The Jazz Novel – Comparison of McKay’s Banjo and Jones’s Mosquito

When dealing with analysis, the form of a novel is often seen as somehow secondary or less important than other more familiar literary elements-character development, plot, content, etc. However, in both Banjo and Mosquito form plays an essential role in understanding the debate put forward by Ray of the Marseilles waterfront. This debate concerns whether formal or informal education is more beneficial to the individual. Both McKay and Jones manipulate the forms of their respective works to convey the idea that each of these elements is necessary for a full understanding of the world. And while there seems to be an emphasis on the benefits of informal learning, more classical education should not be rejected as Ray suggests. Ultimately, this serves as more than just a way to inform the reader regarding education. It serves to undermine the very stereotypes projected onto the novel’s minority community.

To fully understand the issues Ray brings against formal education, that institution must be examined and defined. Therefore, formal education can be understood as the learning done within a university or school setting and is marked by a strict student-teacher dynamic. It is the type of education typically associated with the middle or upper class and the predominant racial community. In America, formal education is accordingly associated with the well-to-do Caucasians. Students learn in a classroom setting, and the purpose of education is often economic. At least in part, formal education is designed to grant the student a competitive edge in the working world and a corresponding monetary advantage. In conjunction with these better jobs is an elevated social status. The learning itself can become secondary to these typically capitalistic ideals. This is shown by the potentially non-participatory aspect of formal education. If a student attends a university but does not internalize any of the knowledge, if they simply put in their time and enough effort to graduate, that student still derives the benefits of formal education. Their diploma grants them economic and social opportunities despite having gained nothing internally from their education.

On the other hand, informal education is learning done outside of an orthodox, institutionalized system. Anyone is a potential student; anyone is a potential teacher. There is no established hierarchy as seen in formal education. A student learns about life not in a classroom but in the real world, not through lectures but through experiences. But the largest difference lies in the fact that informal education is completely divorced from capitalism. Consequently, the emphasis is solely on the learning itself. The process is therefore necessarily participatory. To derive any benefits from such an education, one must internalize the experience and apply it however he/she sees fit.

This was the mindset of Ray when he posed his argument. He set up the dichotomy of formal and informal education as a system of opposites. He directly associated formal education with the white community and informal education with the minority community. This division is at the heart of Ray’s criticisms regarding formal education. He lectures a young student, informing him that, “[w]hat’s wrong with you’all is your education. You get a white man’s education and learn to despise your own peopleâÂ?¦You’re a lost crowd, you educated Negroes, and you will only find yourself in the roots of your own people” (McKay 200-201). Ray explicitly states his displeasure with formal education as stemming from a loss of cultural identity. He speaks in terms of ownership by labeling this education the “white man’s,” which implies it somehow does not belong to the minorities. His solution points the young student to a less institutionalized, more introspective form of knowledge-one that will specifically connect himself with his cultural roots. Ray further divides education into what he calls civilization (champions formal education) and primitivism (champions informal education). Ray notes the exclusionary nature of civilization when he asks, “[w]hat’s all this modern education for, then? Is it to teach something of real decencyâÂ?¦or is it just to provide polite catch-words for the most-favored classes” (McKay 272). In mentioning class, Ray reinforces two ideas. One, that capitalism holds a certain amount of control over formal education. And two, that education is not blind to race. In light of these characteristics, he calls into question the decency of formal education-perhaps not the concept of formal education itself, but the system under which it operates and is maintained. Ray also sees formal education as connected only to knowledge, while informal learning is more associated with wisdom. Using this system, one can similarly divide literary works. The typical Western novel would be the signature of formal education, while the jazz novel would represent informal education. The Western novel would be the perpetuation of a written tradition, while the jazz novel would continue an oral tradition.

Both Mosquito and Banjo have this strong oral connection. Mosquito is predominantly stream of consciousness and Mosquito’s actual words. It is never made explicit where her thoughts end and her words begin. There is something so loose about the conventions of this novel that it doesn’t seem to matter if one distinguishes between the two. What remains important is that everything Mosquito thinks and/or says is natural and comfortable for her. She never speaks in a way untrue to her dialect or herself. Banjo is distinguished by an improvisational style. The story introduces incidents, but does not resolve them. Like a jazz song, the author touches and leaves a scene as a musician would a melody, sometimes returning and sometimes not. The story line is nonlinear with abrupt starts and stops as demonstrated at the end of chapter VIII-A Carved Carrot, where a murder occurs, but it does not seem to disrupt the flow of time or events (McKay 92). Unconstrained language, improvisation and abrupt starts and stops are all distinctive features of spoken language. In a Western novel, the language is very polished and inhibited by conventionalized rules such as grammar. But in these two jazz novels, there is no such constraint. Another oral quality of the works relates to the previously stated notion that informal education requires participation. Similarly, these jazz novels call for a participatory audience. A Western novel can be considered a sort of monologue. The narrator is informing the audience, leading them to certain conclusions and/or certain lessons. A jazz novel is in every way a dialogue between that narrator and the audience. As Mosquito muses on jazz music she, “be wondering if it be possible to tell a true jazz story, where the peoples that listens can just enter the story and start telling it and adding things wherever they wantsâÂ?¦[where] they be as much creators of the word theyselves” (Jones 93-94). In a jazz novel, the narrator pushes the audience to question, make connections, think, to talk rather than be talked at.

But what is the benefit of telling a story associated with the musical form of jazz? Why does the oral quality of these stories matter at all? Partly, the answer lies in the fact that the oral form of these two novels resonates with informal education and rejects the conventions of its formal counterpart. The form then in turn supports Ray’s argument for the rejection of the intelligentsia. But it was already shown how racially divisive education can be. The answer therefore also involves culture and identity. Both Mosquito and Ray are African-Americans. And African culture, including folklore, is passed on through the medium of language. Chapter X of Banjo is simply entitled “Story-telling” and details the Beach Boys retelling tales from their respective homelands. Each man is brought closer to his culture simply through the retelling of these stories (McKay 121). The oral form of Banjo and Mosquito allows the characters to embrace the linked concepts of informal education and cultural tradition.

Both Mosquito and Banjo distance themselves further from the Western novel by their non-linear plot. Mosquito does not have an ending in the way one might expect of a Western novel. There is not a satisfying resolution after a climactic conflict, nor is there a discernable beginning, middle or end. Banjo’s subtitle is “A Story Without A Plot,” making it fairly obvious there is a similar lack of concern with linearity. Again this reveals how form enforces Ray’s argument for informal education. In informal education, there is unlimited potential for learning. There are no specific goals or destinations, so much like a jazz novel, it never has to end. The student will never know what he/she might learn next, and this open-ended, unresolved quality is seen directly in both novels. However, in formal education there is a very distinct, concrete plan. There is a beginning, middle and end, culminating in graduation after which the student leaves the place of learning. It is chronological and linear, organized and ultimately finite-much like one may find in a formulaic Western novel.

However, Ray’s argument is not foolproof, and the form reflects this fact. While Ray argues to reject formal education entirely for, “the simple, natural warmth of a people believing in themselves,” (McKay 320) he is still arguing from a formally educated perspective. He cannot simply separate himself from that experience. Furthermore Ray does not acknowledge the kinds of intellectual mobility he is allowed because of this classical education. Banjo is Ray’s idealized version of the informally educated African-American (McKay 321). But Banjo ultimately understands the world on the level of what while Ray understands why. Banjo does not know about his particular socio-political context; he simply understands that food is more expensive or work is harder to come by (McKay 230). On the other hand, Ray knows about the world events behind the hardships. Ray has access to a broader, deeper understanding of his surroundings, which simply would not be afforded through informal education. The form enforces this point through its shift in perspective. The beginning of the novel focuses on Banjo, but there is a break wherein Ray becomes the focal point. The shift signifies to the reader there is something unique about Ray which is lacking in Banjo. Ray is in fact the one passing on the story, not Banjo. Ray is the one perpetuating that oral tradition, which keeps the African-American community linked to their culture, not Banjo. The dual nature of these novels leads the reader to a similar point. No matter how rooted they are in oral tradition or how influenced they are by jazz, they are still undeniably written language. They aren’t spoken word and they aren’t music-they are novels. Banjo and Mosquito (as novels) seem to offer a balance and solution to Ray’s debate. They are aesthetic forms influenced by both formal and informal education, offering a rich view of the world by virtue of partaking in both forms of education.

The question remains, however, what greater significance does this education-centered argument hold-what greater goal is achieved by writing a jazz novel as opposed to some other form? To begin to answer this question, one must consider the commonly held stereotype that Caucasians are associated with the mind, and African-Americans are associated with the body. Ray muses on this stereotype and comes to the conclusion that, “Negroes were freer and simpler in their sex urge, and, as white people on the whole were not, they naturally attributed over-sexed emotions to Negroes” (McKay 252). Mosquito muses on the issue as well, noting the double standard that exists between Caucasians and African-Americans where sex is involved, “Madonna can be wild, but in a African-American woman that kinda wildness is just thought barbarous and just confirms the stereotype” (Jones 107). Mosquito illustrates that this stereotype is not simply gender-driven. It affects both her and Ray, even though they are of different genders, economic standing and even historical time period. It is purely a racially motivated stereotype and thus affects the entire African-American community. By offering the complex, insightful thoughts of both Ray and Mosquito, these novels begin to show that body and mind need not be entirely separate entities. An African-American can be an intellectual without denying oneself a sexual identity. And an African-American can be an intellectual without partaking in formal education. It is true, both Banjo and Mosquito complicate and undermine this stereotype. But there is something more powerful being dispelled with these novels. For it is one thing to break a stereotype, and it is another thing entirely to break the power of a stereotype (Banjo lecture, 5 December 2005). If these novels had portrayed either Ray or Mosquito speaking in a standard dialect, formally educated and within a novel that conformed to basic stylistic conventions, that would be breaking a stereotype. Their characters would be perceived as intelligent and civilized, but they would be denying a part of themselves and ignoring a crucial cultural link. Thus the stereotype would still yield power, because it would still be shaping their actions, constraining and inhibiting them from being the people they wanted to be. But these novels did not take that course. Instead, they portrayed African-Americans speaking their own dialect on educated topics within a novel that breaks all the traditional stylistic conventions. Because these characters were able to develop and live in the way they saw fit, the novels truly began breaking the power of negative racial stereotypes.

Language, in whatever form it takes, is human’s most powerful tool. It has the simultaneous potential both to destroy and to renew. Racial stereotypes alter one’s views on an entire group of people within the realm of intelligence, culture and identity. Language contributed to the creation and perpetuation of those detrimental beliefs. However, as seen through the work of McKay and Jones, there is hope that language has also begun to break down the very infrastructure it helped to create.

Works Cited

Jones, Gayl. Mosquito. United States of America: Beacon Press, 1999.

McKay, Claude. Banjo. United States of America: Harper & Brothers, 1929.

Schleitwiler, Vince. Verbal communication. English 213. University of Washington. 5 December 2005.

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