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In the summer of 1917, nine years before Dorcas's murder, Alice Manfred became the guardian of her orphaned niece, whose parents died in the East St. Louis riots. This was the summer that Alice, who rarely ventured below 110th street, took Dorcas to a march of Black men on Fifth Avenue in protest of the East St. Louis riots that killed so many Black people. The men walked to drumbeats and wore stony, serious expressions. Dorcas's father was pulled from a trolley car and trampled to death, and her mother, having witnessed this scene, ran back to her apartment, which was thereafter set ablaze. Dorcas went to two funerals in five days but never spoke of her sadness when she arrived at her aunt's home. Instead, she concentrated on her wooden dolls and imagined how they must have burned in the fire. While everyone else blamed the riots on angry Black veterans or white workers, Alice blamed the violence on the smooth new music that she feared and found sinful. She sought to escape the tunes of soulful female voices while her young niece felt the rhythms and longings deep in her soul.
Alice began to work as a seamstress and in the afternoons, after school, Dorcas would go to the home of their neighbors, the Miller sisters, who would care for a few children at a time. Religious women, one of whom was left at the altar, the Miller sisters would sit with Alice when she came for Dorcas and they would discuss new fashions and new music with a mixture of awe, disapproval and anxiety. However, around the age of sixteen, Dorcas began to feel the first stirrings of rebelliousness and sexual desire. One night when Alice was out of town, Dorcas and her best friend Felice went out to a dance party where Dorcas tried to look older and more mature by undoing her tight braids and by adjusting her prim, modest dress. When she and Felice arrived at the party, Dorcas immediately noticed the two handsome brothers who danced up a storm and shared the same good looks. As the music changed from the fast opening numbers to the slower more sultry pieces, Dorcas made her way towards the two brothers who were staring at her from across the room. Right as she was about to approach them, one of the boys whispered something to his brother and their brilliant smiles instantly faded. The brothers turned away from her and Dorcas was crushed. The following year, she met Joe Trace when he was called to the home of Alice Manfred to sell cosmetics to Malvonne's cousin Sheila. Sheila had invited Joe to meet her at Alice's home on Clifton Place where a luncheon for the Civic Daughters was being held and a fund raiser being organized. The women cooed over Joe and his products, happy to be in the company of a fine- looking, respectable man who wore about him the honest demeanor of country folk. While they plied him with food and flirted harmlessly, Alice Manfred became uncharacteristically quiet, as though she sensed that something was amiss or she had a premonition of what would happen.
This section examines closely the lives of Alice Manfred and her niece, Dorcas. The narrator begins the section by remembering about "that day in July" when the parade took place down Fifth Avenue, years before the meeting of Joe and Dorcas. Her tone is such that it seems that she is recounting a bit of folklore, telling about the hot summer day "when the beautiful men were cold." There seems an element of magic and mystery in the way she begins this anecdote and the reader almost expects a fable to follow with a clear moral lesson. However, her story never does arrive at a moral because her perspectives and alliances continually shift.
This continual shifting of focus is also reflected in the characters' different attitudes towards jazz music, which was played all over Harlem during these years. Alice Manfred fears the music that drops "down to places below the sash and the buckled belts." She has traveled from one city to the next, fearful and unsettled, avoiding certain streets and neighborhoods. Like Wild, Alice Manfred wants to remain unseen and anonymous, disappearing into the cracks and shadows of the city without being bothered by hateful whites. She considers invisibility a virtue and tries to teach her neice "how to crawl along the walls of buildings, disappear into doorways, cut across corners in choked traffic–how to do anything, move anywhere to avoid a whiteboy over the age of eleven." Little does Alice suspect that the greatest harm to her niece will come from a Black man over the age of fifty.
While Alice struggles to instill the virtue of invisibility in her niece, Dorcas wants nothing but to be highly visible and to be noticed, catching the eye of not one but many men. She feels jazz music differently: it envelops and excites her rather than worrying her as it does her aunt. The music, just like the City and the other characters of the novel, changes when considered from different vantage points. The narrator urges her reader to consider the different viewpoints and often contradicts herself, moving quickly from feeling sympathy to feeling disdain for the characters. Describing Dorcas in her teens, the narrator orders us to "think how it is, if you can manage, just manage it." She urges us to be compassionate and step in the shoes of different individuals so that we can understand them even if we don't admire their actions or agree with their opinions. However, several pages later the narrator says of Dorcas, "I always believed that girl was a pack of lies." Just as the story lacks a definitive moral lesson, the characters themselves can be recast and judged many ways. Everything beyond the most objective truths of date and time are malleable and fluid so that no one perspective or viewpoint is sufficient.
Themes and events are repeated and reworked so that in one situation a character might observe what he or she will later enact. Such is the case with Dorcas's tragedies. As a young girl she sits at the funeral of her parents and looks on, thinking only of her dolls, just as her friend, Felice, will later witness Dorcas' death and worry about an opal ring. Dorcas's mother was burned in a fire and Joe Trace worried as a young man that his own mother, Wild, had been caught in the flaming sugar cane fields in Virginia. Thus, the horror of fire and losing one's mother connects the two characters and allows them to share one another's anguish.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Jazz!