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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter Solitude

WINTER SOLITUDE





Funeral follows funeral ---

the second line between ---

resentment segregates the tombs.



The universe is wrinkled

with the whims and the winds.

Saints cut of silk, frantic like the turf,

wanting terror to touch down,

explore lucid leaves of grass

 evermore,

for the asking

 is nevermore.

The universe is wrinkled

with the whims of mothball hours.

Time.  An old man erect,

folding the canals of his bones.

An old woman, pious,

rigid in her rapture on an urn,

grinning toothless passion.

The universe is wrinkled

with the whims of worried days.

Words copulate not

none the less but more.

Salvation burns

where peace be still

is still to be.

The universe is wrinkled

with the whims of stinging seconds.



Sounds, jazz iced down,

signal the ending

always beginning

time. Sufferings in ascetic hymns

wash.  Absolute soap for the soul.

Primate wings renounce a name.

Yes, seeded clichés. Pungent despair

in the fragrant dust.  Flowers rust.

Gravity marks wasting time.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

December 21, 2011








Sunday, December 11, 2011

From Brenda Marie Osbey's website

I do wish more people would read her works, learn from her poetry, and comment on her genius.


Brenda Marie Osbey is an author of poetry and of prose nonfiction in English and in French. Recent work appears in Illuminations: An International Magazine of Contemporary Writing; Poet Lore; Planète Ovale; Southern Literary Journal; and Atlantic Studies: Literary, Historical and Cultural Perspectives. From 2005 to 2007, she served as the first peer-selected poet laureate of Louisiana.
Osbey is the author of All Saints: New and Selected Poems (LSU Press) now in its third printing. She is the author also of Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman (Story Line Press, 1991), In These Houses (Wesleyan University Press, 1988) and Ceremony for Minneconjoux (Callaloo Poetry Series, 1983; University Press of Virginia, 1985).
Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, anthologies and collections including: Callaloo, Obsidian, Essence, Southern Exposure, Southern Review, Early Ripening: American Women's Poetry Now, The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry, 2PLUS2: A Collection of International Writing, Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology, Epoch, The American Voice, and The American Poetry Review.
Studies of her work appear in such reference works as Contemporary Authors, the Oxford Companion to African American Literature and the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Oxford, 1997), as well as such critical texts as Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women by Lynn Keller (U. Chicago Press, 1997) and The Future of Southern Letters, edited by Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe (Oxford, 1996). Her work has been the subject also of such literary conferences as the Society for the Study of Southern Literature (SSSL) and the Modern Language Association (MLA), as well as masters and doctoral theses and dissertations.
Her essays on New Orleans appear in The American Voice, Georgia Review, BrightLeaf and Creative Nonfiction. Her column on race and culture in contemporary France was published in Gambit Weekly.
Click the vèvè to read work samples.
For more than twenty years she has researched and recorded the history of the Faubourg Tremé, a community founded by free Blacks in New Orleans. She served as a consultant and commentator on New Orleans Black culture and history for Faubourg Tremé: the Untold Story of Black New Orleans (Serendipity Films, 2007) and Claiming Open Spaces (Urban Garden Films/ PBS, 1996).
Osbey is the recipient of fellowships and awards, including: the 2008-09 Louisiana Board of Regents Award to Artists and Scholars (ATLAS); the 2008 Manship Summer Research Fellowship; the Camargo Foundation Fellowship (Cassis, France 2004); Louisiana Division of the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship (1993); New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation Maxi-Grant (1993); National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Creative Writing Fellowship (1990); Associated Writing Programs (AWP) Poetry Award (1984); the Academy of American Poets Loring-Williams Prize (1980).
She has been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Millay Colony, and the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, Harvard University.
Osbey has taught at the University of California at Los Angeles and Loyola University. She has twice been appointed Visiting Writer-in-residence at Tulane University and Scholar-in-residence at Southern University. She has conducted seminars and colloquia in literature, creative writing and New Orleans Black Culture at Dillard University; and has taught at Louisiana State University since 2005. In Fall 2011, she was appointed Distinguished Visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.
Brenda Marie Osbey is a native of New Orleans.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Friday, December 2, 2011

On a criticism of a presentation of poetry

In response to Helen Vendler's review "Are These the Poems to Remember?" (New York Review of Books, November 24, 2011), Rita Dove provided civil justifications for her choices in editing The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry.  Dove's "Defending An Anthology" (New York Review of Books, December 22, 2011) was, however, not accorded equal civility by Vendler's curt reply: "I have written the review and I stand by it."  Vendler owes Dove and the readers of NYRB more than a laconic sentence.  On the other hand, given what Vendler said in her review about the Black Arts Movement and Amiri Baraka, I suspect that Vendler's teeth are cracked and her locution is reduced to a whisper.

Friday, November 11, 2011

China Note

Dear Asili,


I returned from two weeks in China on October 1, and I'm still dealing with all the work I asked students to do during my absence. So, to some extent, I am in a state of delayed "recovery."

My third visit helped me to clarify much about my cultural mission, my trying to help Chinese colleagues and students develop a firmer understanding of African American literature and culture. From 2012 to 2014, I will spend two months each year in China, teaching graduate students and lecturing at a number of universities in addition to my home base, Central China Normal University in Wuhan. Even if it proves to be only a matter of form, the respect the Chinese accord me is very charming.

I have attached the PowerPoint version of the keynote address I gave on your work for "Dialog on Poetry and Poetics": the 1st Convention of Chinese/American Association forPoetry and Poetics on September 30. The convention, which was dominated by American and Chinese scholars who have a deep interest in L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, involved approximately 300 people. It pleased me to talk about your innovations, the tonal drawings in poetic form, especially given that none of my colleagues from the States had ever given much thought to the kind of creative process (dialect + vision of the inner eye and a special hearing of time + historical memory) that goes into your making of tonal drawings. They were certainly surprised when I said your major contribution to African American poetry was a "physics of existence," by which I mean experience of time/space positions not easily accounted for in Standard American English, because it lacks the reformations of verbs that you have created. I think some of the Chinese listeners got what I was talking about better than the Americans; they have a better grasp of how Tao and t'ai chi are related to the study of physics. It is essential that people hear you read/perform the tonal drawings, but I encountered a problem with the laptop and projector used for the convention. It was impossible to access the Posterous audio versions and the slides with what I had downloaded from your CD recordings did not work either. I tried to make up for the problem by reading one of the drawings, but my imitation of your voice was so imperfect. So, I feel obligated to give the lecture again when I return to China in May, to focus much more matters of science, and to actually play your readings from the CDs. I hope I can find a way to burn or rip the sound from Posterous onto a CD.

What is most satisfying for me is that your work, which is so much advanced in conception beyond the commonplace of spoken word poetry, is now known among a small numbe of people in China. Perhaps in the future I will be able to persuade one of the Chinese graduate students to write about your poetry as I continue to expand my own thoughts about it.

Stay in touch.

Jerry

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ramcat's Morning Meditation, October 21, 2011

Moses the Nubian
shall descend

Two iPads in his left hand,
a mega-blow torch
in his right

Apples of Eden
flock in his pockets

Moses the Nubian
shall melt
Arturo Di Modica's Wall Street Bull

shall melt
the art of heathens
who thought

IN GOD WE TRUST


Jeremiah Ramcat
October 21, 2011

Saturday, September 10, 2011

On Digital Scholarship





                Scholars in all disciplines may acknowledge that change, both as a concept and as a practice, is inevitable.  Many of them welcome the dazzling promises of emerging technologies, for they are convinced that the creation and transmission of knowledge in a future must be digital.  Digital technology enthralls. The kind of change it promotes can have a profound, irreversible impact on methods of research, on our choices of what is valuable and what is trivial, and on our understanding of how “revolutionary “ paradigms and epistemes function in disciplines and in interdisciplinary work.  Such change can be overwhelming.  It encourages older, traditional scholars to be cautious and skeptical.  To be blunt, a few of us honestly want to know what is at present only a matter of speculation in cognitive sciences: the consequences of long-term exposure to electronic forms on the brain.  Will it be the case half a century from now that man’s higher order cognitive operations have been so altered that independent critical thinking will be minimal?

                Some of us who have not been figuratively in “arranged marriages since birth” with emerging technologies are more willing than our younger colleagues to question just how progressive are swift changes in our disciplines and in the purposes of  education.  We want to know how the romance with digital technology is related to globalization.   We want to know how the “love affair” with technology and everything digital is increasing or diminishing thoughtful, historical reflection on the formal (structural) and cultural (discursive) changes.  One colleague has warned me that expressing concern about history is a mark of my own antiquity.  So be it. Occasionally, there may be real virtue to be found in being antiquated and moral in nascent, amoral environments.

                In ancient days before the 1970s and the ascent of the theoretical turn, we spoke and wrote in the humanities of sound, perception, great issues, discrimination and sense.  Now we find ourselves in conversation with problematizing  sound, topical concerns, ideologies incapable of naming their boundaries,  sensations, and spectacle. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resource Coalition (SPARC) have sought to persuade us to embrace “Create Change,” an initiative which “advocates changes that recognize the potential of the networked digital environment” (see http://www.createchange.org/about/index.shtml).  If we fail to subject that potential to scrutiny, we may discover digital scholarship blindly imitating social networking. Representations “speaking to” representations might obscure the awareness that knowing the history of one’s discipline as well as one’s own historicity is endlessly significant.

                Change is inevitable.  Nevertheless, passive acceptance should be balanced with active resistance.  Scholars in all disciplines, especially those in the human sciences,  ought to think deeply about a central question that can be articulated in disturbingly plain language: is the ultimate outcome of digital scholarship the liberation or the enslavement of the human mind?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Mr. Ramcat's Afternoon Meditation

His face, transparent
as grief, is a sign:
life is hard. So too, the result
of youthful indiscretions.
Mrs. Lot favored him, flavored him,
turned him into the salt of the earth.
Commandments dissolve
in the sweat of a witness.

Jeremiah Ramcat,
August 9, 2011

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Richard Wright


For Shandong Journal of Foreign Language Teaching



“Directions in the Study of Richard Wright”



            Contemporary studies in languages and literatures are marked by varying degrees of anxiety.  The impact of new technologies on the uses of language can be noted in the alacrity with which many people engage one another in social networks.  Users, particularly in the United States, instant message, tweet, text-message, or post items on Facebook in forms that contrast dramatically with tradition uses of standard American English.  People who have been trained to attend carefully to spelling, grammar, syntax, coherence, and unity of ideas may find themselves either amused or dismayed or confused by the new forms of communicating.  On the other hand, people who little regard for accuracy or nuances in communication willingly embrace what might be called a “rhetoric of carelessness.” They seem to be convinced that playful inventiveness is the future,  that linguistic conventions are arbitrary, and that minimal representation of thought is the ideal.  Thus, it is to be expected that some scholars and teachers fear that new habits of writing and reading will undermine the desire or ability of younger generations to make critical judgments about literature.  These new habits eschew the discipline and patience necessary for analysis and interpretation of literature. They can not be dismissed as trivial, because they are fundamental in changing what counts as knowledge.

            Anxiety about literature and language is intensified by ambivalence regarding the changes that accompany the progress of globalization.  Those changes influence how we speak of a large range of topics: emerging world orders, ecology, biocultural transformations (including shifts in the cognitive functions of the brain), and the cultural studies that have displaced or subsumed what was once called literary theory and criticism. Even if we try to be empirical and scientific in our approaches to the study of literature, we still have the onus of being uncertain in efforts to generate appropriate questions for our investigations of twentieth-century American writers.  We are overwhelmed by our options; we choke on our wealth of information. We are frustrated by global theories that dismiss the importance of nations and national boundaries (which are also cultural boundaries) that have been so critical in the growth of American, or to be more accurate, United States literature.  Much depends on how one conceptualizes globalization in the study of literature, or answers the question: what is globalization?[i]

            Is globalization primarily a way of thinking about historical processes, or is it a conviction that post-modernity has succeeded in compromising our ability to locate ourselves and our cultural expressions in a history that can be verified?   These questions do not have simple answers.  Theory notwithstanding, we can be sure that twentieth-century literature is indelibly marked by national origins.  It is unethical to pretend that older works can or should be read as if they were written under the conditions of electronic revolutions.  Globalization may make us sensitive to the metaphor of the uncertainty principle, but it neither can nor should erase historical consciousness in literary and cultural studies. Historical consciousness existed prior any newfangled global consciousness. Cautionary hypotheses ought to govern directions in the study of the literature of the United States or of any nation-state. Awareness of the limits of knowledge are crucial, for example, in the study of Richard Wright (1908-1960).

            It is remarkable that many contemporary studies of Wright’s works tend to recycle old ideas about “universal” themes, naturalism, modernism, the writer’s ideology and political intentions, and the much overworked notion of “double consciousness” as an innate feature of African American thought. The more progressive or future-oriented studies, however, attempt to be interdisciplinary.  They may adapt some version of intersectionality research, which “is defined principally by its focus on the simultaneous and interactive effects of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and national origin as categories of difference in the United States and beyond”(185).[ii]  Studies that borrow from intersectionality theory have the potential of making us more discriminating in our investigations of Wright’s works.  They can assist us in distinguishing between which of his works have immediate productive relevance (the potential to provoke synchronic thinking about contemporary human issues) and those which have reflective relevance (the potential to invite diachronic thinking about change).  For example, Wright’s novella “Down by the Riverside” provokes thought about human behavior in the aftermath of natural or man-made disasters; in contrast, Native Son and 12 Million Black Voices may invite thought about the historical consequences of migration and urbanization, whereas Black Power may urge us to ponder the vexed outcomes of twentieth-century liberation struggles in the post-colonial African nation of Ghana. It is reasonable to argue that future studies of Richard Wright and other American writers of his generation should examine both the writer’s and the reader’s  assumptions about the function of literature in his or her own time.  It is illuminating to know whether harmony or discord is more prominent. Otherwise, we shall only compound anxiety and confusion what makes literature relevant in the contexts of globalization.

            Directions in the study of Wright are most valuable when they are aligned with questions about what his works reveal or seem to predict about human beings and change. For what revolutions in human thought do Wright’s works continue to be germane? Does the impact Wright wanted his fiction and nonfiction to have still affect us?  Will continuing study keep interest alive?

            Explorations associated with the 2008 Richard Wright Centennial allow us to sketch how Wright scholars have begun to reposition their engagements with his published and unpublished works and  how those works may assume new significance for readers and thinkers. The celebration of Richard Wright as an internationally honored citizen of the republic of American letters and culture did not officially conclude, at least for those who respected the wishes of the Richard Wright Estate, until November 28, 2010, the fiftieth anniversary of his death.  This conclusion, however, was a resumption of efforts to secure memory of Wright’s significance beyond his writing the classic texts Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), staples of American cultural literacy in schools where censorship is not tolerated. New directions point to Wright’s presence or absence in the reorientations of the Barack Obama Era, which is especially marked by post-racial claims that paradoxically co-exist with an increasing significance of race.

  It is noteworthy, for example, that Mark Bracher’s “How to Teach for Social Justice: Lessons from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Cognitive Science”[iii] provides a remarkable footnote on the philosophical and psychological qualities of Native Son which can provoke “a recognition that entails, for all white readers, the further recognition that we are ultimately responsible for all the Biggers (white and black) and their horrific and brutal actions” (384). Perhaps Bracher unintentionally reifies a black/white binary formation, forgetting that some of the Biggers among us in the second decade of the 21st century are Hispanic or Asian-Americans or as mixed-race as a Tiger Woods. In the context of the Centennial, Bracher’s idea is a red flag.  If Bigger Thomas and other characters from Wright’s fictions are used as sociological icons without rigorous qualifications, we risk intellectual impoverishment; we miss or dismiss the importance of the salient points Wright made in the essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” regarding the origins of fictions and the No Man’s Land “which the common people of America never talk of but take for granted.”[iv] One of the more valuable lessons of Centennial activities was how lack of skepticism about limits promotes blindness rather than insight. For just such a reason, new directions entail remembering.

David A. Taylor’s Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression American (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009) and Brian Dolinar’s “The Illinois Writers’ Project Essays: Introduction,” Southern Quarterly 46.2 (2009): 84-90 bid us to examine Wright’s use of ethnography more closely than did Carla Cappetti’s book Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).  Rereading of Wright’s 1930s proletarian poems (only “Between the World and Me” seems to get notice for its lynching theme) and stories (Uncle Tom’s Children) will beget re-examination of Lawd Today! and the topic of spousal abuse and fresh examination of domestic workers and organized labor in the unpublished novel Black Hope (based in part on Wright’s extensive interviewing of domestic workers in New York). James A. Miller’s excellent chapter “Richard Wright’s Scottsboro of the Imagination” in Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) creates a fine opportunity to investigate Wright’s perspectives on the American criminal legal system in Native Son, Rite of Passage (1994), The Long Dream (1958), and A Father’s Law (2008). Indeed, Wright’s importance in critical discussions of race, law, and legal ethics has yet to be tapped.  David Taylor’s article “Literary Cubs, Canceling Out Each Other’s Reticence,” The American Scholar (Summer 2009):136-141 provides new information regarding Wright’s correspondence with Nelson Algren, and we should go to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Yale University) to discover more about Wright’s correspondence with Joe C. Brown and others. Despite the biographical attention that has been given to Wright by Constance Webb, Michel Fabre, John A. Williams, Margaret Walker, Addison Gayle, and Hazel Rowley, much about the full extent of Wright’s intelligence and analytic imagination has not been engaged.

            We should want to learn from the applications of cutting-edge theory in W. Lawrence Hogue’s “Can the Subaltern Speak? A Postcolonial, Existential Reading of Richard Wright’s Native Son,” The Southern Quarterly 46.2 (2009): 9-39 and Mikko Tuhkanen’s “Queer Guerillas: On Richard Wright’s and Frantz Fanon’s Dissembling Revolutionaries, Mississippi Quarterly 61.4 (2008): 615-642. Both articles put Native Son and Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1956), and White Man, Listen! (1957) in the present space of terrorism, suggesting which kinds of international theory might enable contemporary readers to absorb and digest Wright’s 20th century perspectives. Likewise, Richard Wright: New Readings in the 21st Century (2011), edited by Alice Mikal Craven and William E. Dow, contains fresh essays that bid us to consider how the transnational qualities of Wright’s works might necessitate some use of transcultural theory.

 Wright’s uncanny intelligence and imagination, we should  remember, enabled him to warn us in The Color Curtain that

It is not difficult to imagine Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, and Shintoists launching vast crusades, armed with modern weapons, to make the world safe for their mystical notions… (218)[v]

Ongoing re-examination of Wright’s works may yet reveal other warnings that have been ignored.



 “On ‘Third Consciousness’ in the Fiction of Richard Wright,” The Black Scholar 39.1-2 (2009): 40-45 is a welcomed Eastern challenge from Professor Chen Xu  (Hangzhou Dianzi University) to the adequacy of W. E. B. DuBois’s  thoroughly Western idea of double-consciousness. If we embrace the probable effectiveness of “third consciousness” in marking a certain uniqueness in African American literary traditions, we may better understand the historical silence of double-consciousness (or playing in the dark) in scholarly considerations of American literatures as multicultural.  We are enlightened by Howard Rambsy’s pioneering investigations of the visual “packaging,” [“Re-presenting Black Boy: The Evolving Packaging History of Richard Wright’s Autobiography,” The Southern Quarterly 64.2 (2009): 71-83] for these investigations open vistas on the dynamics of motive and power in marketplace politics used to manage African American literature as well as on the dominance of visual popular culture. Our interest in Wright’s use of the photograph is deepened by John Lowe’s sustained critique of Pagan Spain,[vi] [“The Transnational Vision of Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain,” The Southern Quarterly 46.3 (2009)] just as Nancy Dixon’s questioning of what Wright got wrong or right about Spanish culture in “Did Richard Wright Get It Wrong?: A Spanish Look at Pagan Spain,” Mississippi Quarterly 61.4 (2008): 581-591 reopens speculation about Wright’s readings of African and Asian cultures.  The examinations of Wright’s haiku by Toru Kiuchi, Jianqing Zheng, Meta Schettler, Lee Gurga, and Richard Iadonisi in Valley Voices: A Literary Review 8.2 (2008) and The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku (2011), edited by Jianqin Zheng, create yearning for fresh commentaries on Wright’s early poetry and the poetry of his prose. We now have stronger reasons, by virtue of the testimonials provided by Howard Rambsy, Tara Green, and Candice Love Jackson in Papers on Language & Literature 44.4 (2008) and Mark Madigan and Toru Kiuchi in The Black Scholar 39.1-2 (2009), for asking why and how we read or teach Wright’s works, for testing the outcomes of using those works in efforts to increase literacy (functional, visual, cultural, political, and rhetorical) in postmodern, technology-dependent societies. literary study.  My own anxiety begins to be replaced by optimism when I wager that new directions in the study of Richard Wright shall arm us for our battles with a future of globalization, that they will help us balance the “rhetoric of carelessness” with a “rhetoric of genuine concern.”

            The scholarship, criticism, and theorizing that is emerging call for remembering Wright’s optimism of the brilliant one-sentence paragraph that ends the 1945 edition of Black Boy.

With ever watchful eyes and bearing scars, visible and invisible, I headed North, full of a hazy notion that life could be lived with dignity, that the personalities of other should not be violated, that men should be able to confront other men without fear or shame, and that if men were lucky in their living on earth they might win some redeeming meaning for their having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars.









[i] A good starting point for answering the question is the January 2001 issue of PMLA, which dealt with the special topic: Globalizing Literary Studies.
[ii] Evelyn M. Simien and Ange-Marie Hancock, “Mini-Symposium: Intersectionality Research.” Political Research Quarterly 64.1 (2011): 185.
[iii] College English 71.4 (2009): 363-388.
[iv] Richard Wright, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Richard Wright: Early Works (New York: Library of America, 1991), 871.
[v] Richard Wright. The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1956).
[vi] It is unfortunate that difficulties in obtaining permission to reproduce Wright’s photographs for Pagan Spain precluded their use to enhance Lowe’s remarkable commentary.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Letters





Murray, Albert and John F. Callahan, eds. Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray.  New York: Modern Library, 2000.



The art of writing letters seems to be lost on twenty-first century sensibilities; the contemporary forms of intimate communication are the IM, the text-message, and the chit-chat among “friends” on Facebook.  Intimacy (privacy) and the baring of deep feeling are cheapened.  The thoughtful discipline that once informed the letter is displaced by immediacy.

Scholars find it a small blessing that some twentieth-century writers did save their letters.  For the purposes of critical judgment about the past, letters are oyster knives for shucking shells of concealment; writers had the freedom to share with their real friends what they dared not share with their publics.

Such is the case with the selected letters of Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison.  Although their references to Richard Wright are limited, what they said to each other about him is very telling.  Both confess fear of being influenced or stained by Wright.

In the Preface for Trading Twelves, Murray writes that he assumed when he became reacquainted with Ellison, that Ellison “was as involved with Marxism as Richard Wright was and [he] had spent much of my first year out of college studying and rejecting Marxism. [Murray] also assumed that [Ellison] regarded himself as a refugee from the South, much as Wright did” (xxii). Murray graduated from Tuskegee in 1939, the year before Native Son created shockwaves inside and outside of Marxist circles. Murray was pleased to discover that his early assumptions about Ellison were ill-founded, that he and Ellison “accepted the challenge of William Faulkner’s complex literary image of the South” (xxii).Murray implies from hindsight that Wright’s critical image of the South was simple and insufficiently literary. His remarks in the Preface allow us to think that Faulkner’s image was holistic and made palatable by the flavoring of myth. Or, as Murray declared in The Hero and the Blues (1973), “fiction of its very nature is most germane and useful not when it restricts itself to the tactical expediencies of social and political agitation and propaganda as such, but when it performs the fundamental and universal functions of literature as a fine art, regardless of its raw material or subject matter” (10). Wright did not traffic enough in aesthetics to please Murray.

What would please Murray is Ellison’s remark in a letter dated June 6, 1951, noting that Richard Gibson complained in Kenyon Review that “Negro writers are expected to write like Wright, Himes, Hughes, which he thinks is unfair because, by God, he’s read Gide!”(20). Wright had also read Gide in the 1940s.  Ellison’s remark to Murray about Gibson and Gide is ambiguous, for it could be read as a double-edged smirk.  If that is the case, Ellison is signifying both on non-Negro expectations and on Gibson’s and Murray’s assumed willingness to accept Gide as a touchstone. As Wright’s erstwhile friend, Ellison has the advantage of a perspective for which Murray might only yearn.



Ellison is more direct in defining the relationship he and Murray have with Wright in his letter of February 4, 1952 to “Dear Albert.”  Ellison invokes certain superiority in writing

“Because, as you know, we’ve taken on in our first books a task of defining reality which none of the other boy had the equipment to handle  --  except Wright, and he could never bring himself to conceive a character as complicated as himself.  I guess he was too profoundly dissatisfied with his life, his past life, to look too long in the mirror; and no doubt he longed for something, some way of life so drastically different that it would have few point of contact with what he knew or the people he knew it with” (29).

When we consider what writers do with the social construction of reality, Ellison’s remark betrays a certain poverty of imagination. He was incapable of considering how smart Wright was in longing for distance and difference from what he saw in the ethnographic mirror he constructed in Lawd Today!  Ellison unwittingly confirms the very position about fidelity to one’s culture that he would object to when it was articulated by Irving Howe. The letter casts some light on Ellison’s innate contradictions, because a few paragraphs later he would tell Murray that a certain English instructor at Tuskegee needed to make “more than a provincial estimate of Wright” (31).

Ellison’s deliberate misunderstanding of Wright is nicely delineated in his letter of April 9, 1953 to Murray.  “Incidentally,” he mentions, “I’m doing a piece on the background of Negro writing for P.R., in which I plan to touch on Wright and Baldwin, both [of] whom have novels.  Take a look at their works, I don’t think either is successful, but both are interesting examples of what happens when you go elsewhere looking for what you already had at home.  Wright goes to France for existentialism when Mose, or any blues, could tell him things that would make that cock-eyed Sartre’s head swim.  As for Baldwin, he doesn’t know the difference between getting religion and going homo” (43). Such unfiltered remarks suggest that Ellison truly did not know how to discern that Wright was existential some years before he chose exile or how to deal with Baldwin’s engagement of a taboo.

 However much we now have the freedom to condemn Ellison’s views, we do have to consider that they were quite “normal” and American in the 1950s. Their normality is confirmed by Murray’s reply to the letter in spring 1953:

“Am looking forward to that PR piece.  Incidentally, I have already red The Outsider and I seem to have had exactly the same reaction that you had.  Look man, you can lose your hat ass and gas mask farting around with them damned French cats if you don’t know what you are doing.  I know how you feel about Wright and all that, but I just cain’t help say that that oscar looks more and more like an intellectual parasite to me  everyday,   a sort of white man’s NEW NIGGER, if you know what I mean. So now he’s hep to Camus’ The Stranger; that was the very first thing I said to myself. Ain’t nothing happening in this one, Ralph” (47-48).

It was quite normal that in pointing the finger at Wright, Murray was pointing three fingers at himself as a black man’s soi-disant nigger. In their mutual self-congratulations, reveal a blindness that never afflicted Wright.  Despite his flaws, Wright saw life clearly enough to avoid begging for the approval of the Other that apparently Murray and Ellison were convinced that could not live without and still be genuine artists.

Ellison demonstrates more than a modicum of common sense, however, in what he writes to Murray in a letter dated August 9, 1954:

“I’ve also just read the galleys of Wright’s book on the Gold Coast, Black Power, and though I’m somewhat annoyed with his self importance I think the book is important and I’m trying to work out a comment” (79).

But two years later on November 7, 1956, Ellison writes from Rome to Murray that

“Wright was still het up over the Presence Africaine conference, which he feels is of great future importance; says the American Negro is in the position to help them, which perhaps we are.  But who the hell wants to live in Africa?” (152).

Ellison’s ambivalence is golden.

Ellison’s riff on Countee Cullen’s classic question “What is Africa to me?” is all of a piece with the jazz improvisations that echo in those portions of correspondence with Murray that pertain to Richard Wright.  Ultimately, the jazz of their letters serve as omni-American glosses on the critical reception of Wright’s work in the 1950s.  One may not like the sound of the music, but one is compelled to listen attentively. One certainly learns a bit more about the deep anxiety of influence within African American literature from the letters than one can from the literary criticism Ellison and Murray have produced. Indeed, the thoughtful discipline of the letter is invaluable for our efforts to know more about Richard Wright by examining responses to his person and his works.  We become much wiser in knowing what we were not initially intended to know.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

China 2009


Visual proof of Asian ancestry

Thinking about New Orleans






New Orleans:  A Crossroad of Axes



Never shy about proclaiming itself the birthplace of jazz or America’s classical music, New Orleans does not talk about itself as a point of origin for American literary traditions or movements.  The reason is not far to seek.  What is original in the literature of the Crescent City is French, West African, Creole (Spanish and French), Bambara and Mande, Cajun; it is rooted in Paris, Haiti, Martinique and St. Domingue, Senegambia; its debt to London and the King James Bible and the invention of American English is minimal.  The Louisiana Purchase was payment for property not for culture. From 1804 to the present, the constipation of America’s puritan ethos has been alien to the matrix of artisanship, musical genius, performance, and wordsmithery of New Orleans.  As Marcus B. Christian wrote in his famous poem “I Am New Orleans,” culture is a blending and reinventing “Of Creoles, Americans, Frenchmen, Spaniards,/ Jews/Africans, mix bloods, Germans, Irishmen,/ and Indians” into “one common bond of defense.”  The city as “un entrepôt” defied the laws of thermodynamics and achieved perpetual cultural motion at very great cost, because it has never been free of racism, colorism, discrimination, classism, economic oppression, and sexism, the veneer of the carnivalesque notwithstanding.  New Orleans is New Orleans is New Orleans: an oscillating metropolis of entreposage.

Tom Dent, a native son of the city, put what is at issue clearly in “Report From New Orleans,” the prose coda in Magnolia Street (1976), his first collection of poems: “New Orleans is a weird town, wavering in the breeze of history.  An old place, one of the few towns in this country where one can look at the layers of two or three centuries in one glance.  Then there is the poised wrecking ball of ‘progress’.”



Perhaps the spirits provoked by the winds and waters of the Storm (2005), angered by the bloodless face of “progress now,” command us to make a fresh inspection of cultural layers in this laid-back and care-forgetting place.  Perhaps the x,y, and z coordinates of place demand a new articulation.



What have  L’Album Littéraire, Journal des Jeunes Gens, Amateurs de la Littéraire (1843) and Les Cenelles (1845),  Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s The Goodness of St. Rocque (1899) and Brenda Marie Osbey’s  Ceremony for Minneconjoux (1983)  to do with Gumbo Ya-Ya (1945), the French Quarter-inspired work of Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams, Bob Kaufman’s The Ancient Rain; Poems 1956-1978, Tom Dent’s classic play Ritual Murder  , John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1987), or Kalamu ya Salaam’s What Is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self (1994)?   Does New Orleans ever take off the mask that grins and hides to coax dollars from tourists long enough to assess its own cultural wealth?

Truth be told, the necessary answers will only surface through dedicated, cross-generational  conversations and even more dedicated cross-class scholarship and public documentation among citizens of New Orleans and the artists, performers, writers, and  musicians who devote their considerable talents to preserving and recreating a unique, multi-faceted culture in a city whose essence is not exactly American.  The answers may produce joy, anger, disbelief, or despair.  They are beyond prediction.  What is most important is that we collaborate in producing cultural knowledge that may be critical and crucial for a future. For in the words of P. A. Desdunes:

Nul n’estime le people ingrate qui dans l’oubli

Profond laisse dormer ceux qui l’ont ennoble.

The remembering, of course, will be rendered in perfect New Orleans English.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.











New Orleans:  A Crossroad of Axes



Never shy about proclaiming itself the birthplace of jazz or America’s classical music, New Orleans does not talk about itself as a point of origin for American literary traditions or movements.  The reason is not far to seek.  What is original in the literature of the Crescent City is French, West African, Creole (Spanish and French), Bambara and Mande, Cajun; it is rooted in Paris, Haiti, Martinique and St. Domingue, Senegambia; its debt to London and the King James Bible and the invention of American English is minimal.  The Louisiana Purchase was payment for property not for culture. From 1804 to the present, the constipation of America’s puritan ethos has been alien to the matrix of artisanship, musical genius, performance, and wordsmithery of New Orleans.  As Marcus B. Christian wrote in his famous poem “I Am New Orleans,” culture is a blending and reinventing “Of Creoles, Americans, Frenchmen, Spaniards,/ Jews/Africans, mix bloods, Germans, Irishmen,/ and Indians” into “one common bond of defense.”  The city as “un entrepôt” defied the laws of thermodynamics and achieved perpetual cultural motion at very great cost, because it has never been free of racism, colorism, discrimination, classism, economic oppression, and sexism, the veneer of the carnivalesque notwithstanding.  New Orleans is New Orleans is New Orleans: an oscillating metropolis of entreposage.

Tom Dent, a native son of the city, put what is at issue clearly in “Report From New Orleans,” the prose coda in Magnolia Street (1976), his first collection of poems: “New Orleans is a weird town, wavering in the breeze of history.  An old place, one of the few towns in this country where one can look at the layers of two or three centuries in one glance.  Then there is the poised wrecking ball of ‘progress’.”



Perhaps the spirits provoked by the winds and waters of the Storm (2005), angered by the bloodless face of “progress now,” command us to make a fresh inspection of cultural layers in this laid-back and care-forgetting place.  Perhaps the x,y, and z coordinates of place demand a new articulation.



What have  L’Album Littéraire, Journal des Jeunes Gens, Amateurs de la Littéraire (1843) and Les Cenelles (1845),  Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s The Goodness of St. Rocque (1899) and Brenda Marie Osbey’s  Ceremony for Minneconjoux (1983)  to do with Gumbo Ya-Ya (1945), the French Quarter-inspired work of Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams, Bob Kaufman’s The Ancient Rain; Poems 1956-1978, Tom Dent’s classic play Ritual Murder  , John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1987), or Kalamu ya Salaam’s What Is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self (1994)?   Does New Orleans ever take off the mask that grins and hides to coax dollars from tourists long enough to assess its own cultural wealth?

Truth be told, the necessary answers will only surface through dedicated, cross-generational  conversations and even more dedicated cross-class scholarship and public documentation among citizens of New Orleans and the artists, performers, writers, and  musicians who devote their considerable talents to preserving and recreating a unique, multi-faceted culture in a city whose essence is not exactly American.  The answers may produce joy, anger, disbelief, or despair.  They are beyond prediction.  What is most important is that we collaborate in producing cultural knowledge that may be critical and crucial for a future. For in the words of P. A. Desdunes:

Nul n’estime le people ingrate qui dans l’oubli

Profond laisse dormer ceux qui l’ont ennoble.

The remembering, of course, will be rendered in perfect New Orleans English.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.











New Orleans:  A Crossroad of Axes



Never shy about proclaiming itself the birthplace of jazz or America’s classical music, New Orleans does not talk about itself as a point of origin for American literary traditions or movements.  The reason is not far to seek.  What is original in the literature of the Crescent City is French, West African, Creole (Spanish and French), Bambara and Mande, Cajun; it is rooted in Paris, Haiti, Martinique and St. Domingue, Senegambia; its debt to London and the King James Bible and the invention of American English is minimal.  The Louisiana Purchase was payment for property not for culture. From 1804 to the present, the constipation of America’s puritan ethos has been alien to the matrix of artisanship, musical genius, performance, and wordsmithery of New Orleans.  As Marcus B. Christian wrote in his famous poem “I Am New Orleans,” culture is a blending and reinventing “Of Creoles, Americans, Frenchmen, Spaniards,/ Jews/Africans, mix bloods, Germans, Irishmen,/ and Indians” into “one common bond of defense.”  The city as “un entrepôt” defied the laws of thermodynamics and achieved perpetual cultural motion at very great cost, because it has never been free of racism, colorism, discrimination, classism, economic oppression, and sexism, the veneer of the carnivalesque notwithstanding.  New Orleans is New Orleans is New Orleans: an oscillating metropolis of entreposage.

Tom Dent, a native son of the city, put what is at issue clearly in “Report From New Orleans,” the prose coda in Magnolia Street (1976), his first collection of poems: “New Orleans is a weird town, wavering in the breeze of history.  An old place, one of the few towns in this country where one can look at the layers of two or three centuries in one glance.  Then there is the poised wrecking ball of ‘progress’.”



Perhaps the spirits provoked by the winds and waters of the Storm (2005), angered by the bloodless face of “progress now,” command us to make a fresh inspection of cultural layers in this laid-back and care-forgetting place.  Perhaps the x,y, and z coordinates of place demand a new articulation.



What have  L’Album Littéraire, Journal des Jeunes Gens, Amateurs de la Littéraire (1843) and Les Cenelles (1845),  Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s The Goodness of St. Rocque (1899) and Brenda Marie Osbey’s  Ceremony for Minneconjoux (1983)  to do with Gumbo Ya-Ya (1945), the French Quarter-inspired work of Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams, Bob Kaufman’s The Ancient Rain; Poems 1956-1978, Tom Dent’s classic play Ritual Murder  , John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1987), or Kalamu ya Salaam’s What Is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self (1994)?   Does New Orleans ever take off the mask that grins and hides to coax dollars from tourists long enough to assess its own cultural wealth?

Truth be told, the necessary answers will only surface through dedicated, cross-generational  conversations and even more dedicated cross-class scholarship and public documentation among citizens of New Orleans and the artists, performers, writers, and  musicians who devote their considerable talents to preserving and recreating a unique, multi-faceted culture in a city whose essence is not exactly American.  The answers may produce joy, anger, disbelief, or despair.  They are beyond prediction.  What is most important is that we collaborate in producing cultural knowledge that may be critical and crucial for a future. For in the words of P. A. Desdunes:

Nul n’estime le people ingrate qui dans l’oubli

Profond laisse dormer ceux qui l’ont ennoble.

The remembering, of course, will be rendered in perfect New Orleans English.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.






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