applied, finally, to its concrete manifestation in the black female body (“they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair” [83]). When identified in the bodies of women like Geraldine, such generic instances of funkiness—“the dreadful funkiness of passion . . . of nature. . . [and] of the wide range of human emotions” (83)—become legible as the peculiar markers of race. The disturbing implication for Geraldine is the impoverishment of her inter-personal relationships (notably with her husband and son) and the cultivation of racial self-loathing. Geraldine’s fear of bodily excess and her concomitant desire for corporeal containment have both resulted from and have been translated into unstable codes for deciphering and maintaining racial identity in relative proximity to whiteness. In Geraldine’s anxious formulation, “Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud” (87).

Earlier in the novel, we are presented with the initial stages of this “conversion” into the ideology of whiteness as the discipline of hyper-cleanliness. Specifically, Claudia recalls being forced, as a child, to bathe in a zinc tub in preparation for wearing a new dress: “no time to enjoy one’s nakedness, only time to make curtains of soapy water careen down between the legs. Then the scratchy towels and the dreadful and humiliating absence of dirt. The irritable, unimaginative cleanliness. Gone the ink marks from legs and face, all my creations and accumulations of the day gone, and replaced by goose pimples” (22). The symbolic implications of the scene are unmistakably linked to the loss of self-expression, the devaluing of corporeality (in all of its forms), and the consequent narrowing of the interpretive potential for the “experiencing of experience” (Baker 7), both for oneself and within one’s community. Throughout The Bluest Eye, the blues impulse may be viewed, broadly, as essential to what Craig Hansen Werner calls the “individual expression and the affirmative, and self-affirming, response to the community” (xxi). Furthermore, according to Werner, we may view the novel’s interrelated “jazz impulse” as an elaboration of the blues impulse, in that it “provides ways of exploring implications, of realizing the relational possibilities of the (blues) self, and of expanding the consciousness of self and community through a process of continual improvisation” (xxii). If The Bluest Eye imagines new, affirmative terms for conceptualizing blackness, terms which emphasize the dignity of embodied existence, emotional courage and complexity, and the lyrical expression of pain, it locates these terms of self-affirmation within a broader, improvisatory cultural critique.

The two principle jazz techniques utilized by Morrison in the composition of The Bluest Eye are “riffing” and “quoting.” Musically, the concept of a “riff” implies a short figure or phrase that, when repeated, provides both a foundation (in the form of a recognizable motif) and a vehicle for improvisatory innovation through the means of revision, inversion, and parody. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has argued that the concept of “riffing” is a “central component” of both jazz improvisation and “Signifyin(g),” the term he uses to designate the technique of parodic revision and “troping” characteristic of African American discourse (114). An allied concept, “quoting,” generally refers to the intentional incorporation of well-known and thereby easily recognizable melodic source material into an original jazz composition or improvisation. Like riffing, quoting is a technique that exploits repetition and revision; however, the latter may produce even more dramatic effects because it may evoke an expression of what Gates describes as ‘resemblance by dissemblance’ (113). While quoting generally implies the brief inclusion of an extrinsic melody within a jazz solo as a kind of “inside joke,” we can extend the concept here to refer to the revision of a popular standard within a jazz context. In his discussion of this phenomenon, Gates cites the well-known example of John Coltrane’s 1965 jazz rendition of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic, “My Favorite Things” (1959) performed by Julie Andrews. The Coltrane rendition does not replace the original version; rather, through parodic revision, it offers a new perspective on conventional Western themes and idioms. Similarly, in his study of the poetry of Amiri Baraka, William J. Harris argues that jazz aesthetics, like that represented by the music of Coltrane, can form the basis for radical cultural and political critique. According to Harris, Baraka believed that by “shatter[ing] and twist[ing] and finally eradicate[ing] Western structures,” jazz aesthetics had the potential to “structure a new black world” (14).

In the opening of The Bluest Eye, Morrison quotes the 1940s Dick and Jane reading primer and then “signifies” on the text by repeating the same passage two more times, first without punctuation or conventional capitalization, and then without any spacing between words. The original lines, “Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty” is finally rendered, almost illegibly, as “Hereisthehouseitisgreenandwhiteithasareddooritisverypretty” (Morrison 4-5). Morrison’s revision of the original work both shatters the textual surface and puts into question the ideological perspective that it represents. Though the words of each version remain identical, the collapse of the grammatical structures induce parodic significations based upon the tension between form and content, signifier and signified. The staccato, declarative statements that initially provide a window into white suburban security and promote the ideal of the nuclear family, dissolve, like the breathless notes of a careening saxophone solo, into the frantic articulations of a maddening and unrealizable desire. Throughout the novel, Morrison employs similar techniques to critique some of the more insidious elements in white supremacist ideology, particularly those that promote whiteness as the ideal of beauty.

Morrison explores the pathological cultural fixation on whiteness and its detrimental effects on African American girls, in particular, by introducing the child star Shirley Temple as a central figure or riff whose symbolic implications are examined through multiple repetitions and inversions. The riff is deployed soon after the introduction of Pecola Breedlove, a girl whose family had been put “outdoors” by her father, Cholly. Looking back, the adult Claudia explains that while Pecola and her sister, Frieda, “gazed fondly at the silhouette of Shirley Temple’s dimpled face” (19) on a cup of milk and “had a loving conversation about how cu-ute Shirley Temple was” (19), she “hated Shirley” (19). A central riff “quoted” from popular culture, the image of Shirley Temple on a cup of milk represents both a consumable image of white desirability (symbolism later reiterated in the image of Mary Jane candies [50]) and a kind of doppelgänger that interferes with the narcissistic development of Claudia’s ego. Crucially, Claudia’s jealousy stems not from the fact that Shirley is “cu-ute,” but because the culture’s adoration for Shirley seems to coincide with or necessitate her own displacement and invisibility. The narrator explains: “[I] hated Shirley . . . [b]ecause she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing and chuckling with me” (19). For the young Claudia, who views racial features as simply the markers of familial belonging, Shirley’s dance with Bojangles represents a vexing disturbance in expectations, namely the exclusion of herself from her own mirror image.

As the foundational riff which concretizes the violent psycho-social process at the heart of white supremacist ideology, then, “Shirley Temple” encompasses both (particular) image and (universal) concept. It is not simply that Claudia hates this particular child actress; rather, the narrator explains that the initial aggressive response to the experience of displacement leads to the cultivation of a “hatred for all the Shirley Temples of the world” (19). By elaborating on this riff, Morrison attempts to make visible the psychic “conversion” (23) process whereby this outward aggression is redirected and ultimately introjected within the ideological fantasy of white supremacy. If, from a psychological perspective, Shirley Temple may be viewed as Claudia’s threatening image-double, the plastic “blue-eyed Baby Doll” (20) doubles Shirley Temple as a fetishistic icon of whiteness, embodying what the cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek has referred to as the “sublime object” (18) of ideological fantasy. Claudia’s inability to find meaning in the doll beyond its inert surface characteristics—the “hard unyielding limbs,” “bone-cold head,” and “starched gauze or lace” (20) of its dress (a dress reminiscent of the one she, herself, is sometimes forced to wear)—reflects the fact that she has not yet been successfully interpellated into the network of ideological codes that privilege “whiteness” as a transcendental signifier. Although Claudia intellectually understands that “all the world had agreed” (21) on the desirability of the doll, she does not yet identify with and consequently cannot comprehend that desire. Her destruction of the dolls may be viewed, therefore, as an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the elusive “sublime object” that she believes gives the doll a hidden, intrinsic value. Inside the doll, however, Claudia discovers only more extrinsic features—the “mere metal roundness” (21) of the disk that produces the doll’s sound, “like the bleat of a dying lamb” (21).

Although the Shirley Temple/blue-eyed Baby Doll riff undergoes many subsequent parodic repetitions and inversions throughout the text, it is in the image of Pecola’s baby, the product of an incestuous rape by her father, that its form is finally shattered. Claudia imagines the baby’s “living, breathing silk of black skin” (190) in contrast with the “synthetic yellow bangs” and “marble-blue eyes” (190) of the plastic doll, thereby painfully evoking resemblance through dissemblance. More importantly, Claudia’s desire for the baby to live—despite the horrific circumstances of its conception—reflects what Werner describes as the “expanding the consciousness of self and community” promoted by the jazz impulse (xxii). Reflecting on her reaction to the tragedy, the adult Claudia recalls: “I felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live–just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals” (190); however, she also recognizes her own responsibility in Pecola’s tragedy, admitting “We honed our egos on her” (205). Ultimately, Morrison suggests that the significance of the aesthetic impulses of blues and jazz exceeds the affirmation of the individual’s own experience of pain in the face of oppression. The forms of selfhood that these impulses make possible offer, in addition, a powerful source of ethical awareness and concomitant sense of accountability within the community itself.

Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph. “Richard Wright’s Blues.” The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Edited by John F. Callahan, Modern Library, 1995, pp. 128-144.

Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. 1988. Oxford UP, 2014.

Harris, William J. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. U of Missouri P, 1985.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. Vintage, 2007.

Werner, Craig Hansen. Playing the Changes: from Afro-Modernism to the Jazz Impulse. U of Illinois P, 1994.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, 1989.

Kelly Picture
Dr. Sean Kelly is an Associate Professor of English at Wilkes University where he teaches courses in nineteenth-century American literature, African American literature, the American novel, literary criticism and theory, and composition. He also serves as co-faculty advisor for The Manuscript, a student-led creative writing and visual arts magazine. Originally from Greenville, South Carolina, he studied jazz performance and music composition as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Eventually adopting English literature as a major, he applied his interest in jazz aesthetics to a study of African American authors, including Toni Morrison and Amiri Baraka. He received his M.A. degree from the University of Pittsburgh (2001) and his Ph.D. in English literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo (2008). His articles on the works of such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Nathanael West have appeared in scholarly journals such as Papers on Language and Literature, The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Explicator, and Short Story.

A Dog Named Blue: Song as Patrilineal Legacy in August Wilson’s Fences

Despite his acknowledged personal failings, Troy Maxson, the protagonist of Fences (1987)—August Wilson’s celebrated drama of the mid-twentieth century black American experience—emerges as a heroic figure: one who does the best he can under untenable circumstances. Having been driven from home at fourteen after sustaining a brutal beating from his abusive father, Troy recuperates his filial connection to the man who knocked him senseless, resolving his ambivalence towards him through the perpetuation of his song. The song, which celebrates the virtues of the hound dog Blue, is classic masculinist sentiment in its memorialization of the unconditional devotion and obedience of the creature so commonly styled “man’s best friend.” When Cory and Raynell, two of Troy’s three children, sing the song together after Troy’s death, they are not only connecting to one another through a shared childhood memory of their own father, they are also remembering and reifying his value of the characteristics, exhibited through the idealized attributes of Blue, that bolster Troy’s sense of himself as a man.

Blue’s song sentimentalizes the symbiotic dynamic between a country-dwelling man and his faithful dog, a dynamic that comes to typify the sort of hierarchical partnership men would like to replicate in their other relationships. Troy’s wife Rose censures his hypermasculine prerogative of treating her like a dog, a pattern of conduct he mockingly invalidates by pretending to expect her to respond as a dog ideally would when he calls her, but her playful banter functions as a tacit acceptance of the paternal bequest of characteristics and behavioral tendencies that eventually undermine the sanctity of their marriage. The song of Blue, then, functions as symbolic of the Maxson legacy and of the preservation of core masculine values, refined through the generations as the social climate enables a fuller range of outlets for black male subjectivity. Blue’s song thus entails a theatrical response to a two-fold anxiety: it serves as a means of reinscribing and reinforcing tradition, and simultaneously represents modes of honoring that tradition while resisting its detrimental implications.

The song, a paean upon the beloved Blue, praises the dog’s reliability as a hunting partner: Blue skillfully chases a possum up into a tree, desiring nothing more than approval in return for the faithful performance of his duty. The lyrics of the song then envision Blue gleefully trapping more possums in trees within the biblical settings of the Promised Land and on Noah’s Ark. This idealized image of canine delight in being of service to his master contrasts sharply with Troy’s insinuation that Rose resists such devoted attentiveness in the fourth scene of Act One:

TROY: (Calling.) Hey Rose! (To BONO.) I told everybody. Hey, Rose! I went down there to cash my check.

ROSE: (Entering from the house.) Hush all that hollering, man! I know you out here. What they say down there at the Commissioner’s office?

TROY: You supposed to come when I call you, woman. Bono’ll tell you that.

(To BONO.)

Don’t Lucille come when you call her?

ROSE: Man, hush your mouth. I ain’t no dog . . . talk about “come when you call me.”

TROY: (Puts his arm around ROSE.) You hear this, Bono? I had me an old dog used to get uppity like that. You say, “C’mere, Blue!” . . . and he just lay there and look at you. End up getting a stick and chasing him away trying to make him come.

ROSE: I ain’t studying you and your dog. I remember you used to sing that old song. (1.4)

This customary triangulated exchange among Rose, Troy, and Troy’s best friend/co-worker Bono exhibits a number of issues meriting exploration. Foremost, Troy opens this excerpt by defensively repudiating Bono’s preceding observation that Troy had singled out Alberta, later revealed to be the mother of his illegitimate child, to boast of his professional triumph in securing a promotion from garbage collector to truck driver. Troy claims that he “told everybody,” not just Alberta, and that his primary reason for going to the neighborhood watering hole she frequents was simply to cash his weekly paycheck. Regardless of whether or not Troy is being truthful, the fact remains that he does not choose his wife as the first person with whom to share his successful challenge of the segregationist hiring policy. Instead, his first impulse is to use the news to impress his girlfriend. Next, Troy attempts to enlist the support of his best friend to establish the appropriate ground rules for interplay between husband and wife. Electing to mediate his feigned dissatisfaction with Rose’s objection to being summoned like a house pet through Bono, instead of addressing his wife directly, removes the dispute from the realm of marital discord to the arena of competitive male bravado. Troy is not openly taking issue with his wife’s behavior, so much as displaying to Bono the control he exerts, as he believes every man should, over his “woman.” Finally, Troy compares Rose’s spirited resistance to the “uppity” attitude of a recalcitrant dog.

When Troy suggests that his fruitless efforts to make Blue comply with his will ultimately result in his becoming enraged and “chasing him away,” it makes for a provocative analogue to his conduct towards Rose: Troy’s frustration with his compromised control as breadwinner and responsible patriarch results in his subconscious anger and retaliation against the people who demonstrate unconditional devotion to him. Troy’s perception of the assault on his masculine authority makes him lash out all-inclusively—he distances himself from Bono in becoming a driver isolated from the camaraderie of the men at the back of the truck; he ridicules his eldest son Lyons for being childishly unable to establish a steady means of self-support; he betrays his younger brother Gabe—a combat veteran wounded in World War II—by authorizing his being committed to a mental institution; he undercuts his son Cory’s ambition by refusing to permit the youth to be considered for an athletic scholarship to college and then kicking him out of the house; he indelibly wounds Rose by first having a clandestine extramarital affair and then callously continuing it for months after he can no longer avoid informing her of Alberta’s pregnancy.

Rose and Troy, image courtesy of the Marin Theatre Company

Rose takes issue with the way in which Troy satisfies his own needs at her expense—the accusation she hurls at her husband is “You take . . . and don’t even know nobody’s giving!” (2.1). Rose’s words are doubly painful to Troy because of the secondary significance of her deceptively straightforward claim: not only is she saying that Troy is emotionally insensitive to her needs as a person apart from her function as his wife, but she is telling him that he is a self-serving and insensitive sexual partner, and this cuts to the heart of how Troy defines his masculinity. Troy, however, chooses to understand her allegation only in material terms, and he responds in similar fashion to when he takes Cory to task for imagining that he provides for his son primarily because he “likes” the boy (1.3). Troy cannot abide any insinuation that he shirks his financial obligation to ensure that his family has a comfortable home and enough to eat, so he insists that Rose retract: “You say I take and don’t give! [. . .] I done give you everything I got. Don’t you tell that lie on me” (2.1). Willfully or not, Troy misunderstands Rose completely; she never says that he does not give, but only that he also takes, and does so without fully appreciating the harm he does to those from whom he takes—specifically, she herself. Troy’s failure to listen to his wife in this instance is emblematic of the divide between them. Rose’s clear articulation of her recognition that she is being taken for granted serves as the basis of her emotional withdrawal from their marriage.

The conflict that alienates the Maxsons from one another is rooted precisely in their failure to recognize and come to terms in a mutually affirmative manner with the painful ghosts of their pasts. Wilson’s philosophical epigraph to the play provides a guide to the life lesson encoded within:

When the sins of our fathers visit us

We do not have to play host.

We can banish them with forgiveness

As God, in His Largeness and Laws.

Neither Troy nor Rose recognizes the “sins of [their] fathers” for what they are; as a result, they fall victim to the conviction that they can prevent the “visit” from occurring in the first place. Rose’s preoccupation with the fence for which the play is named is symptomatic of her desire to construct a barrier the “sins” cannot permeate; the healing that would result from “banish[ing] them with forgiveness” is never undertaken. Instead, Troy and Rose use their relationship as a means of escape from the aspects of their ancestral legacy they have been indoctrinated to believe are constitutively flawed.

Wilson perceived the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences as a departure from his own artistic vision of “ensemble murals” in which no single character emerges as the principal (Watlington 89). According to Wilson himself, “Fences was the odd man out, in the sense that it was not the kind of play I wanted to write. But all of these people who were used to theater kept trying to tell me my work should be something different” (qtd. in Watlington 88). “Something different” entailed what Dennis Watlington describes as “a more commercial, conventional play, with one main character and others supporting him” (88). In Wilson’s conformity to what he regarded as a prescribed Eurocentric form by virtue of his abandonment of the ensemble theatrical approach that felt natural to him, he becomes a kindred spirit to Rose Maxson, who abandons her rootedness in the Africanist extended family network of her childhood in order to embrace a Eurocentric model of nuclear familial relations. Like the playwright who imagined her, Rose adopts an unfamiliar, externally endorsed paradigm to achieve an illusory, externally defined success. When she ultimately takes Troy to task for bringing her the unwelcome news that he has conceived a child with another woman, Rose is uncharacteristically emphatic in her repudiation of the household organization of her youth:

And you know I ain’t never wanted no half nothing in my family. My whole family is half. Everybody got different fathers and mothers . . . my two sisters and my brother. Can’t hardly tell who’s who. Can’t never sit down and talk about Papa and Mama. It’s your papa and your mama and my papa and my mama. . . [. . .] I ain’t never wanted that for none of my children. (2.1)

Rose perceives such irregularities of parentage as undesirable, something from which she would like to protect her own children, yet she elects to become a second wife to a man who already has a son in his late teens when she marries him—a decision that effectively contradicts her ostensible objective. This disconnect between what Rose claims to want in her life and the choices she makes in actual practice illustrate both Rose’s subconscious attraction to the familiar and the play’s endorsement of her receptiveness to what she had been conditioned to regard as improper. Much of the action of the play can be understood as the aftermath of the violence performed on the black family by the effort to adhere to cultural values imposed by white hegemony. Even Troy’s infidelity, in his mind, results from the restiveness born of prolonged conformity to the inflexible expectations placed upon the male head of household. Fences depicts the Maxson family fracturing under the pressure of the attempt to manifest the standardized outcomes of middle America despite the lack of access to comparable resources.

The familial fracture is healed only after the death of Troy, who, as Kim Marra observes, remains stolidly unrepentant of his affair and its progeny. Troy’s defiant insistence that “‘A man’s got to do what’s right for him. I ain’t sorry for nothing I done. It felt right in my heart’ (86) . . . reflects his utter self-absorption in his desperate and futile quest for manhood and inability to take the hand that Rose tried to extend to him across the now gaping gender divide” (Marra 149). Rose’s strength and insight emerge at the resolution of the play because she alone, “who has suffered so much because of her husband’s cruelty, infidelity and thoughtlessness, understands the true nature of the relationship between father and son. Like her creator [Wilson], Rose recognizes the necessity of acknowledging the pain of the past in order to embrace the future” (Gordon 24). The restoration of the Maxson family happens through Rose’s justification of Troy to their son Cory, who has just returned home on the morning of Troy’s funeral after a protracted seven-year absence, and through the resurrection of Troy’s song, his own father’s legacy to him, when Cory and Raynell—who shared a home for no more than a couple of months in Raynell’s infancy—forge a bond by singing it together before they leave for their father’s service. Rose’s agency in mending fences, so to speak, between her son and his dead father reinforces her significance in holding their family together. She counsels Cory to release the residual resentment poisoning his life: “Whatever was between you and your daddy . . . the time has come to put it aside. Just take it and set it over there on the shelf and forget about it. Disrespecting your daddy ain’t gonna make you a man, Cory. You gotta find a way to come to that on your own” (2.5). Rose challenges the masculine protocol, one to which Troy had wholeheartedly subscribed, that demands triumph over an adversary in order to demonstrate masculine self-worth. Troy’s violent altercation with his son that precipitates Cory’s expulsion from the family home effectively reenacts his own adolescent physical struggle with his father that precipitated his 200-mile trek to Mobile, Alabama, upon his recognition that “the time had come for me to leave my daddy’s house” (1.4). In a performative display of his acknowledgment to his elder son Lyons that despite his father’s deeply problematic interpersonal skills, “he felt a responsibility toward us,” Troy recuperates his connection to his father through the perpetuation of his song (1.4).

Both Troy and Rose admit to conceiving of a conventional marriage as a site of refuge from the more uncertain and potentially annihilating outcomes that might have befallen them otherwise. Rose encounters Troy when she is thirty, relatively late in her life by the standards of the era she inhabits, and only after she “had done seen [her] share of men” (2.5); she willfully overlooks his shortcomings in order to secure her dream of marital and maternal fulfillment. Troy reveals, however, that his life’s dream does not necessarily accord with Rose’s idealized vision of domestic security through home and family. Reverting to the familiar device of his baseball idiom, Troy declares in his defense of his sustained affair with Alberta that he thinks of the nearly two decades he has spent with his wife as commensurate with developmental stagnation—he tells Rose that his relationship with her was secured when he “bunted” to achieve a respectable life without testing the limits of his capability, and that before becoming involved with Alberta, he had “stood on first base for eighteen years” (2.1). The disintegration of their nuclear family is complete when Rose and Troy become estranged in the house they continue to share after the revelation of his infidelity, and when Troy replicates the life-altering event of being physically assaulted by his own enraged father by forcibly driving his seventeen-year-old son Cory out of the house’s front yard and telling him that when he comes back to collect his belongings, “They’ll be on the other side of that fence” (2.4). Troy violates Rose’s desire to construct a safe and welcoming space within which her loved ones can dwell, accepted unconditionally, when he demarcates the boundary of his own domain by exiling their son outside of the constructed barrier.

Troy with his baseball bat in his backyard, image courtesy of the Marin Theatre Company

Their different appreciations of the significance of the fence represent a fundamental conceptual division between Rose and Troy: while Rose yearns for a protective symbol of mainstream domestic stability—the quintessential white picket fence of the American suburban ideal—Troy strives to create an aggressively enduring testament to his masculine power to conquer and leave an indelible mark on the world in which he lives—demonstrated by his insistence on using weather-resistant “outside wood” rather than the soft pine Bono recommends (2.1). As Missy Dehn Kubitschek has noted in her discussion of the oppositional gender roles dividing the couple, the disconnect underlying the emblematic conflict between Troy and Rose is “derived from their unconscious acceptance of an implicitly Eurocentric view of separate male and female spheres” (184). Troy’s appropriation of the male domains of work, competitive sport, and the public space of the local watering hole conditions him to believe that his movement within those spaces is exempt from Rose’s scrutiny and influence.

The psychological distance from home and family Troy develops as a result creates a situation in which, as Michael Awkward observes in his discussion of Troy’s repudiation of Cory’s complaint that his father never seemed to “like” him (1.3), “Troy’s economics of duty . . . leaves him poorly equipped to deal with the emotional demands of intimate personal relations. ‘[D]oing right,’ in such relations, is not merely providing clean sheets and nourishing foods, but also demonstrating an intense concern about the psychic welfare of those for whom one has assumed responsibility” (220). Such intensity of concern is not within Troy’s capacity, as he acknowledges when he admits that the defining moment of his life was when he “got to the place where [he] could feel [his father] kicking in [his] blood and knew that the only thing that separated [them] was the matter of a few years” (1.4). Such a recognition of affinity means that Troy is not “banishing” the sins of his father, in Wilson’s parlance, but absolutely “playing host.” On the other hand, what Rose advises Cory to do in the final scene of the play demonstrates the potential of banishing those sins with forgiveness. After affirming that Cory’s character replicates that of his father, that Cory is “Troy Maxson all over again,” she insists that whatever his faults may have been, Troy meant to bequeath to Cory the “best of what [was] in [him]” (2.5). When Cory sings Blue’s song and it develops into a duet with his half-sister—the fruit of Troy’s infidelity—he demonstrates his coming to terms with that painful betrayal, forgiving Troy, and celebrating the memory of what was best in him. By purging the anger against his father rather than allowing it to serve as an excuse to concede to a perceived irresistible fate, as Troy did, Cory models a progressive version of masculinity, making productive use of his patrilineal legacy.


Works Cited

Awkward, Michael. “’The Crookeds with the Straights’: Fences, Race, and the Politics of Adaptation.” Nadel, pp. 205-29.

Elkins, Marilyn, editor. August Wilson: A Casebook. Garland, 1994.

Gordon, Joanne. “Wilson and Fugard: Politics and Art.” Elkins, pp. 17-29.

Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. “August Wilson’s Gender Lesson.” Nadel, pp. 183-99.

Marra, Kim. “Ma Rainey and the Boyz: Gender Ideology in August Wilson’s Broadway Canon.” Elkins, pp. 123-60.

Nadel, Alan, editor. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. University of Iowa Press, 1994.

Watlington, Dennis. “Hurdling Fences.” 1989. Conversations with August Wilson, edited by Jackson R. Bryer and Mary C. Hartig, University Press of Mississippi, 2006, pp. 80-89.

Wilson, August. Fences. New York: Penguin, 1986.


Licia Hendriks
Dr. Licia Morrow Hendriks is an associate professor of English at The Citadel. Originally from San Jose, California, she attended Duke University, where she earned her undergraduate degree in English with a minor in Public Policy Studies. A summer literature course at Oxford University inspired her to pursue a graduate degree in English. She entered the University of Michigan’s doctoral program in English Language and Literature, and was awarded her Ph.D. in 1999. Her first book, entitled Black Family (Dys)Function in Novels by Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Fannie Hurst (Peter Lang, 2003), examines representations of maternity and domesticity in novels written during the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to freshman- and sophomore-level service courses in composition and literature, she teaches upper-division and graduate courses in African American Literature, survey courses in World Literature, and special topics seminars for the college’s Honors program. She is currently working on a manuscript project subtitled “The Anglo-American Fetishization of Black Female Domesticity.”  Her scholarly interests encompass the race, class, and gender issues manifested in literary representations of people of color.



The Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club: Our Story

It is a privilege to write the first post for the Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club website!

In 2014, I realized that I had been listening to blues music and doing blues dance for 10 years with a regrettably limited understanding of the culture that gave life to this art form—the African American experience in the United States. One of the best ways to learn about the history and culture of a people, even for someone that grew up in my same country, is to read the literature. I reached out to friends and colleagues with more education, and I was delighted to see how easily they recommended an extensive list of reading material for me.

Interestingly, I found that reading alone was less satisfying. Perhaps this is because this is a dance and music that I regularly share with my friends, community, and even dancers around the world. It led naturally to a desire to share my discoveries and inspirations with other blues and jazz enthusiasts.

A unique and exciting aspect of the blues community is that it is not limited to one city or geographic region. Dancers and blues and jazz music enthusiasts exist across the US and around the world. It is lucky that we are able to use the Internet as a platform to reach all of our worldwide community to share in our learning.

Another stroke of luck was meeting Chelsea June Adams, who is everything I could ask for in a book club leader. Chelsea is an English academic who specializes in 20th century American literature, and an African Americanist with a focus on the blues and blues idiom dance in literature. She has published on literature and social justice topics, taught literature, and taught blues dance. As you can imagine, she is far more qualified than I am to lead the discussion and engage our readers and community in the intriguing nuances and themes that flow through black literature and through blues music and culture.

I hope together we can read, learn, discuss, experience, and be inspired by a deep dive in to this rich, diverse, and fascinating culture that lives right here at home.

Happy reading, happy listening, happy dancing.


Sara Cherny


Sara Cherny
Sara began blues dancing in 2001 in St. Louis, and has been on the leading edge of the blues dance community since then. She first became involved in cat herding … ahem, event organization in 2003 with STLBX and Cheap Thrills All Blues Weekend, and her latest achievement is the formation of Big City Blues Studio, providing blues classes and events in the city of Chicago. Sara is passionate about helping the traditional forms of blues dance persist across generations, and is proud that the annual blues dance festival bluesSHOUT! has earned it’s place as the world’s premier blues dance event.