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Sunday, January 25, 2015

2015 Read-In

African American Read-In, 2015


This year, the National African American Read-In begins on Sunday, February 1, and ends on Saturday, February 28.
Access “2015 National African American Read-In” at http://www.ncte.org/aari/ for details.

This year marks the Margaret Walker Centennial.  Many of the readings during Black History Month, as well as the 2015 calendar year, should involve programs on Walker’s life and works.  For My People (1942), Jubilee (1966), and This Is My Century:  New and Collected Poems (1989) are at the top of the list for reading in February. From  March through December , one might find pockets of time for reading Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1988), How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (1990), On Being Female, Black and Free (1997), and A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1974).  Anyone who wants to enjoy communion with Walker’s extraordinary intelligence should read “The Humanistic Tradition of Afro-American Literature.” American Libraries 1.9 (1970): 849-854.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Black Boy and the 75th anniversary of Native Son.
Non-scholars and scholars alike have given critical attention to Wright’s masterpiece since 1945. They have applauded Black Boy; they have quarreled with it.  It has existed as a superb instance of black writing, of American literature, and of work that people from many nations have translated into their native languages.  It will continue throughout the twenty-first century to be a source for cautious hope as well as, to borrow wording from Wright’s novel The Outsider, “that baleful gift of the sense of dread.”
Black Boy is one of Richard Wright’s major gifts to time past, present, and future.  It is a gift to be treasured.  It is a gift for everyday use and equipment for living and for dealing with one’s trublems.

Black Boy is a powerful model of how to think about one’s location in historical time and complex environments and of how to write about one’s location with an honesty that is at once aesthetic and didactic.  Teachers of rhetoric and composition can use the text to help adolescent writers, in particular, to gain mastery of grammar, syntax, vocabulary, images, and figures of speech as they struggle with the problems of narrating their life histories.  All writers, of course, can learn valuable lessons about perspective from Richard Wright, just as visual artists can learn about excellence in drawing from Charles White and musicians can absorb how to use physics in the composition of sounds from John Coltrane.  All of us can learn from Richard Wright what Chinese sages have known for several thousand years ---the flow of dao and tian and yin and yang that gives positive meaning to our suffering beneath the stars.

Readers have given a substantial amount of critical attention to Native Son, a novel that is essential for understanding how American fiction of the 20th century so often embraced the primal ingredients of what escapes specific time and drives change in the United States of America.  Fifteen years prior to the publication of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man (1955), Richard Wright was shining the light of disquietude upon a thankless world.  The world of 1940 did not listen carefully enough to what Wright was saying in Native Son.  Thus, thirteen years later he issued a second communiqué in the form of The Outsider.  Read in tandem, Native Son and The Outsider provide us with the strongest clues pure fiction can deliver about why our world seems to be swimming like a shark in butter-milk toward its Omega Point.  In the post-whatsoeverness of 2015, only an insignificant number of people will fail to hear Wright’s messages.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
January 25, 2015



Saturday, January 24, 2015

reading for the government

Recommended Reading for the Government

Senators and Congresspeople should read or reread Sissela Bok’s Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978).  If they must play the game, they are required to know how the rules are constructed.

The Supreme Court justices should read and reread A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (1999) by John Rawls.


The White House should read The Limits of Scientific Reasoning (1984) by David Faust.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A NOTE ON TOURISM

For many centuries, tourism has been a source for cultural enlightenment.  In the twentieth-century it assumed a very positive form within the frameworks of “study abroad” programs sponsored by American colleges and universities. It should be debated, however, whether domestic tourism has the same luster. Our sense of American history can be much improved by tours of such cities as San Francisco, Natchez, Selma, San Antonio, Charleston, Atlanta, St. Louis, Boston, and Philadelphia. Much can be learned about the life and death of American cities by visits to Memphis, Detroit, and Newark. Some of us who are inhabitants of New Orleans do question whether tourists learn much about history and struggles, architecture and urban/urbane aesthetics, and how  wealth and poverty demarcate separate and unequal  celebrations of life and death ,or whether tourists merely pleasure themselves in twisted  Catholic excesses which are denied them in their Puritan hometowns. Those who have deep roots in New Orleans often have to ask if tourism is a financial blessing or a toxic curse.  Dispassionate analysis might convince us that it is nearly impossible to distinguish curses from blessings in the context of tourism.


Although Paige A. McGinley’s Staging the Blues: From Tent Shows to Tourism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014) gives no attention to the theatricality of the blues in New Orleans, the special notice the book gives to tourism as performance in Clarksdale, Mississippi is an eloquent reminder that in a music-based tourist economy, “it is the tourist who takes center stage, as he or she stands in for past and passed performers” (179).  To be sure, New Orleans possesses a richer, more complex history than Clarksdale, but our city is an ideal target for the distortions and abnormality that intensive tourism can produce.   Thus, McGinley’s impressive discussion of blues tourism can be a valuable guide for studies of jazz tourism, disaster tourism, and Carnival/Mardi Gras tourism in our city of Saints, sinners, rampant post-Katrina gentrification, and preoccupations with corruption, crime, and cuisine.  McGinley’s book reinforces my sense that the city I have come to love is a beautiful mess that encourages us to become tourists of our own existence.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   As New Orleans prepares for its tercentennial, one of its unique attractions becomes more visible.  It is the only urban area in the United States that manages to have 366 festivals in 365 days.  Our worship of celebration blackwashes our need to care overmuch about how social and economic problems reproduce themselves in our version of Paradise. We almost celebrate ourselves into oblivion.
Do not be surprised if New Orleans initiates Creole Roach Fest and Cajun Garbage Fest for 2017.  After all, the new New Orleans is in desperate need of tourist dollars.  It must not fail to convince people that it is one of the most exotic places on Earth. We must not disappoint the tourists.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            January 20, 2015

Saturday, January 17, 2015

poem 17 Jan 15

TRUTHING
(For Charlie R. Braxton after reading
“Kang Snake Blues: Paradise Lost”)

Anna Mae Vinocasa in a Clarksdale crib, her pink face
Battered by the news, the whites, and the blues,
Pink face battered by the hues of thorny dues,
Blood-spat a heap of clues ‘bout how it be the snakes,
The river and the snakes what put the Delta in low cotton,
Poverty the Delta in the lowest cotton of disbelief.
Let Anna Mae and her griefs not be forgotten
As we sit at wakes and sorrow song in space
Where Anna Mae Vinocasa ain’t got no place.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 17, 2015

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

January 19, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Remembering and Forgetting 19 Jan 15

January 19, 2015 will be an ordinary day.  It will not be, as a person from Maine might say, a “wicked good” day.  It will be twenty-four hours occupying a square on a calendar, another SNAFU day in the United States of America. Nothing that is mind-shattering, body-alarming or soul-fracking will occur that did not already happen.  There will be no mail delivery, of course, because January 19 is a federal holiday.  Babies will be born. People young and old will die. Fire will burn. The Earth will revolve as it orbits the sun. Air will move clouds.  Water will flow or freeze. Prayers will be prayed; curses will be cursed; terrorism will terrorize; songs will be sung.  Somewhere it will rain. Perhaps a few Americans will notice that peace and love are items that can’t be sold or bought.  Otherwise, everything will be business as usual.
January 19, 2015 will be a day for remembering and forgetting.  A few of us will struggle to remember what the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. has to do with the contemporary issues of human rights which are dramatically negated by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (Boko Haram) in northeast Nigeria.  International mass media would have us chant “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” to signify our support for universal entitlement to freedom of speech. The Internet bids us to dream that hope springs eternally, that hope and prayers to strange gods will ultimately deliver us from the burdens of inequality,  systemic racism, “authorized” abuses of law and order by the brave women and men who day by day put their lives in danger to uphold law and order, and the potency of Evil. Social networks want us to celebrate the heroism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to let such celebration overshadow the before and after of Ferguson as well as the magnificent sacrifices of thousands of undocumented people who died that we might taste Freedom.  Holidays, heroes and hero-worship are not innately bad, but they do encourage us to forget the essence of what is worth celebrating.  In the case of Dr. King, the film “Selma” provides an opportunity to remember what a federal holiday might seduce us to forget. Like David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. King was not an avatar of Moses who led the American people to the milk and honey of the Promised Land. Please remember not to forget the land was stolen from its indigenous inhabitants.  Scratch history as myth and look at realities.
“Selma” deserves every prize it will not get.  The cinematography is excellent. The acting is quite commendable.  The directing is beautifully understated.  As I watched the film, I thought of “Home of the Brave” (1949) and the joy I felt at the age of six of seeing a dignified Negro (the actor James Edwards) on the silver screen. “Selma” sent electric shocks of recognition through my mind.  Perhaps such electricity is one of the reasons there is a rush to whitewash the memory of Lyndon B. Johnson by criticizing “Selma” for historical inaccuracies.  “Selma” is a template for history as a process, a well-structured “text” for “reading” the past and the present.   It is not a documentary.  It sends me back to Bridge Across Jordan (1991) by Amelia Platts Boynton Robinson, the woman in whose home Dr. King set up SCLC’s headquarters on January 2, 1965. Back to Selma, Lord, Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil-Rights Days (1980) by Sheyann Webb and Rachel West Nelson, who, on March 21, 1965, received a victory hug from Dr. King.  This descent into the past in the library of American civil rights history is necessary to understand the present cultural, social, and economic nightmares that trouble our sleep.
January 19, 2015 will be an ordinary day, a federal holiday, a day for conversations predicated on two questions:  (1) Where did we go from there, from April 4, 1968? and (2) What to any legal or illegal American is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?  Perhaps motivated forgetting, encoding failures, and interference proactive and retroactive will not preclude our talking to one another. Perhaps.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
January 14, 2015 
     
BKNation Blog




Thursday, January 8, 2015

BLACK BOY AND SEVEN DECADES OF WISDOM

Black Boy and Seven Decades of Wisdom

Published by Harper and Brothers  in 1945 as Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth and by the Library of America in 1991 as Black Boy (American Hunger), Richard Wright’s classic autobiography has been a monument to intelligence, discipline, the exercise of relatively free will, and admirable use of self-reliance for seventy years.  It has provided us with the racial wisdom that is most definitely needed in 2015 as we resist Cosmic Evil and conduct an endless quest for harmony in our lives.

Non-scholars and scholars alike have given critical attention to Wright’s masterpiece since 1945. They have applauded Black Boy; they have quarreled with it.  It has existed as a superb instance of black writing, of American literature, and of work that people from many nations have translated into their native languages.  It will continue throughout the twenty-first century to be a source for cautious hope as well as, to borrow wording from Wright’s novel The Outsider, “that baleful gift of the sense of dread.”
Black Boy is one of Richard Wright’s major gifts to time past, present, and future.  It is a gift to be treasured.  It is a gift for everyday use and equipment for living and for dealing with one’s trublems.

Black Boy is a powerful model of how to think about one’s location in historical time and complex environments and of how to write about one’s location with an honesty that is at once aesthetic and didactic.  Teachers of rhetoric and composition can use the text to help adolescent writers, in particular, to gain mastery of grammar, syntax, vocabulary, images, and figures of speech as they struggle with the problems of narrating their life histories.  All writers, of course, can learn valuable lessons about perspective from Richard Wright, just as visual artists can learn about excellence in drawing from Charles White and musicians can absorb how to use physics in the composition of sounds from John Coltrane.  All of us can learn from Richard Wright what Chinese sages have known for several thousand years ---the flow of dao and tian and yin and yang that gives positive meaning to our suffering beneath the stars.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                                            January 8, 2015

PHBW BLOG

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Trojan Flags

Trojan Flags for Cultural Study

When policemen turn their backs to a mayor at the funeral of a police officer slain in the line of duty, is this symbolic act to be “read” as a sign of anger, disrespect, and resentment?  Is it the equivalent of a jazz musician’s turning his back to an audience as he produces exquisite sounds?  Is this positioning of the body in uniform, an embodiment of law and order, subject to decoding? The gesture is broadcast in the public sphere of television.  Is it to be interpreted as a warning that American social dynamics are minimizing prospects for civic communication?  Is ours a society wherein anything is everything? Is the turning of the back actually a turning back to a pre-history?
These dense questions haunt us.  When we hear answers from the right wing, we hear the speech of Eugene O’Neill’s Robert “Yank” Smith.  From the left side of the house, room or aisle, we hear the arcane mutterings of Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss.  The confusion of messages regarding the will of the American people inspires distrust among citizens.  We begin to fantasize that the old days were good and that future-oriented ideas stole “our country” and that we should take it back by any means necessary.  The most militant patriots wave Trojan flags, convinced that prophylactics and petitions to marketplace gods pave the way to salvation. Our public educations have armed us with a few facts but not the critical strength to construct, embrace, and sustain civic virtues.  We turn our backs on a future and smile in the faces of golden age idols.  We hear but refuse to understand how discomforting questions at once inscribe and authorize a terror-laced future.
Each week, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the trajectory of intellectual life in America, on the progress which is symbolized by flag-waving. The New York Review of Books, The Economist, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal, however, are the sources of choice for those who dwell in the international cartels of real power. Thus, The Chronicle serves as a marginalized forum for those who are assigned or who volunteer to bamboozle the American public about intellectual cultures, especially those sectors we deem to be “literary.” They wave their Trojan flags vigorously as they descend into Renaissance Dreams.
Professors Jeffrey Williams and Arthur Krystal recently donated flags of some merit to the January 5 online issue of The Chronicle. Williams faithfully preserves the connotations of Jonathan Swift’s use of the word “modest” in his essay “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism.” He fears that such methods as surface reading, thin description, new formalism, book history, distant reading, and new sociology of literature are clear, evident threats to the canon and traditional cultural values.  In his mind, Sharon Marcus, Stephen M. Best, Franco Moretti, Heather Love, and Rita Felski are among the younger scholars who have sinned by exposing the hubris of a dubious tradition that used bad faith to serve deodorized public ends.  The conclusion embroidered on his flag is instructive:



It remains to be seen, though, whether surface reading and allied approaches re-embrace a more cloistered sense of literary studies. I’d like to think that criticism has more to do than accumulate scholarly knowledge, at the least to explain our culture to ourselves, as well as serving as a political watchdog.
Today’s modesty may not bode an academic withdrawal from public life. It may simply register an unsettled moment, as past practices cede and a new generation takes hold. The less-optimistic outlook is that it represents the decline of criticism as a special genre with an important role to investigate our culture. While realism carries less hubris, it leaves behind the utopian impulse of criticism.

 It is difficult to believe that modesty can survive in twenty-first century America.  We can, nevertheless, let Williams have his donnée as we scrutinize how “the utopian impulse of criticism” serves the special interests of neo-hegemony.
Krystal waves a flag that is rhetorically forthright in sending its message, a message that drums and trumpets genuine disdain for a public that lacks discrimination in making choices about reading, or seriously misreads the nature of literature.  His essay “What We Lose if We Lose the Canon” is partly a Puritan jeremiad, partly a tribute to the Americanized intellectual and political legacies of Leo Strauss and Allen Bloom. Krystal’s final paragraph is a jewel:

Although serious writers continue to work in the hope that time will forgive them for writing well, the prevailing mood welcomes fiction and poetry of every stripe, as long as the reading public champions it. And this I think is a huge mistake. Literature has never just been about the public (even when the public has embraced such canonical authors as Hugo, Dickens, and Tolstoy). Literature has always been a conversation among writers who borrow, build upon, and deviate from each other’s words. Forgetting this, we forget that aesthetics is not a social invention, that democracy is not an aesthetic category; and that the dismantling of hierarchies is tantamount to an erasure of history. –


Krystal sends us an honest message about what is brewing and fermenting in the right wing of American cultural, literary and political life.  We should listen carefully to Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” to be sure we do not miss the ideological nuances threaded on Krystal’s flag. And we should be generous in allowing him to sit in the darkness of thinking the history we are writing can be erased.
We injure ourselves if we turn our backs on the raw process of how history continues its evolving in the United States of America in 2015.  We will do greater injury to ourselves if we fail to learn what vexillology can tell us about the Trojan flags, for now is the moment for relentless interrogation of the environments in which we attempt to live.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
January 7, 2015