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Friday, July 29, 2011

Poem 68



So innocent is the blindness

Of chaos, its syllables

A slow music floating to a grave



Matter disintegrating

Like the taste of expensive time.





Observe. Supernatural explosions.





Dying is a dull progress

An impatient process

Of recovering

Moons as yet unborn.



Supernatural implosions.  Observe.











Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

July 28, 2011

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Prelude to "Poem 68"





You want something

                                To play                                                                 riff on

                                Go play                                                                 “If you want something

                                Do play                                                                 to play with”

Psychopanting

Entity/Entergy

Ready/Really

Willing/Whaling

Empowered                                                                                       “go find yourself

Bonehouse                                                                                           a toy”








July 26, 2011

Monday, July 25, 2011

ON SEEING REALITY

 Wright, Ellison, and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave





In his observations about the films The Birth of a Nation and Intruder in the Dust, Ralph Ellison points indirectly to the truth about shadows, one of the main ideas in Plato’s dialogue with Glaucon regarding perception and the knowledge of what is true.  The essay “The Shadow and the Act” (The Reporter, December 6, 1949) places a serious philosophical problem within the context of mid-twentieth-century entertainment and the practice of ideology.  It is easy enough to see a correspondence between the chained prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave and the filmwatchers in the “cave” of the movie theater. One remembers James Baldwin’s telling us that the devil finds work in the darkness of the cinema. And although technology has enabled film to relocate itself from the cinema to the home, the “caveness” of watching remains intact. Spectators are enslaved, however briefly, by the shadows that pass before their eyes, shadows that are the product of someone’s designs.



Seven years before Ellison published his essay, Richard Wright had published an early version of “The Man Who Lived Underground” in Accent 2 (Spring 1942): 170-176. Ellison was indebted, despite his later protests, to this novella in conceptualizing his masterpiece Invisible Man (1952).  Like Plato, Wright was concerned with the vantage of the cave, the possibility of discriminating appearance from reality. Plato, Wright, and Ellison are motivated to enlighten us about the fragility of perception.



Concerned with invisibility as a topic for literature and sociology, Ellison proposed in his essay that



To direct an attack upon Hollywood would indeed be to confuse portrayal with action, image with reality.  In the beginning was not the shadow, but the act, and the province of Hollywood is not action, but illusion.  Actually, the anti-Negro images of the films were (and are) acceptable because of the existence throughout the United States of an audience obsessed with an inner psychological need to view Negroes as less than men.  Thus, psychologically and ethically, these negative images constitute justifications for all those acts, legal, emotional, economic and political, which we label Jim Crow.  The anti-Negro image is thus a ritual object of which Hollywood is not the creator, but the manipulator.

(“The Shadow and the Act” 267)



Ellison’s words foreshadow those pertaining to invisibility in the prologue of Invisible Man and provide a gloss on Wright’s investigation of appearance, reality, and the underground.  It is no surprise that Wright and Ellison should both have been interested in Dostoevsky’s cynical “Notes from Underground.”  Ellison refers to this work in the 1981 introduction for the Vintage International edition of his novel; Wright, as we know from studies of his life and work, had a profound interest in Dostoevsky and other Russian writers.



Ellison’s remarks about “inner psychological need” apply to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and that film’s reduction of black people to the status of brutes and buffoons and to the retention in the film version of  Intruder in the Dust of William Faulkner’s belief that the Negro, however noble and human, must be seen as a person in need of white affirmation and salvation.  At the core of these films is perception and the nature of reality, the primary subject of Plato’s allegory in his discourse about the theoretical Republic; perception is the act being critiqued in Wright and Ellison’s use of race-based social interaction in the practiced American Republic. The three authors would have us question where the site of truth and knowledge should be located.



To expose the typical, problematic imagination of many non-black twentieth-century Americans, Wright and Ellison invert Plato’s ideas about knowing the difference between appearance and reality. They swerve pass Plato’s invisible realm of Ideas and punch material Reality in the face.  Truth appears in the underground, the basement, the cave not on the sun-lit surface of our world.  Wright and Ellison turn Plato’s absolutes into American instances of social relativity. Invisible Man, Jeffrey B. Leak argues, “has become an urtext, the literary point of origin for questions regarding twentieth-century African American cultural discourse and the formation of black masculinity” (31). Nevertheless, the urtext of that urtext is “The Man Who Lived Underground.”



According to Robin McNallie, we should recognize that the cave in “The Man Who Lived Underground” “is the opposite of Plato’s  ---that it is, in fact, connected oddly to both truth and renewal of life”(80).  For Ellison, the basement is a place of hibernation and pondering the uncertainty of the “truth” gathered from adventures in the upper world of reality.  McNallie claims Wright’s cave is “a womb in which Daniels begins a new and embryonic existence” (82), but we ought to remember that Fred Daniels gathers information about what might be true from the vantage of the underground.  He is killed in the womb. His ultimate undoing is his belief that people above ground wish to know the truth.  The nameless invisible man is far more canny; he knows truth is to be negotiated in the glare of 1,369 lights underground.  His hibernation is more embryonic and womblike; it is a covert preparation for the overt action Fred Daniels takes prematurely.



Navigating among Plato, Wright, and Ellison can be a most remarkable odyssey, a rewarding journey in interpretation.



References



Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 1995.



___________. “The Shadow and the Act.” Shadow and Act. New York: Signet, 1966. 264-271.



Leak, Jeffrey B. Racial Myths and Masculinity in African American Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005.



McNallie, Robin. “Richard Wright’s Allegory of the Cave: ‘The Man Who Lived Underground.’ ” South Atlantic Bulletin 42.2 (1977): 76-84.



Plato.  The Republic.



Wright, Richard. “The Man Who Lived Underground.” Eight Men. New York: HarperPerennial, 1996. 19-84.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Meaningful Life







I CHOSE TO TEACH AT HBCUs





                Whether I chose or was chosen to teach at HBCUs is an American knot, one that those who delight in philosophical problems might untie.  Near the end of my tour of duty in Vietnam in 1970, I received an invitation from Dr. N. J. Townsend, chairman of the Department of English at Tougaloo College, to join the faculty as an instructor.  I accepted it.  The opportunity to teach at my alma mater and give back four years of service in exchange for the four wonderful undergraduate years (1960-64) I spent there was more than merely attractive. Tougaloo College had instilled in its graduates a strong sense of obligation.  In the 1960s, as the 1960-61 catalogue informed us,  “great social ferment and rapid change” was occurring worldwide and there was “growing need for young men and women with intellectual ability and breadth of vision, with Christian motivation and discipline and with a spirit of outgoing goodwill toward all men.”  In the 1970s, there still existed a need to help in “an awakening of people who have been denied the privilege and opportunity for the good life.”  I felt obligated to help.

                Armed with a M.S. in English from the Illinois Institute of Technology, two years of courses at the State University of New York at Albany where I focused on the literature of the English Renaissance, and the discipline my serving in  the United States Army provided, I began  to teach courses in composition and literature.  My students, unlike those of my generation, were strongly influenced by what was left  unfinished in the declining years of the Civil Rights Movement and by the assertiveness implicit in the idea of Black Power.  They boldly challenged me to make whatever I taught them relevant.  Many of them thought my regard for Edmund Spenser and Shakespeare was an act of treason or a sign of slavish deference to their enemies. I understood, more than they guessed, that defiance was an integral and noble part of the learning process at Tougaloo, and I was beginning to understand the value of the pedagogy of the oppressed.  I quickly became the subversive instructor.  If my students rejected John Milton, I would teach them to write well and to think critically by close reading of LeRoi Jones’s essays in Home and his historical discourse in Blues People.  If The Scarlet Letter had nothing to say to them, Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland anchored them in the very heart of relevance and made them attentive.

                 My embracing the ideas the students had about relevance did not lead to my abandoning belief in standards of excellence in performance which transcend race or ethnicity or class; it did not lead to minimizing my interests in the works of Plato, Kenneth Burke and Michel Foucault; it led to demanding that students should digest Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Machiavelli.  Relevance changes as the conditions of American society change.  For teachers, the desire to truly empower students and the effort to devise effective way of doing so must remain constant. Change is inevitable, but it is not to be embraced without severe questioning.

 My students knew that I had high expectations of them. As I grew as a teacher, I began to appreciate the importance of being at once demanding and compassionate. A good teacher does not love his students. He simply refuses to allow them not to love themselves.  It has been rumored that one of my students told another he would take my courses “… even if I earn a ‘D.’ At least I will learn something.”

                From my thirty-two years of teaching at Tougaloo College and eight years of teaching at Dillard University I have learned much about American higher education, my colleagues in the profession of English, and the insidious idea that African American students who choose to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities are innately less intelligent than those students who opt to attend other kinds of institutions.  The fact that we speak rarely of Historically White Colleges and Universities is a clue about what has continued to develop in the total  history of education in the United States.  In higher education in America, the hegemony of confirmative action prevails against any justice that might be discovered, through full disclosure, in affirmative action.              

                Two instances from my life history cast light on what is a central and continuing problem.  Once when I was driving him from Tougaloo College to the Jackson, Mississippi airport, A. Leon Higginbotham  asked me where I wanted to be in ten years.  I replied that I wanted to still be teaching at Tougaloo.  He was much disappointed in my answer, because he said he thought I would at least want to be at Harvard or Yale. Some years later after I had earned my doctorate at the University of Virginia, a historian who had earned his degrees at Yale asked why anyone with a prestigious degree from UVA would want to teach at Tougaloo.  I retorted with signifying anger: “Why do you with your prestigious degrees teach at so third-rate a school as the University of Southern Mississippi?”  On the one hand, it seems I was betraying the race and insulting the aspirations of the integration-drunk black upper middle class.  On the other, I was squandering the investment Mr. Jefferson’s university had made in me by teaching niggers and  untouchables.  Despite the promise contained in the election of Barack Obama, I am not convinced we should hastily conclude that the need for having HBCUs and exceptionally well-prepared scholars who desire to teach at such places has vanished from the American historical process.  Talk about a “post-race society” is only a clever and enslaving use of language. And all Americans have a pathological and patriotic love of being enslaved by the great God Capital in whom they trust.

                I never thought of teaching as merely a matter of employment or as a launching pad for ascent into fame as a critic and scholar.  For me, teaching had to be a more profound investment.  Nor have I been a missionary in quite the sense we associate with those who labored and taught in the nineteenth century when many HBCUs were established.  Despite attractive offers to teach elsewhere, I chose to remain within the orbit of the HBCU.  Until I joined the Dillard faculty in 2002-2003, I never earned a salary commensurate with my years of teaching experience and the scholarly and creative contributions I produced despite heavy teaching duties.  Thanks to a regulation in the old Tougaloo College Faculty Handbook, I had to wait for fourteen years to be granted tenure; only 69% of the faculty members in any department could be tenured. As I near the end of my career as a teacher, I realize the rewards most worth having cannot be reduced to money and things. They can only be measured in terms of how deeply and how  well a teacher has made a significant difference in the lives of others.

                Whether I chose or was chosen to teach at HBCUs, I have no regrets about the choice. The choice was right. The students I have taught since 1970, particularly those I mentored in the UNCF/Mellon Program, have assured me time and again that I did the right thing. I was pragmatic. Obviously, many teachers and scholars in our country’s institutions of higher education have done and continue to do the right thing by way of helping young people to discover and maximize their intellectual capabilities and to become productive citizens of the world.  Nevertheless, HBCUs are unique sites for such work.  To be sure, the fate of educational institutions is determined, more than we often want to acknowledge, by  irreversible changes in the world order. Few of them shall survive in the 21st century. So be it. It is sufficient that once in time HBCUs enabled me to use my “intellectual ability and breadth of vision” to become a better person as I remained, as some black folk might say, in the tradition.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Journal of Ethnic American Literature 1.1(2011) --Introduction

JEAL Introduction





AFRICAN AMERICAN TRADITION AND THE IDEA OF A CANON



                It is gradually becoming obvious in the early years of the 21st century that inquiry about traditions and their components can make little progress if scholarship and criticism cling to “traditional” methods, if thinkers do not test how interdisciplinary work might yield richer albeit contestable explanations.  The vexed category of literature, particularly literature marked as ethnic, must be explored in the domain of the humanities by using methodologies (tools) and forms of thought most often associated with social sciences and natural sciences.  Greater understanding of how and why literary traditions evolve does depend upon inspection of discrete acts of writing (texts) and of the social implications of their emerging on the grounds of history.  Canons are important in representing the shapes of traditions, but the academic world has no charter or sacred rights to control how canons get reshaped and who is included or excluded.

                In the concluding pages of Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History (UNC Press, 2009), John Ernest makes cogent remarks on the representative functions of a canon and on the contingent nature of such representation.  He echoes what Henry Louis Gates proposed in Loose Canons (1992), namely that a canon is an opportunity and a strategy for representing the lives and the implicit values of a people’s lived experiences, “the lessons learned along the way, the wisdom forged through intimate examinations of the terms of the world’s always-delimited possibilities” ( Ernest 254). The logic of the proposal may persuade us that an anthology of African American literature does point “to a broader field of writing still unrecovered or relatively unread, the field that the anthology is asked to represent but cannot contain” (254). Neither of the two most widely taught  African American anthologies – Call and Response (Houghton Mifflin , 1998) and The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd ed ( Norton, 2004) – can contain what representation of  uncanonized writing  in a tradition  might demand.  What they do represent well are overlapping selections, the basis for paratextual apparatuses which bespeak divergent ways of valuing writing among members of an ethnic group.

                Ernest ends Chaotic Justice with concerns that were starting points for issuing a call for the kinds of article that appear in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature.  The call asked for submissions that would focus on writers who are infrequently discussed in our scholarly journals, because academic criticism profits from seeking greater balance between commentary on “overexposed” writers and critiques of writers who have been relegated to margins of dark shadows. As Maryemma Graham and I noted in the introduction for The Cambridge History of African American Literature:

Attention to forms of black writing that have special efferent and aesthetic properties ----namely, letters, personal and political essays, biographies, “pure” and collaborative autobiographies, film as literature, the graphic narratives of an Aaron McGruder, and contemporary orature  ---is either diffuse or invisible (16).

Implicit in the call was a plea to make visible more authors who and works that are in the tradition and, thereby, echo John Ernest’s judicious ideas about applying chaos theory and fractal geometry to deepen debates about race, literacy, writing, and tradition.

                The eight articles and two interviews in this special issue suggest directions that might be taken in ongoing discussions of ethnic American literatures.  Keenan Norris deals with Chester Himes as a prototypical figure in accounting for the changing role of the literary marketplace in the production of African American generic variation. Catherine Michna provides one model of how archival research can be used to address the historical interrelationship among writers, aesthetic choices, and lived performances in a specific urban environment.  Howard Rambsy’s assessment of Eugene B. Redmond as a cultural witness bids us to reconsider the hegemony of the visual in our own witnessing of literary performances.  Veronica Watson’s reading of Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow proposes that “the literature of white estrangement” demythologizes the ongoing making of “Whiteness” in American literature. Sheila Smith McKoy’s discussion of “the nuanced relationship of ontology and temporality in the hyphenated descent cultures that Toni Cade Bambara presents in The Salt Eaters” addresses a need to increase knowledge about philosophy and science in critical thinking about what is indeed represented in African American writing.  Likewise, C. Liegh McInnis’s analysis of Reginald Martin’s fiction and poetry addresses a need to ponder the validity of W. E. B. DuBois’s dictum regarding art and propaganda in our tradition of writing.  Toru Kiuchi’s reflections on how Lenard D. Moore uses the discipline of haiku reawaken curiosity about why some African American poets have deep investments in Americanizing forms that originate in other cultures. Preselfannie McDaniels uses three rhetorical windows to provide views of motives in C. Liegh McInnis’s writing of poetry.  Randall Horton’s interview with HonorĂ©e Fanonne Jeffers and Reginald Martin’s ensemble interview with Arthur Flowers are valuable instruments for conducting sustained explorations of existing and forthcoming works by Jeffers and Flowers.

                I am grateful to the contributors for creating articles and interviews which enable us to rethink how we shall or ought to confront the forms of things as yet not sufficiently known.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Guest Editor



WORKS CITED





Ernest, John. Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History.

                Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.



Graham, Maryemma and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., eds. The Cambridge History of African American

                Literature.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.








Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Art of Tom Dent

The Art of Tom Dent: Early Evidence

By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Dillard University
Unless one is engaged in the task of writing a fairly comprehensive biography, the study of a writer rarely begins with attention to her or his juvenilia. A writer’s early attempts to overcome various anxieties of influence, to master the intricacies of language, and to forge a distinctive voice are either dismissed or trivialized. This habit, or perhaps convention, serves as a disadvantage within the scholarly community. It precludes opportunities to make serious inquiries about the origins of the writer’s later achievement and power. Valid inquiries, of course, can be initiated at points other than the formative years. Nevertheless, our insights about style and the writer’s aesthetic might be strengthened by trying to identify the literary origins of creative production. This procedure is especially germane in efforts to account for Tom Dent’s importance as an African American writer and intellectual.
The governing presupposition for these notes is a claim about quality in writing. The art or skill that makes good writing is a possession of value and an activity of mind that is never exactly, as Richard Wright accurately proposed in “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” on the page. The art is in perspective. The page is a catalyst for the engagement of the reader’s mind with that of the writer; they collaborate on a vision of reality, agreeing or disagreeing as the case might be.

Thomas Covington Dent (or as he preferred, Tom Dent), a New Orleans writer best known for his work with Free Southern Theater and his extraordinarily popular play Ritual Murder, his electric mentorship of younger writers and artists, and his work in oral history that culminated in Southern Journey (1997), certainly had perspective in the sense that Richard Wright intended; Dent also had subtle political and historically analytic perspectives on African American cultures.

These perspectives are richly manifested in Dent’s fledgling work as a journalist, specifically from writing produced during his tenure as editor-in-chief of the MAROON TIGER, the Morehouse College newspaper, during 1951-52. His editorials in Volume 53, Numbers 1-6, provide early evidence of what we are beginning to understand about his orientation toward reality, his aesthetic preferences, his complex and historically grounded modes of thought and expression. This evidence, crucial for a full assessment of Dent’s later work, marks Dent as a writer from the Black South who sought something more substantial than the vapors of fame.

Dent’s college editorials range from his measured pronouncements as a serious undergraduate political science major and history minor in the role of journalist to the playful wittiness that became a telling feature in his later writings. In these notes, brief summaries of the editorials must substitute for the pleasure of reading them in the context of other articles that bespeak a collegial mindset in the 1950s.

In Vol. 53, No. 1 (November 2, 1951), the editor’s corner is entitled “Who Is To Blame? For Fixes and Scandals.” Drawing attention to the expulsion of 90 West Point cadets “for cribbing on examination,” Dent found the incident to be an illustration of “what fruits a system of overemphasis on college athletics has brought and will bring.”

Dent was keenly aware that events and decisions are not one-dimensional. Blame, as he discerned, was systemic. The athletes alone should not be blamed for being immoral and corrupt, for they were “part of an immorality which has engulfed not one, but all phases of our society.” Their fault was getting caught. In Dent’s view, our “whole conception of life needs a serious revamping.” The young Dent echoed the idealism of his generation and of the self-contradicting 1950s in the closing paragraphs:

We are beginning to see what’s happening, and people everywhere are realizing that something somewhere is mighty wrong.
Men of truth and wisdom see that we have neglected the basic ideals of life for a mechanical panacea which is expected to give all the answers. They realize that
the machine is only a pseudo-solution for life’s problems, and urge a speedy return to simple and basic qualities like decency and truth.
Indeed our teachings and emphasis must reside on these essential qualities if our civilization is to survive (2).

Dent’s pronouncement is to be interpreted in the context of concerns for freedom, democracy, and civil rights and of unrest among “people everywhere” caught in the machinations of the Cold War. With time, Dent’s idealism would be transformed into pragmatism, but he would always hold fast to belief in decency and truth.

In the next issue of MAROON TIGER (Vol. 53, No. 2, November 30, 1951), Dent moved from social moralizing to the humor of language in a philosophy course at Morehouse. “Danger! For Students in Philosophy Only” (2) deconstructed the ease of answering questions about the metaphysical first principles of Parmenides in Sam Williams’s eight o’clock course by pointing to the danger of asking certain questions.

“Mr. Williams, if God made the world in the beginning he must have been here before the beginning. How can that be?” Dent answered the question in a way that illustrated the fundamental instability of language. “Well, God didn’t make the world in the beginning; he was the beginning, and then made the world. But when he saw what kind of world it turned out to be, he decided that the biggest mistake he made was to make anything at all; so he destroyed everything and made the world over again which was another beginning and that’s how God got here before the beginning.” All was well in the course until the same student asked “Well who made God?” Dent emphasized the slipperiness of language and the oddity of humor by sandwiching the editorial between “poetic” opening and closing lines:

Man, I got Sam at eight o’clock in the morn.
How far is it from the top of Graves Hall to the lawn?
………
You see what I mean by “dangerous.”
Man, I got Sam at eight o’clock in the morn,
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to land on that lawn.

We may assume that a small number of Morehouse men valued Dent’s ability to detect funny moments in the daily grind of higher education. In a letter-to-the-editor published a few months later, William Borders complimented Dent with subtle humor of his own.

Dear Mr. Dent:
I am writing you concerning your article on philosophy as taught by Mr. Williams. You should be commended for your splendid technique, your choice of words, connectives, and most of all, your sense of humor.
The last factor, I believe, stimulated an abundance of interest. The analysis of a typical class period definitely wipes away all doubt in my mind as to the course and most of all, the instructor. Suffice it to say that your article exemplifies the qualities of good English. Keep the good work up!

Borders’s tone suggests that we might seek to locate Dent’s humor in the particular ways he situated good English.

At the beginning of 1952, the last semester of his senior year, Dent had much good work to do. He had to deal with a crisis endemic among college newspaper: lack of genuine support from students. In the January 17, 1952 issue, The Editor’s Corner was replaced by Harold A. Hamilton’s guest editorial “Importance of Being Earnest,” a gesture designed “to establish cooperation between the MAROON TIGER and CLARK PANTHER.” [Hamilton was the editor of the Clark College paper.]

For this issue, Dent wrote “A Crisis Is Near,” lamenting that producing the newspaper “has been a one-man affair…The MAROON TIGER should not be a one-man production. It takes too much time away from the editor, who has to go to school too.” Dent claimed that since he had become editor, “never has even half of the material come in on time. It is always necessary to hunt the person down to get his article, and in a great many cases the Editor has to write the article himself if he is to get his material in to the publisher on time”(2).

He also wrote a brief reply to a suggestion that more students would read the paper if the articles pertained less to sports and more to the “life of the student.” Dent indicated he would be happy to receive “any definite suggestions as to articles that would be ‘more interesting’ to the student body as a whole” (2). These commonplaces do cast a pinpoint of light on Dent’s later concerns with all facets of writing as a discipline, especially the importance of listening to audiences.

Dent’s major editorial “Younger Generation Sad Representative of American Youth” (Vol. 52, No. 4, February 27, 1952) reflected on a conclusion reached in the November 5, 1951 issue of Time. Dent agree with Time’s editors that “the younger generation . . . lacks drive, lacks a belief in something, and just lacks period.” The conclusion, Dent wrote, was “without a doubt justified”(2). Dent echoed the prevailing sociological view of his “complacent” generation in bold print:

But even the stigma of confusion doesn’t characterize our generation properly. Many generations have been confused, but it seems to me that the outstanding characteristic of our generation is an apathy and general attitude of nonchalance. We lack zip, fire, and spirit. We aren’t for anything and we aren’t against anything. We just let things rest if they’ll let us rest. This, to me, seems to be very bad because it means that we are making no attempt to get out of the confusion. We don’t want to fight it, we’re too tired. We’ve had too much fighting and there is no desire to do any more of it.

Dent was writing from the perspective that belonged to the dream world of his youth, which he later described as “a nonracial world, where we would find solace from the exclusively black world we were confined to, where the color of our skin, our racial heritage, did not matter (Southern Journey 2).”

The power of unstated integrationist assumptions inhabits Dent’s language, the positioning pronoun “we” having a decidedly James Baldwin flavor but not the strategic force of Baldwin’s habitual undermining of American fallacies. Nevertheless, Dent had the foresight to suggest that it was delayed trauma rather than complacency that stymied his generation. “Born in a depression, raised during a war and being drafted to fight a new one if we didn’t fight the last one, we have experienced nothing but insecurity” (2).

In this sense, Dent displaced the conclusion presented by one Time correspondent that youth would not engage in “a voracious striking out from security, wealth and stability” (“The Younger Generation ”52). One could not strike out from a security one had never known. Moreover, as Dent noted in the editorial, the prospect of being drafted for military service during the Cold War produced special anxieties for college-aged Negro males.

Dent’s acceptance of prevailing liberal ideology and the intuition that his generation might someday become world leaders was fraught with conflict. His struggle for balance in a nonracial framework is early evidence which urges us to consider how differently he would present the dilemma of racial exclusion and civil complicity in later essays and poems. It was perhaps comforting to Dent that Carter Wesley, editor of the Houston Informer, suggested in response to his editorial that both adults and youths were confused but that “one has to have a code one lives by from day-to-day, based upon the fundamentals of virtue. The only peace in this world for a man lies in his own soul----- (Wesley 2).”

Dent’s April 1952 editorial “When Professors Object We Must Always Yield” was a humorous tale of Professor N. P. Tillman’s being outraged that lines from his 1917 poem “Tryst” had been quoted in A. Russell Brooks’ article on the MAROON TIGER as a human document (Brooks 5). Tillman threatened to sue, according to Dent, for violation of copyright. Dent reminded Tillman the poem had been published in a 1917 issue of the MAROON TIGER and that the newspaper did not have a copyright.

Tillman proclaimed he would have the matter brought before the discipline committee. Such a committee, to Dent’s knowledge, did not exist. Feigning repentance, Dent wrote: “I’m sorry we hurt your feelings, Mr. Tillman. We will never print another word about you in the Maroon Tiger” (2). Dent did not print one word about Tillman. He printed several about the professor who was too “chicken” (Dent’s word) to appreciate free publicity. The heart of the editorial narrates the exchange between Tillman and Dent, and Dent’s final sentence is wonderfully ironic: “O Lord! Now I never will find out who Aberdeen was!” Dent pretended an inability to distinguish a place from a person.

Dent’s final editorial, “The Summing Up and Moving On,” appeared in the May 21, 1952 issue. It was not surprising that he should have called for more positive support among administrators, faculty, and students for extra-curricular activities, especially athletics. Dent was an avid sports fan. Dent did not urge favoritism but a clearer understanding that “education is a broad process, and that by refusing to cooperate with other activities that students are interested in beside their assignments they [the faculty] are failing to fully educate the student “(2). It is surprising, however, that Dent’s chief complaint regarded tradition at Morehouse. That particular criticism merits full quotation:

There is another evil which grows out of this traditionalism which I think is slightly evident at Morehouse. It is a sort of provincialism or stagnation. Some of the members of the Morehouse community have been here so long that they have become insensitive to outside happenings. This is a criticism I have of some of the members of the Morehouse faculty. They are well qualified but many of them have been here so long that they have become ignorant of new methods, discoveries, etc. I want to make it clear that this is not true of all Morehouse teachers, but it is true of too many of them. This is bad because it means that students who study under these teachers and go out into the world community or to higher institutions of learning will not be adequately prepared. Antiquated theory will not do in an ever-changing world. We must live with our times if we are to survive” (2, 7).

Dent did not aim his parting shots at the philosophical traditions which defined the role of his alma mater in the history of African American culture. His target was the kind of pedagogy which served to miseducate and underprepare Negro students. Having been trained to think critically at Morehouse by the brilliant political scientist Robert Brisbane, Dent could discriminate nicely between the value of honoring tradition and the negation that resulted from blind “worship” of traditions. The work Dent would produce during the next four decades is marked by his penchant for reason, for surgical analysis of affairs, for being informed about the cutting edge of history’s progress.

In Dent’s post-Morehouse life (1953-1998) and writing, one finds that he abandoned antiquated theory in order to participate fully in certain political and cultural transformations of the latter twentieth century. He abandoned tradition and the doctoral program in political science at Syracuse University to immerse himself (from the perspective of the black middle class into which he was born) in alarming activities.

His participation in founding the legendary Umbra Workshop (1962-1965), his civil rights activity as associate director of the Free Southern Theater, his teaching younger writers through the Free Southern Theater workshops and the Congo Square Writers Union, his promotion of cultural and historical awareness through the projects of the Southern Black Cultural Alliance, his continuing research on music, folklife, and history as executive director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, his final contribution to civil rights historiography in Southern Journey all these experiences involved writing.

The early evidence from the editorial pages of the MAROON TIGER suggests that Dent was consistent in holding on to primal values, to a code, even as he adopted new modes of expression to free himself from some ideas the bourgeois imagination sought to imprint upon his generation. Behind Dent’s writing was the firm belief that one must discover critical values in a sense of history, one must discover perspectives that are effective in an ever-changing world.

What endures most in the work of Tom Dent is perspective, the vantage points at which a writer places words, so that readers see the purpose of collecting experiences and data and assessing them while recognizing enough is never known and, then, laughing to prevent self-destruction in confusion and despair. In summing up his education at Morehouse and his experiences as an undergraduate journalist, Dent confessed:

In my four years I have learned two things. One is that I don’t know anything and the second is to laugh. Since you don’t know anything, about the best you can do is laugh it off and try again. (“The Summing Up…” 7)

* * * * *

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tradition & Acknowledgement in Combat Zones

Tradition and Acknowledgement in Combat Zones



            Our tradition of black writing is coterminous with the tradition of black literature; whether we speak of literature or of writing depends on how we choose to position our necessary and creative acts of expression.  Writing refers to specific uses of verbal literacy either in script (handwriting) or print (mechanical reproduction) or cyberspace (digital imaging). On the other hand, literature (which embraces a dimension named orature or oral literature) refers to deliberately isolated instances of writing. Typical examples of writing are emails or letters between friends, captions linked to images, folklore, personal statements attached to applications, blogs and legal documents. Literature is constituted by fiction and non-fiction, play scripts and screenplays, poems, and the sound-crafting of lyrics by such artists as Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Cassandra Wilson and Marvin Gaye. Our literature includes blurred genres (mixed media) in want of adequate description. Our robust traditions of orature, literature, and music cause problems in the conduct of everyday life, not because they are arbitrary but because we make them interchangeable according to our needs.  In turn, they demand that we acknowledge our ideologies that hibernate underground.

            My critical thinking about writing and literature and my stance of being post-nothing and pre-future were shaped by the yoking of the cultural and the political in struggles for human and civil rights, for agency, and for conflicting values implicit in Black Arts/Black Aesthetic projects.  The quality and quantity of affirmative African American ideas and creations do change.  Emphases shift.  It might be argued, however, that motives for affirmation of self and group identity are more stable and slower in changing than the expressions associated with them.  Although belief in the wonderful illusion of “the black community” and its solidarity in America has given way to accepting the contentious realities of intra-ethnic fragmentation  and synthesis (diasporic sprawl) and even hatred, I will not abandon some ancestral values always present in the unfinished enterprise labeled the Black Aesthetic. “Ceremonies of poise in a non-rational universe” enable us to “play an endless satire upon Western assumptions of rationality” (Kent 692).  Signifying alone does not kill the assumptions. As Dr. Carter G. Woodson warned us in Mis-education of the Negro (1933), some of the assumptions find fertile ground in African American minds. [1]

In various combat zones, refusal to abandon the ideals and the authority of African American traditions puts one at risk. One becomes an outsider who is inside. One must be brave and ready to pay the price, even if the price is one’s sanity or one’s life.  Activists who are not pimps know that. They do not confuse a combat zone with the theatre.  For what does it profit a person to perform intellectual minstrelsy for the delight of the media and the academic “gods” who contend human suffering is merely symbolic?  One reductive answer, of course, is a five-letter word: money.

 As Ann duCille remarked in Skin Trade (1996), we do live in “ a country where ethnic rivalry, race hatred, bigotry, anti-Semitism, sexism, heterosexism, and even neo-Nazism are on the rise” (172), and “the best thing we can do for ourselves and our country…is exactly to deromanticize it” (173). In my work with literature, writing, and people, I find duCille’s insights are pragmatic; they are consonant with my choice as an African American Southern male and my penchant for deromanticizing things in the spirit of David Walker. Wretchedness is still many years remote from resolution. Some Black Arts Movement ideas do influence my behavior in the combat zones created by Charles Johnson’s “The End of the Black American Narrative” [The American Scholar 77.3 ( 2008): 32-42], by calls to abandon our history in post-racial revisions, and by arguments that we should cast our expressive traditions prematurely into the machine of Kenneth W. Warren’s What Was African American Literature? (2011).  Those specifiable zones are minute in the context of the vast zones constituted by change itself, zones that evade naming. In those spaces, a soldier must depend on folk wisdom and common sense.

Ancestral integrity bids me to acknowledge that my ideas about combat zones are derived from accepting the imperatives in Gwendolyn Brooks’ magnificent sonnet “First Fight. Then Fiddle”.  I am likewise indebted to Mary Louise Pratt’s speech “Arts of the Contact Zone” and to her description of those zones as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (Pratt 1).  These spaces where people communicate inside and across cultures have crossroads that can be color-coded.  Decisions about oppositions and dilemmas must be made there and then negotiated on fields where one can only hope mutual respect obtains.  Nothing is guaranteed. Dealing with traditions and their revisions, however, obligates one to deal with an actuality that Pratt chose not to emphasize: the psychological violence that marks cultural encounters.[2]

In the early years of the twenty-first century, we are embroiled in combat zones that the Internet, its social networks, and litigation regarding intellectual property highlight, and our battles  have much to do with ideas about access, hegemony, the rites of capitalism, and authority. From elite sites that pretend to be race-free, both in print and online, we are told LITERATURE must be segregated by philosophical and linguistic sleight-of-hand from such democratic expressive categories as “writing” or “speech” (that is, speech associated with oral traditions). LITERATURE is a saintly commodity.  Pray tell us how white bullshit can be.

 In “Literacy and Criticism: The Example of Carolyn Rodgers” [Drumvoices 4.1-2 (Fall-Winter 1994/95): 62-65], I assigned “criticism to the realm of the pedagogy of the oppressed, because language is a political instrument”(63). Carolyn Rodgers’ four touchstone essays in Negro Digest and Black World between 1969 and 1971[3] obligate us to acknowledge how expertly she exploited the vernacular and illustrated the potential of speech act theory in promoting literacy. Rodgers addressed how the folk, whoever they are, use drylongso intuitions “as fundamental ingredients of reality and creativity as they construct their worlds” (63). In reclaiming what must still be dealt with in combat zones, perhaps we can finally acknowledge that Rodgers, a gifted poet, disclosed “crucial aspects of language’s behavior for those who would attain literacy in a space that is decidedly multiethnic” (65).[4]  Perhaps we can acknowledge that her critical legacy has lasting value.

In 2011, we might ask ourselves whether cyberspace and advancing technologies are diminishing (or destroying) a tradition of black writing which had for a long time used both drylongso intuitions and rigorous scholarship as modes of interpretation.[5]  Often life not literature was the object of interpretation. Are new technologies replacing it with traditions, freely embraced now by older and younger Americans, which are marked by effortless and non-critical consumption that was rarely countenanced by many Black Arts/Black Aesthetic thinkers?  Can serious examination and reclaiming of what was positive, progressive, and black between 1960 and 1975 (imagined beginning and end points) help us to retard the downsizing of American critical thought and imagination?

Serious action in combat zones requires that we consider such questions. Serious action precludes nostalgia for a past that brought “culture” to the foreground but gave attention, in less obvious ways, to African American interest in the use and abuse of the  sciences; black enterprise; nuclear proliferation; ending cycles of welfare, criminalization and poverty;, deliberate miseducation and vile uses of disinformation; invisible racism and benign genocide;  alternative fuel sources;  world affairs military and non-military, health care and the quality of human life.  It is the less obvious that we should acknowledge and cultivate.  From my perspective, we must acknowledge our indebtedness to an imperfect past (which included paradigms independent from the limits of Eurocentricisms and Afrocentricisms) and balance that imperfect past with dedicated acknowledgement of our oppositional roles in building a future.  We must make hard decisions about who are our allies and who are our enemies as we deal with traditions and the inevitability of change.  It is easy to become promiscuous in our intimacies with alienating methodologies and ideologies.  Obviously we need to know who are our comrades, who can we trust to participate in our projects in black writing that extend beyond narrowly defined “literature” and creative expressions ; obviously, we need to be relentless in identifying our enemies, those who would destroy our memories and practices of tradition, or silence our utterance and make their terrorism legitimate by virtue of the U.S.A. Patriot Act.  We must know our positions, our loyalties, and our beliefs that are justifications for battle in the combat zones of the intellectual and the practical.  That we have traditions worth fighting for is beyond dispute.

Hortense Spillers partially mapped the territory of conflict in her essay, “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date:”

We could say with a great deal of justification that the black creative intellectual has been more hesitant than not to acknowledge precisely where and how she “is coming from” and in what ways location marks in fact a chunk of the historical material. A more efficacious critique, or, I should say, one that is less loaded with pretenses and pretensions, altogether depends on such acknowledgements (449-450).[6]

I respect Spillers’ observation about hesitance, because it strengthens belief that creative intellectuals of all colors and in all locations should acknowledge where they are coming from. Given that American institutions of higher education rarely acknowledge that our nation is a post-colonial empire, that its social compact is a racial contract, or that its Constitution was ratified as a proslavery document which still legitimates deceptive forms of “enslavement,” they are de facto sites of combat and contact.  Acknowledgement is only provisional evidence that a person is a potential friend or foe; the proof of the pudding is extended contact.

The tradition of black writing teaches me not to be stupidly colorblind.  I know that skin-privilege cards are played more frequently than race cards both within and outside of spaces of education, social policy, cultural production, labor, and sports. Thus, I demand the improbable: others in the combat zone of traditions should bluntly acknowledge their designs and give a name to their complex ideologies.  Sustained skepticism is a good policy or habit of mind.

 Like the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic phenomenon was at once necessary and limited in its duration. Nevertheless, both movements, in concert with the very old struggles for civil rights and self-determination (cultural and political nationalism) effectively exposed the nature of hypocrisy and hegemony in our republic which is not a democracy in the classic sense.  As far as our tradition of black writing is concerned, I would argue that “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes, “Blueprint for Negro Writing” by Richard Wright,  “Myth of a Negro Literature” and “Black Writing” by LeRoi Jones, Ishmael Reed’s introduction in 19 Necromancers from Now, Stephen Henderson’s “Introduction: The Forms of Things Unknown” in Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, Hoyt W. Fuller’s “Towards a Black Aesthetic,” Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison and Barbara Christian’s “The Race for Theory” are crucial direction-scores to play according to one’s skills.  Ishmael Reed did not lie when he proclaimed writing is fighting.

These words of wisdom from the “tradition” are but a small fraction of the ammo I need for combat.  Every woman and man who struggles to write (to be an engaged writer) must gather her or his own arsenal of weapons. The arsenal must contain great amounts of interdisciplinary information, especially if the struggling writer is also a teacher. Items for the armory must be gathered by independent critical reading and critical thinking. Truth be told, acquiring weapons from various educational programs and communal discussions is necessary but not sufficient.  The best instruments are forged in the discipline of one’s mind as Margaret Walker’s remembered voice intones “For My People” in the background. I acknowledge this is merely an opinion, neither a prescription nor an imperative.  As far as tradition and acknowledgement in combat zones is a future priority, it is less than amazing that many of my comrades are not black and many of my enemies are not white in the permanent racial wars that give our nation its unique flavor.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.





WORKS CITED



Kent, George E. “Ethnic Impact in American Literature.” Black Voices. Ed. Abraham Chapman.

            New York: Mentor, 1968. 690-679. Print.



Pratt, Mary Louise.”Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession 91.  New York: MLA, 1991. 33-40.


            3 June 2011.  Web.

Spillers, Hortense J. “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date.” Black, White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003: 428-470. Print.







[1] See Sandra Adell. Double-Consciousness/Double-Bind: Theoretical Issues in Twentieth-Century Black Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Adell argued that while Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Houston A. Baker, Jr. do not succeed in “their emancipatory goal of freeing Afro-American literature from the hegemony of Eurocentric discourses,” they do “bring into sharp relief what can best be described as a nostalgia for tradition”(137). Adell’s own nostalgia for hegemony led her to confuse literature with theory and to misidentify what Gates and Baker were growing in their respective gardens.
[2] In Autobiography and Black Identity Politics, Kenneth Mostern proposes that if a “general” United States popular culture does exist, it is “ ‘African,’ having been infused with the performance styles and musical beats of people of African descent for centuries to the point that these styles are clearly a large part of all performing traditions” (19). It seems that we find greater acknowledgement of his proposal in discussions of music than we find in racialized literary discourses about words. We find no acknowledgement of his proposal in the violence of American  politics.
[3] Those essays are “Black Poetry ---Where It’s At.” Negro Digest 18.11 (1969): 7-16; “The Literature of Black.” Black World 19.8 (1970):5-11; “Breakforth. In Deed.” Black World 19.11 (1970): 13-22; “Uh Nat’chal Thang –the WHOLE TRUTH –US.” Black World 20.11 (1971): 4-14.
[4] Reading Elizabeth A. Flynn’s “Reconsiderations: Louise Rosenblatt and the Ethical Turn in Literary Theory.” College English 70.1 (2007): 52-69 can deepen our thinking about the combat zone wherein Rodgers did battle. Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (1938, 1976) and The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978) are useful for studies of the tension between what is aesthetic and what is political in pedagogy and praxis and for knowing who our potential allies might be. For those who say they are interested in the historical importance of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic moment, acknowledgement must be given by reading Carolyn Fowler’s Black Arts and Black Aesthetics: A Bibliography (1976, 1981). Fowler was one of the first people in higher education to accord the moment serious attention in teaching and writing and to use the concept of culture in a global sense that still resonates.
[5] Lawrence P. Jackson’s The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) is a brilliant account of black and critical writing practices between the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic phenomenon.
[6] We note that Spillers refers to a black creative intellectual who is positioned “between a putative community on the one hand and the politics and discussions of the predominantly white academy on the other”(449). We do have among us black, creative, and intelligent people who realize that the white academy has no obligation or interest in dealing honestly with masses of conflict-marked people who are “have-nots.” Spillers makes it very clear that acknowledgement ought not be confused with commitment; brutally honest acknowledgement is very much needed to minimize the power of myth in the American Dream as we struggle to discover the “truth” in the American Nightmare. I am not optimistic that acknowledgement without commitment to the “have-nots” can give birth to anything other than new and deadly intellectual games. For that reason, all intellectuals who proclaim interest in African American culture should acknowledge whether they are serving the needs of people or the needs of institutions.

Tradition and Acknowledgement in Combat Zones



            Our tradition of black writing is coterminous with the tradition of black literature; whether we speak of literature or of writing depends on how we choose to position our necessary and creative acts of expression.  Writing refers to specific uses of verbal literacy either in script (handwriting) or print (mechanical reproduction) or cyberspace (digital imaging). On the other hand, literature (which embraces a dimension named orature or oral literature) refers to deliberately isolated instances of writing. Typical examples of writing are emails or letters between friends, captions linked to images, folklore, personal statements attached to applications, blogs and legal documents. Literature is constituted by fiction and non-fiction, play scripts and screenplays, poems, and the sound-crafting of lyrics by such artists as Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Cassandra Wilson and Marvin Gaye. Our literature includes blurred genres (mixed media) in want of adequate description. Our robust traditions of orature, literature, and music cause problems in the conduct of everyday life, not because they are arbitrary but because we make them interchangeable according to our needs.  In turn, they demand that we acknowledge our ideologies that hibernate underground.

            My critical thinking about writing and literature and my stance of being post-nothing and pre-future were shaped by the yoking of the cultural and the political in struggles for human and civil rights, for agency, and for conflicting values implicit in Black Arts/Black Aesthetic projects.  The quality and quantity of affirmative African American ideas and creations do change.  Emphases shift.  It might be argued, however, that motives for affirmation of self and group identity are more stable and slower in changing than the expressions associated with them.  Although belief in the wonderful illusion of “the black community” and its solidarity in America has given way to accepting the contentious realities of intra-ethnic fragmentation  and synthesis (diasporic sprawl) and even hatred, I will not abandon some ancestral values always present in the unfinished enterprise labeled the Black Aesthetic. “Ceremonies of poise in a non-rational universe” enable us to “play an endless satire upon Western assumptions of rationality” (Kent 692).  Signifying alone does not kill the assumptions. As Dr. Carter G. Woodson warned us in Mis-education of the Negro (1933), some of the assumptions find fertile ground in African American minds. [1]

In various combat zones, refusal to abandon the ideals and the authority of African American traditions puts one at risk. One becomes an outsider who is inside. One must be brave and ready to pay the price, even if the price is one’s sanity or one’s life.  Activists who are not pimps know that. They do not confuse a combat zone with the theatre.  For what does it profit a person to perform intellectual minstrelsy for the delight of the media and the academic “gods” who contend human suffering is merely symbolic?  One reductive answer, of course, is a five-letter word: money.

 As Ann duCille remarked in Skin Trade (1996), we do live in “ a country where ethnic rivalry, race hatred, bigotry, anti-Semitism, sexism, heterosexism, and even neo-Nazism are on the rise” (172), and “the best thing we can do for ourselves and our country…is exactly to deromanticize it” (173). In my work with literature, writing, and people, I find duCille’s insights are pragmatic; they are consonant with my choice as an African American Southern male and my penchant for deromanticizing things in the spirit of David Walker. Wretchedness is still many years remote from resolution. Some Black Arts Movement ideas do influence my behavior in the combat zones created by Charles Johnson’s “The End of the Black American Narrative” [The American Scholar 77.3 ( 2008): 32-42], by calls to abandon our history in post-racial revisions, and by arguments that we should cast our expressive traditions prematurely into the machine of Kenneth W. Warren’s What Was African American Literature? (2011).  Those specifiable zones are minute in the context of the vast zones constituted by change itself, zones that evade naming. In those spaces, a soldier must depend on folk wisdom and common sense.

Ancestral integrity bids me to acknowledge that my ideas about combat zones are derived from accepting the imperatives in Gwendolyn Brooks’ magnificent sonnet “First Fight. Then Fiddle”.  I am likewise indebted to Mary Louise Pratt’s speech “Arts of the Contact Zone” and to her description of those zones as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (Pratt 1).  These spaces where people communicate inside and across cultures have crossroads that can be color-coded.  Decisions about oppositions and dilemmas must be made there and then negotiated on fields where one can only hope mutual respect obtains.  Nothing is guaranteed. Dealing with traditions and their revisions, however, obligates one to deal with an actuality that Pratt chose not to emphasize: the psychological violence that marks cultural encounters.[2]

In the early years of the twenty-first century, we are embroiled in combat zones that the Internet, its social networks, and litigation regarding intellectual property highlight, and our battles  have much to do with ideas about access, hegemony, the rites of capitalism, and authority. From elite sites that pretend to be race-free, both in print and online, we are told LITERATURE must be segregated by philosophical and linguistic sleight-of-hand from such democratic expressive categories as “writing” or “speech” (that is, speech associated with oral traditions). LITERATURE is a saintly commodity.  Pray tell us how white bullshit can be.

 In “Literacy and Criticism: The Example of Carolyn Rodgers” [Drumvoices 4.1-2 (Fall-Winter 1994/95): 62-65], I assigned “criticism to the realm of the pedagogy of the oppressed, because language is a political instrument”(63). Carolyn Rodgers’ four touchstone essays in Negro Digest and Black World between 1969 and 1971[3] obligate us to acknowledge how expertly she exploited the vernacular and illustrated the potential of speech act theory in promoting literacy. Rodgers addressed how the folk, whoever they are, use drylongso intuitions “as fundamental ingredients of reality and creativity as they construct their worlds” (63). In reclaiming what must still be dealt with in combat zones, perhaps we can finally acknowledge that Rodgers, a gifted poet, disclosed “crucial aspects of language’s behavior for those who would attain literacy in a space that is decidedly multiethnic” (65).[4]  Perhaps we can acknowledge that her critical legacy has lasting value.

In 2011, we might ask ourselves whether cyberspace and advancing technologies are diminishing (or destroying) a tradition of black writing which had for a long time used both drylongso intuitions and rigorous scholarship as modes of interpretation.[5]  Often life not literature was the object of interpretation. Are new technologies replacing it with traditions, freely embraced now by older and younger Americans, which are marked by effortless and non-critical consumption that was rarely countenanced by many Black Arts/Black Aesthetic thinkers?  Can serious examination and reclaiming of what was positive, progressive, and black between 1960 and 1975 (imagined beginning and end points) help us to retard the downsizing of American critical thought and imagination?

Serious action in combat zones requires that we consider such questions. Serious action precludes nostalgia for a past that brought “culture” to the foreground but gave attention, in less obvious ways, to African American interest in the use and abuse of the  sciences; black enterprise; nuclear proliferation; ending cycles of welfare, criminalization and poverty;, deliberate miseducation and vile uses of disinformation; invisible racism and benign genocide;  alternative fuel sources;  world affairs military and non-military, health care and the quality of human life.  It is the less obvious that we should acknowledge and cultivate.  From my perspective, we must acknowledge our indebtedness to an imperfect past (which included paradigms independent from the limits of Eurocentricisms and Afrocentricisms) and balance that imperfect past with dedicated acknowledgement of our oppositional roles in building a future.  We must make hard decisions about who are our allies and who are our enemies as we deal with traditions and the inevitability of change.  It is easy to become promiscuous in our intimacies with alienating methodologies and ideologies.  Obviously we need to know who are our comrades, who can we trust to participate in our projects in black writing that extend beyond narrowly defined “literature” and creative expressions ; obviously, we need to be relentless in identifying our enemies, those who would destroy our memories and practices of tradition, or silence our utterance and make their terrorism legitimate by virtue of the U.S.A. Patriot Act.  We must know our positions, our loyalties, and our beliefs that are justifications for battle in the combat zones of the intellectual and the practical.  That we have traditions worth fighting for is beyond dispute.

Hortense Spillers partially mapped the territory of conflict in her essay, “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date:”

We could say with a great deal of justification that the black creative intellectual has been more hesitant than not to acknowledge precisely where and how she “is coming from” and in what ways location marks in fact a chunk of the historical material. A more efficacious critique, or, I should say, one that is less loaded with pretenses and pretensions, altogether depends on such acknowledgements (449-450).[6]

I respect Spillers’ observation about hesitance, because it strengthens belief that creative intellectuals of all colors and in all locations should acknowledge where they are coming from. Given that American institutions of higher education rarely acknowledge that our nation is a post-colonial empire, that its social compact is a racial contract, or that its Constitution was ratified as a proslavery document which still legitimates deceptive forms of “enslavement,” they are de facto sites of combat and contact.  Acknowledgement is only provisional evidence that a person is a potential friend or foe; the proof of the pudding is extended contact.

The tradition of black writing teaches me not to be stupidly colorblind.  I know that skin-privilege cards are played more frequently than race cards both within and outside of spaces of education, social policy, cultural production, labor, and sports. Thus, I demand the improbable: others in the combat zone of traditions should bluntly acknowledge their designs and give a name to their complex ideologies.  Sustained skepticism is a good policy or habit of mind.

 Like the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic phenomenon was at once necessary and limited in its duration. Nevertheless, both movements, in concert with the very old struggles for civil rights and self-determination (cultural and political nationalism) effectively exposed the nature of hypocrisy and hegemony in our republic which is not a democracy in the classic sense.  As far as our tradition of black writing is concerned, I would argue that “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes, “Blueprint for Negro Writing” by Richard Wright,  “Myth of a Negro Literature” and “Black Writing” by LeRoi Jones, Ishmael Reed’s introduction in 19 Necromancers from Now, Stephen Henderson’s “Introduction: The Forms of Things Unknown” in Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, Hoyt W. Fuller’s “Towards a Black Aesthetic,” Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison and Barbara Christian’s “The Race for Theory” are crucial direction-scores to play according to one’s skills.  Ishmael Reed did not lie when he proclaimed writing is fighting.

These words of wisdom from the “tradition” are but a small fraction of the ammo I need for combat.  Every woman and man who struggles to write (to be an engaged writer) must gather her or his own arsenal of weapons. The arsenal must contain great amounts of interdisciplinary information, especially if the struggling writer is also a teacher. Items for the armory must be gathered by independent critical reading and critical thinking. Truth be told, acquiring weapons from various educational programs and communal discussions is necessary but not sufficient.  The best instruments are forged in the discipline of one’s mind as Margaret Walker’s remembered voice intones “For My People” in the background. I acknowledge this is merely an opinion, neither a prescription nor an imperative.  As far as tradition and acknowledgement in combat zones is a future priority, it is less than amazing that many of my comrades are not black and many of my enemies are not white in the permanent racial wars that give our nation its unique flavor.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.





WORKS CITED



Kent, George E. “Ethnic Impact in American Literature.” Black Voices. Ed. Abraham Chapman.

            New York: Mentor, 1968. 690-679. Print.



Pratt, Mary Louise.”Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession 91.  New York: MLA, 1991. 33-40.


            3 June 2011.  Web.

Spillers, Hortense J. “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date.” Black, White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003: 428-470. Print.







[1] See Sandra Adell. Double-Consciousness/Double-Bind: Theoretical Issues in Twentieth-Century Black Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Adell argued that while Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Houston A. Baker, Jr. do not succeed in “their emancipatory goal of freeing Afro-American literature from the hegemony of Eurocentric discourses,” they do “bring into sharp relief what can best be described as a nostalgia for tradition”(137). Adell’s own nostalgia for hegemony led her to confuse literature with theory and to misidentify what Gates and Baker were growing in their respective gardens.
[2] In Autobiography and Black Identity Politics, Kenneth Mostern proposes that if a “general” United States popular culture does exist, it is “ ‘African,’ having been infused with the performance styles and musical beats of people of African descent for centuries to the point that these styles are clearly a large part of all performing traditions” (19). It seems that we find greater acknowledgement of his proposal in discussions of music than we find in racialized literary discourses about words. We find no acknowledgement of his proposal in the violence of American  politics.
[3] Those essays are “Black Poetry ---Where It’s At.” Negro Digest 18.11 (1969): 7-16; “The Literature of Black.” Black World 19.8 (1970):5-11; “Breakforth. In Deed.” Black World 19.11 (1970): 13-22; “Uh Nat’chal Thang –the WHOLE TRUTH –US.” Black World 20.11 (1971): 4-14.
[4] Reading Elizabeth A. Flynn’s “Reconsiderations: Louise Rosenblatt and the Ethical Turn in Literary Theory.” College English 70.1 (2007): 52-69 can deepen our thinking about the combat zone wherein Rodgers did battle. Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (1938, 1976) and The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978) are useful for studies of the tension between what is aesthetic and what is political in pedagogy and praxis and for knowing who our potential allies might be. For those who say they are interested in the historical importance of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic moment, acknowledgement must be given by reading Carolyn Fowler’s Black Arts and Black Aesthetics: A Bibliography (1976, 1981). Fowler was one of the first people in higher education to accord the moment serious attention in teaching and writing and to use the concept of culture in a global sense that still resonates.
[5] Lawrence P. Jackson’s The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) is a brilliant account of black and critical writing practices between the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic phenomenon.
[6] We note that Spillers refers to a black creative intellectual who is positioned “between a putative community on the one hand and the politics and discussions of the predominantly white academy on the other”(449). We do have among us black, creative, and intelligent people who realize that the white academy has no obligation or interest in dealing honestly with masses of conflict-marked people who are “have-nots.” Spillers makes it very clear that acknowledgement ought not be confused with commitment; brutally honest acknowledgement is very much needed to minimize the power of myth in the American Dream as we struggle to discover the “truth” in the American Nightmare. I am not optimistic that acknowledgement without commitment to the “have-nots” can give birth to anything other than new and deadly intellectual games. For that reason, all intellectuals who proclaim interest in African American culture should acknowledge whether they are serving the needs of people or the needs of institutions.

Tradition and Acknowledgement in Combat Zones



            Our tradition of black writing is coterminous with the tradition of black literature; whether we speak of literature or of writing depends on how we choose to position our necessary and creative acts of expression.  Writing refers to specific uses of verbal literacy either in script (handwriting) or print (mechanical reproduction) or cyberspace (digital imaging). On the other hand, literature (which embraces a dimension named orature or oral literature) refers to deliberately isolated instances of writing. Typical examples of writing are emails or letters between friends, captions linked to images, folklore, personal statements attached to applications, blogs and legal documents. Literature is constituted by fiction and non-fiction, play scripts and screenplays, poems, and the sound-crafting of lyrics by such artists as Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Cassandra Wilson and Marvin Gaye. Our literature includes blurred genres (mixed media) in want of adequate description. Our robust traditions of orature, literature, and music cause problems in the conduct of everyday life, not because they are arbitrary but because we make them interchangeable according to our needs.  In turn, they demand that we acknowledge our ideologies that hibernate underground.

            My critical thinking about writing and literature and my stance of being post-nothing and pre-future were shaped by the yoking of the cultural and the political in struggles for human and civil rights, for agency, and for conflicting values implicit in Black Arts/Black Aesthetic projects.  The quality and quantity of affirmative African American ideas and creations do change.  Emphases shift.  It might be argued, however, that motives for affirmation of self and group identity are more stable and slower in changing than the expressions associated with them.  Although belief in the wonderful illusion of “the black community” and its solidarity in America has given way to accepting the contentious realities of intra-ethnic fragmentation  and synthesis (diasporic sprawl) and even hatred, I will not abandon some ancestral values always present in the unfinished enterprise labeled the Black Aesthetic. “Ceremonies of poise in a non-rational universe” enable us to “play an endless satire upon Western assumptions of rationality” (Kent 692).  Signifying alone does not kill the assumptions. As Dr. Carter G. Woodson warned us in Mis-education of the Negro (1933), some of the assumptions find fertile ground in African American minds. [1]

In various combat zones, refusal to abandon the ideals and the authority of African American traditions puts one at risk. One becomes an outsider who is inside. One must be brave and ready to pay the price, even if the price is one’s sanity or one’s life.  Activists who are not pimps know that. They do not confuse a combat zone with the theatre.  For what does it profit a person to perform intellectual minstrelsy for the delight of the media and the academic “gods” who contend human suffering is merely symbolic?  One reductive answer, of course, is a five-letter word: money.

 As Ann duCille remarked in Skin Trade (1996), we do live in “ a country where ethnic rivalry, race hatred, bigotry, anti-Semitism, sexism, heterosexism, and even neo-Nazism are on the rise” (172), and “the best thing we can do for ourselves and our country…is exactly to deromanticize it” (173). In my work with literature, writing, and people, I find duCille’s insights are pragmatic; they are consonant with my choice as an African American Southern male and my penchant for deromanticizing things in the spirit of David Walker. Wretchedness is still many years remote from resolution. Some Black Arts Movement ideas do influence my behavior in the combat zones created by Charles Johnson’s “The End of the Black American Narrative” [The American Scholar 77.3 ( 2008): 32-42], by calls to abandon our history in post-racial revisions, and by arguments that we should cast our expressive traditions prematurely into the machine of Kenneth W. Warren’s What Was African American Literature? (2011).  Those specifiable zones are minute in the context of the vast zones constituted by change itself, zones that evade naming. In those spaces, a soldier must depend on folk wisdom and common sense.

Ancestral integrity bids me to acknowledge that my ideas about combat zones are derived from accepting the imperatives in Gwendolyn Brooks’ magnificent sonnet “First Fight. Then Fiddle”.  I am likewise indebted to Mary Louise Pratt’s speech “Arts of the Contact Zone” and to her description of those zones as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (Pratt 1).  These spaces where people communicate inside and across cultures have crossroads that can be color-coded.  Decisions about oppositions and dilemmas must be made there and then negotiated on fields where one can only hope mutual respect obtains.  Nothing is guaranteed. Dealing with traditions and their revisions, however, obligates one to deal with an actuality that Pratt chose not to emphasize: the psychological violence that marks cultural encounters.[2]

In the early years of the twenty-first century, we are embroiled in combat zones that the Internet, its social networks, and litigation regarding intellectual property highlight, and our battles  have much to do with ideas about access, hegemony, the rites of capitalism, and authority. From elite sites that pretend to be race-free, both in print and online, we are told LITERATURE must be segregated by philosophical and linguistic sleight-of-hand from such democratic expressive categories as “writing” or “speech” (that is, speech associated with oral traditions). LITERATURE is a saintly commodity.  Pray tell us how white bullshit can be.

 In “Literacy and Criticism: The Example of Carolyn Rodgers” [Drumvoices 4.1-2 (Fall-Winter 1994/95): 62-65], I assigned “criticism to the realm of the pedagogy of the oppressed, because language is a political instrument”(63). Carolyn Rodgers’ four touchstone essays in Negro Digest and Black World between 1969 and 1971[3] obligate us to acknowledge how expertly she exploited the vernacular and illustrated the potential of speech act theory in promoting literacy. Rodgers addressed how the folk, whoever they are, use drylongso intuitions “as fundamental ingredients of reality and creativity as they construct their worlds” (63). In reclaiming what must still be dealt with in combat zones, perhaps we can finally acknowledge that Rodgers, a gifted poet, disclosed “crucial aspects of language’s behavior for those who would attain literacy in a space that is decidedly multiethnic” (65).[4]  Perhaps we can acknowledge that her critical legacy has lasting value.

In 2011, we might ask ourselves whether cyberspace and advancing technologies are diminishing (or destroying) a tradition of black writing which had for a long time used both drylongso intuitions and rigorous scholarship as modes of interpretation.[5]  Often life not literature was the object of interpretation. Are new technologies replacing it with traditions, freely embraced now by older and younger Americans, which are marked by effortless and non-critical consumption that was rarely countenanced by many Black Arts/Black Aesthetic thinkers?  Can serious examination and reclaiming of what was positive, progressive, and black between 1960 and 1975 (imagined beginning and end points) help us to retard the downsizing of American critical thought and imagination?

Serious action in combat zones requires that we consider such questions. Serious action precludes nostalgia for a past that brought “culture” to the foreground but gave attention, in less obvious ways, to African American interest in the use and abuse of the  sciences; black enterprise; nuclear proliferation; ending cycles of welfare, criminalization and poverty;, deliberate miseducation and vile uses of disinformation; invisible racism and benign genocide;  alternative fuel sources;  world affairs military and non-military, health care and the quality of human life.  It is the less obvious that we should acknowledge and cultivate.  From my perspective, we must acknowledge our indebtedness to an imperfect past (which included paradigms independent from the limits of Eurocentricisms and Afrocentricisms) and balance that imperfect past with dedicated acknowledgement of our oppositional roles in building a future.  We must make hard decisions about who are our allies and who are our enemies as we deal with traditions and the inevitability of change.  It is easy to become promiscuous in our intimacies with alienating methodologies and ideologies.  Obviously we need to know who are our comrades, who can we trust to participate in our projects in black writing that extend beyond narrowly defined “literature” and creative expressions ; obviously, we need to be relentless in identifying our enemies, those who would destroy our memories and practices of tradition, or silence our utterance and make their terrorism legitimate by virtue of the U.S.A. Patriot Act.  We must know our positions, our loyalties, and our beliefs that are justifications for battle in the combat zones of the intellectual and the practical.  That we have traditions worth fighting for is beyond dispute.

Hortense Spillers partially mapped the territory of conflict in her essay, “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date:”

We could say with a great deal of justification that the black creative intellectual has been more hesitant than not to acknowledge precisely where and how she “is coming from” and in what ways location marks in fact a chunk of the historical material. A more efficacious critique, or, I should say, one that is less loaded with pretenses and pretensions, altogether depends on such acknowledgements (449-450).[6]

I respect Spillers’ observation about hesitance, because it strengthens belief that creative intellectuals of all colors and in all locations should acknowledge where they are coming from. Given that American institutions of higher education rarely acknowledge that our nation is a post-colonial empire, that its social compact is a racial contract, or that its Constitution was ratified as a proslavery document which still legitimates deceptive forms of “enslavement,” they are de facto sites of combat and contact.  Acknowledgement is only provisional evidence that a person is a potential friend or foe; the proof of the pudding is extended contact.

The tradition of black writing teaches me not to be stupidly colorblind.  I know that skin-privilege cards are played more frequently than race cards both within and outside of spaces of education, social policy, cultural production, labor, and sports. Thus, I demand the improbable: others in the combat zone of traditions should bluntly acknowledge their designs and give a name to their complex ideologies.  Sustained skepticism is a good policy or habit of mind.

 Like the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic phenomenon was at once necessary and limited in its duration. Nevertheless, both movements, in concert with the very old struggles for civil rights and self-determination (cultural and political nationalism) effectively exposed the nature of hypocrisy and hegemony in our republic which is not a democracy in the classic sense.  As far as our tradition of black writing is concerned, I would argue that “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes, “Blueprint for Negro Writing” by Richard Wright,  “Myth of a Negro Literature” and “Black Writing” by LeRoi Jones, Ishmael Reed’s introduction in 19 Necromancers from Now, Stephen Henderson’s “Introduction: The Forms of Things Unknown” in Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, Hoyt W. Fuller’s “Towards a Black Aesthetic,” Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison and Barbara Christian’s “The Race for Theory” are crucial direction-scores to play according to one’s skills.  Ishmael Reed did not lie when he proclaimed writing is fighting.

These words of wisdom from the “tradition” are but a small fraction of the ammo I need for combat.  Every woman and man who struggles to write (to be an engaged writer) must gather her or his own arsenal of weapons. The arsenal must contain great amounts of interdisciplinary information, especially if the struggling writer is also a teacher. Items for the armory must be gathered by independent critical reading and critical thinking. Truth be told, acquiring weapons from various educational programs and communal discussions is necessary but not sufficient.  The best instruments are forged in the discipline of one’s mind as Margaret Walker’s remembered voice intones “For My People” in the background. I acknowledge this is merely an opinion, neither a prescription nor an imperative.  As far as tradition and acknowledgement in combat zones is a future priority, it is less than amazing that many of my comrades are not black and many of my enemies are not white in the permanent racial wars that give our nation its unique flavor.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.





WORKS CITED



Kent, George E. “Ethnic Impact in American Literature.” Black Voices. Ed. Abraham Chapman.

            New York: Mentor, 1968. 690-679. Print.



Pratt, Mary Louise.”Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession 91.  New York: MLA, 1991. 33-40.


            3 June 2011.  Web.

Spillers, Hortense J. “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date.” Black, White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003: 428-470. Print.







[1] See Sandra Adell. Double-Consciousness/Double-Bind: Theoretical Issues in Twentieth-Century Black Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Adell argued that while Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Houston A. Baker, Jr. do not succeed in “their emancipatory goal of freeing Afro-American literature from the hegemony of Eurocentric discourses,” they do “bring into sharp relief what can best be described as a nostalgia for tradition”(137). Adell’s own nostalgia for hegemony led her to confuse literature with theory and to misidentify what Gates and Baker were growing in their respective gardens.
[2] In Autobiography and Black Identity Politics, Kenneth Mostern proposes that if a “general” United States popular culture does exist, it is “ ‘African,’ having been infused with the performance styles and musical beats of people of African descent for centuries to the point that these styles are clearly a large part of all performing traditions” (19). It seems that we find greater acknowledgement of his proposal in discussions of music than we find in racialized literary discourses about words. We find no acknowledgement of his proposal in the violence of American  politics.
[3] Those essays are “Black Poetry ---Where It’s At.” Negro Digest 18.11 (1969): 7-16; “The Literature of Black.” Black World 19.8 (1970):5-11; “Breakforth. In Deed.” Black World 19.11 (1970): 13-22; “Uh Nat’chal Thang –the WHOLE TRUTH –US.” Black World 20.11 (1971): 4-14.
[4] Reading Elizabeth A. Flynn’s “Reconsiderations: Louise Rosenblatt and the Ethical Turn in Literary Theory.” College English 70.1 (2007): 52-69 can deepen our thinking about the combat zone wherein Rodgers did battle. Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (1938, 1976) and The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978) are useful for studies of the tension between what is aesthetic and what is political in pedagogy and praxis and for knowing who our potential allies might be. For those who say they are interested in the historical importance of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic moment, acknowledgement must be given by reading Carolyn Fowler’s Black Arts and Black Aesthetics: A Bibliography (1976, 1981). Fowler was one of the first people in higher education to accord the moment serious attention in teaching and writing and to use the concept of culture in a global sense that still resonates.
[5] Lawrence P. Jackson’s The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) is a brilliant account of black and critical writing practices between the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic phenomenon.
[6] We note that Spillers refers to a black creative intellectual who is positioned “between a putative community on the one hand and the politics and discussions of the predominantly white academy on the other”(449). We do have among us black, creative, and intelligent people who realize that the white academy has no obligation or interest in dealing honestly with masses of conflict-marked people who are “have-nots.” Spillers makes it very clear that acknowledgement ought not be confused with commitment; brutally honest acknowledgement is very much needed to minimize the power of myth in the American Dream as we struggle to discover the “truth” in the American Nightmare. I am not optimistic that acknowledgement without commitment to the “have-nots” can give birth to anything other than new and deadly intellectual games. For that reason, all intellectuals who proclaim interest in African American culture should acknowledge whether they are serving the needs of people or the needs of institutions.

Tradition and Acknowledgement in Combat Zones



            Our tradition of black writing is coterminous with the tradition of black literature; whether we speak of literature or of writing depends on how we choose to position our necessary and creative acts of expression.  Writing refers to specific uses of verbal literacy either in script (handwriting) or print (mechanical reproduction) or cyberspace (digital imaging). On the other hand, literature (which embraces a dimension named orature or oral literature) refers to deliberately isolated instances of writing. Typical examples of writing are emails or letters between friends, captions linked to images, folklore, personal statements attached to applications, blogs and legal documents. Literature is constituted by fiction and non-fiction, play scripts and screenplays, poems, and the sound-crafting of lyrics by such artists as Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Cassandra Wilson and Marvin Gaye. Our literature includes blurred genres (mixed media) in want of adequate description. Our robust traditions of orature, literature, and music cause problems in the conduct of everyday life, not because they are arbitrary but because we make them interchangeable according to our needs.  In turn, they demand that we acknowledge our ideologies that hibernate underground.

            My critical thinking about writing and literature and my stance of being post-nothing and pre-future were shaped by the yoking of the cultural and the political in struggles for human and civil rights, for agency, and for conflicting values implicit in Black Arts/Black Aesthetic projects.  The quality and quantity of affirmative African American ideas and creations do change.  Emphases shift.  It might be argued, however, that motives for affirmation of self and group identity are more stable and slower in changing than the expressions associated with them.  Although belief in the wonderful illusion of “the black community” and its solidarity in America has given way to accepting the contentious realities of intra-ethnic fragmentation  and synthesis (diasporic sprawl) and even hatred, I will not abandon some ancestral values always present in the unfinished enterprise labeled the Black Aesthetic. “Ceremonies of poise in a non-rational universe” enable us to “play an endless satire upon Western assumptions of rationality” (Kent 692).  Signifying alone does not kill the assumptions. As Dr. Carter G. Woodson warned us in Mis-education of the Negro (1933), some of the assumptions find fertile ground in African American minds. [1]

In various combat zones, refusal to abandon the ideals and the authority of African American traditions puts one at risk. One becomes an outsider who is inside. One must be brave and ready to pay the price, even if the price is one’s sanity or one’s life.  Activists who are not pimps know that. They do not confuse a combat zone with the theatre.  For what does it profit a person to perform intellectual minstrelsy for the delight of the media and the academic “gods” who contend human suffering is merely symbolic?  One reductive answer, of course, is a five-letter word: money.

 As Ann duCille remarked in Skin Trade (1996), we do live in “ a country where ethnic rivalry, race hatred, bigotry, anti-Semitism, sexism, heterosexism, and even neo-Nazism are on the rise” (172), and “the best thing we can do for ourselves and our country…is exactly to deromanticize it” (173). In my work with literature, writing, and people, I find duCille’s insights are pragmatic; they are consonant with my choice as an African American Southern male and my penchant for deromanticizing things in the spirit of David Walker. Wretchedness is still many years remote from resolution. Some Black Arts Movement ideas do influence my behavior in the combat zones created by Charles Johnson’s “The End of the Black American Narrative” [The American Scholar 77.3 ( 2008): 32-42], by calls to abandon our history in post-racial revisions, and by arguments that we should cast our expressive traditions prematurely into the machine of Kenneth W. Warren’s What Was African American Literature? (2011).  Those specifiable zones are minute in the context of the vast zones constituted by change itself, zones that evade naming. In those spaces, a soldier must depend on folk wisdom and common sense.

Ancestral integrity bids me to acknowledge that my ideas about combat zones are derived from accepting the imperatives in Gwendolyn Brooks’ magnificent sonnet “First Fight. Then Fiddle”.  I am likewise indebted to Mary Louise Pratt’s speech “Arts of the Contact Zone” and to her description of those zones as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (Pratt 1).  These spaces where people communicate inside and across cultures have crossroads that can be color-coded.  Decisions about oppositions and dilemmas must be made there and then negotiated on fields where one can only hope mutual respect obtains.  Nothing is guaranteed. Dealing with traditions and their revisions, however, obligates one to deal with an actuality that Pratt chose not to emphasize: the psychological violence that marks cultural encounters.[2]

In the early years of the twenty-first century, we are embroiled in combat zones that the Internet, its social networks, and litigation regarding intellectual property highlight, and our battles  have much to do with ideas about access, hegemony, the rites of capitalism, and authority. From elite sites that pretend to be race-free, both in print and online, we are told LITERATURE must be segregated by philosophical and linguistic sleight-of-hand from such democratic expressive categories as “writing” or “speech” (that is, speech associated with oral traditions). LITERATURE is a saintly commodity.  Pray tell us how white bullshit can be.

 In “Literacy and Criticism: The Example of Carolyn Rodgers” [Drumvoices 4.1-2 (Fall-Winter 1994/95): 62-65], I assigned “criticism to the realm of the pedagogy of the oppressed, because language is a political instrument”(63). Carolyn Rodgers’ four touchstone essays in Negro Digest and Black World between 1969 and 1971[3] obligate us to acknowledge how expertly she exploited the vernacular and illustrated the potential of speech act theory in promoting literacy. Rodgers addressed how the folk, whoever they are, use drylongso intuitions “as fundamental ingredients of reality and creativity as they construct their worlds” (63). In reclaiming what must still be dealt with in combat zones, perhaps we can finally acknowledge that Rodgers, a gifted poet, disclosed “crucial aspects of language’s behavior for those who would attain literacy in a space that is decidedly multiethnic” (65).[4]  Perhaps we can acknowledge that her critical legacy has lasting value.

In 2011, we might ask ourselves whether cyberspace and advancing technologies are diminishing (or destroying) a tradition of black writing which had for a long time used both drylongso intuitions and rigorous scholarship as modes of interpretation.[5]  Often life not literature was the object of interpretation. Are new technologies replacing it with traditions, freely embraced now by older and younger Americans, which are marked by effortless and non-critical consumption that was rarely countenanced by many Black Arts/Black Aesthetic thinkers?  Can serious examination and reclaiming of what was positive, progressive, and black between 1960 and 1975 (imagined beginning and end points) help us to retard the downsizing of American critical thought and imagination?

Serious action in combat zones requires that we consider such questions. Serious action precludes nostalgia for a past that brought “culture” to the foreground but gave attention, in less obvious ways, to African American interest in the use and abuse of the  sciences; black enterprise; nuclear proliferation; ending cycles of welfare, criminalization and poverty;, deliberate miseducation and vile uses of disinformation; invisible racism and benign genocide;  alternative fuel sources;  world affairs military and non-military, health care and the quality of human life.  It is the less obvious that we should acknowledge and cultivate.  From my perspective, we must acknowledge our indebtedness to an imperfect past (which included paradigms independent from the limits of Eurocentricisms and Afrocentricisms) and balance that imperfect past with dedicated acknowledgement of our oppositional roles in building a future.  We must make hard decisions about who are our allies and who are our enemies as we deal with traditions and the inevitability of change.  It is easy to become promiscuous in our intimacies with alienating methodologies and ideologies.  Obviously we need to know who are our comrades, who can we trust to participate in our projects in black writing that extend beyond narrowly defined “literature” and creative expressions ; obviously, we need to be relentless in identifying our enemies, those who would destroy our memories and practices of tradition, or silence our utterance and make their terrorism legitimate by virtue of the U.S.A. Patriot Act.  We must know our positions, our loyalties, and our beliefs that are justifications for battle in the combat zones of the intellectual and the practical.  That we have traditions worth fighting for is beyond dispute.

Hortense Spillers partially mapped the territory of conflict in her essay, “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date:”

We could say with a great deal of justification that the black creative intellectual has been more hesitant than not to acknowledge precisely where and how she “is coming from” and in what ways location marks in fact a chunk of the historical material. A more efficacious critique, or, I should say, one that is less loaded with pretenses and pretensions, altogether depends on such acknowledgements (449-450).[6]

I respect Spillers’ observation about hesitance, because it strengthens belief that creative intellectuals of all colors and in all locations should acknowledge where they are coming from. Given that American institutions of higher education rarely acknowledge that our nation is a post-colonial empire, that its social compact is a racial contract, or that its Constitution was ratified as a proslavery document which still legitimates deceptive forms of “enslavement,” they are de facto sites of combat and contact.  Acknowledgement is only provisional evidence that a person is a potential friend or foe; the proof of the pudding is extended contact.

The tradition of black writing teaches me not to be stupidly colorblind.  I know that skin-privilege cards are played more frequently than race cards both within and outside of spaces of education, social policy, cultural production, labor, and sports. Thus, I demand the improbable: others in the combat zone of traditions should bluntly acknowledge their designs and give a name to their complex ideologies.  Sustained skepticism is a good policy or habit of mind.

 Like the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic phenomenon was at once necessary and limited in its duration. Nevertheless, both movements, in concert with the very old struggles for civil rights and self-determination (cultural and political nationalism) effectively exposed the nature of hypocrisy and hegemony in our republic which is not a democracy in the classic sense.  As far as our tradition of black writing is concerned, I would argue that “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes, “Blueprint for Negro Writing” by Richard Wright,  “Myth of a Negro Literature” and “Black Writing” by LeRoi Jones, Ishmael Reed’s introduction in 19 Necromancers from Now, Stephen Henderson’s “Introduction: The Forms of Things Unknown” in Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, Hoyt W. Fuller’s “Towards a Black Aesthetic,” Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison and Barbara Christian’s “The Race for Theory” are crucial direction-scores to play according to one’s skills.  Ishmael Reed did not lie when he proclaimed writing is fighting.

These words of wisdom from the “tradition” are but a small fraction of the ammo I need for combat.  Every woman and man who struggles to write (to be an engaged writer) must gather her or his own arsenal of weapons. The arsenal must contain great amounts of interdisciplinary information, especially if the struggling writer is also a teacher. Items for the armory must be gathered by independent critical reading and critical thinking. Truth be told, acquiring weapons from various educational programs and communal discussions is necessary but not sufficient.  The best instruments are forged in the discipline of one’s mind as Margaret Walker’s remembered voice intones “For My People” in the background. I acknowledge this is merely an opinion, neither a prescription nor an imperative.  As far as tradition and acknowledgement in combat zones is a future priority, it is less than amazing that many of my comrades are not black and many of my enemies are not white in the permanent racial wars that give our nation its unique flavor.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.





WORKS CITED



Kent, George E. “Ethnic Impact in American Literature.” Black Voices. Ed. Abraham Chapman.

            New York: Mentor, 1968. 690-679. Print.



Pratt, Mary Louise.”Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession 91.  New York: MLA, 1991. 33-40.


            3 June 2011.  Web.

Spillers, Hortense J. “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date.” Black, White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003: 428-470. Print.







[1] See Sandra Adell. Double-Consciousness/Double-Bind: Theoretical Issues in Twentieth-Century Black Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Adell argued that while Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Houston A. Baker, Jr. do not succeed in “their emancipatory goal of freeing Afro-American literature from the hegemony of Eurocentric discourses,” they do “bring into sharp relief what can best be described as a nostalgia for tradition”(137). Adell’s own nostalgia for hegemony led her to confuse literature with theory and to misidentify what Gates and Baker were growing in their respective gardens.
[2] In Autobiography and Black Identity Politics, Kenneth Mostern proposes that if a “general” United States popular culture does exist, it is “ ‘African,’ having been infused with the performance styles and musical beats of people of African descent for centuries to the point that these styles are clearly a large part of all performing traditions” (19). It seems that we find greater acknowledgement of his proposal in discussions of music than we find in racialized literary discourses about words. We find no acknowledgement of his proposal in the violence of American  politics.
[3] Those essays are “Black Poetry ---Where It’s At.” Negro Digest 18.11 (1969): 7-16; “The Literature of Black.” Black World 19.8 (1970):5-11; “Breakforth. In Deed.” Black World 19.11 (1970): 13-22; “Uh Nat’chal Thang –the WHOLE TRUTH –US.” Black World 20.11 (1971): 4-14.
[4] Reading Elizabeth A. Flynn’s “Reconsiderations: Louise Rosenblatt and the Ethical Turn in Literary Theory.” College English 70.1 (2007): 52-69 can deepen our thinking about the combat zone wherein Rodgers did battle. Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (1938, 1976) and The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978) are useful for studies of the tension between what is aesthetic and what is political in pedagogy and praxis and for knowing who our potential allies might be. For those who say they are interested in the historical importance of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic moment, acknowledgement must be given by reading Carolyn Fowler’s Black Arts and Black Aesthetics: A Bibliography (1976, 1981). Fowler was one of the first people in higher education to accord the moment serious attention in teaching and writing and to use the concept of culture in a global sense that still resonates.
[5] Lawrence P. Jackson’s The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) is a brilliant account of black and critical writing practices between the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic phenomenon.
[6] We note that Spillers refers to a black creative intellectual who is positioned “between a putative community on the one hand and the politics and discussions of the predominantly white academy on the other”(449). We do have among us black, creative, and intelligent people who realize that the white academy has no obligation or interest in dealing honestly with masses of conflict-marked people who are “have-nots.” Spillers makes it very clear that acknowledgement ought not be confused with commitment; brutally honest acknowledgement is very much needed to minimize the power of myth in the American Dream as we struggle to discover the “truth” in the American Nightmare. I am not optimistic that acknowledgement without commitment to the “have-nots” can give birth to anything other than new and deadly intellectual games. For that reason, all intellectuals who proclaim interest in African American culture should acknowledge whether they are serving the needs of people or the needs of institutions.