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Friday, November 11, 2016

The Storied South

v


Ferris, William. The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists.  Chapel Hill: University of

North Carolina Press, 2013.  $ 35.00    ISBN  978-1-4696-0754-2



            Fred Hobson suggested in Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain (1983) that Southerners have, or may be possessed by, a compulsion to explain, to apologize for, to defend, or to celebrate the history of a region which non-Southerners "have long been fascinated with…as spectacle, as land of extremes in the most innocent part of America in one respect and the guiltiest in another…."(9).  Hobson's speculation cuts both ways.  While many Southerners do have a gift for drawling in ways that fascinate, a significant number of them can be as taciturn as stereotyped New Englanders.  Hobson's hyperbole confirmed the very oddity he intended to place in an objective perspective regarding habits.  He exercised due diligence in borrowing his main title from William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! as he explored selected works by people who were neither novelists nor scholars.  He also used predictable Southern diligence in excluding black writers  (notably Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison) on the grounds that "it would be impossible to do them justice" (13) in the scope of his study.  Thus, Hobson self-fashioned himself as a quintessential Southern apologist.

            Thirty-three years later, it is instructive to contrast Tell About the South with William Ferris's The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists, which incorporates self-fashioning with minimal apology  Ferris acknowledges that Hobson and many other of his University of North Carolina colleagues gave him encouragement in every step of writing this book, a worthy companion to his earlier Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (2009).  One might argue that Hobson's work was a prelude to Ferris's explaining increasingly complex functions of narrative in the South.  Less an overt apologist than Hobson, Ferris tells us about his own "intellectual and artistic growth through friendships with" seven writers, five scholars, two musicians, three photographers, and nine painters. Ferris relies primarily on interviews to create a species of oral history. The absence of question and answer markers, however,  foregrounds shared authority in the making of historical explanation.  By exercising his autobiographical voice in prefaces for the stories the writers and artists tell, Ferris demonstrates that subjective artistry can enliven scholarship which focuses on difference in a region of the United States.

             To be sure, his method of presentation enables selected voices to expose or to demythologize  problems of credibility that arise in contemporary studies of geographical  regions. By virtue of  its celebratory, non-defensive aura , The Storied South  alerts readers to aspects of a story always untold in interdisciplinary investigations of Southern cultures. In that sense, the book has an inevitable relationship to a provocative series of manifestos about the future of Southern Studies in PMLA 131.1 (2016).  That relationship is defined, in part, by Ferris's rationale and folkloric methodological choices, items crucial for understanding the rewards of Southern storytelling.  This book is a remarkable self-portrait of Ferris as a white, male scholar who is a native son of Mississippi, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  It is simultaneously a documentation of how twentieth-century Southern writers, musicians, photographers, scholars, and painters "created a body of work that defined both their regions and their nation"(2).  Ferris's manipulation of interviews exposes how oral traditions give compelling forms to "the contested memory of black and white southerners who offer opposing views of the region's history" (3).

            The adequacy of this kind of binary narration (spinning of tales)  and history-making is itself contestable and open to passionate, rigorous scrutiny by a new generation of scholars who embrace motives and values quite unlike those espoused by Hobson and Ferris.  Younger scholars may believe, as does Jay Watson, that "we need the combined conceptual resources of southern and environmental studies to unpack the thick layers of meaning that accrue when southerners write ecologically and environmental thinkers write about the South" (PMLA 131.1: 159).  Just as Ferris refines Hobson's penchant for the rage to tell, recent developments in southern studies help us to identify the charming limitations of Ferris's traditional approach to the implications of story without diminishing the considerable value of how Ferris seeks to recuperate time past and to display it to its best advantage.  His intervention is a Faulknerian reminder that some Southern imperatives defy being wished into oblivion. They haunt the South and our entire nation; if they cannot be resolved, they can be addressed in ways that serve the commonweal.  Indeed, the rage of younger scholars to theorize the multiple facets of the South, to tell a new story, only amplifies the humanistic civility of Ferris's work.

            As an esteemed scholar of all things Southern, Ferris is keenly aware that the spatial and temporal dimensions of a Southern story must assume combative configurations in the Zeitgeist of now.  Our history-laden ideas about  Old South and  New South cultures are being rapidly relocated in scholarship by new fields of interpretation which draw attention to the dramatic clashes  of remembering and forgetting the centrality of story.  Meaning and significance are recast in discussions of the global South; the deep, down, and dirty South; the South as a racially and ecologically challenged locus of cognition and imagination.  The voices of the South retrofit themselves in concert with revisionist historiographies, emerging digital humanities and revitalized empiricism  Thus, Ferris wisely includes a generous and timely selected bibliography, discography, and filmography in The Storied South and appends CD (interview sound recordings) and DVD (archival films) companion discs as special resources or paratextual supplements.

From the vantage of a probable future, The Storied South is an excellent, authoritative record of how William Ferris at once mediates and  meditates on Southern exceptionalism.  It is a valuable foundational text for American and international scholars who are existentially obligated to tell explanatory stories which supersede regional boundedness.  If their stories prove to be as principled and good as the one Ferris tells, we shall indeed be fortunate and better prepared to avoid delusions that disguise themselves as contributions to knowledge.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Joy of Refusing


The Joy of Refusing

From a pre-future vantage, one can discover the joy of refusing.  Refusing or resisting is neither an innate virtue nor a vice, despite the fact that one must ultimately account for  the moral properties of one's actions .  Refusing is an opportunity to live with the alternatives that might better identify one's historicity. Consider the  outcomes of refusing to read such commercially promoted books as

Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

Unigwe, Chika. On Black Sisters Street.  New York: Random House, 2009.

Parker, Nate, ed. The Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner and the Making of a Movement. New York: Atria, 2016.



One profits from viewing displacement at some distance.  For example, Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, a place that is not free to forget its association with segregation and slavery; Unigwe was born in Nigeria and now lives in Belgium, a place condemned to remember the obscene crimes it committed in Africa; Parker, who was born in Norfolk,Virginia, complies an official movie tie-in for his cinematic effort to manufacture ironies by partial deconstruction of D. W. Griffin's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, an iconic visual monument to American racism, and of William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, a literary tribute to the making of "whiteness."  Refusing to engage the two novels and the film allows one to "buy" time for evaluation at some distance from the dubious race to be au courant. Chosen ignorance is not bliss but a Trump-like signal of independence.  It marks one's being partially immune to the gestures of the herd or the culture-consuming mob.



There is fine sport in sampling the first and the closing sentences of the novels ------



Gyasi: "The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father's compound (3)….Marjorie splashed him suddenly, laughing loudly before swimming away, toward the shore" (300). [the conditions of historical accidents]



 Unigwe: "The world was exactly as it should be (3)….Sisi's soul bounced down the stairs and began its journey into another world"(254). [the condition of sex workers]



 Parker's book invites sampling longer passages.



"How many of you know who Nat Turner is?"  I wasn't the only one staring blankly at my African-American Studies professor.  I'd overheard the name once or twice in my childhood, but without context --the where, the why, and the what of his story ---his name had no resonance. (3)



The story of Nat Turner, and stories of the struggles and triumphs of other enslaved African people, are only one small portion of the total Pan-African experience.  But as they relate to the current state of affairs ---these stories are powerfully salient tools in community healing and restoration.  Nat Turner knew that Black lives mattered in the 1800s.  The story of his dedication and sacrifice for his people can empower us to make that a reality today. (176) [the conditions of memory]



If the three works have validity in one's determining the contested nature of "Truth," there are advantages in the joy of refusing to read them before 2026 when enslavement has a new face.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            November 2, 2016

Thursday, October 27, 2016

ON FRACTAL SONG


STATEMENT ON FRACTAL SONG

October 27, 2016



I've been writing for many years, but putting 37 poems into a book is a new adventure.

FRACTAL SONG is a new adventure.



Published on October 1, 2016, the book will be launched on Thursday, November 3, from

6:00 to 7:30 p.m. at the New Orleans Museum of Music and Cultural Arts/Crescent City Books,

124 Baronne Street.



FRACTAL SONG was published by Joe Phillips of Black Widow Press in Boston.  It emerged from my friendships with other poets and writers ----

Hank Lazer (Tuscaloosa, Alabama) urged me to construct the book.

Dave Brinks (New Orleans, Louisiana) read the manuscript and told Joe Phillips to publish it.

Lenard D. Moore (Raleigh, North Carolina) made some excellent suggestions about the arrangement of poems.

Kalamu ya Salaam (New Orleans, Louisiana) was generous and brotherly in writing the "Postscript" for the book.



I think of the book as a Southern product, my collaboration with other writers.  FRACTAL SONG is available for $15.00 from Amazon.com and Barnes& Noble.com.



I hope the book will provoke readers to agree that Black Lives and Black Minds matter equally, or, as I  proclaimed in "Race War(p)"



RACE WAR(P)

The scream, a fragile hologram,

twirls the hope of art, dreams

to affirm its action, to disperse

tsunamis of discontent.

Color thunders.  Fury emits funk.



Enough is quite enough

but less than a sentence parsed

in a nation  of virgin vices.

Bogus trumps, aquatinted tropes

or alabaster promises prevail.

I was more specific about lives and minds in "(Just)(Ice)

(Just)(Ice)



Televise.

Fear-tinted  faces flow

along the flute of glass,

depart and return

with subtle hue and cry



in the red voicing

a spider would web your mind:

prisons rise and fall.



Trapped in a trumpet

an idea tries to flee

a monotone of agency,

a failure born when



in the red voicing

a bullet would blow your mind:

matters fall and rise



behind a mirror of class

star and bar whisper

a lie birthed again

on flag-squared mappings



in the red voicing

a demon could eat your mind:

a piece of air survives.



Tell. Advise.





When people read FRACTAL SONG, I want them to think about minds, lives, and words.

Friday, October 14, 2016

14 October 2016


RACE WAR(P)

The scream, a fragile hologram,

twirls the hope of art, dreams

to affirm its action, to disperse

tsunamis of discontent.

Color thunders.  Fury emits funk.



Enough is quite enough

but less than a sentence parsed

in a nation  of virgin vices.

Bogus trumps, aquatinted tropes

or alabaster promises prevail.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

October 14, 2016

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Margaret Walker and Contemporary Education


Margaret Walker and Contemporary Education



                Margaret Walker's vision of education extended much beyond its incorporation in her signature poem "For My People" and spoke to us by way of the speeches and essays gathered in Part IV: What Is to Become of Us? Notes on Education and Revolution of the book On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 1932-1992 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997).  The vision resonates in her didactic poems  "This Is My Century" and "Giants of My Century"  in This Is My Century:  New and Collected Poems (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989).  It informed her teaching at Jackson State University from 1949  to 1979 and her founding there , in 1968,  of the Institute for the Study of History, Life and Culture of Black People (now the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center).  Her vision might serve us well in the practice of contemporary education.  But who is willing to examine and adapt Walker's vision in dealing with the knotted and vexed  issues of intellect and action in our 21st century?

                The subtitle of the poem “This is My Century” is “black synthesis of time” and the first stanza addresses Man (a universal abstraction not a culture-marked particular) ----

O Man, behold your destiny.

Look on this life

and know our future living;

our former lives from these our present days

now melded into one.

(This Is My Century 129)

It is widely believed that Walker's poetry constitutes  a specific or exclusionary  address to her people as black people, but as she told Nikki Giovanni in A Prophetic Equation (  Washington: Howard University Press, 1974) -----

The thing that we have to see is what neither black nor white people want to face: that in this country we have developed and arrived at a point where our culture is neither black nor white but mulatto, a synthesis of the two…..It’s a terrible thing to say, but I have just as many white ancestors as I’ve got black.  That as an American, I am no pure-blooded African. I am no pure-blooded European.  I have ancestors who came from both continents. (130)

In this sense she created ideas and left legacies for humankind, for all Americans.  Synthesis is crucial for education that is predicated on  beliefs about humanistic and scientific thought that resist the whims and foibles  of politics.

                This point was not minimized when William Adams, current chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, addressed  the  Conference on the Liberal Arts: [Re]Defining Liberal Arts Education in the 21st Century   at Jackson State University on October 7. Adams amplified Walker's concept of the synthesis of time. "A new concept of education based in the realities of a new concept of the universe which the Einsteinian revolution has brought to the twentieth century,"  she had suggested in 1976 , "must give us through re-education new uses for our education.   Career goals of vocational, industrial, and liberal or technical education must also afford disciplines for life's meaning and sharing" (On Being Female…., 230).  Adams stressed the importance of communication skills, of having  the capacity for analyzing and synthesizing, and  of possessing  intellectual depth and interpersonal skills in the arenas of work and economy, citizenship, morals, and culture.  As he spoke, Walker's idealist belief that "respect for the divinity in every living human being is the first step toward world humanism and religious peace and understanding" (230) rumbled in my consciousness, and I found the  stress  Adams placed on utility or pragmatism, especially in partnerships involving the natural sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences, was in accord with what Walker had said forty years earlier.  Adams and Walker both proposed that education should eschew elitism and make itself relevant to the civic lives of all people.  Just as Walker argued  that Einsteinian paradigms  necessitated knowledge of science,  Adams argued that the rapid evolving of  scientific and technological  knowledge demands a critique that may result from a core curriculum model of education.  Walker and Adams could agree on the centrality of synthesis.

Given that Adams was speaking about the challenges liberal education must confront at the university where Walker had forged much of her vision of education was a timely clue about what we need to remember and use as a foundation for future planning at HBCUs.  Time and again, such African American teachers and  poet-thinkers as Margaret Walker have [re]defined liberal arts pedagogy decades before such mainstream intellectuals as William Adams get around to contextualizing it.  Perhaps PWIs might become better sites for education if they acknowledged their indebtedness to the pragmatic prescience of thinking about liberal arts in the history of HBCUs.  Margaret Walker's vision can still serve us well in the conduct of American higher education.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            October 10, 2016

Saturday, October 8, 2016

NO MORE WATER RUNS


No More Water Runs  (the second version/witnessing of our nowness)

When a new generation addresses an old topic, the best it should expect from its elders is respect for the effort.  No more.  No less.  The new generation should anticipate, however, that elders might ask titanium questions that actually have no answers.

Did the new generation get the story right?  For whom are they really writing?  So what?

Having fulfilled the responsibility of asking questions, the elders may return to the bliss of silence.  They know when peace must be still.

Even the blind can see what the American publishing industry is up to at present.  True to what it has become, it is playing the race card for profit (a funky iteration of social engineering)  and gambling with writers and a diminishing cultural literacy.  Read the titles.  What spirits are being conjured?  And for whom? Why does the engineering of the American mindscape in 2016 depend so exclusively on making the ghost of James Baldwin the whipping "boy" of dubious morality? Even the blind can see what is afoot in matching the dead icons of the past with the living titles of now:

Henry Adams/ The Education of Kevin Powell by Kevin Powell.

Harriet Tubman/ The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Richard Wright/ Between the World and Me by Ta'Nehisi Coates

James Baldwin/The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward ( New York: Scribner, 2016).

Fair enough.  And the beat goes on. 

But is it necessary to hang neo-Cold War  curtains ---Iron Curtains, Bamboo Curtains, and Oil Curtains ----between human consciousness  and the regressive progress of capitalism?  Is it necessary?  Or is it strategic and convenient to hang those curtains as firewalls against an inevitable burning?

 Is the work of Nature, terrorism, climate change,  and global warming insufficient?  Must  the Church, the  Synagogue, the Temple, the  Mosque, and the Shrine chant a niggardly "Amen" of the kind Ahmos Zu-Bolton once sang?  Who the hell is to say in this season?

In her introduction for The Fire This Time, Jesmyn Ward believes it is necessary to have a book "that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon"(8).  Kevin Powell and Ras Baraka had a similar belief and did a similar thing for their generation in editing In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers in 1992.  And then Powell, in the interest of enlarging the forum for his generation,  took the Word/Nommo  to a newer, higher level by editing Step Into A World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature in 2000.  In her contribution "Cracking the Code" (89-95) for The Fire This Time, Ward imagines she has "ancestors from Sierra Leone and Britain, from France and the Choctaw settlement on the Mississippi bayou, from Spain and Ghana…." But another black writer from Mississippi suggested, in an e-mail of September 29, 2016, "that Ward's anthology while well-intentioned and having its bright moments also suffers from fishing in the narrow pool of African-American voices.  Once again, the limited rivers of Callaloo, AAR, and a few other publications and organizations have defined what it means to be an African American and what is the African-American voice.  As such, the anthology includes no Black Nationalists, no Radical Integrationists, nor Southerners who are primarily concerned with the South as its own thing and as the cornerstone of the American socio-political battlefield."  I will not utter that writer's name and compromise his entitlement to broadcast his razor-sharp insights elsewhere.  I quote in silence.

Should Jesmyn Ward's editor at Simon and Schuster have advised that a generation speaking about race has to be a bit more transparently international? Would such a suggestion have been an act of treason within the American publishing industry?  Would a truly transparent collection of international voices reveal precisely what The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race rather successfully conceals?  Would the book that does not exist, and therefore canonizes SILENCE, not have given affirmation to the gross ABSURDITY of HOPE: randomly motivated DEATH is the only possibility that any child born in 2016 shall witness in the remaining years of the 21st century? Would  metaphoric acts of treason within the American publishing industry have the nobility of Edward Snowden's theft of state secrets?  Would they not be the white thing to do, the "white/right" thing to do?

For me, the provisional answers come most clearly from the essays "White Rage" (83-88) by Carol Anderson and "The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning" (145-155) by Claudia Rankine.  The provisional answers/responses that warn against premature Jubilee come from "This Far: Notes on Love and Revolution" (197 - 204) by Daniel José Older and "Message to My Daughters" (205 - 215    ) by Edwidge Danticat.  This is not to say that other contributions in The Fire This Time do not merit notice.  All voices matter in the narrow pools and limited rivers that are slowly streaming to an ocean of no return. But these four pieces most strongly  motivate my sending you to

http://blogs.cofc.edu/illuminations/216/10/05/fallen-at-charleston

to read a special feature on the killings of black people and to read and read again Brenda Marie Osbey's essay "Fallen at Charleston," which provides much more than a grain of credibility to my belief in the absurdity of hope and my knowing that the quality of "goodness" that condemns the majority of African American citizens in the United States in 2016 is our eternal undoing.

The American publishing industry has mastered the game of capitalism and knows how to sniff out profits.  I know why a caged bird is entitled  to sing about an eternal problem named "race", and so too did James Baldwin in 1963 when he quoted the wisdom of an enslaved song.  And it is reprehensible to put the onus on the shoulders of his spirit.

 I respect the effort  of the new generation despite the fact that the effort  is not lasting, that the effort  cannot burn systemic horrors into oblivion.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            October 8, 2016

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Poem for voting day


(Just)(Ice)



Televise.

Fear-tinted  faces flow

along the flute of glass,

depart and return

with subtle hue and cry



in the red voicing

a spider would web your mind:

prisons rise and fall.



Trapped in a trumpet

an idea tries to flee

a monotone of agency,

a failure born when



in the red voicing

a bullet would blow your mind:

matters fall and rise



behind a mirror of class

star and bar whisper

a lie birthed again

on flag-squared mappings



in the red voicing

a demon could eat your mind:

a piece of air survives.



Tell. Advise.





Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

October 4, 2016