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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Henry Dumas


Henry Dumas: Visible Man/Invisible Art

 

Leak, Jeffrey B. Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas.  Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014.

 

He was brilliant.  He was troubled.  He was dead at the age of 34.  Like many males of his class and generation, he was a death-bound-subject, a player in the game regulated by the racial contract of the United States of America. “While he certainly should be understood in the context of the cultural and political movements of the 1960s –Black Arts, Black Power, and Civil Rights---,” according to the in-house promotional statement from the University of Georgia Press,” his writing, and ultimately his life, were filled with ambiguities and contradictions” (University of Georgia Press Spring/Summer 2014 catalogue, 6).  The 1960s, a transformative decade in our history, was also pregnant with other movements not begat by black Americans, and that fact is unavoidable in constructing a biography of Henry Dumas (1934-1968).

In “Confessions of a Burned-Out Biographer” (The Seductions of Biography. Ed. Mary Rhiel  and David Suchoff. New York: Routledge, 1996), Phyllis Rose reminds us that “the school of literary biography, whether or not the subject is a literary figure, tends to see all facts as artifacts and to see context and argument as co-partners of fact” (131).  The public, Rose claims, prefers “objective biography” to the artistry of literary biography.  Jeffrey B. Leak seems to have embraced the alleged preferences of the public sphere in writing Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas.

Leak’s signifying on the title of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece in his own title is a signal, a red flag: subject the biography of Henry Dumas to very critical “close reading.”  Doing so yields a discovery.  When a literary figure is encased in “object biography,” the subject becomes overwhelmingly visible, but the sterling values of the subject’s contributions to the republic of American letters become muted or downright invisible.

My response to Leak’s Visible Man is ambivalent.  I am sensitive to Leak’s frustration that many crucial documents of fact are beyond recovery at present or were destroyed.  I respect his fidelity to academic rigor and constraints of objectivity.  I am critical of an effort he did not make in writing the biography. Unlike Margaret Walker who dared to take risks in her biography of Richard Wright, Leak hesitates to explore the genuinely literary expression of Dumas’s daemonic genius.  The creative torment which manifested itself in his “giving the Black Experience a core and a basic set of symbols/myths that connect it to the original labyrinth of African thought,” as Eugene B. Redmond, Dumas’s literary executive, argued in introductory remarks for Rope of Wind and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 1979) is the location of Dumas’s primal value for contemporary readers.  If one substitutes “black experiences” for “the Black Experience,” the value rises.  So too does the necessity of enfolding substantive literary analysis with quantitative contextual analysis of life history.  Leak does use references to literary works to buttress and illustrate key points about the life journey. He does not bring into full view the aesthetic features of Dumas’s poetry and prose that could validate our claiming (or seeing why) Dumas was one of America’s most extraordinarily gifted writers and thinkers, a fit companion for such troubled geniuses as John Coltrane, Bob Kaufman, Amiri Baraka, and Cecil Taylor.

How can one bid a new generation of readers to rediscover Henry Dumas without weaving literary analysis of his works, of his uncanny innovations and imagination, with the chronological threads of his life?  Especially if one likens Dumas to Countee Cullen and frames his life and art in the ambience of mystery. Despite the praise in blurbs from Keith Gilyard and Yusef Komunyakaa, Visible Man is troubling in this regard. Leak’s treatment of Dumas’s marriage and extra-marital adventures ----artifacts begging for integration with the facts of art ----is problematic. What leaks from the book is a subjective correlative with the portrayal of Cross Damon and Eva Blount in The Outsider. This draws attention to one of the qualified witnesses for Dumas, namely the equally gifted poet Jay Wright. Wright’s 1969 introduction for Poetry for My People (retitled Play Ebony, Play Ivory for the Random House edition) is evidence of his unique insights about Dumas’s poetics.  Wright exercised ethical prudence in not giving Leak an extensive interview about Dumas.  His silence in 2014 must be accounted an act of integrity and love, one that is rare in a time that has zero tolerance for privacy.

To be sure, we must respect Leak’s scholarship in reaching into an ark of bones and bringing forth a skeleton upon which one can paste fragments of skin. It would be ungenerous to minimize Leak’s achievement.  Nevertheless, literary history demands a supplemental study of Dumas’s art. Leak concludes that “in a sense, the mainstream literary world is finally catching up with this most visible man” (166). The statement is premature.  Imprisoned by its habits of benign neglect, the so-called American mainstream will only botch the job of catching up. On the contrary, it is a critical consciousness of world literature that must reclaim Henry Dumas and pay appropriate tribute.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

April 12, 2014

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Humanistic Pretense


The Humanistic Pretense of Not Knowing

 

Despite its eloquence (or perhaps because of it), Marc Bousquet’s essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education will fail to persuade people who discover bliss in orgasms of “moral panic” that they are in denial of time and actuality.  Most of them have never heard of or read The English Coalition Conference: Democracy through Language (Urbana: NCTE, 1989) edited by Richard Lloyd-Jones and Andrea A. Lunsford. Unless they happen to be English faculty members at the University of Memphis, they have never heard and pondered over Professor Reginald Martin’s strong, surgical argument about why the study of language and writing (comp-rhet) is more compelling and pragmatic than the elitist playing that marks traditional literary studies. While Martin’s almost three decade long argument focuses on student needs, teaching as labor, and capitalist imperatives of job markets, the recommendations that emerged from the 1987 conference promoted the ideals of education (kindergarten to doctoral programs), the importance of training American citizens to become critical thinkers, and the shared authority of those who profess the language arts.  In the years since the English Coalition Conference, I have wondered when the Dream of the conference would explode like a raisin into the Nightmare of global realities.  Now I know.

 

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April 7, 2014

 

The Moral Panic in Literary Studies

By Marc Bousquet

 

Over the past two decades, most academic disciplines have maintained the numbers of their tenure-track faculty members or added minimally, while hiring a lot more non-tenure-track faculty members, causing the percentage of tenurable professors to fall. But English literary studies is one of the few disciplines to lose actual tenure-track positions, not just as a percentage but in real numbers.


According to the most recent comprehensive report on staffing by the Modern Language Association and the Association of Departments of English, published in 2008, English lost 3,000 tenure-track positions from 1993 to 2004, roughly 10 percent of the total. Even that understates the case, since more than a third of the new tenurable hires have not been in traditional literary fields but in composition, rhetoric, theory, cultural studies, new media, and digital humanities. Combined with evidence of lowered public interest in reading traditional literature and plummeting enrollment in traditional English majors, many faculty members in traditional literary studies have engaged in a backlash discourse against the new or renascent fields, a "moral panic" in defense of traditional literary studies.


By far the most intense anxiety involves composition and rhetoric, which account for most of the new tenure-track hires. When the term "moral panic" emerged as a keyword of British cultural studies, in the 1960s, it was initially applied to individual outbreaks of irrational mass anxiety, such as those induced by youth culture, drug use, crime, immigration, sexual behavior, and so on. By the end of the last century, however, the sociologist Kenneth Thompson had argued that manipulative talk of crises was the defining feature of the era, which he dubbed "the age of moral panics."


Normally, panic discourse involves real or perceived threats to a group identified with some aspect of the dominant social order (such as literature faculty members facing the declining cultural capital of their work). Reacting with a disproportionate degree of hostility and resentment, the group generates scapegoats and fake solutions intended to maintain its power and influence in the status quo (such as literature faculty members’ embracing "alternate careers" for their doctoral students). As Jock Young and the late Stuart Hall put it, claims of crisis usually aim to whip up support for policing the perceived cause—often in expensive and draconian fashion, as in the "war on drugs."

 


Last year, at my institution, Emory University, the traditionally trained lit students typically received zero or one invitation to an MLA interview. Most didn’t even come close to winning campus interviews—much less tenure-track jobs—even coming from a top-25 program with support packages that rival those at Yale, Duke, and Stanford.


Some of the Emory students who eventually get tenure-track jobs do so after years of on-the-job retraining in comp-rhet, pedagogy, and new media, commonly in the Brittain Fellowship postdoctoral program, down the road at Georgia Tech. But since 2005, only two in five of those who graduated from Emory with Ph.D.’s in English have landed tenure-track jobs. The research university employing the most English Ph.D.’s from Emory is Emory itself—in staff positions.


One senior member of our English faculty took a look at this situation and published a response in the moral-panic genre, representing feelings widely held by his colleagues. By his account, literary studies is being "devalued and dismissed" as a result of English departments’ being "reconceived as being primarily

 

in the business of teaching expository writing." Furthermore, he wrote, there’s an insidious rush "to make literary studies an outpost of ‘digital scholarship.’ "


Don’t ask me what that last part means, but it’s clear that the villains of the piece have spent their careers in rhetoric, composition, comparative media studies, and digital publication. The amazing thing about the panic at Emory? Most colleges like it have three to five graduate faculty members in those areas; Emory went a decade without even one, and it grudgingly broke that tradition only on the eve of accreditation and program review.


That a large percentage of tenure­-track hires in English is consistently allocated to composition and rhetoric reflects the rational, reasonable, and growing interest in fields specializing in the conditions of textual production at a moment when textual production is undergoing the greatest shift since Gutenberg. More people are doing more kinds of composition than ever before, and they want to learn to do it better.
Scholars of composition and rhetoric generally teach graduate and upper-division courses packed with students who are passionate about the digital publication and media composition now inevitable in every walk of academic, professional, creative, and community-engaged communication. Comp-rhet scholarship and teaching have revived English studies, not diminished it. Programs featuring advanced writing and digital-publication curricula have soaring enrollments, often rescuing undergraduate and graduate English programs from extinction. Over the border in South Carolina, Clemson University has an active, interdisciplinary, but English-studies-based graduate program in rhetoric, communication, and information design. Its job-placement record: 100 percent.


In the past year or two, in meetings with English graduate faculty members and students at would-be top programs similar to ours, I’ve had innumerable conversations with otherwise rational but anxious people who consider those involved in the renaissance of comp-rhet or digital publication as dullards not good enough to read poetry, as lowbrow opportunists, or—worse—as saintly philanthropists who "should be appreciated for their love of teaching first-year writing."


Sometimes the discourse seems paranoid. Not long ago, a department administrator explained to me why he had declined to cooperate in a search that would have recruited some of the best young scholars in composition: "We just don’t want to hire any of those people who hate literature, who want to come here and tear everything down." Telling him that I’ve never met an actual comp-rhet scholar who hated literature—that most enjoy literature and sometimes teach it—wouldn’t shake his determination.
The odd thing is that one hears little informed discussion from the Modern Language Association or most of its elected leadership about the role of comp-rhet research faculty members in the revival of English majors, minors, and graduate programs.


The moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production.

 


It has its home in programs that have had enough institutional power to keep themselves insulated from epochal change, the handful of graduate programs that have retained enough prestige and maintained their old-boy network sufficiently to keep placing most of their students. It also survives in places that, like Emory, had that kind of placement muscle a couple of decades ago.


If universities like mine are still offering doctorates in English 10 years from now, the programs won’t resemble the lit-only degrees at Yale or Columbia. They’ll emulate those at lower-ranked institutions that have more success in placing their students, like Clemson or the University of Pittsburgh, where English has tracks in media and comp-rhet, together with top research faculty members selected only for expertise in their fields, not loyalty to a pedagogy from the 1950s.

 

Marc Bousquet is an associate professor of English at Emory University

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Bousquet’s blending of empirical and narrative forms of evidence persuades me to value Martin’s prescience more highly than I did before the coming of the 21st century and to thank Bousquet for his wake-up call. Truth be told, there are hidden contradictions in the position I embrace.  I am a retired teacher of English/American literature and composition, although I do still teach literature at least two months each year in China. During my 42 years of teaching at HBCUs, I never had the luxury of ignoring the centrality of comp-rhet in my work.  Now, I have the luxury of enjoying literary studies with my Chinese students, of being liberated from American nightmares by Chinese dreams. The contradictions are located in my championing literary and cultural studies abroad and my nurturing increasing disdain for elitist colleagues in the United States who engage in “moral panic” as they complain that teaching the “underprepared” to write competently is beneath their dignity. There is little that I can discern in their alleged panic that is genuinely moral. On the contrary, the panic is virtually immoral. It is really a selfish gesture of homo rhetoricus rather than the anguished gesture homo seriosus would make.

 The so-called panic is an enterprise of ego, of fear of unemployment, of scorn for students who reject the myths of “civilization.” It is pathetic that few Ph.D. programs tell students bluntly that they are “The Help” in the global arena.  I displace sympathy for those who are discovering they are “The Help” with laughter.   If that makes me a bad cold-blooded person, I frankly do not give a damn. Now run and deconstruct that!

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Writing Break Meditations


Mr. Ramcat’s Writing Break Meditations

April 7, 2014

 

1)      The soft passivity of a shark makes Jerusalem so Japanese.

 

2)      Purge the car/pet on your dashboard with hyssop.

 

 

3)      When the priest said a White Mass in Sanskrit and Swahili, T. Jefferson had a fit of recognition; his soul fell beneath the dignity of insanity.

 

4)      Rum and politicians have much in common; they render absurdity lucid and lucidity absurd.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Celebrate April #2


Blurb for Immigrant Dreams & Alien Nightmares

 

 

 

Torres-Tama, José. Immigrant Dreams & Alien Nightmares.  New Orleans: Diálogos Books, 2014.

 

 

 

Immigrant Dreams & Alien Nightmares is José Torres-Tama’s gift of fire, a rich series of poems that admonish: Usted tiene que arreglar sus asuntos con la historia.  His poems burn us into recognitions, giving back to  us interlocked dreams and nightmares necessary for making new worlds in the contexts of the Americas,  His strong poems announce his engagement with life and languages, his wit, his surgical ironies.  They assure us that Torres-Tama is “un hombre bajo la piel de otra tierra” in the tradition of Langston Hughes, Eduardo Galeano, Amiri Baraka and Ernesto Cardenal.  His gift is an epistemology for a needful time.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Celebrate April

Celebrate April.

Go to


http://www.loc.gov/poetry/media/poetpoem.html#honoree-jeffers


and listen to Grace Cavalieri's talk with Jeffers and Jeffers' soul-touching readings from her Phillis Wheatley poems. Your ears will taste the salt of Middle Passage tears.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tribute for Amiri Baraka

AMIRI BARAKA ANTHOLOGY
- CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
baraka
Third World Press is sending this “Call for Submissions” on behalf of
the editors of the forthcoming anthology celebrating the life and
legacy of Amiri Baraka.
Brilliant Fire! Amiri Baraka
Poems, Plays, Politics for the People
Editors:
Haki R. Madhubuti, Michael Simanga, Sonia Sanchez, Woodie King Jr.
We welcome your submission by April 30, 2014. If you would like to
make this Call available to your colleagues, please share this
information with them and forward their contact information to us at:
TWPBarakaCall@gmail.com.
The submissions office for Brilliant Fire! Amiri Baraka.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ethnic Diagreements


Richard Wright and Jews: Brief Notes for Full Disclosure             

 

                Although the topic of Richard Wright and Jews has rarely been rigorously addressed in studies of the man and his works, Wright scholars do think about it.  Their silence is, in part, a result of not wanting to engage in time-consuming, emotion-draining disputes with those American Jews who seem to believe themselves beyond reproach, who in responding to the death of Amiri Baraka immediately highlighted that he was anti-Semitic, and who miss no occasion to play the anti-Semite card with or without provocation. And Wright himself, with the notable exception of responding to David Cohn’s review of Native Son, was careful not to draw overmuch attention to his personal and “literary” relations with Jewish people as Jewish people.

 It may cause those Jews who wish to be more American “white” than Jewish American great emotional pain to think that Wright’s first and second wives (Dhima Rose Meadman and Ellen Poplar) were Jewish women and that the two daughters (Julia and Rachel) he and Ellen Wright had are Jewish women under the color of Hebrew law, with the possibility of getting contradictory answers depending on who is answering the question mihu jehu di. That same vexed law of descent identifies LeRoi Jones’/Amiri Baraka’s two daughters (Lisa and Kellie Jones) with Hettie Cohen as Jewish women.  By the same token, Black Americans who hold fast to Afrocentric beliefs suffer emotional pain that Wright and Baraka married Jewish women, who are more usually described as “white women” in American sociopolitical discourses. Contemplating those facts too much requires admission that it is hard to be Jewish and “white” and devoid of racism, or that it is just as hard to be African American and “black” and anti-white supremacist but not anti-Semitic. American English does not contain the words that would afford us semantic clarity. We are trapped in the cleverness of our languages, double-trapped in connotations when we speak of Wright and Jews, and trapped ultimately by a long, uneven history of contacts and social contracts between African Americans and Jewish Americans.

Thus, it is acceptable to speak of Wright’s friendship with Nelson Algren (Nelson Ahlgren Abraham), whose Swedish grandfather converted to Judaism and with the French Jewish philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre; of Wright’s being awarded in 1939 the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, which was founded in 1914 by the Jewish educator and literary critic Joel Elias Spingarn; of Wright’s public testimonial of his indebtedness to Three Lives by Gertrude Stein. One will not likely hear the shrill scream ANTI-SEMITIC. But do not say too much, however, about Wright’s being entwined with Jewish radicals during the period when he tried to be a Communist, and do not inspect too carefully the Jewish motives of Irving Howe’s famous essay “Black Boys and Native Sons” (Dissent, Autumn 1963), which provoked Ralph Ellison to write a signifying retort to Howe’s “Olympian authority.”

Silence and fear of offending Jews can lead to reprehensible dishonesty, and if the nuanced investigations Wright scholars will make in the 21st century as they discover more “facts” about Wright and Jews give offense, they will give offense. The new rule regarding discussion of Wright and Jews in literary and cultural criticism  will eventually be do unto others as they have done unto you.

David L. Cohn’s stinging review “The Negro Novel: Richard Wright” appeared in the May 1940 issue of Atlantic Monthly, and Wright’s stinging reply “I Bite the Hand That Feeds Me” was printed in the June 1940 issue of the same magazine. The call and response are published together in Richard Wright Reader (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), pages 57-67. This sliver of American literary history is a paragon of major tensions which have obtained individually and collectively between African Americans and Jewish Americans. We profit more from direct reading of the rhetorical battle than from a secondary report of the clashing, gain more from trying to re-enact the ritual in which Cohn and Wright were engaged as a prelude to full disclosure and the destruction of silence. The existential state of being simultaneously enemies and comrades is the most severe test for Gentiles and Jews.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

March 10, 2014