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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Note to Howard Rambsy II

I do think that your writing a detailed, carefully researched article on the publishing history of the poem "For My People" is a very, very worthwhile project. Publishing history tells us much about the politics of the literary marketplace and a great deal more about why ordinary people (those who have little or no vested interest in poetry as such) have genuinely embraced and "loved" Margaret Walker's signature poem for over seven decades. The poem is an icon in American cultural literacy. Like James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and Langston Hughes' "I Have Known Rivers," the poem circulates and recirculates, providing it seems succor in times of greatest need. One of the most handsome and most expensive editions of the poem is the one that contains lithographs by Elizabeth Catlett ---Rian Bowie and I studied that edition in the Tougaloo College library before I wrote an essay on visual interpretation. Another very special edition of the poem is Margaret Walker's 'For My People': A Tribute (1992) with photographs by Roland L. Freeman. In simple, carefully measured words, Gordon Parks wrote of this edition: "Roland Freeman's tribute to Margaret Walker is indeed a beautiful merging of the talent both artists have displayed in literature and photography. Both are disciples of profound poetry." Alferdteen Harrison noted in her preface for the book: "Yet the publishing relationship of Walker and Freeman, reflected in the present book, stands out as the first time a photographer has published a photographic essay as a tribute to the poet"(8). Walker herself wrote on the next page : "I am grateful to Roland because I think he has the right concept --- he understands the social significance of what I try to say. And therefore it pleases me very much"(9).

Yank out the phrase "social significance" and put it in the context of your own wording "communal aesthetic." Just who belongs to what community of which we can at all speak of an aesthetic? The once useful myth of a unified "black community" in the United States has been figuratively and literally destroyed by post-Civil Rights discourses (post-Soul, post-hip hop, post-anything), so discussion of "communal aesthetic" only makes sense as historical narrative, narrative that is diachronic. Much to my dismay, there is no "black community" in our country; we are living in a moment when a multitude of communities (ethnic, racial, economic, taste-identified, sexual and so forth) are feverishly and frantically POSTING themselves and the possible joy of flesh and blood, face-to-face communication (the essential ingredient in my definition of community or communal) is almost completely displaced (thanks to advanced technologies) by unnurturing silence of the virtual. How then do any aesthetic properties implicit in Walker's "For My People" function in the wasted land and ego-isolated individuals of NOW? No doubt, the poem still has social significance of some kind as an item of history. That can't be destroyed. What has been destroyed in the swift currents of change is what Margaret Walker meant when she uttered the words "social significance."

The wonderful and vexed challenge of your publishing history project is to account for that combat/contact zone where human beings deal so variously with human expressions.
"For My People" is one of the poems that has prevented me from saying fuck this world and slipping, by way of suicide, into a happier relationship with my people.

Peace and brotherhood,

Jerry

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