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Saturday, August 29, 2015

The media ignores us


THE MEDIA IGNORES US

 

Seventy-two things are racing to be finished before midnight, but I gave priority to only one of them this morning: attending "The Media Ignores Us: A Human Art Exhibit" at Crescent City Boxing Club, 3101 Erato, New Orleans.  The title is intriguing.  Curiosity demanded that I find out what an exhibit devoted to young, gifted, and Black youth in New Orleans encompassed.  It is fashionable to demonize young Black people in the United States, to pepper Internet, television, and print media each second with negative, dehumanizing images and narratives about them.  On a post-Katrina Saturday morning, we needed positivity.

 

The exhibit, conceptualized by Kim Dilosa, founder and executive director of the YOUTHanasia Foundation, Inc., did not disappoint me.  It featured twenty-six young people who stood silently under or in proximity to an awesome mural of Mohammed Ali at the Boxing Club. As I looked at them and read the placards which explained who each was and what she or he had done since August 29, 2005 and what he or she was determined to accomplish in life, I was deeply moved.  They were the polar opposite of Herman Melville's Bartleby.  Their silence was very loud.  They were brave, willing to risk a certain irony in "exhibiting" human aspirations.  They were twenty-six stars forming a constellation against my usual blue-black cynicism.  What I saw was unconditional, unmitigated hope and strength and the young lifting themselves in affirmation of what their ancestors, immediate and remote, lived, suffered, and died for. Their iconic faces spoke to me.  Ashé.  Amen.

 

Chance arranged for a young man whom I'd met over a year ago when I spoke to Students at the Center to reintroduce himself and to give me some information about one of the exhibit participants, a future Icon of NOLA.  Our conversation convinced me to make a small donation to the cause.  I also asked Ms. Dilosa if any of the New Orleans newspapers planned to cover the exhibit.  She told me they would not. The papers did not like the exhibit's title.  They refused to cover it.  Ah, poetic justice.  I intervened by calling and leaving a voice message for one of the best journalists in New Orleans.  The media has the option of  ignoring  the exhibit, but the media ought not ignore the positive stories the twenty-six young people can tell to the United States of America and the world.  It is criminal to ignore the storytellers and the stories during the anniversary of the Storm they survived.  At the back of my mind, I hear a small, weird voice saying, "Fool, don't you know by now that criminality is the modus operandi of choice at every social , mass communications, and political level in the City of New Orleans?"  I answered, "Perhaps I do know that, but my work is to support the young, gifted and Black by speaking against the status quo  and the media that ignore them.

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

August 29, 2015

12:10 PM

 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Letter to the New York Times


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

1928 Gentilly Blvd.

New Orleans, LA 70119-2002

 

 

August 24, 2015

 

 

Mr. Dean Baquet

Executive Editor

The New York Times

620 Eighth Avenue

New York, New York 10018-1618

 

Dear Mr. Baquet:

 

Although the onus for what might be offensive in The New York Times does not rest only on your shoulders,  I direct my disappointment with Vinson Cunningham's "Can Black Art Ever Escape the Politics of Race?" (NYT Magazine online, August 20, 2015) to you.  This title is a red herring.  If Cunningham were familiar with the work of Frank Yerby, he would know some instances of black art long ago escaped the politics of race.  His apparent lack of knowledge and carelessness is reflected in his opening sentence; his assertion that Richard Wright was "late of Harlem and Biloxi, Miss." is a blatant bit of misinformation. When Wright moved his family to Paris in August 1947, he was late of Greenwich Village.  As far as Wright scholars know, he never set foot in Biloxi, Mississippi.  Cunningham's lack of care regarding his prose is signaled by such wording as "recusal from turmoil" and "Zen on loan." That kind of wording might be found in contemporary poetry; it is ill-chosen in serious journalism.

 

It is quite annoying to me and a few other African American writers that The New York Times published Cunningham's article without noticing the phrase "tribal pride" is offensive or attending to Cunningham's inability to construct a coherent argument.  His attempt to say something about "art for life's sake" versus "art for art's sake" is pathetic. 

 

A number of the articles and reviews your newspaper has printed in 2015 have accorded noteworthy disrespect to African American literature and writers, particularly in left-handed "compliments" about the legacies of Richard Wright and James Baldwin.  I hereby request that The New York Times in the future will use an internal consent decree and publish commentaries on black art, literature, and culture that observe high standards of critical thought.  Otherwise, we shall have grounds for believing the newspaper is involved in covert warfare on the integrity of African American cultural expressions.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Shakespeare and Baraka


William Shakespeare and Amiri Baraka

 

Many years ago at a dinner party I proposed that Shakespeare got too much attention,  that commentary on this Elizabethan writer was just so much bardolatry, that  Shakespeare's contemporaries and other writers deserved generous critical attention.  The honored guest at dinner happened to be a famous, very erudite Marxist.  He fixed his bright dark eyes on me, saying "Young man, Shakespeare has been read and misread, but he can never be read too much nor sufficiently."  The instructive arrow, shot by C. L. R. James,  is still lodged in my memory. Bold superficiality is one of the banes of youth.

For James, as Aldon L. Nielsen intimates in C. L. R. James: An Introduction (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), reading Shakespeare included making challenging theses and discovering how form in  great English language texts is not a mirror "but a metamorphosing lens revealing that which is invisible to the naked eye, and that  which is yet to come "(39).  Perhaps James chided my young Self for its want of transformative attention, and now my old Self profits from his spoken words and from his published criticism, especially of Herman Melville, just as it has gained much from Sterling Stuckey's enlightening commentaries on Melville.  From both James and Stuckey, those remarkable historians,  literary criticism ought to learn lessons about its own peculiar, dynamic  functions.  The seminal texts are Stuckey's  African Culture and Melville's Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) and James's Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and The World We Live In (London: Allison & Busby, 1985).

The idea of a metamorphosing lens is nicely illuminated by Stephen Greenblatt's Shakespeare's Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), both in terms of how Greenblatt chooses to write about Shakespeare and what his motives might be in doing so.  It is easy to describe Greenblatt's argument but risky and polemical to address his motives.

Greenblatt's meditation on absolute limits, the idea of beauty, the limits of hatred, the ethics of authority, and autonomy in the works of Shakespeare constitutes one model of how a similar exploration of Amiri Baraka's works might proceed.  Admitting that as a human being Shakespeare, "notwithstanding his aura of divinity,"  was subject to limits, Greenblatt argues that "these limits are not constraints on Shakespeare's imagination or literary genius....No, the limits that he embodied are ones he himself disclosed and explored throughout his career, whenever he directed his formidable intelligence to absolutes of any kind. These limits served as the enabling condition of his particular freedom" (1).  Were one to substitute Baraka for Shakespeare in Greenblatt's wording, the explosive political subtext of his meditation floats to the surface.  I am provoked to ask how Greenblatt participates in the project of cultural and intellectual hegemony adumbrated by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993 ).  It would not be exactly prudent for me to answer my ambivalent question, because I need to conserve limited energy for multicultural battles of a different order.  Thus, I confine my interest in Greenblatt and Said to the level of structure and leave the matter of anatomizing their speech acts to others.

Juxtaposing William Shakespeare and Amiri Baraka is a challenging exercise that might be of some good for those of us who are committed to serious inquiry about aspects of literary history and our own historicity as readers in particular cultures.  Rereading all of Shakespeare and Baraka as well as weighing biographical and autobiographical evidence about their temporally remote lives would be an arduous project, one best suited for independent scholars who have the luxury of not begging for support from American institutions . Those institutions would probably fund the most specialized and exotic research on Shakespeare, his status within American cultural literacy being enormously secure. Baraka is not so "blessed."   His  position within our cultural literacy is still evolving, and widespread, diverse resentments about his achievements are quite operative in the United States.  The noteworthy scholarship of Theodore Hudson, William J. Harris, Werner Sollors, Henry Lacey, and others who have studied  LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka has little impact on resentment that flows like the Mississippi River, that hides as many secrets as the River.

 Even after his death, his integrity and autonomy are consistently misread as unmitigated anger when they should be properly read as spiritual disdain for America's long history of  human wretchedness sponsored by our experiments with democracy.  Why this should be the case is exposed in William J. Maxwell's F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), but full disclosure has to be obtained from scrutiny of the deadly macro- and micro-aggressions rampant in the Age of Obama.  In 2015, the United States seems to rival the duplicity of Elizabethan England. It can be argued, for example,  that our nation has an ideal climate for transforming vulgar  abstractions into dubious  policy and obscene practices. For this reason, I believe my Chinese, African  and European colleagues might read Baraka under the influence of ethical forms of criticism which it is difficult for most of my American colleagues to manifest or profess.  Juxtaposition is not comparison, and it ought to  be more than  a simple comparing of Baraka's plays with those of Shakespeare. Juxtaposition involves the whole range of genres, and Baraka produced remarkable works in far more genres than did Shakespeare. The results are beyond prediction or  certitude.  Nevertheless, the gesture of scholarly meditation might give a bit of  substance to what the naked mind has yet to conceive.

The problematic status of abstractions ---autonomy, criteria for beauty or the beautiful, authority as the subject matter for dialogic imagination and dialectics, the impossibility of absolutely locating freedom and justice, the psychological impact of narrations we call history, the elusiveness of hatreds and  limits----gives deep  meaning to the works of Baraka and Shakespeare,  although the ultimate significance of those works may be ideologically opposed, logically  incompatible.  Certainly, the two remarkably gifted men produced art under vastly different circumstances, but they are compatible in their search for Zeitgeist forms as dreams and nightmares, forms we use for speaking what we feel.  Exploring them in tandem is not a whim. It is a method for enlarging the arsenal we cultural critics need to defend ourselves and our Selves.

William Shakespeare and Amiri Baraka have been read and criticized, demonized  and misread, but they have neither been read too much nor sufficiently.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.      August 23, 2015

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Katrina anniversary poem


THE ANCIENT FUTURE

Were you to wear

cocaine in your hair

no matron would deny

your face, deny the absolute

proof you are a hempen harlot,

the doll of robust criminals

straight out of a holy-causing land.

 

To make matters

 more better, you are

an alumbastard child,

an enigma without a clue,

a rice rebel.

 

How tempting to say

you have known sewers,

your heart is the essence of sewers.

Your lyric lynches metaphors,

bears fruit as strange as love.

 

Told to unrain the atmosphere,

as if you were divorced from language,

immune to thorns of irony,

you ruined the urban swamp.

 

The sole conclusion, Katrina, is

you are truly a trumped-up misfit,

a thing to be unbirthed and buried

when time and space have lost their names.

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

August 20, 2015

 

Poem for August 29, 2015.

 

 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tennessee Williams and the White Body


TENNESSEE WILLIAMS AND THE WHITE BODY

Excessive attention to the black body in America is a bit of a crisis for those who believe the white body is the peak of human evolution.  The sense of alarm is not trivial.  Have you noticed, of late, that a disproportionate number of white female bodies do not conform to the universal standards of beauty?  It is a crisis making its way to being a tragedy "when many women past forty or even thirty have boobs like a couple of mules hanging their heads over the top rail of a fence."  The quoted words did not spew from the mouth of Donald Trump.  They come from dialogue assigned to Celeste Delacroix Griffin, one of "a pair of old bitches" in the 1966 play The Mutilated by Tennessee Williams.  A great American dramatist and paragon of pan-sexuality, Williams earned his place in American theatre history by writing such remarkable  plays as The Glass Menagerie,  A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly Last Summer.  All of these focus from one angle or another on the white female body as a prized object.  Well, Laura's disability in The Glass Menagerie may make her slightly less of a prize; not all of Williams' female characters could win blue ribbons at the county fair.

Williams' obsession with the white female body reaches a climax in The Mutilated.  The play is vintage New Orleans  in its subject matter, its setting in the sleazy  Silver Dollar Hotel on South Rampart Street and in the exquisitely cruel language the unrepentant trollop  Celeste uses to torture and manipulate her  rich "friend" Trinket Dugan, who is by her own admission a mutilated woman.  That Trinket has had a mastectomy is the great secret that Celeste threatens to expose to the world.  The no-nonsense reckoning with the problem of mutilation comes from Slim, the drunken sailor Trinket finally gets up enough nerve to seduce: "You being mutilated is your own business except it's a stinking trick to take a fellow to bed without letting him know he's going to bed with someone mutilated."  It's a stinking trick for the white female body not to announce that it lacks some of its parts.  Slim's reckoning is very American, very male.  In everyday life,  American males, until recently, could only deal with the white female body between two stops: either the body was a virgin to be worshipped or it was a canine to be violated to achieve phallic pleasures and confirmation of male power.  Pleasure and power shrivel when they have to deal with the grotesque.

It will be a revelation of the contemporary state of  white male and female minds when audiences see the revival of The Mutilated at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, November 19-21, 2015. The play is actually about human cruelty and mental anguish in the lower depths of the Crescent City in the 1940s (I suspect), but it brings to the foreground how inadequately American society and the academic world has dealt with the white female body, feminists notwithstanding.  The brutal honesty Tennessee Williams brings to the subject of the body in pain is most often in a state of arrested development.  The Mutilated negates undue preoccupations with and envy of the black body and necessitates dealing with what the white body might actually be and what Donald Trump is talking about.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.     August 16, 2015

v

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Message from an Ancestor


Aimé Césaire Speaks

 

It is known, throughout the African Diaspora, how our ancestors communicate with us by way of ear-splitting sights and eye-blinding sounds.  Their spirits touch our minds.  We resist.  They punch harder. Ultimately, they baffle us into wisdom, defeating the efforts of alien spirits to have us endlessly signify upon ourselves and perform stupidities. Aimé Césaire speaks to us about the human climate of 2015.

His poetic masterpiece Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1938) may be more widely read than his political masterpiece Discours sur le colonialism (1955), but the latter is more crucial for understanding our spiritual geopolitics than the former.   Discourse on Colonialism is a corrective for what Africa Renewal magazine (www.un.org/africarenewal) propagandizes about colonialism and neo-colonialism. The United Nations still has just enough civility to warn us that the contents of Africa Renewal "do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or the publication's supporting organizations."

 

 If we read above and below the lines of a paragraph from Discourse on Colonialism , we smell damnation and wretchedness, the violent scent of the human climate.

Because, after all, we must resign ourselves to the inevitable and say to ourselves, once for all, that the bourgeoisie is condemned to become every day more snarling, more openly ferocious, more shameless, more summarily barbarous; that it is an implacable law that every decadent class finds itself turned into a receptacle into which there flow all the dirty waters of history; that it is a universal law that before it disappears, every class must first disgrace itself completely, on all fronts, and that it is with their heads buried in the dunghill that dying societies utter their swan songs.

Discourse on Colonialism. Trans. Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972: 45.

Aimé Césaire speaks with authority about what is inevitable in our global sewer system in 2015. What he says about class pertains equally to continents, countries, and communities real and imagined.  It is rather an obscene riddle that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are truth-telling in the sewer and confirming what our ancestors are communicating to us.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

August 13, 2015

 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Read Ta-nehisi Coates


READING TA-NEHISI COATES, Part 1

 



 

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is not easy.  The difficulty is  constituted neither by his prose style nor his subject matter, because the subject matter is familiar and his sentences are music for the inner ear. Difficulty slams into you from a place he is not exploring, from the badlands where signs defy decoding. You feel that his having borrowed the title Between the World and Me from one of the stellar poems of 20th century American poetry transports you to a desert where the bones of David Walker, Herman Melville,  Walt Whitman, Alexander Crummell, Mark Twain, and Ralph Ellison are strewn helter-skelter and the air smells like Theodore Bilbo's breath.  In that arid, alienating place, you are hearing footsteps from In the American Grain by Williams Carlos Williams and Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman, although ultra-orthodox literary  criticism wants you to hear a sermon from James Baldwin that simply is not available. The difficulty is constituted by the idiosyncrasy  of how your mind reads, by your affinity with Richard Wright.

August 6, 2015 12:42 AM

 

 

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, Part 2

 

Idiosyncrasy begets temptations.  Under the influence of Coates's tip of the hat to Richard Wright and the space/time where an enormous number of males have no sanctuary, you are tempted to listen once more to Billie Holiday sing "Strange Fruit."  But wouldn't the mood produced actually prejudice your reading of how Coates depicts the hard place and the rock?  Listen to Thelonious Monk, October and November 1947, Blue Note LP 5002.  Monk and Art Blakey sound you to read.  You are tempted to ask why Coates romanticizes life at Howard University beyond the classroom as the Mecca.  His idea of Mecca is a translation of comments on a pilgrimage by a man whom Ossie Davis eulogized as one who made the cowardly "thoroughly ashamed of the urbane and smiling hypocrisy we practice merely to exist in a world whose values we both envy  and despise."  Is it urbane or cosmopolitan to tell your son about that Mecca and tell him nary a word about Chicago's  Mecca, the 1891 apartment building, and what Gwendolyn Brooks said about that Mecca?  She ordered us to "Sit where the light corrupts your face."  When you drop knowledge for your son, employ economy.  Aretha Franklin's beautiful phrasing of "And temptation's strong" cuts across Monk's "Humph."  Trying to accord Mr. Coates the sympathy and respect he accorded Wright's illuminating habitation of the black male body, you are tempted to say unto him invest more in the vengeance of the Old Testament God for whom the pen is the sword.  After Ferguson and the white magic of daily systemic murder in the United States, you are tempted to suggest that the human body in our nation professes the New Testament God to be an invisible shadow and act.  After all, who told Jesus he could change his name?  Who?  Ah, Mr. Coates you use the word "body" too much in Between the World and Me and are too stingy in using the word "mind."  Temptations strengthen idiosyncrasy.

August 7, 2015 9:27 AM

 

You find it tantalizingly informative that Ta-Nehisi Coates chose not to imprison his letter to his son in the ancient form that letters can still assume.  He begins "Son," (page 5) and ends "Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets." (page 152)  He did not begin "Dear Son," and end "Your father, Ta-Nehisi".  The lack of formality says something about the 21st century, about the distance between what Mr. Coates deems to be the proper shape of correspondence and the outmoded antiquity  of your ideas about how courtesy ought to be signaled.  So be it.  Although generic form is an action, it is superseded by substance.  Substance is what you are looking for in Coates's book.

You find it in the possibility that Coates is saying something to his son from the region of mind that only he can access, that is curiously represented when he writes of becoming a writer without a degree from Howard University:

I felt that it was time to go, to declare myself a graduate of The Mecca, if not the university.  I was publishing music reviews, articles, and essays in the local alternative newspaper, and this meant contact with more human beings.  I had editors ---more teachers --- and these were the first white people I'd ever really known on any personal level.  They defied my presumptions --- they were afraid nether for me nor of me.  Instead they saw in my unruly curiosity and softness something that was to be treasured and harnessed (62).

The slave trade treasured black bodies and harnessed them on plantations in a new world of capitalism.

You write on the margins of page 62: "Reconstructing the tragic chain of circumstances...." and "In the hope that there is something to learn from this account, something to salvage from the grief and waste, I've striven for accuracy and honesty."  You quote from John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (New York: Vintage, 1984), page xi, hoping (with genuine desperation) that Wideman's honesty will anoint your reading of Between the World and Me.  You begin to fear that Coates is 100% American. You write words published in 1925 on a separate sheet of paper: "Here Poe emerges --in no sense the bizarre, isolate writer, the curious literary figure.  On the contrary, in him American  literature is anchored, in him alone, on solid ground." This assertion comes from William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (New York: New Directions, 1956), page 226. You are annotating Coates's book because something is emerging.  Poe became a "major" American author by not graduating from the University of Virginia.  William Carlos Williams, a doctor and poet, found something American to admire in Poe. So too did Richard Wright, who said that had Poe not lived we would have invented him.  In the back of your mind, memory whispers: one of Wideman's early novels is entitled The Lynchers.

Is Coates saying something to his son about narrative that exceeds the conventional talk (recently rebaptized by necessity as THE TALK) which non-white American fathers think they are obligated to have with their non-white sons, saying something about the talk that ,apparently,  white fathers never have with their white sons?  When it comes to how the talk and lives of all color matter, the tongue of the white male American body is as bound as the feet of a Chinese emperor's favorite wife.  Perhaps Coates is quite indirectly telling his son that the so-called white mind actually is a fiction without material references.

August 7, 2015, 12:04 PM

"You have not yet grappled," Ta-nehisi Coates writes to his son, "with your own myths and narratives and discovered the plunder everywhere around us "(21).  When and if the son does discover American history is an interlocked series of subjective narratives , then he will have to weigh the commerce of narrative and  violence  in maintaining  America's social and racial contracts.  Men created America by violating the minds and bodies of men, women, and children. You think it would be good for Coates to give his son copies of Hayden White's The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), Grace Elizabeth Hale's Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Pantheon, 1998), Tzvetan Todorov's The Conquest of America (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 3rd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967) and Leslie Bow's Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South (New York: New York University Press, 2010). The son might plunder these books at his leisure. Or he might reject them and  choose to plunder a very different selection of texts.  You guess that Ta-nehisi Coates would have his son plunder in the name of unqualified  love of himself.   Should he do so,  he might indeed produce his own myths and narratives and thereby rival those created by his father.

He might empower himself to destroy the  ways the agents of mass media, social networking,  the ubiquitous Internet, and the American police state work feverishly to constipate his mind as well as his body and his spiritual essence.

 

August 7, 2015, 4:49 PM

 

Between the World and Me is a strong, complex, provocative book.  Like all American authors, Coates could not avoid signing deals with demons in order to have his book published commercially. You know that. You  have compassion for the book's instances of class-blindness. You  make peace with its flaws, the moments when specificity becomes generalization, because the book subverts gross ignorance and exposes your nation's unique brand of denial.  It is a brave book.  It is a book that James Meredith, author of  A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America (New York: Atria Books, 2012), might endorse if he is caught at just the right moment of generosity.  It is a truth-telling book which inspires dread.  It does not inspire promises of false hope that shall never be delivered.

 Dread is the real deal in the United States of America and elsewhere. The Dream is an evil fiction that attempts to enslave people, and  too often it succeeds beyond the expectations of its authors.

 Ta-nehisi Coates has produced a first-rate secular jeremiad, an honest meditation on Dread.  There is a thin but critical line between a sermon and a jeremiad.  Coates is neither a priest nor a preacher.

 You sit in the desert, secure in your idiosyncrasy.  You and the ghost of Claude McKay sit in the sand and take bets on who shall be the first to see Time's unerring terrorism, with much help from Nature,  dispatch the millions of people who worship in the temples  and cathedrals and mosques  of white supremacy.

August 7, 2015, 8:25 PM

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.