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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Words in 1954


Words in 1954/ 2016



Africans are my brothers, for we are of one race.  But Africa, the land of my fathers, is not my home.



I am an American  ---- an American by nationality, a citizen of the United States by birth.  I owe my loyalty and my allegiance to but one flag.  I have but one country.



Era Bell Thompson.  Africa: Land of My Fathers.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1954.





On the other hand, I cannot, as a man of African descent brought up in the West, recommend with good faith the agitated doctrines and promises of the hard-faced men of the West.  Kwame, until they have set their own houses in order with their own restless populations, until they have solved their racial and economic problems, they can never --- no matter what they may say to you at any given moment! ---deal honestly with you.



Richard Wright. Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos.  New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954.



"We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."



Chief Justice Earl Warren, Brown v. Board of Topeka, Kansas decision, May 17, 1954





Reading or re-reading the books by Era Bell Thompson and Richard Wright and the full text of the U. S. Supreme Court 's decision, which created great social and political expectations,  may help a few people to make good decisions about something.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            April 28, 2016

Monday, April 25, 2016

Callaloo


Callaloo #1 to #7

Prelude

 This year I will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Callaloo, based on the fact that the date on the first issue was December 1976.  On the other hand, Charles H. Rowell's "Editor's Note" in Issue #2 (February , 1978) indicates "CALLALOO first appeared in January, 1977...."(3).  For the sake of scholarly exactness, one should accord greater credibility to Rowell's assertion and not begin the anniversary celebration until  January 2017.  If I prematurely celebrate, I prematurely celebrate.  Until the latter part of 2015, I only had Issue #1 through Issue #4 in my library.  Hurricane Katrina destroyed my extensive collection of Callaloo, Hoo-Doo,  OBSIDIAN, African American Review and its earlier iterations, and the cassette-magazine Black Box.  Thanks to the generosity of the  New Orleans novelist Michael A. Zell and Crescent City Books, I acquired Callaloo #5, #6, and #7.  My celebration is informed by a sense of urgency spiced with paranoia.  In addition, my rejoicing is accompanied by a need to create a bit of what people have taken to calling "back-story," which I assume is information that hitherto has not been made public.

Founded in 1974 by Alvin Aubert , OBSIDIAN  like Nkombo, which was established  by Tom Dent and Kalamu ya Salaam in December 1968, stood in a prototypical relationship to Callaloo, not in format but in being marked by a multi-layered Black South aesthetic.  At one time or another,  Dent,  Aubert, Rowell, and I talked  frequently about the distribution of creative expressions. We were friends in a sense that  is difficult to communicate in 2016.  We were not "friends" in the dubious way the social network of Facebook  juggles the word.  It is more accurate to say we were comrades, our personalities and understanding of literary and cultural work having been forged on the anvil of segregation in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

 All of us were products of the gendered geographies of race, region, and literature so eloquently discussed by Thadious Davis in Southscapes (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), and we believed African American  literature and art were not artifacts designed  for museums and archives.  For us, cultural expressions  were processes and products for serving the aesthetic (perceptional) needs of people who may or may not have possessed  academic yearnings or  have given  allegiance, in the words of George Kent,  to "traditional  high ground humanism."  Read Kent's remarks in Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture (  Chicago: Third World Press, 1972). Our universalism was concrete not abstract.  It was that spirit which led Rowell, Dent, and me to conceptualize Callaloo during our Southern Black Cultural Alliance debates in Birmingham in the summer of 1975. Some weeks ago, Kalamu ya Salaam asked me to explain why after Callaloo moved from Southern University (Baton Rouge) to the University of Kentucky, Dent and I were rusticated and had insignificant roles in the subsequent  growth of Callaloo after 1979.  An explanation can be made by remembering clashes of value and  noting a few changes Rowell orchestrated in the first seven issues of  Callaloo.

Text

Remembering from April 2016 back to December 1976 exposes the subjectivity of   explaining  a few things that occurred between December 1976 and October 1979. Calendar dates are necessary for making a chronology, but they  reveal  little about cycles of clock time and much less about the  psychology of time, which is a virtual Louisiana swamp.  When the dates are juxtaposed with one-sentence assertions of what a magazine is, the subtle differences in wording  do suggest changing intentions:

#1 (December 1976) ---CALLALOO is a non-profit, tri-annual journal devoted to the creative and critical writings, arts, culture and life of the Black South.

#2 (February 1978) --CALLALOO is a non-profit, tri-annual journal devoted largely to the creative and critical writings, visual arts, culture and life of the Black South. ["Largely" delimits the scope of devotion, and "visual" excludes forms of art that might depend on sound , taste, touch, or smell.]

#3 (May 1978) --  CALLALOO is a non-profit, tri-annual (February, May, and October) journal devoted largely to the creative and critical writings, visual arts, culture and life of the Black South. [ The addition of months makes "tri-annual" more specific.]

#4 ( October 1978) ---CALLALOO is a non-profit, tri-annual (February, May, and October) journal devoted largely to the creative and critical writings, visual arts, culture and life of the Black South.

#5 (February 1979) ---The wording is identical with that of October 1978.

#6 (May 1979) --The wording is identical with that of October 1978.

#7 (October 1979)--The wording is identical with that of October 1978.

When the simple chronology is inspected from other angles, it spills the beans.



It must be noticed that the mailing address for #1 was P. O. Box 9677, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70813 and for #2-#7, it was Department of English, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky 40506.  The change of location included a change in the editorial hierarchy. Dent, Rowell, and Ward were Coeditors for #1. Dent and I did not fail to note that P. O. Box 9677 was not associated with the Department of English at Southern University (Baton Rouge),  nor did we fail to note  that with #2, Rowell made  a refined distinction between Managing Editors for the Lower South (Darrell K. Ardison and Johnnie M. Arrington ) and those for the Upper South (Chester Grundy and Robert Hemenway).   I can't speak for Dent.  His papers in the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University have to do so.  I did not exactly like the lower /upper distinction, because it reminded me of White South aristocracy rather than Black South democracy.

 Fourteen months later, Rowell is Editor-in-Chief and Dent and Ward are Editors.   Kentucky made him upper; Louisiana and Mississippi ensured that Dent and I would be lower and that we would know our place in the evolving scheme of things.  The editorial structure remains intact for #3-#5.  Rowell resumed the title Editor  with #6, and Dent and Ward are assigned to the category "Contributing and Advisory Editors," which is below the categories "Assistants to the Editor" and "Managing Editors."  If the discriminating language of the academic world means anything, it is important that fateful naming or discrimination occurred between  Callaloo #2 and Callaloo #7:

#2 --Editor-in-Chief, Editors, Associate Editors,  Managing Editors, Editorial Assistants (Lolita Burns, Harry P. Styles II and Michael Tourjee ), Contributing and Advisory Editors

#3 ---Editor-in-Chief, Editors, Associate editors, Managing Editors, Editorial Assistants ( Jonas Chaney, Bernie Lovely, Styles and Tourjee ), Contributing and Advisory Editors

#4 and #5 --Editor-in Chief, Editors, Associate Editors, Assistant Editor, Managing Editors, Editorial Assistants, Contributing and Advisory Editors [Lillie Lolita Burns was elevated from editorial assistant to Assistant Editor]

#6 and #7 --Editor, Assistants to the Editor, Managing Editors, Contributing and Advisory Editors [The hierarchy is streamlined.  Rowell  no longer needs to  proclaim that he has  "in-chief" status.  The Assistant Editor is replaced by Assistants to the Editor, and Associate Editors (Mercedese Broussard, Paulette S. Johnson, Oneada S. Madison, and Sondra O'Neale --who was added only for #5) disappear.]

The prototype for future issues (1980 to 2016) was firmly established with Callaloo #7. Truth be told, rustication or being dismissed had some virtues.  Dent and I were still in the good company  of such Callaloo contributing editors as Alvin Aubert, Melvin Dixon, Ernest Gaines, Gloria Wade Gayles, Stephen Henderson, George Kent, Pinkie Gordon Lane, James Alan McPherson, Arthenia Bates Millican, Sondra O'Neale, Huel D. Perkins, Horace Porter, Lorenzo Thomas, Electa Wiley and Al Young.  After 1979, Dent had more time to pursue his Black South oral history and making connections among artists and writers from Africa, the United States,   the Caribbean, and Central America and to write the very fine book Southern Journey.  I had more time to attend to the Black South education of my students at Tougaloo College, to invest energy in the Project on the History of Black Writing and research on Richard Wright, Lance Jeffers, Ishmael Reed and other writers, and to remain faithful to  Black Arts Movement imperatives  until the present. My 2016 celebration is a bit removed  from what Callaloo is in the 21st century, namely "a journal devoted to creative works by and critical studies of black writers worldwide" that also publishes  visual art and "studies of life and culture in the black world."  My celebrating is still attached to Tom  Dent's assertion  in Callaloo #1 ------

Though CALLALOO will not be limited to Black Southerners, it will be an organ of expression for new Black Southern writers and other artists.  CALLALOO will also give news of the new Black community theaters and cultural groups in the South, the existence of which is hardly known to the larger Black artistic community. (page v)

 I can't remember  and don't  have an urgent reason  to remember in what year Dent and I were totally erased from Callaloo.  I do have more to say about Callaloo #1-#7, but I'll do the saying in a book rather than in a blog.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            April 25, 2016
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Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Satire Project


Music/Painting/Poetry:  Outroducing Expectations

William F. Gross--composer

Larry D. Lean---visual artist

Lenard D. Moore --poet, vocalist



The Satire Project: a collaboration of art, music, and poetry (book + DVD). Mount Olive,  North Carolina: University of Mount Olive, 2016.  ISBN 978-0-692-68026-1.  $15.00

Gross, Lean, and Moore based their satiric project on two primary beliefs: (1) combining painting, poetry, and music can produce "a work that would be more imaginative than any of the single disciplines could create alone" and (2) Aristotle was correct in proposing "the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts."  If one likes the sonic  work of the avant garde chamber music ensemble Imani Winds or The Cosmic Quintet (Kidd Jordan, Douglas Ewart, Alvin Fielder, Chris Severin, and Luther Gray), the poetry of Bob Kaufman (check out his magnificent poem "The Ancient Rain")  and Safia Elhillo (check out "a suite for ol' dirty" in The BreakBeat Poets), and paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat,  Paul Klee, Miles Davis, and Pavel Tchelitchew, it is probable that one will like The Satire Project.  It does not disappoint in its outroducing of expectations.

Gross, Lean, and Moore assume that satire can direct "attention to shortcomings in our society."  In the 21st century, however, satire directs far greater attention to the yearnings of artists than to violations of or failures to live up to  American social values .  Ask Spike Lee who struggled to give us redemptive satire in "Bamboozled" and guilt-inducing satire in "Chi Raq."  The success of satire depends on some consensus regarding desirable values and behaviors.  In some dim past there may have been such nominal consensus in our body politic, but in the present we can only agree that we do not agree. The success of The Satire Project isn't located in moving us to make things better  (whatever "better" might entail) but in moving us closer to aesthetic recognitions. And the most important recognition is that time does more to outroduce expectations than to introduce them.

Moving forth and back between Lean's paintings and  Moore's ekphrastic poems in the book constitutes a special exercise in visual rhetoric, but the more rewarding aesthetic pleasure comes from negotiating the atonal offerings of Gross, the graffiti acrylic paintings of Lean, and vocal performances of Moore on the DVD.  Inspired no doubt by Gross's unpredictable soundings,  Moore transforms his print texts into minutes of ear-jazz, and, in many instances,  Moore  "sounds" better off the page than he does on it because he liberates the words. The outroducing of expectations in The Satire Project as book and DVD is a fine investment of American  time.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            April 23, 2016




Friday, April 22, 2016

Poetry and Occidental Microaggression

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POETRY AND OCCIDENTAL MICROAGGRESSION



It is not news that traditional American scholarship favors minimal audience participation and maximal stylistic restraint.  Objectivity demands the absence of passion, although passionate engagement of one's topic or subject matter is deemed acceptable.  In this sense, Marit J. MacArthur's "Monotony, the Churches of Poetry Reading, and Sound Studies," PMLA 131.1 (2016): 38-63 is a fine example of dual transgression.  MacArthur's effort to make a case for the overwhelming fear of theatricality and embrace of sincerity associated with strictly academic poetry readings exposes a retreat from forthright confrontation with human appetites, an exposure that traditional scholars might not welcome.  On the other hand, the article commits Occidental  microaggression: a stereotyping  in asserting  "many ethnic poets, including African American poets who trace their root to the black arts movement, favor audience participation and an expressive style" (59).   Many black poets and critics who are their cousins assiduously deny rootedness in the black arts movement; we have yet to find  convincing evidence that Chinese American poets, for example,  champion palpable audience participation.  Thus, in reading MacArthur and other Occidental critics (including ourselves) , we should attend to transgressions which may be accidental.

MacArthur's main topic is the favored neutral style in the performance of poetry readings, and we do need to note who so favors the style and distance ourselves from such people.  As MacArthur accurately suggests,  these people embrace monotonous incantation or high church style that apes an elevated sense of religious expression.  Silence or constipated emotion  is truly golden.  Although we (those of us who refuse to deny the innate properties of our ethnicity, including Jewish Americans) might tend to applaud MacArthur's transgressions initially, we are stopped in our tracks by the method of analysis. MacArthur uses ARLO (Adaptive Recognition with Layered Optimization) to measure the intonation or pitch patterns of audio recordings by Louise Gl├╝ck, Juliana Spahr, Michael Ryan, and Natasha Trethewey. Audio recordings?  Even the most sensitive instruments of technology ( and ARLO is not one of them) can't produce the kind of evidence produced by the human ear's hearing and feeling of live performance.  Much to her (I hope I'm using the proper gender pronoun) credit,  MacArthur does signify on the limits of digital humanities in the sonic domain.  Nevertheless, the limits of the instrument used to arrive at deliciously tentative conclusions about the church context of neutral style is not sufficiently acknowledged in the article. And by the standards traditional scholarship sets for objectivity, we have to say the sample of four poets is severely wanting.

MacArthur's effort to expose the anti-humanism of academic poetry readings has, to be sure, a certain nobility.  But it only deepens my common sense belief that the human ear is superior to any mechanical device in determining what is what in the performance of poetry.  We still have a far way to go before we can say with certainty who are the saints in non-academic poetry readings and who are the sinners in the zones of the oppositional academy.  MacArthur's article is a valuable learning moment.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            April 22, 2016

Monday, April 18, 2016

African American Haiku






African American Haiku: Cultural Visions.  John Zheng, ed.  Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016.

Pp. 197.  $65.00 (cloth). ISBN: 978-1-4968-0303-0.



When John Zheng, a noted poet and Wright scholar, edited The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku (2011), he hoped that the collection of critical essays would "lead readers to the fragrant tree of Haiku: This Other World to read for aesthetic appreciation and for more criticism as well" (xviii).  His hope did not fall on barren ground.  Scholars and students who have a dedicated interest in the totality of Richard Wright's works did indeed read the book to discover facts about Wright's achievement as a poet who experimented with an Asian poetic form to probe his Western identity and African American sensibility.  American interest in Eastern culture and literary expressions has its origins in the nineteenth century. Interest  assumed special articulation in the modernist period, including Lewis Grandison Alexander's commentary on "Japanese Hokkus" in the December 1923 issue of The Crisis and the publication of  Alexander's Tanka I-VIII and twelve haikus in Countee Cullen's seminal anthology Caroling Dusk (1927).  Thus, we have evidence ---Cullen noted that Alexander specialized in Japanese forms -- for  Asian influence in an evolving African American poetic tradition. Zheng's editing a  collection of essays on African American haiku is at once logical and a signal that, ill-informed arguments notwithstanding, black poetry has never chosen to inhabit ghettoes in the global community of poetry and poetics.

The arrangement of essays in  African American Haiku: Cultural Visions demonstrates Zheng's focused investment  in enlarging the territory for critical exploration.  Opening with Zheng's "The Japanese Influence on Richard Wright's Haiku" and Sachi Nakachi's "Richard Wright's Haiku, or the Poetry of Double Voice," the book invites us to take a retrospective glance as preparation for the essays on James Emanuel, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, and Lenard D. Moore which direct us toward a future.

In this sense, African American Haiku provides a model of how critical discourses may be constructed.  It also provides necessary grounds for agreement and counter-argument.  For example, Yoshinobu Hakutani's "James Emanuel's Jazz Haiku and African American Individualism" is a masterful treatment of how Emanuel's "haiku, with sharp, compressed images, strongly reflect the syncopated sounds and rhythms of African American jazz"(56).  For readers who might object that Hakutani's ideas about jazz, individualism, and poetry are not sufficiently nuanced, Virginia Whatley Smith's "Afro-Asian Syncretism in James Emanuel's Postmodernist Jazz Haiku" is a remedy.  Smith's examination of Emanuel's work is precise, surgical and very persuasive in making the case "that Emanuel's postmodernist jazz haiku text projects African American culture more distinctly into an already transnational space in which "jazz" music brings together people from around the world in a common dialogue about universal humanism" (59).  Jazz is one of several musical modes begot by the blues, and the point is not lost in Claude Wilkinson's " 'No Square Poet's Job': Improvisation in Etheridge Knight's Haiku," a provocative analysis of how "Knight's haiku exert a certain bravura reminiscent of the toasts by which he honed his linguistic skills"(107).  Meta L. Schettler's "An African High Priestess of Haiku: Sonia Sanchez and the Principles of a Black Aesthetic" and Richard A. Iadonisi's "Writing the (Revolutionary ) Body: The Haiku of Sonia Sanchez" address Sanchez's unique womanist cultural visions and several of the issues associated with reading haiku through the lens of the Black Arts Movement.  These two essays are appropriately followed  by a trilogy on the work of Lenard D. Moore, who is the most prolific African American writer of haiku:  Toru Kiuchi's "African American Aesthetic Tradition in Lenard D. Moore's Haiku," Ce Rosenow's "Sequences of Events: African American Communal Narratives in the Haiku of Lenard D. Moore" and Sheila Smith McKoy's "Contextualizing Renso and Sankofa:  A Cultural and Critical Exploration of Lenard D. Moore's Haiku."  Kiuchi writes poignantly about his personal correspondence with Moore and how Moore "has turned his life and experiences into expressions through imagistic haiku and other poems with his African American aesthetics" (161).  Rosenow applauds Moore's innovative gestures in "the paradoxical choice to construct communal narratives using a literary form that strives to distance itself from narrative conventions" (164), and McKoy's essay is itself remarkably innovative in linking "renso and sankofa, two concepts that come to us from seemingly disparate sources: ancient Japan and ancient Ghana" (180) to create a persuasive argument that Moore's "contributions as poet and as teacher are indicative of living a haiku life" (190).

It is unlikely that readers will examine the essays in just the order Zheng has chosen, but the effort to do so is rewarding.  The essays work as an ensemble that illuminates Zheng's introduction, a concise and scholarly frame for inquiry about how African American poets have studied, embraced, and made innovations in an ancient Japanese genre.  The introduction is a valuable literary historical guide for sustained study of haiku, African American modernity, and cross-cultural poetics.  African American Haiku: Cultural Visions is seminal for future criticism regarding how Japanese formal aesthetics have been liberated by poets, how haiku is transformed in literary contact zones, and how diversity is constituted by the cosmopolitan practices of individual African American poets.  The book is destined to have an impact on theoretically sophisticated  directions in the study of modern and contemporary African American poetry.





Central China Normal University

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Omens for Scholarship


GOOD OMENS FOR SCHOLARSHIP

The MLA Handbook, Eighth Edition (2016), bids us to consider the probability of having a single "set of guidelines, which writers can apply to any type of source" (Handbook, rear cover).  This new edition may be less intimidating than the Seventh or the Sixth, and it may minimize anxiety about scrupulous documentation in the age of the digital.  Nevertheless, we should not put older editions of the Handbook out to pasture, because the new one seems more a supplement than a replacement.  It lacks the solid advice about research and writing we found in Chapter 1 of the Seventh, and not all of us want to visit The MLA Style Center, the open access online companion.  Neither in documentation nor in the vast range of scholarship is it prudent to drift with the wind.

Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright and the Bandung Conference (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), edited by Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher, is a good omen that scholars who refuse to get lost in the brothels and mazes of theory-whipping can be productive long-distance runners.  Roberts and Foulcher have used impeccable literary historical scholarship in producing a book that maps new territory for studies of Richard Wright's life, works, and prophetic acumen . Indonesian Notebook is exceptionally valuable for anyone, including political scientists and historians,  who is interested in what world literature created during the Cold War period actually challenges us to interpret.

 When we truly revisit Wright's The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956), armed with the generous amount of contextualizing matter that Roberts and Foulcher translated from the Indonesian, we are stimulated to ask just what did Wright see and hear at the conference and during his conversations with Indonesian intellectuals.  What inspired Wright to quite accurately speculate that the world of 1955 was a crucible for multiple forms of terrorism rooted in religion? And what did Wright reveal in his lecture "The Artist and His Problems" (published as "Seniman dan Masalaahnja" in Indonesia Raya on May 22, 1955) that might have informed his decisions about what essays to include in White Man, Listen! (1957)?  The winding path of scholarship may take us to Ethan Michaeli's The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) to discover why John Sengstacke assigned Ethel Payne to cover Bandung for the Chicago Defender and to  James McGrath Morris's Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press (New York: Amistad, 2015) for a choice bit of information about how the U.S. government used CIA funds to enable Payne and Wright to attend an Asian-African conference.  I shall soon write at greater length about Indonesian Notebook  which, as Amritjit Singh aptly remarks, "reminds us that the quest for equality must confront the stubborn local socio-economic realities throughout the globe" ( Indonesian Notebook, rear cover blurb), because I do want to confront the stubborn actualities of political designs and literary meanings. Fortunately, there is no single set of guidelines for that task.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            April 14, 2016


Saturday, April 9, 2016

DRUMVOICES THEN AND NOW


Eugene Redmond's Drumvoices Then and Now



Four decades after their publication, Stephen E. Henderson's Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973) and Eugene B. Redmond's Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry:  A Critical History (1976) continue to serve as beacons for commentary on poetry.  Henderson's speculations about speech and music as poetic references drew attention to the play of sounds, those of the human voice and those produced by instruments, and we haven't exhausted what needs to be said about poetry from the angles of sociolinguistics and ethnomusicology.  If Henderson's work was basically synchronic, Redmond's model for investigation and documentation was overtly diachronic.  It provided a foundational model for subsequent literary histories and provoked  arguments among poets and critics  about the idea of mission.  It is difficult to determine which of the two books has had the greater impact on scholarship, pedagogy, and non-academic discussions of how poetry can be said to function.  On the other hand, it is easy to notice that no one has tried to account for African American poetry's evolving from 1976 to the present  by using Redmond's on-the-scene, participant/observer methods.

When Drumvoices appeared in 1976, more people were receptive to the notion that poetry (or literature in general)  should be discussed as a tradition, and they were more attuned to thinking that the achievements of individual poets ought to be accounted for in a tradition.  At present,  many writers  appear to have slight interest   in a tradition which can't be easily  detached from  concepts of obligation, history, and politics; they seem eager  to celebrate the association of individual talent with craft, aesthetics, symbolic prizes, and the hype of non-threatening "literary" values upon which reputations depend.  The unspecified sense of morality implicit Redmond's use of the word "mission" seems to be anathema.  It would be rash to say the retreat from one form of responsibility is deliberate or consciously "intended," but rereading Drumvoices alerts us to  significant attitudinal differences those of 1976 and the ones which have currency in 2016.

The title Drumvoices itself gives privilege to instrumentality, to the voice as drum, song, and dance (gesture). Thus, the idea of poetry as a tool for creative expression and recalling  is prominent in Redmond’s treatment of history.  It is a sharp reminder that the origins of African American   poetry are located in the oral and in the written, that the two modes are Siamese twins which cannot be separated from one another. Reading  this book is to some degree a participation in Redmond's  gestures of recovering how black poetry came to be what it is.

In setting for himself the task of exploring the “complex storehouse of folk materials and themes” and “the chronological development of black poetry --- from about 1746 to the present [1976],” (2) Redmond undertook a difficult job.  As Darwin T. Turner reminded us in 1971, “although the study of Afro-American literature is not as old as the material itself, it is not significantly younger than the formal study of American literature, which has earned academic respectability in this country [the United States] only within the past eighty years.  Two years before the end of the Civil War, William Wells Brown, a former slave, described the achievement of early Afro-American writers in The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, and by 1915, the words of black writers were being read, memorized, recited, studied, and revered by black students in the schools into which blacks were segregated…….In short, long before some of today’s teachers were born, black American literature had been read, taught, and, too often, forgotten” (4-5) [1] Redmond’s difficult task was to rectify the forgetting and to improve our options for remembering

In his first chapter, “Black Poetry: Views, Visions, Conflicts,” Redmond carefully itemized specific problems:

·         In the study of black poetry, one must deal with “substantive background materials: the deepest philosophical, religious, ethical, artistic, and aesthetic tenets of black life and expression.”  Thus, one examines “the scope and range of black poetry via folk origins, methods of delivery, language, phonology, religiosity, racial character, recurring themes, individual and group identity, and poetic devices as they are developed indigenously or borrowed from other traditions” (2)

·         What is named “the black experience is complex and frustrating,” and it can only be defined through a process of endless questioning (3)

·         Poets are not in agreement about what black poetry is.  Writers who ask am I a poet first and then Black, or am I Black and then a poet will find themselves entrapped “in ideological and political prisons” (6)

·         Students of black poetry should arm themselves with “the tools of criticism and a knowledge of black culture,” including the deceptive playfulness of black humor, and knowledge of what black artists, scholars, and activists are debating (10-11)

·         Literary hustlers do exist.  One must not assume “that just because a statement is ‘relevant,’ it is poetry!” and one must realize “that the black experience is not monolithic ---although recurring trends and broad implications do exist in the areas of language, religion, humor, dance, music, and general life style” (13)

·         Students of black poetry are obligated to give attention to “the craft of poetry –hows and whys of poetry, and temper overmuch enthusiasm for the sociological aspects of the poetry (14)

In Chapter II “The Black and Unknown Bards,” Chapter III “African Voice in Eclipse (?): Imitation and Agitation (1746-1865), Chapter IV “Jubilees, Jujus, and Justices (1865-1910), Chapter V “A Long Ways from Home” (1910-1960) and Chapter VI “Festivals and Funerals: Black Poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, Redmond provided the richest kind of historical description.  He wove  verifiable facts about the creation and publication of poetry with his often surprising commentaries on such well-known poets as Phillis Wheatley, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Melvin B. Tolson, Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden and on such unknown bards as Albery Allson Whitman, Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., Owen Dodson, Leslie Pinckney Hill, N. J. Loftis, Sam Cornish, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Conrad Kent Rivers.  These unknown bards are not completely unknown.  They, like the hundreds of poets Redmond identified by name and geographical location, are simply not prime candidates for inclusion in the canon as it is defined by the ubiquitous anthologies published by W. W. Norton.

African American poetry did not cease to have a "mission" between 1976 and the present, but ideological shifts, the impact of new technologies on the production and distribution of poetry, changes in tastes linked to class identities, and the fetish of academic legitimacy undermined the will to depict the plurality of missions.  The descriptions of missions are extant in many books and articles, but they are not organized in any single book one might call a continuation of Drumvoices or a supplemental updating.

Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History is a unique contribution to the study of African American poetry, a work of inspired scholarship that guides us into knowing in great detail who spoke or wrote African American poetry from 1746 to 1976.[2] Shall we  ever have a similar guide for the speaking and writing of black poetry from 1976 to 2016?  That question patiently awaits a response.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            April 9, 2016





















[1] Turner, Darwin T. and Barbara Dodds Stanford. Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Literature by Afro-Americans. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1971.
[2] Since 1976, Redmond has continued to document the development of African American poetry through his publication of works by and interviews with poets in his magazine Drumvoices Revue. He has also produced an extensive body of visual documentation, approximately 100,000 photographs. See Howard Rambsy II, “Eugene B. Redmond, The Critical Cultural Witness,” Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Issue 1 (2011): 69-89.
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