Black Writing and Blues Allegory

[by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

American politics will popularize exegesis in 2015, and so too might the publication of Toni Morrison’s eleventh novel, God Help the Child.

Scheduled for release in April by Alfred A. Knopf, the novel rebroadcasts the title of a song written in 1939 by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr., “God Bless the Child,” and recorded for the Okeh label in May 1941. The wheels of ideological state apparatus turn so rapidly that several commentators have confused the two titles as they assure us that Morrison’s novel is an instant classic. The pre-publication “leak” from Knopf contains a tantalizing summary of plot and characters. It encourages Morrison scholars and other critical readers to sharpen their tools and to engage the novel by way of allegorical readings.

General readers should listen to Billie Holiday’s trauma-drenched
rendition of “God Bless the Child” (embedded below) as a prelude to discovering why, in
2015, God really should help the child. Adult readers, mothered and fathered by the child, will find enlightenment in twenty-first-century exercises involving the traditional four levels of interpretation useful in unpacking allegories: 1) the literal or historical; 2) the allegorical or spiritual; 3) the typological or moral; and 4) the anagogical or mystical.

The use of literacy is not an abuse of literature. To understand where I came from with such an idea, people should read or reread Amiri Baraka’s Blues People (1963) and Ted Vincent’s Keep Cool: The Black Activists Who Built the Jazz Age (1995). These two foundational works warrant efforts to locate bridges between black writing and black music, to understand the bridges that Morrison builds in her fictions between American politics and the vicissitudes of ordinary life. It would not hurt to read or reread Stephen E. Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References (1972), keeping in mind that poiesis includes narrative fiction.

American politics in 2015 will popularize exegesis because the majority of American voters have mandated that the United States of America shall reenact the Old Testament rather than the New Testament. Large numbers of readers will become aware, by choice and by accident, of the ancient properties of literary study. As American citizens suffer the daily installments of what their votes have written, they will be forced to acknowledge that they are the “authors” of their history and their fate. I suspect black writing, blues allegory, and God Help the Child will lessen the obligatory pains of political rebirth.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
January 4, 2015