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Saturday, February 6, 2016

DNA and Deferred Dreams

DNA and Deferred Dreams

Our public discussions about what matters in our lives have  become increasingly confused,  funky and fatal, but we do have options.  We can resist being swept into intellectual oblivion.  We can resist being arrested and marched into partisan thought-control concentration camps.  One of the tools we might use to defend ourselves is

Nelson, Alondra .  The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.

Nelson's book is well-researched, logical, nuanced, and very serious about the good and the evil that can be achieved as we make use  of genetic science and its array of data.   Her focused discussion of how genetic data influences social and cultural thought as well as political and legal  decisions provides a new frame of reference for measuring the importance of race in modern life, for remembering why we are so enthralled by what  that four-letter word symbolizes.  The issues of scientific racism exposed by Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (1981) may be more subtle in the 21st century, but they are still powerful determinants in how we talk about our everyday American lives. 

Nelson is painstakingly exact in explaining the limits of scientific research and reasoning; what non-scientists casually assume is pure evidence may prove under scrutiny to be contaminated.  However persuasive the findings of science may seem, they are theoretical descriptions which contain grounds for refutation.  The portions of The Social Life of DNA which may appeal greatly to some readers are those that deal with the biocultural knowledge we have regarding the African Burial Ground in New York and our ongoing fascination with tracing and documenting our ancestry, the riddles of our genetic heritage.  Much to her credit, Nelson exercises due diligence in exploring her complex subject.

Weary of widely broadcast, hype-infused talks about race, reparations, and reconciliation (which is a tragicomic dream deferred everywhere on our planet), I am impressed with Nelson's integrity and refusal to pander.  Although she is obligated to deal with concepts and vocabulary that some readers will complain are too difficult, she does make a sincere effort to be conversational, to use lively anecdotes to illustrate how her claims function.  Nelson casts light on why STEM has assumed a crucial role in contemporary life and on how what begins as pure science can be corrupted by commercial desires. The Social Life of DNA is a necessary expansion of the reasoning that informs what Michelle Alexander, Ta'Nehisi Coates , Kevin Powell and others have pondered about  the human condition American style. It gives us a modicum of hope that human beings can reclaim and apply common sense as they deal with the inevitable facts of life.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            February 6, 2016

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

History 2216


"A Tribune Editorial: Let's Get Serious" (The New Orleans Tribune 32.1, January 2016, p. 4) urges us to us 2016 as "a chance to regroup, refocus and demand more of all our leaders  --  and ourselves.  We ought to be tired of making do, giving up, settling for less or selling out to serve selfish desires."  It would a godsend if Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond exercise is imprimatur and declared  that the editorial must be  required reading at all Masses during February 2016.  The editorial might also help us to decide whether a cross named Ted, a woman named Clinton, a card named Trump, or Sanders of the River will be the next President of the United States.  Let's get very  serious.

This is a year of terrible struggle and mercy.  We should avoid, as much as possible, walking forking paths in a digital world.  We do need to notice that families matter.  We should ask why social scientists and mass media write endlessly about the African American family, but seldom explore the enormous complexities of Jewish, Islamic,  Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, and Catholic families.  Those families matter and give shape to demographic shifts. And we may understand little about unemployment in our nation unless we understand American  families, unlevel playing fields,  and the serious questions regarding global economies raised by Jeffry A. Frieden in Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century (2006).

We need to get serious about the flaws of the criminal justice system and the ascent of  privatized prisons, inadequate attention to mental health issues and police irresponsibility,  and  the love affair with privatized public education (consult "The State of Public Education in New Orleans 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina" by Patrick Sims and Vincent Rossmeier, recently published by the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives).  We need to get serious about why the male-specificity of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) is a clear signal that the new Jane Crow enables American females to be more at risk than they were in 1916.  Can we transcend our capitalist miseducations enough to read Alondra Nelson's The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparation and Reconciliation After the Genome (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016)?  "Genetic ancestry testing," Nelson concludes, "is but one implement in an entire tool kit of tactics that, marshaled together, must be brought to the project of building racial reconciliation and social justice" (166).  When we get serious, we are forced to ask if reconciliation can manifest itself in a republic that thinks it is a democracy and if social justice in anyone's lifetime will ever be more than a beautiful theory.

I completely agree that we must "get serious about the laundry list of problems and nuisances our community faces on the local, state, and national levels" and that we must save ourselves before we can save Flint, Michigan and New Orleans.  Yes, let us get serious as the editorial wisely advises about getting serious.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            February 2, 2016

Reading Michael Zell with bourbon whisky

Reading Michael Allen Zell with handmade bourbon whisky

Zell, Michael Allen. ERRATA. New Orleans: Lavender Ink, 2012.

Having cycled through twenty-two unidentified roads in THE KATRINA PAPERS, I can groove as Maker's Mark and I read ERRATA.  The book belongs to a typical 21st century species of post-something writing, a genre that is not a genre.  It is an event.

Between the opening sentence "As the monk, so the socialite" (15) and the final one "Flux stars fall into the internal laws of syntax" (110), a reader is invited to meander for 22 diary days with the cabbie Raymond Russell (the printed manifestation of Michael Zell's artistic consciousness) through streets --Esplanade, Franklin Avenue, Bienville, Bourbon, Rampart, Burgundy, Kerlerec, Dauphine, Barracks, Tulane, Broad, Canal, Frenchman and Chef Menteur Highway (a street when it wants to be). One effective device some writers from New Orleans use is the catalog of street names to distance themselves from the unworthy gawking of critics.  Bears mark territory with spoors.  New Orleans writers use the shibboleth of Tchoupitoulas.

ERRATA is a remarkable metafiction, a novel that engages literacy with a vengeance.  The book is not designed for readers who don't have more than a post-Katrina charter school education, or, for that matter, more than a run-of-the-football-field American education.  Who is equipped to appreciate Zell's references to Faubourg Marigny, Bruno Schulz, "early Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets" (24), Herman Melville, Josef Vachal, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Henry Mathews, Mallarme, Jorge Luis Borges, Felisberto Hernandez, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, Heberto Padilla, Dostoevsky, Karl Marx, Robert Burton?  If you have not read The Anatomy of Melancholy, the humor of associating Robert Burton with "The Anatomy of the Distribution of Temperaments" (100) is as lost on you as the unique humor of associating  Richard Wright's Cross Damon with Raskolnikov.  You are obviously a reader who does not merit an urn burial.

It is clever of the persona/protagonist Raymond Russell to know as Michael Zell knows damned well that there is "no market for pastiche-strewn pages"  but a tantalizing market for hyperliterate meditations glued between covers.

Zell uses ERRATA to testify that "New Orleans is one of a few cities which attracts those with versatile lives, an unexpected stop along the way for at least a little while" (77).  Therein is a warning.  If you know what it means to miss New Orleans, you are most likely a victim of "the Raskolnikov who didn't swing an axe" (101), for you have purchased the hype that "civilians shouldn't be criminals" (100). Maker's Mark and I  deem ERRATA a fine meditation on why Caucasians flock to New Orleans like predatory fowl.  They need sanctuary from the Inferno.  And the book is a mediation of something else that Creole manners forbid one to give a name.  Some dimensions of words and being in the United States are to be experienced in the absolute solitude of reading ERRATA.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            February 2, 2016

Monday, February 1, 2016

Utah 2009



Wasatch, snow-blessed mountains, remote for remaining on retinas in the South


            You remember nothing until the forgetting has begun.  Remoteness is not about geography.  A retarded peacock would know the West is not the South, especially if the West decided to have snow three days before the end of April, the cruelest month according to Mr. Eliot.  But Mr. Eliot was dead wrong.  Christ is not a tiger nor is John the Baptist a polar bear.


The mountains are gray-white and purple and lovely at 7:12 a.m. when you have your daily aesthetic experience. Fresh.  The air is fresh fresh, very very remote and very very distinct  from the  smell of life in New Orleans.  This is Utah, much younger and much cleaner than Louisiana and its Afro-Cajun crazy swamps and redeemed reptiles pissing in the dawn.  This is Utah, the property of Utes transformed by flinty Mormons.  The Chinese ink-wash of Utah mountains is as unattainable as the normal on Canal Street after or before the Storm.  Thank God, Salt Lake City shall have no flood until the telos of global warming is a fact and not a theory.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

February 1, 2016

Today is Langston Hughes's 114th birthday.

Read two of his poems before midnight.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

February 2016

 February 2016


Let us take a lesson from the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans.  They spend an entire year creating new suits for Carnival Time.  We should spend twelve months in research, debating, action and writing in order to have something important to say when we engage the themes announced by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History for Black History Month.  "Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories" is the theme for 2016.  The best site for memory is the mind.

Elder minds might remember The Institute of the Black World was once located at 87 Chestnut Street, S. W., Atlanta, Georgia 30314.  In January 1983, Vincent Harding sent out "IBW Thirteenth Anniversary Update and Fund Appeal" along with an unforgettable quotation from Lerone Bennett's The Challenge of Blackness:

"….we believe in the community of the black dead and the black living and the black unborn.  We believe that that community has a prior claim on our time and our talents and our resources, and that we must respond when it calls."

Elder minds continue to share Bennett's beliefs  in greater and lesser degrees.  Times have changed. Let us ask minds that are twenty and younger if Bennett's words still have mad juice, even if we don't know what mad juice is. Let us be still and wait for silence or a hip hop word of four letters or an answer in Twitter syllables.  Times have changed, but the need to cultivate minds has remained constant.

In 2016, elderly farmers can plant old seeds from Vincent Harding's The Other American Revolution (1981) in the soil of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (2010):

"At the edge of history, how shall we move? Do we continue to trail behind the most revolutionary insights that our struggle has already achieved; do we turn away from the radical directions that Malcolm, Martin, and Fannie Lou had already approached in the 1960s?  Or do we stand with them, move with them, move beyond them, move on for them and for ourselves and our children to remake this nation?" (231)

The seeds might produce talking plants that will care to say:

Teach the unborn what law is and law is not as citizens, with or without benefit of uniform, kill young minds contained in young bodies.  Teach the unborn that they are expected to excel in mathematics and STEM.  Teach the unborn to be conversant with how global economies function inside and outside the United States of America.  Teach the unborn that the arts and the humanities are not useless; they are limited.  Teach the unborn that ACTUALITY dominates REALITY.  Teach the unborn that natural law does not baptize, ordain, and canonize STUPIDITY and that WISDOM is a terrible thing to waste.

It is not beneath the dignity of elder minds to do a bit of sharecropping.

In another part of the upper forty, the talking plants will repeat words from Harding that will upset the minds of the black living.  He asserted "that just as many of the energies of the middle-class black freedom movement leadership have now been absorbed into the middle level structure of the American nation, so, too, the phenomenon that we called Black Studies  ---and many of its similarly middle-class proponents ---has been absorbed into the structures , ethos, and aspirations of the American university system" and  " that Black Studies was absorbed (with a few important partial exceptions) for many of the same reasons that we experienced in the larger area of national struggle.  Essentially, it happened because the Black Studies movement failed to carry to their logical, radical ends many of the challenges to the assumptions, ideology, and structures of American higher education, failed to continue to press the critical issue of the relationship between black people inside the universities and those who will never make it" (227).

In February 2016, the elder minds will be silent and listen for sounds from the young and middle-aged minds inside and outside of the Trilateral Commission, the  Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the  United Negro College Fund, the BK Nation, the various #Whatever Matters phenomena, the IMF and the World Bank,   the National Council of Black Studies, the CDC and the NSF, the College Language Association, the Urban League , the United Nations and the NAACP.  Should the elder minds hear nothing more than white noise, they will continue serene conversations in the community of the black dead.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 26, 2016

Monday, January 25, 2016

Black critics and Chinese Questions

Black Critics and Chinese Questions /Notes for a Dialogue with Wang Yukuo, November 2014


Q1. The biggest difference between critics of the last century and those of today  is one of attitude. The critics of the early twentieth-first century  are more adamant in  exploring theory.  Their interests are  diverse, diffused, and quaintly speculative. Many of them  are passionate about creating new critical histories in order  to escape the confines of a History which bids us to represent " the Race" or African Americans as an ethnic group. They are more interested in representing "the American" or some variety of existential diversity. They reject the sense of obligation that was evidenced by the critics of the early twentieth century. Some of the contemporary critics might find the very  idea of obligation to be antiquated if not offensive. They seem to be more interested in the nature of change than in the probabilities of continuity.  They are interested in discontinuity, in change as a series of ruptures or breaks with what is past , breaks that ordain bold explorations of the present, breaks that minimize the chore of remembering . They want to account for what is occurring now much more than they want to document the critical postures of one hundred years ago.

We are speaking , of course, in generalizations.  It would be most unfair to suggest that the young critics are bereft of a sense of history or that they do not know of the critical struggles of earlier critics.  Some of them know a great deal about such history.  Some of them do not. The critics  are not unified ; they do not rally around a single purpose. They have chosen  to focus their intellectual energies on 21st century problems of how literature functions now, especially in the United States or in the African Diaspora or in global contexts.

In sharp contrast to these critics, those who wrote about Negro literature (American Negro literature) in the early years of the 20th century felt obligated to give legitimacy to works by black writers.  They had to convince a majority white readership that Negro literature was indeed literature rather than some scribbling to be laughed at or dismissed as inferior efforts to put words on paper. They worried about how well the Negro writing conformed to white criteria for art. Such agonizing is not part of our contemporary scene.  And when it does appear , we are surprised by the tyranny  of theory .What matters today is how craft and techniques represent  the constantly changing modern, post-modern, and post-whatever sensibilities shared by artists and critics from many ethnic groups. The preoccupation of 20th century critics with justification has become a subject for historical recovery.

The difference between 20th- and 21st-century  critical roles must be examined in terms of attitudes about responding to cultural situations.  It is most instructive that in the United States a few critics think it is possible to write post-racially about  literature that has racial properties.


Q2. The assumption that black writing must have racial properties  is primitive. It totally ignores how much of African American writing is focused on the Self, the psychology of the Self, on dealing with all the existential issues of life that are not strictly racial and social. A considerable portion of black writing is devoted to pure aesthetics, particularly in the genre of poetry. That is to say, the writers experiment with language as language and with the power of language to manipulate and multiply our perspectives on everyday life. If one has only read the exceptionally small number of black writers who are listed in the CNKI, one makes ill-informed assumptions.  One has simply not explored enough black literature.


Q3. To uproot is not to eradicate. The Africans who survived the Middle Passage and recombined their ethnicities did not undergo a kind of science fiction brain surgery that erased all memory of African cultures.  Indeed, the fact that we speak of African/European hybridity indicates that something African remained in the mixture.  So, it is really a matter of our studying how displaced peoples forged new cultural and literary traditions and how those new traditions have been very influential in shaping modern transnational ideas about culture. Historians have done better work in helping us to understand what Paul Gilroy named the Black Atlantic than have many literary critics.

Q4. African American scholars have been dealing the influence of technologies on criticism and scholarship for more than a decade. Consider how such social networks as Twitter, Facebook, and Rap Genius have incorporated bits and pieces of literary discussion; how the emergence of digital humanities has encouraged more work with digitizing older African American texts so that one can use diverse software to crunch information and highlight previously little mentioned characteristics of traditional texts. Alondra Nelson is the  acknowledge pioneer in Afrofuturist theory, and her writings on AfroFuturism are seminal. A good place to start exploring how much new technologies have begun to reshape critical discussion is the Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Issue 4 (2014), which was edited by Howard Rambsy II, one of the leading scholars who is thoroughly committed to using new technologies. I must note that only those scholars and critics who have fairly easy access to the most powerful technologies can truly take advantage of them.


Q5. In my opinion, the most distinctive feature of black writing is a continuing investment in the histories of the United States of America and in the multiple levels of those histories. Examine Charles Johnson’s novel Middle Passage; James McBride’s novel Good Lord Bird, which is a comedic treatment of John Brown’s abolitionist mission; Brenda Marie Osbey’s History and Other Poems, an exploration of Creole impact on history in a small portion of the American South; August Wilson’s cycle of plays about the 20th century mainly from the angle of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Other ethnic American literatures also invest in history, but African American literature does so with greater deliberate passion.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.