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Monday, February 20, 2017

note from the combat zone


Relief from Agenbite of Inwit is not forthcoming from Fickensiesich Consolations of Philosophy.  We ought not retard our progress with energy-draining intellectualism, because  it is necessary to sharpen our intellects by any means available.  Second Amendment tools and well-aimed words are most effective now.  March today. Dance tomorrow.

We must hunt out and capture models for action in our fight against fascism.  Some of the better ones are highly visible in the wilderness of conservative discourses.  Read Paul Waldman's Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success ( Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006).  Give close attention to Chapter 7: "Manipulating the Media for Fun and Profit."  Manipulate the media.

Take a tip from page 324 of Newt Gingrich's To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Ind., 2010):  "You lead when you mobilize fellow citizens to gather at rallies, demonstrations and events to voice your objections to government policy." A word to the wise was once sufficient.

Weigh the pound of  brilliance on page 135 in Joe Scarborough's conservative manifesto The Last Best Hope: Restoring Conservatism and America's Promise (New York: Crown, 2009):

 "The only grim scenario that seemed to be missing from the Obama White House's political version of the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows was an aide leaking a top-secret intelligence memo suggesting that failure to pass the stimulus bill would result in Saddam Hussein rising from the dead and finally getting his hands on that yellowcake uranium from Niger.

Throughout the stimulus debate, President Obama emulated his predecessor."

Work and suffer now.  Relax and heal only when victory is obvious.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            February 20, 2017

Friday, February 17, 2017

what do we do?: a cognitive warning


What do we do?  Whom do we serve?  What do we stand for?  The simplicity of these questions is devastating.  It may seem easy to respond to them from the perspectives available in the state of nature.  We may say that we live, that we signal our being alive by way of motions governed by some combination of  five senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling).  The very saying, the act of speech, betrays our delusion.  We may claim that we serve ourselves first (the Darwinian impulse or imperative)  and  only secondly serve the not-ourselves (the Other, an unknowable Supreme Being, or the ideals of the Absurd) and refuse to consider that serving, in itself,  signals membership in a group or community.  We may claim to be self-sufficient individuals and delude ourselves; we may deny that a definition of "individual" is based upon a sense of "collective."  We may argue that we stand for (have responsibility for) nothing, thereby betraying that we do stand for something: existence or being.  The impossibility of being in the state of nature, as Huck Finn discovered, is a superb agony.  Whether we like it or not, we are condemned and imprisoned in a state of civilization. We who are most sensitive are infuriated by the lie that all of us have entitlement to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  We do not. We have to grab these wonderful things, often by trusting instinct and  using extreme brutality.

As a thinker and critic, I envy people who live happily  without having their minds ravished by the simplicity of questions.  Rick Shenkman's very readable  Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (New York: Basic Books, 2016) has enlightened me, to a small degree, about my mood swings between happiness and unhappiness.  When I use my cognitive abilities that have been tuned by Western education, I maximize my unhappiness.  Happiness or bliss is available to me only when I float through the world by instinct, the driver of animal behavior.  For example,  pure instinct informs me that human beings are fundamentally evil with potential to be good.  I suspect that children are innocent and good up to a certain age, but even infants are born with the genetic potential to become agents of evil.  If in adulthood they become agents of good, it is a matter of accident and the cultivation of mysterious will power.  After seven decades of trial and error, I have learned that fundamentally good human beings do not exist.  A human being who professes to be fundamentally good is a consummate liar. I do not lie.

Shenkman's book has two interrelated conclusions: (1) "What science is teaching us is that if we want to elect more honest politicians we first have to be honest with ourselves about our own limits." (page 240) and (2) "If we want a democracy that works we can have one, even with our Pleistocene brain….While we busy ourselves with projects to reform the system, we need to work at reforming ourselves, too.  Science, fortunately, shows us we can." (page 247)  I am skeptical about these concluding platitudes.  Science as science is driven by exquisitely refined instincts.  It is not yet so transcendent, so divine,  as to persuade me beyond doubt that I must reform myself in order to reform the systemic, historical dimensions of American politics and culture that are designed to exterminate me.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            February 17, 2017

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

vetting spleen


The Scene:  A party for writers

The Story:

She:  "An artist has no responsibility other than to make art."

He:  "If I knew you truly believed what you just said, I'd cut your throat and call it art."

The Lesson:

Writers are ordinary people who simply write more than most ordinary people.  They have no monopoly on good behavior, morality, or the practice of virtue.  Instead, they use their skill in using language to wound or to attempt to heal.  The snippet of dialogue above does not tell the whole story.  The whole story would be a novel, an epic, a stage play, or a learned treatise on human insensitivity.

Being insensitive to the full range of reactions her statement might trigger, She endangered herself. She was apparently oblivious to the possibility that art does not exist in a vacuum and that those who create art do have responsibilities that exceed the act of creation.  He, being a writer totally committed to standing behind his words, demonstrated insensitivity to the injury his words caused.

The recommendation:

She and He ought to be examined in the contexts of whole stories that inform us about our "normal" behavior and how we choose to locate ourselves in the realm of responsibility.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            February 15, 2017

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

humanities without lamentation


After enduring complaint after complaint from post-whatever humanists about exploitation, underfunding, and lack of praise from the general public, I was energized by Keenan Norris's sending news about a "writing freedom" project.  Norris, a young professor of African American Studies and English at Evergreen Valley College, is a writer who maximizes work and minimizes self-serving lament. He is not a "star," a spectacle, a chaser of fame.  He is just a scholar and writer who works to benefit people outside the invisible walls of Academe as well as his students.  He affirms my  notion of what a humanist should be and do. And thanks to his intervention, I now know a little about Carmen McCain as a humanist.

I got to know a bit about the quality of Norris's scholarship and imagination while he was still a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Riverside. He submitted a fine article, "The Dark Role of Excess in the Literary Marketplace and the Genesis and Evolution of Urban Literature," for the Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Issue 1 (2011).  As the guest editor, I had the pleasure of working with him on making minor revisions.  Shortly thereafter he sent me an early draft of his first novel Brother and the Dancer (Berkeley: Heyday, 2013), which was the winner of the 2012 James D. Houston Award.  In a blurb for  that book I called it "a refreshing signal that fiction in the twenty-first century can still carry the weight of moral imperatives as it mediates chaotic aspects of our heritage." I still feel "it is most rewarding to savor Norris's remarkable insights."  His mastery of prose and refusal to pander in his novel is evidenced also in his nonfiction.  His commitment to being an engaged writer was reflected in his editing Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2014), a solid guide to the genre of urban fiction.  Most recently, Norris has written mind-opening essays for Abernathy, the leading online magazine for black men. Willie Jackson, the founder and publisher, has wittily remarked the magazine is "simply a metaphor for being a decent human."  And Norris is a more than decent humanist.

A few days ago, Norris sent information about how the question  "Can we design FREEDOM?" would be answered on February 18 at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts ( /whats-on/public-square;  he included a link --- ---for "the multimedia installation about the suppression of free speech, literature, and writers' resistance to it in past and present time…."  Norris's essay on David Walker is paired with Carmen McCain's outstanding series of blogs on "The Subversive Women who Self-Publish Novels Amidst Jihadist War," which documents, in the words of Novian Whitsitt, a "vital contribution to social transformation of Hausa-Islamic culture." Together Norris and McCain do humanistic work without special pleading and lamentation.

Norris and McCain are thinkers who deserve our passionate attention.  McCain, who does research  on Hausa film, novels, and literary culture, is as clear in explaining why is it wrongheaded to think of Hausa romances as tools to escape the reality of conflict, to escape the horror of Boko Haram, as Norris is in persuading us that Walker's Appeal is a tool for confronting the horror of the Age of Trump. Both understand what the commerce of literature and politics is in the United States and in Nigeria. Or as McCain says with authority: People read to "escape" daily life , but in my research and conversations with [Nigerian] writers, they often mentioned that they wrote about things that happened to them or things they felt needed to be discussed in society.  So novels are seen as avenues not just of "escape" and "entertainment" but also seen as avenues for "advice" and "instruction." It's a godsend to have such humanists as Norris and McCain who expand our knowledge and our visions.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            February 14, 2017

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Lincoln's Birthday

Lincoln's Birthday

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, celebrated his 208th birthday on February 12, 2017.  He did not fail to inform everyone that he was of the party of Donald John Trump.  In the first half of  the 20th century, a number of Negroes and their non-Negro allies  esteemed  Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.  They possessed fewer facts about Lincoln's dream that the enslaved should be freed and exported in a reverse Middle Passage back to their motherlands than their African American and multi-ethnic descendants now have.  Richard Wright used Lincoln's birthday and iconic status to contextualize the behavior of Jake Jackson, the anti-hero of the novel Lawd Today!  At crucial points throughout Wright's satiric portrayal of Jackson, a radio station broadcasts platitudes about Lincoln's greatness. 

Readers can't ignore the distance Wright established between Lincoln's mythological greatness and Jackson's wretchedness as a classic stereotype of the urbanized Negro male. Lincoln and Jackson are at the opposite extreme ends of a line drawn through the American Dream.  In 2017, Trump and his tribe are alternative surrogates of Lincoln;  American citizens who castigate Trump, whether they look like Jackson or not, are commodities in the political supermarket. Eight decades after the draft of Lawd Today! was completed in 1935, we still grapple with the disconnection between American political leaders and the constituents whom they hesitate to serve, the disjointedness of ideologies as myths.

It is reasonable to add Lawd Today! to the growing list of fictional works we can use in mapping the ideological foundations of the American Dream's rapid transformation into an American Nightmare, an alleged prerequisite for making America great again.  Just as Brave New World, 1984, and Animal Farm serve as fictional strops for honing vision, Lawd Today! can be a tool for sharpening awareness of why our democratic, racialized and gendered social contract authorized the ascent of a Trump. Wright's novel offers us an excellent portrait of what, to use Albert Murray's term, an uncritical omni-American can be and fail to do.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            February 13, 2017

Book Notes

BOOK NOTES 2/12/2017

New publications from Commonwealth Books

Séjour, Victor. The Fortune-Teller. Trans. Norman R. Shapiro.  Boston: Second Line Press, 2017.

Séjour, Victor. The Jew of Seville. Trans. Norman R. Shapiro. Boston: Second Line Press, 2017.

Shapiro, Norman R., Trans. Creole Echoes: The Francophone Poetry of Nineteenth-Century Louisiana.

Boston: Second Line Press, 2016.

Victor Séjour (1817-1874) is in the foreground of the Francophone and exile tradition in African American literature, but little attention is given to his works outside of comparative literature studies and specialized studies of Louisiana literature.  This may change if the contributions of " Creoles -of-color" (gens de couleur libres) are discussed during the New Orleans Tricentennial in 2018, if due attention is paid to Les Cenelles: Choix de Poesies indigenes (1845).  Although he is only mentioned in a single paragraph in The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011), his play The Brown Overcoat was included in Black Theater USA (1974) and his short story "The Mulatto" (1837) was acclaimed as "the earliest known work of African American fiction in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997).  More recently, his poem "The Return of Napoleon" appeared in N.O. Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature (2013), edited by Nancy Dixon.

A bright moment of  necessary  rediscovery occurs when one reads Victor-Ernest Rillieux's ode to Ida B. Wells, "Amour et Dévouement" ("Love and Devotion") in Creole Echoes.

Salutes from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association

Winners of the 2017 BCALA Literary Awards are

Natashia Deon, Grace ---1st Novelist Award

Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn ---Fiction category

Colson Whitehead, Underground Railroad and Brit Bennett, The Mothers ---Honor Books for Fiction

Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race ----Nonfiction category

Monique Morris, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools ---Honor Book for Nonfiction

Clint Smith, Counting Descent: Poems ---Best Poetry Award

Monique Ferrell,  Attraversiamo (let's cross over) ---Honor Book for Best Poetry Award

Tyehimba Jess, Olio ---Outstanding Contribution to Publishing Citation

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            February 12, 2017

Saturday, February 11, 2017

George Yancy's Letter to His Nation

 George Yancy's Letter to His Nation

Part I, February 10, 2017

A Turkish colleague sent George Yancy's recent contribution to "The Stone" feature of the New York Times, "It's Black HistoryMonth. Look in the Mirror." with the following  message:  "I believe we will be extremely busy working on Trump-related issues on Whiteness, discrimination and verbal violence.  Prof. George Yancy published this in opinion pages.  I thought you may like to see it."

I did like seeing Yancy's essay and reading it as one of many descendents of David Walker's 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World…. Nevertheless, for me Yancy did not inspire the bold courage that Walker provides each time I read his passionate appeal.  It is not that Yancy lacks passion.  His passion is more deeply nuanced that Walker's , more tempered by philosophical niceties.  Thus, I replied: "Thanks for sharing Yancy's extremely polite message to American citizens.  Although I wish to share what I'd call his civility and guarded optimism, I find doing so to be impossible.  My daily witnessing of our nation's political insanity  ---it infects all of us regardless of ethnicity or ideology  --- leads me to think the lack of morality is beyond cure.  Indeed, if Friedrich Nietzsche's sermons on nihilism have any credibility, I am left with pure dread."

My colleague then responded:  "I agree with you, but on the other hand, good comes out of evil.  At lease Trump made 'insidious operations of ideology of Whiteness' quite visible, quite a challenge to those scholars or people in general who keep whitewashing race and call U.S. and the world as 'postracial'."

My reaction was to write a period: "You are right.  Good comes out of evil, stays for a brief moment, and vanishes; the cycle resumes.  I think I'm just flat out weary of the cycle."  My colleague had touched a sensitive nerve.  I am weary, almost in the sense that Fannie Lou Hamer was "sick and tired."  The sinister cycle that is the movement of America's experiment with democracy has long been annoying.  In less than a month, the antics of the Trump political reality show have transformed annoyance into  resentment throughout the spectrum of our uniquely constructed nation.  I resent and explode like Langston Hughes's universally recognized raisin in the sun.  My "liberal"  act is a matter of exploding to keep from imploding. In "conservative" quarters, mirror images of both my reaction and act are separate in kind but equal in degree. The grounds, reasons, or excuses for resenting are different; the spleen and bitterness match my own.  In our nation, the house has many divisions.

Yancy's epistle (although it lacks the generic features of a letter to his fellow citizens who willfully or accidentally occupy the identity position of barbarians) is very philosophical, restrained, ethical, and laden a bit overmuch with noble but disabling concessions (  disabling from the reader response angle of one African American reader: me).  Yancy speaks with the grace and charity that has been the bane of more than two centuries of African American, Christ-imprisoned special pleading, much of it devoted to helping those who insist on being "White" (even if they have black skins) to travel the highway to redemption.  Redemption is defunct.

 I respect Yancy's right to be merciful.  Keeping  unfettered anger in check is fine, but I am more inclined, as a  Roman Catholic with Jesuit leanings ,  to feel African American epistles in the Age of Trump should imitate Aton and  Yahweh not Jesus the Christ and the martyred Apostles.

Part II, February 11, 2017

Yancy's prose is clear, attractively rational even in moments when rhetoric ordains combativeness. He deploys his pronouns well.  Consider  points he argues  in "It's Black History Month….."

(1) "…African-Americans forced the United States of America to look deep into its own soul and to see the moral bankruptcy that lay there."

Objection:  Where is the proof that our nation possesses a soul and has the capacity to discern its moral condition?

(2)  The exposure of bankruptcy occurred "as African-Americans struggled to live under white supremacy" in a nominal home ---"a home that was already brutally taken from Native Americans by white colonial settlers…"

Objection: The house that race built is neither literally nor figuratively  a home.

(3) Our (my pronoun not Yancy's) bodies "were subject to unconscionable white enslavement" and "we lived through forms of carnage, mutilation, rape, castration and injustice that will forever mark the profound ethical failure of this country."

Objection: The trope of victimization does not sufficiently acknowledge the resistive powers of indigenous and "African-becoming-American" minds.

(4) By virtue of survival, "we became far more American than those who withheld America's promise."

Objection:   Given that all members of the body politic have never been included in the process of shaping  the concept " American"  except by dubious theory and praxis, one political animal is not "far more" than all the others. The literary imagination too often deludes itself in belief that it transcends the limits of philosophical actuality.

These post-truth, tendentious  objections can suggest Yancy's eloquence serves the ends of prophecy better than  the aims of the pedagogy of the oppressed.  His admirable intentions are diminished  by such default as  is innate and regrettably permanent  in  the motions of human history.

The bulk of Yancy's essay belongs to the tradition of the African American jeremiad.  Cultural nationalism often competes in the genre  with political nationalism.  After quoting Lillian Smith and Frederick Douglass, icons of righteousness, Yancy mentions instances of Donald John Trump's failure to speak truth to Christianity.  He insists that we ought to "refuse to forget the often unspeakable atrocities we endured."  My objection to an idea that I support  ---we should remember daily to remember and not merely remember in February ---is that we have blissfully little remembered the atrocities indigenous peoples in the USA endured and still endure.  Many of us are complicit in precisely what we condemn.  Yancy suggests that at least one of Trump's famous executive orders bastardizes the Judaic concept of Tikkun Olam, reminding us of a long-standing African American love/hate romance with all things Hebraic.  With rhetorical panache, Yancy swerves to recommend "white people" ought to use Black History Month to embrace responsibility and recognize "how white racist complicity and black suffering were historically linked and are currently intertwined."  Yancy can anticipate having as much success as Richard Wright had with White Man, Listen!  And does this gesture not leave non-white readers in a quandary that wants to be a dilemma?  The quandary is compounded by Yancy's invoking two ideas from his fellow philosopher Judith Butler regarding "the essence of the human."  Had he invoked Angela Davis I might have been happier, less given to complaint.  Alluding to Cornel West's August 24, 2011 New York Times op-ed "Dr. King Weeps From His Grave," urges in conclusion that we should heed the prophetic warning of a sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. did not live long enough to preach, one titled "Why American May Go to Hell."   People in the Hell that is Yancy's nation do not need warning.  They need cold water.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.