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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Richard Wright


For Shandong Journal of Foreign Language Teaching



“Directions in the Study of Richard Wright”



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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









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


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Letters





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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellison’s ambivalence is golden.

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



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

China 2009


Visual proof of Asian ancestry

Thinking about New Orleans






New Orleans:  A Crossroad of Axes



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

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



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



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

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

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

Profond laisse dormer ceux qui l’ont ennoble.

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

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.











New Orleans:  A Crossroad of Axes



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

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



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



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

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

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

Profond laisse dormer ceux qui l’ont ennoble.

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

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.











New Orleans:  A Crossroad of Axes



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

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



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



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

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

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

Profond laisse dormer ceux qui l’ont ennoble.

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

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.






v

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Haiku

Peace is still budding


defiantly flame-colored:


a rose in winter.





August 18, 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

American Fictions


WALKING THE TIGHTROPES

                The fame and infamy surrounding Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as novel and film has deflected the interest that should be taken in Minrose Gwin’s The Queen of Palmyra.  These first novels were written by women from Mississippi.  Stockett comes from Jackson; Gwin, from Tupelo.  The authors are white females.  The novels deal in varying degrees with race, identity, and summer in the sovereign State of Mississippi during the 1960s.  What has been missed by American readers and film spectators is an opportunity to make ethical judgments about the forking paths of contemporary American fiction.  Perhaps in time The Queen of Palmyra will be subjected to sensitive, critical readings; perhaps in time readers will discover the value of a narrative that demythologizes the nostalgia-haunted reconstruction of whiteness.  There is a grain of hope in knowing that two white female Southern novelists can occupy oppositional poles in attempting to say how black and white women have negotiated the combat zones of the South.

                The novels are thoroughly anchored in the white female imaginary, the psyche that yearns to confess itself.  That territory was plowed rather successfully by Ellen Douglas in her 1988 novel Can’t Quit You, Baby, which used clues from Willie Dixon’s blues song and from Douglas’s penchant for a kind of nude “truth” that is rare in Southern fiction.  That novel helps us to understand, to some degree, why The Help cavorts in the spotlight as The Queen of Palmyra stands in the shadows.

                The Help and The Queen of Palmyra expose as much about the culture-bound tastes of American readers and the bottom-line priorities of the American publishing industry (literary politics) as they do about aesthetics and ethics.  It is reasonable to believe that the power of hype attached to Stockett’s novel has pushed the work to the foreground of consciousness, while the small voice of discrimination that would speak of the enlightenment in Gwin’s novel can be but faintly heard.  Anyone who knows the history of Mississippi, who knows the kind of history one finds in John Dittmer’s Local People and Clyde Woods’s Development Arrested, will sense that Gwin’s use of history is more principled and sophisticated than Stockett’s.  In the realm of fiction, ruthless responsibility does not yield up great profits.  The real thing never does.  Fiction readers wish to be  entertained out of reality.  Rare is the reader who can find pleasure in the unvarnished “truth,” in Gwin’s deconstructive gestures that expose the fatality of invoking the myth of the universal.  The much touted “universal” is a code for affirming that “we” rather than “they” are the guardians of “the truth.”  The Queen of Palmyra refuses to displace a fine specificity with the artifice of universals.  Like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), Gwin’s novel bravely walks the tightrope of risk; unlike Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960) and The Help, The Queen of Palmyra walks the tightropes without the Southern safety nets of the orthodox. It would come as no surprise to hear a certain class of Southern white reader say that Gwin is guilty of racial treason.

                Perhaps in time I shall perform a sensitive, critical reading of The Queen of Palmyra.  For the moment, it is refreshing to know that a white novelist has liberated herself from the ignorance of thinking that black domestics actually “loved” those who knowingly or unwittingly dehumanized them. Stupid “love” has never found a reason to exist in Mississippi.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Is civility still possible on this planet?

Lawrence W. Levine ends Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America with these words:

In defining and redefining the contours of culture, we are not merely dealing with intellectual abstractions; we are dealing with lives and minds, we are dealing with people, and we owe them more than the hubris of narrow self-defense; we owe them no less than the adoption of an open search for and a careful understanding of what culture has been in our past and can become in our future. (256)

The open search for culture in 2011 too often results in the utter ugliness of recognition. From the perspective of the United States of America, there is ample evidence that people are determined to murder civility in everyday life.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Playing in the Sunlight: Colors of Imagination, or Toni Morrison Revisited


Playing in the Sunlight: Colors of Imagination, or Toni Morrison Revisited





                Having made proposals about the continual and continuous Africanist presence in the American literary imagination, Toni Morrison positions herself to be questioned about the invisible presence of an other, neither black nor white, which does or should haunt the American use of language.  Should the case be otherwise, it would have to be claimed that the truly invisible other has  been so thoroughly erased in historical consciousness and printed text as to be of minuscule importance.  Morrison’s translation of her 1990 Massey lectures as Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination raises serious questions about the “inadequacy and the force of the imaginative act,” particularly when that phrase is juxtaposed with the amazing utterance “How compelling is the study of those writers who take responsibility for all of the values they bring to their art” (xiii).  One of Morrison’s most valuable points in the book concerns the debatable validity of certain constructions of knowledge. It is an invitation to ask about her own constructions, in light of her disclaimer that she does not bring to the critical project “even principally the tools of a literary critic.”  Do the tools of the literary artist suffice?  And in this instance, might we think (with a tinge of perversity) that failure would be more valuable than success in helping us to understand Morrison as novelist/critic?

One feature of Morrison’s prose style and style of thought might serve to open an investigation.  Consider these formations from pages 8 to 10 in Playing in the Dark:

  • have disguised themselves and, in so doing, impoverished the literature
  • its own implicit and explicit ideology
  • that becomes and remains par of and significant within
  • the deliberations of literary criticism and the wanton, elaborate strategies
  • What Africanism became for, and how it functioned in, the literary imagination
  • the invention and development of whiteness
  • this large and compelling subject
  • in matters of race, silence and evasion
  • instinct argues against noticing and forecloses adult discourse
  • literary and scholarly moeurs
  • terminated the shelf life of some once extremely well-regarded American authors and blocked access

The singular feature of the formations is yoking, the joining by use of the conjunction and.  If one isolated and for notice in reading Playing in the Dark, its use might seem excessive. What does such highlighting of the possibility of joining at the syntactic level suggest?  Is her procedure use to stress the importance of reflection and critique of the enabling and disabling functions of American English: its assumed ability to mark categories, hierarchies, sameness, difference, unification, definition, to represent truths and confirm and disconfirm beliefs with lies?

        In calling attention to selectivity and avoidance (with a nod toward ignorance and not knowing), Morrison does not seek to persuade by rational argument and cold logic.  She will bedazzle with conjoined rhetorical moves.  The conjunctions to some extent ensure our interest in a project which always remains a centimeter beyond grasp.  Metaphoric force is dominant in what seems at first glance to be critical prose.  Morrison’s persuasion is poetic.

        The mode of persuasion does not diminish its meaning or significance, but it does set out more clearly where and how Morrison would have us look for the underexplored and the unsaid in American literature.  It locates where we should look for the constructing element of any “implied contract” we elect to have with Morrison and other writers as novelists or as critics. The site for exploration in her critical statements is conjunction.  As that grammatical item functions syntactically, we confront the apodictic: synthesis is never sufficient. And as we turn from the critic to the novelist, we eventually confront calculated spaces of absence in Morrison’s fictions. If Sherman Alexie and Leslie Marmon Silko were reading Morrison’s novels, they might legitimately ask if the African American literary imagination deliberately erases the presence of indigenous peoples in its production of literature.  Does blackness like whiteness demand the annihilation of redness? And Alexie’s question would have the greater weight, because he has acknowledged Robert Johnson in Reservation Blues.

        Given the primacy of “race” in the United States, Morrison’s third essay (“disturbing nurses and the kindness of sharks”) in Playing in the Dark is especially on time and on target.  There she pursues race as metaphor in the primal play of color.  The idea that Africanism (invention of Africa and Africans) has come to have metaphysical necessity but has not lost its ideological utility (64) is frustratingly complex.  Is metaphysical necessity a kind of anti-matter philosophical glue?

        Morrison’s identification of linguistic strategies we should watch for is most enlightening:

1.       economy of stereotype

2.       metonymic displacement – ex. “bad hair”

3.       metaphysical condensation  -- collapsing into universal differences

4.       fetishization

5.       dehistoricizing allegory

6.       patterns of explosive, disjointed, repetitive language  (67-69)

After carefully illustrating how these strategies work in the writings of Ernest Hemingway, the John Wayne of American letters, Morrison concludes we ought not ignore the disrupting darkness: “All of us, readers and writers, are bereft when criticism remains too polite or too fearful to notice a disrupting darkness before its eyes” (91). At the deepest frequencies, Morrison called for literary discourses that are more truthful about creative and critical practices.

                Morrison hints at but does not directly address what the omni-responsible American writer might do, but one can conclude that she is exceptionally responsible in her concern for the aesthetic, political, and social consequences of American English.  And her eloquent prose poetry urges us all to be so responsible.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

October 22, 1996/August 10, 2011




Saturday, August 6, 2011

Introduction for Lance Jeffers's Novel

Jeffers, Lance.  Witherspoon. Atlanta: The George A. Flippin Press, 1983.



INTRODUCTION

Such Agonies Suffer Our Men of War



                Reading Witherspoon, one is moved by its aesthetic and its morality.  Lance Jeffers does not depend on mutilation of language, allusion to the arcane, or puzzles in logic to achieve effects.  He is too good and too honest an artist to engage in easy tricks.  He knows, as wordsmiths have known since the pre-history of Africa, that a good story told in language the community can understand is not to be surpassed.  The grace and strength of fiction are located in its ability to show us our lives with more order, insight, and clarity than we can normally obtain.   Good fiction pushes us toward recognition, toward a profound, relentless honesty about ourselves and others.  It forces us to make moral decisions while satisfying our penchant for narratives about man’s endless contest with the fate of being human.  Because it fulfills these criteria superbly, Witherspoon is a fine, important novel.

                In the poem “When I Know the Power of My Black Hand,” Jeffers wrote:

I see my children stunted,

my young men slaughtered,

I do not know the mighty power of my hand.



I see the power over my life and death in

another man’s hands, and sometimes

I shake my wooly head and wonder:

                Lord have mercy! What would it be like…to be free?



                Lucius Witherspoon, James Corwul, and Willie Armstrong are characters who, in varying degrees, come to know the power of their black hands, their interrelated life-stories being metonymic: the essence of Black life and the complexity of Black male psychology in the South are compressed in their ability or inability to assert power.  Through these characters, Jeffers examines what it means to be unempowered and how Black men and women do possess the inner strength (and latent social power) to be great and human without ambivalence.  Witherspoon does not seek to tell what it would be like to be Black, free, and Southern.  It shows what the unsung heroes among ordinary Black folk must do to achieve individual and collective freedom.  And what they must do involves tragedy and love, the willingness to push one’s humanity to irreversible extremes, and determination to stare death straight in the eye.  Black people, especially Black men, will know the power of their hands when they know themselves totally.

                Witherspoon does not validate how we are now, nor does it evade the Black man’s critical problem of confronting, in the words of Robert Staples, “the contradiction between the normative expectations attached to being male in this society and the proscriptions on [his] behavior and achievement of goals.”  With the skill of a surgeon, Jeffers performs an operation in the underexplored depths of Black male psychology.  Therefore, he enables us to discover the agonies suffered by our men of war and the long journey they and we must take to find psychological freedom.  The great achievement of Witherspoon is the destruction of the historical and social myths behind which men try to mask.

                Evoking the wisdom of the spirituals (a fact apparent in the novel’s original title The Lord is a Man of War), Lance Jeffers has given us fiction that is convertive and blacktrocuting.  In its affirmation that descent into the inferno of racism leads to rising like a phoenix, Witherspoon offers to us the grandeur that is ours.  Witherspoon is the sorrow song of our new day, the martial song for Black men who would know the power of their hands.  It is an ode to the invisible men and women whose authentic humanity must become the model of our lives.

                                                                                                                                Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

                                                                                                                                Tougaloo College

                                                                                                                                May 3, 1982