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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Research Works Act

Why do Congresspeople use such inept rhetorical strategies?




To ensure the continued publication and integrity of peer-reviewed research

works by the private sector.


ECEMBER 16, 2011

Mr. Issa (for himself and Mrs. MALONEY) introduced the following bill; which

was referred to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform


To ensure the continued publication and integrity of peerreviewed

research works by the private sector.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representa2

tives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


This Act may be cited as the ‘‘Research Works Act’’.


No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain,

continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or

other activity that—

(1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dis10

semination of any private-sector research work with-

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out the prior consent of the publisher of such work;


(2) requires that any actual or prospective au4

thor, or the employer of such an actual or prospec

tive author, assent to network dissemination of a

private-sector research work.


In this Act:

(1) AUTHOR.—The term ‘‘author’’ means a per10

son who writes a private-sector research work. Such

term does not include an officer or employee of the

United States Government acting in the regular

course of his or her duties.


‘‘network dissemination’’ means distributing, making

available, or otherwise offering or disseminating a

private-sector research work through the Internet or

by a closed, limited, or other digital or electronic

network or arrangement.


term ‘‘private-sector research work’’ means an arti22

cle intended to be published in a scholarly or sci

entific publication, or any version of such an article,

that is not a work of the United States Government

(as defined in section 101 of title 17, United States

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HR 3699 IH

Code), describing or interpreting research funded in

whole or in part by a Federal agency and to which

a commercial or nonprofit publisher has made or has

entered into an arrangement to make a value-added

contribution, including peer review or editing. Such

term does not include progress reports or raw data

outputs routinely required to be created for and sub8

mitted directly to a funding agency in the course of



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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Keynote address for MCTE

October 7, 2011

WE SHALL ENDURE AND PREVAIL: An English Teacher’s Manifesto

                Events quite beyond our immediate control have thrown us into varying states of anxiety about our lives, about the institutions in which we practice our vocation of teaching language and literature, and about the possible shapes that a future might assume.  We are deeply concerned about change, the seemingly irrevocable relocations and dislocations that we must experience from one day to the next. Whether we teach in the public schools or in colleges, we are required now to be more accountable not only for the quality of our pedagogical efforts but also for measurable student outcomes.  The onus is placed on our shoulders.  If large numbers of our students fail to perform well on tests mandated by our institutions, we are blamed. Student failure is rarely attributed to the possibility that many students are inattentive and enthralled by the temptations readily provided by the Internet, i-phones, and “social networking” (text-messaging, Facebook and so forth) .  They are very comfortable with the paradox of active passivity encouraged by new technologies and uncomfortable or alienated by the discipline and focusing demanded by forms of instruction which are not thoroughly integrated with and imitative of the current technologies.  To be successful teachers in contemporary realms of young, pre-occupied minds, we are often asked to compromise or abandon any art of teaching that is predicated on face-to-face social communication between one human being and another.  It is understandable that many of us teachers are experiencing the pains of future shock as our doubts increase that efforts “to create out of the materials of the human spirit” have a viable future.

                Slightly less than sixty-one years ago, William Faulkner, one of the great writers of Mississippi,  had the obligation of considering a world where many ignorant armies clashed by day and night in the post World War II ambience of the Cold War.  The dominant fear at that time, at the beginning of the 1950s, was the threat of nuclear disaster.  Human life on earth, or a very significant portion of it, might reach a terminal point as particles in a mushroom cloud.  Perhaps a very small number of us can still recall pamphlets on civil defense and information booklets on how to create and stock bomb shelters. The threat of annihilation then seemed more profoundly frightening than does the threat of rampant terrorism in the twenty-first century.  In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature on December 10, 1950, Faulkner was adamant in believing that human beings could bear the threat and that they must teach themselves “that the basest of all things is to be afraid.”  Great writers often supply us with insights that transcend accidents of time and location.  And I am very much convinced we can profit from listening yet again to the words in the final two paragraphs of Faulkner’s Nobel banquet speech and what they say about “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself“:

Until he relearns these things , he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man.  I decline to accept the end of man.  It is easy enough to say that man is immortal  simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this.  I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.  He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.  The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.  It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.  The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Faulkner’s optimist, compelling, and moving sentiments from sixty years in the past deserve to be recycled into words appropriate for the complex conditions that Mississippi’s teachers of English must grapple with in 2011.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Telling a Story

Wright and Ironic History

                The second paragraph of Wright’s “Foreword” to 12 Million Black Voices (1941) neatly exposes problems associated with joining “folk” and “history” to write a “folk history” which is illuminated by selected photographs.  The book’s subtitle, A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, urges us to think about matters of class and genre classification more attentively than we might were the subtitle simply “A History of the Negro in the United States.” History, even oral history, is fairly commonplace; folk history is somewhat rare.

                Just as W. E. B. DuBois chose to write about The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and The Gift of Black Folk (1924), Wright made the choice to write about “folk” rather than “people.”  No doubt, DuBois and Wright sought to evoke sympathetic responses from readers, and in Wright’s case readers/spectators. Yet, the grounds of sympathy depend less on common dictionary meanings of “folk” than on class-oriented connotations of “folk.”  To some extent, the sympathy either writer could evoke was linked to what Jerome Bruner describes in Act of Meaning (1990) as folk psychology,” a system by which people organize their experiences in, knowledge about, and transactions with the social world” (35).

In 1903, DuBois used genteel prose to cast light on “sons of night who must plod darkly or in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone,” because from the vantage of turn-of-the-century white historiography it was difficult to grasp how “since Emancipation, the black man’s turning hither and thither in hesitant and doubtful striving has often made his very strength to lose effectiveness, to seem like absence of power, like weakness” (“Of Our Spiritual Strivings”). Attending to qualities of the “folk” in 1924, DuBois sought to “spread the splendid sordid truth that out of the most lowly and persecuted of men, Man made America” (“Prescript”).  Seventeen years later, Wright used poetic prose and photographs to deal with “splendid sordid truth.”  Given his intellectual class-orientation and identification with the Talented Tenth, DuBois’s historical writing about   the “folk” came from an angle of privilege and exceptionalism. Wright, on the other hand, embraced a Marxist proletarian concept of “folk” in writing their history, which was subjectively his story.

                Wright assumed “those few Negroes who have lifted themselves… above the lives of their fellow-blacks…are but fleeting exceptions to that vast, tragic school that swims below in the depths….It is not, however, to celebrate or exalt the plight of the humble folk who swim in the depths that I select the conditions of their lives as examples of normality, but rather to seize upon that which is qualitative and abiding in Negro experience….” (Twelve Million 5).  Like DuBois, Wright had lifted himself, and according to the logic of his design, neither he nor DuBois belonged to the circle of what was abiding. His use of “we” and “our” throughout the text of the book calls attention to irony, the irony of writing from varying degrees of distance about the unfolding story of fellow-blacks.

                As we read 12 Million Black Voices and DuBois’s books about black folk from the perspectives of the twenty-first century, we may be rewarded with a peculiar recognition: language chosen to create history is a remarkable instrument for simultaneous inclusion and exclusion.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Comments for My Chinese Colleagues

African American LiteratureCultural TraditionLiterary Creation


Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Professor of English at Dillard University (U.S.A.), is a literary critic, poet, essayist, and Richard Wright scholar. His special interests include literary theory and criticism, oral history, African American literature, and aesthetics. He compiled and edited Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry (1997). He has co-edited Redefining American Literary History (1990), Black Southern Voices (1992), The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008), and The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011). His book THE KATRINA PAPERS: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (2008) has received critical acclaim for its unique perspectives.

The Cambridge History of African American Literature (CHAAL) has a goal that may seem radical within the tradition of writing literary histories. Beyond presenting a fairly complete chronological description of African American literature in the United States (1600 to 2005), this reference work seeks to illustrate how the literature comprises orature (oral literature) and printed texts simultaneously. The role of utterance or speech is not necessarily secondary to the role of writing or inscription. They are interlocked frequencies of a single formal phenomenon. Increasingly, literary historians are beginning to recognize that writers are not the sole shapers of literature, that people who are not usually deemed citizens in the republic of letters must not be ignored in the interweavings of literature, imagination, and literacy. [O1] Thus, we must give attention to the roles of publishers, editors, academic circles, and mass media reviewers in shaping textual forms, literary reputations and literary tastes.”

Toomer’s individual artistic effort to defy the obliterating effects of change [O2] ought to be taken up again as humanistic essays that speak to consciousness of who we Southern Americans are and who we are becoming. His project on the History of Black Writing has been much delayed, because it is not easy to simultaneously affirm the status of race as a bogus, non-scientific, historical classification scheme with many implication and to confirm the overwhelming power, pervasiveness in America, and permanence of race as currency in the economy of American democracy. Of course, truth –telling and lying exist in all regions of our nation, but in the South truth and lies seem to be more magnified, more mythologized, than elsewhere.

I anchor my provocation in an edgy hypothesis: Were race and slavery not the germinating soul of Southern thought (and the burden for many early Black writers to bear), there would not be a Southern tradition as we know it. Nor would there a need to endlessly justify a region so obviously postlapsarian. I am proposing, of course, that the historical formation of Southern region and tradition is grounded in notions of privilege, skin privilege, compromised notions of freedom and justice, traffic in human beings as tools of production, the cultivation of hatreds of all colors, the oddities of class, aristocratic fictions, and patronizing attitudes. Present in the mix of historical formation are counter-discourses from the unempowered, the writers who inscribed alternative forms of power and made it clear that being named “slave” was an act of language rather than a confirmation of essence and being-in-this-world. It’s an on-going challenge for a black native Southern person like myself to take in all the wonderful things about being a Southerner, because I wouldn’t choose to be anything else. But I also live with the legacy of what that culture thinks of me, says about me, has treated me, my family and my ancestors. And partly because of the struggle that we’ve had here in the South as African American people, I feel as if we’ve bought our birth right to be Southerners. We have a right to say whoever we want to say we are. I do think of myself as a Southern writer. What else would I be? (636)

Although certain racial and color frames of reference pre-date the founding of the American colonies and a vigorous Atlantic slave trade, these frames are prominent in the writing of our nation’s founding documents and lend much credibility to Charles Mills’ extended critique of American social contract theory, The Racial Contract (Cornell UP, 1997). Obviously, specialized studies of the writing of founding documents reveal how instrumental white Southern delegates were to shaping final drafts. Two very brief, eloquent historical meditations on founding give more support to my radical speculations. Gary B. Nash’s The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (Harvard UP, 2006) focuses mainly on how Northern blacks participated in forming ideas regarding citizenship, equality of opportunity during the Revolution and in the early years of the Republic. And Nash reminds us that the black Southern writer David Walker alarmed the nation and particularly the South with his 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, where his use of the word “citizens” exposes the maximum hypocrisy of the word “citizen” in the U. S. Constitution. David Waldstreicher’s very principled examination of writing and reasoning in Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (Hill and Wang, 2009) leads to a rather stunning conclusion about Southern tradition and why nothing in the original U. S. Constitution “could be disentangled from slavery” (157) Nash using the excuse that slavery was God’s will (just as Black writers counter-argued in essays, abolition speeches, and narrative of enslavement that white Christians were in violation of God’s will), the makers of the “Confederate Constitution mimicked the Constitution of 1787….To compromise once again in 1861, either side would have had to give up not just slavery, or antislavery, but also its constitution: its written political order. In this sense, slavery did not itself cause the Civil War: Slavery’s Constitution did” (157).

A different assertion that drives me to provoke is one Fred Hobson made in Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain (LSU Press, 1983). Agreeing with C. Vann Woodward that “there is no one more quintessentially Southern than the Southern Negro” and claiming Southern blacks are most entitled to a rage to explain, Hobson denies the entitlement to Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison on the thin ground that treatment of their rage must be “a book in itself” (12-13). [O3] With faint praise, he excludes black rage from the telling.[O4]  Imagine my making a study of Southern autobiography and  excluding [O5] Eudora Welty and Willie Morris because their autobiographies can only be done justice in a book! [O6] It[O7]  demands explanation of the exclusive representation of black writers in Black Southern Voices (1992) and demands a fuller examination of motives for representation from either side of the black/white binary to expose the Southern component of a broader African American literary tradition; it demands inquiry about exclusion itself, the absence of black voices in early anthologies of Southern literature and the presence of some of those voices in The Literature of the American South (1998).

“In my examination of African American responses to modernity, I sought to specify how the deep structures of black responses are different in degree and kind from typical American responses. The discursive or rhetorical intentions are remarkably different. Thus, I invoked “situatedness” and “significance” as discriminating factors between minority or ethnic postures and majority strategies. African American responses to modernity were different in degree and kind is predicated on the belief that the change we call “modernity” is not a unity but a rather diverse confluence of attitudes. Imagine two trains moving on parallel tracks. Both are headed toward a destination named MODERNITY, but the trains are moving in opposite directions. Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes are on Train A. T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway are riding on train B. While Hurston’s fictions and Hughes’ poetry were radically different in style from the works of African American writers of the late nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century, Hurston and Hughes did not seek to renounce values and traditions that evolved among enslaved black people. On the other hand, Eliot’s poetry is a rejection of the democratic poetics of Walt Whitman. Hemingway’s unadorned prose in fiction turns its back on the nuanced examples of William Dean Howells and the vernacular humor of Mark Twain. These four American writers are making literature new, modern. Nevertheless, Hurston and Hughes infuse their works with folklore and folk talk, blues and jazz to maintain intimacy with their ethnic group; the notion of intimacy is remote in the thinking of Eliot and Hemingway, and it is immediately clear that neither of these men understood the importance of his American ethnicity. Ann Douglas provides an enlightening perspective on American modernity in Terrible Honesty (New York: Noonday, 1995): “Hurston, Hughes, and many other black artists of the 1920s built their art on the extended kinship configurations of African-American religious and social life as surely as leaders of white literary modernism like Eliot and Hemingway built theirs on the nuclear model of Northeastern theological and social expression”(96). Douglas helps us to understand that the objectives in being modern were vastly different for blacks and for whites.”

From an African American perspective, literary globalization might pertain to efforts to discover connections among writers of African-descent throughout the world. If we had a genuine global perspective, African American literature would probably be viewed as a unique, catalytic feature of what we think American literature is. In his later works, especially his non-fiction travel writings, Richard Wright tried to express the importance of global thinking and critical analysis of transnational dynamics during the Cold War period in world history. Black Power (1954), for example, represents Wright’s profound inquiries about a dying colonialism and struggles for independence from British rule in the Gold Coast (now the nation of Ghana). Yet, the book is instructive about the misunderstandings and misreadings that occur when outsiders think they have something to say to the insiders of cultures remarkably different from the culture or society the outsider is most familiar with. Wright subtitled his book “A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos,” which was a strong signal about his attitudes towards African peoples. He wanted them to be Western. Likewise, some proponents of globalization urge us to minimize the importance of cultural histories or national boundaries; they wish for us to become dreamy idealists like themselves. Their posturing is akin to Wright’s in 1954 and slightly dangerous. The possibility of globalization is the central idea in The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956), but what I find most striking about that book is Wright’s uncanny prediction that religious fanaticism might lead to the forms of terrorism that plague us today. Two of the four essays Wright chose to include in White Man, Listen! (1957)[U8]  deal with topics that are still relevant in discussions of globalization. [O9] Thus, without making unwarranted claims about Wright and globalization, I suggest that some of his disconcerting questions are good models for our contemporary research and analyses about world affairs.

Perhaps the writers will decide to write less about slavery and more about the tragic aspects of alienation. Just as Richard Wright and Ann Petry sought to expose some of the dreadful problems of living in cities, we might anticipate more works that engage urban issues with the relentlessness of Sapphire’s PUSH (1996) and Carl Hancock Rux’s Asphalt (2004). The future of African American literature will be strongly influenced by how it adapts new technologies and complex mixed genres, modes, or forms to address human concerns. That future will be partially determined by the rapid changes in the literary marketplace and by the desires of consumers (emerging readers) and by the work that scholars are willing to do by way of using interdisciplinary methodologies to critique new kinds of literature, and determined by how the electronic revolution affects the reading and interpretation of old and new texts. The future of African American literature and all literature is quite subject to the conditions that will obtain in the new global order of things that we have already begun to inhabit.

I can speak only about academic circles in Wuhan, Nanjing, and Beijing, the places where I have had rich and rewarding exchanges with my Chinese colleagues and their students. I find that in these circles, the efforts to expand knowledge about the entire historical range of African American literature and culture is very disciplined and very serious. Indeed, I will be bold enough to say that there is honesty in these efforts that I do not often find in my own country. The special cultural idioms and nuances of the language used by some African American writers do present a major challenge to Chinese readers who have learned either Standard American English or British English. The effort to understand requires patience and hard work, especially if the Chinese reader is dealing with eighteenth and nineteenth century African American writing. And it may not be much easier to read twentieth and twenty-first century works that exploit certain African American uses of language. Even native speakers of English may have difficulty with slang, regional variations in dialect, and the more extreme forms of signifying. I do not know how thoroughly slave narratives have been studied in China, but they too deserve much attention. They are foundation texts for African American autobiographies and for works of fiction that try to render what we might call “subcutaneous” examinations of enslavement and oppression. For the sake of understanding change and continuity in the writings of African Americans, it is crucial to ask whether earlier works do indeed inform the choices made by contemporary writers. I believe very strongly that Chinese scholars will make noteworthy contributions to the study of African American literature by combining Chinese perspectives with Houston A. Baker, Jr.’s impressive discussions in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (1984), with the forms of inquiry made possible by eco-criticism, and with John Ernest’s very useful suggestions in Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History (2009). I want to make it very clear that I do not advocate the dismissal of European and Euro-American critical stances. What I do recommend is that Chinese academic circles be forums where the arrogant hegemony and imperialism of those stances are displaced by progressive, liberating ways of knowing and seeing..

 [O1]CHANGE THE WORDING TO: ….must not be ignored in our studies of the complex body of works we call literature.
 [O2]CHANGE THE WORDING TO: Jean Toomer’s individual artistic effort in Cane (1923) to preserve features of Black cultural expression that were disappearing from American life ought to be taken up…
 [O3]Hobson refuses to include commentary on Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison; he seeks to justify their exclusion by arguing that their rage must be “a book in itself” (12-13).
 [O4]CHANGE TO: Hobson excludes any discussion of the rage Wright and Ellison possessed from his book.
 [O5]Insert this word
 [O6]…Willie Morris on the grounds that their autobiographies can only be adequately studied in a separate book!
 [O7]The position Hobson adopted thus demands explanation of the exclusive representation of black writers in …;
 [U8]What is the relationship between the four essays and White Man, Listen!?
 [O9]Response to Comment [U7] above. Delete this sentence and insert  the following:  Among the four essays that Wright chose to include in White Man, Listen! (1957), two of them ---“The Psychological Reactions of Oppressed People” and “Tradition and Industrialization” ---deal with topics that are still relevant in discussions of globalization.  It is reasonable to think that we would be less anxious about globalization if we did not have to deal with post-colonial history, with forms of resentment that former colonized people may still express in the 21st century, and with failures some former colonies to abandon indigenous tradition and wholeheartedly embrace Western industrialization. Thus, without making unwarranted claims about Wright and globalization, I suggest that some of his disconcerting questions are good models for our contemporary research and analyses about world affairs.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Mr. Ramcat's Poem

Lawd today! Mr. Ramcat just had a radical fit and fell into a post-black hole and wrote what he calls a transportation poem:


Moving Africans rapidly through Atlanta

Africans moving Atlanta rapidly through

Rapidly Atlanta moving through Africans

Through Africa Africans moving rapidly

Atlanta through Africans rapidly moving

Jeremiah Ramcat
January 14, 2012
10:37 p.m.

If you are able to figure out what he is up to, please let me know.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Nostalgia for Ancient Research

Even as I urge my undergraduate students to engage the "digital humanities," my conscience is troubled: for whom or for what might I be serving as a blind agent?  My generation did research by retrieving information from bibliographies, library card catalogs, and printed texts. There was a semblance of transparency in old-fashioned research.  Piles of index cards made it fairly easy to ascertain what sources were used in constructing an essay.  The labor involved in research seemed to encourage honesty. Although one might have been transmitting agendas that were cleverly embedded in one's sources, a careful researcher eventually developed a keen eye for discrepancies among sources.  The authors quoted or paraphrased seemed to be rather forthcoming about their values and prejudices.  Most often, ethics was not divorced from rhetoric, and the illusion of clarity was powerful.  Rhetors tended to expose the skeletons of persuasion.

 All that has changed in the 21st century.  One is left with nostalgia for a past that never really existed.  Memory has a peculiar habit of falsifying the past.  The past was not necessarily as happy and trouble-free as our reports to the present pretend.  Yes, we had our blind spots; yes, we honored autority more than our own agency. Now, authority is a cruel joke. Strange reasoning is used to justify intellectual theft, the same reasoning used in the virgin days of hip hop sampling to decriminalize stealing James Brown's music.  Nostalgia, you are an artificial sweetner.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Here is my initial response to What Was African American Literature? as it was published in ChickenBones:  It is a prelude to a much longer critique I will prepare for my colleagues in China, especially since Yukuo Wang (Nanjing) will soon be writing his commentary on the book.

One Function of Speculation in African American Literary History

By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Predictions about the end of African American literature pivot on definitions of what is African American and on who is making the definition. Such predictions are odd but not new. Addressing European audiences in “The Literature of the Negro in the United States,” Richard Wright argued that “the Negro is America’s metaphor” and that what the metaphor signaled was a nervous, “constant striving for identity.” The striving would cease when Negro writers were as intimately immersed in their cultures as Alexander Dumas, Alexander Pushkin, and Phyllis Wheatley had been in theirs.
Wright sought to persuade his auditors that should a complete “merging of Negro expression with American expression” occur, the blending would be a sufficient reason for the actual “disappearance of Negro literature as such.”
Let us assume that Wright was using in the 1950s a meaning of “Negro literature” rather different than the one he sketched in “Blueprint for Negro Writing” (1937), a meaning adjusted by the political realities of publishing. Wright’s inclusion of his lecture in White Man Listen! (1957) was strategic. What had been listened to as a lesson in literature would consequently be read as a political statement. The political dimension was accomplished by its linking with lectures on the psychological reaction of oppressed people, ideas about the future of tradition and industrialization, and conclusions about nationalism in the Gold Coast (Ghana). Wright turned a spotlight on the indivisibility of culture and cultural expression, reifying notions about base and superstructure which still causes some twenty-first century literary historians to squirm. For them, the implicit Marxism of Wright’s assertions is poison ivy.
Without claiming that Kenneth W. Warren’s recent essay “Does African-American Literature Exist?” in The Chronicle of Higher Education is indebted to Wright, we can provisionally identify Warren’s thinking as an effort to bring affirmative closure to Wright’s speculation. Warren had been cautious when he asserted in The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011) that “despite the waning of overt forms of racial oppression we are still far from the moment when race can be declared a null force on the American social scene” (p. 743). But when in the Chronicle essay Warren asks us to believe that African American literature is “just a little more than a century old” and “has already come to an end,” we must be skeptical about what his understanding of history entails.
Is he being simply tendentious or complexly humorous in wearing a mask that grins in a convex mirror? It seems unlikely that a serious literary historian or critic would locate the origins of African American literature in the twentieth century unless she or he intends to signify on the rhetorical stance of LeRoi Jones’s 1962 essay “Myth of a Negro Literature” or on Wright’s lecture from the Cold War period. One result of such signifying is deflection from genuine efforts to struggle with convoluted issues in literary history. We can be led astray by hubris, hyperbole, and the entertainment aspects of rhetorical performance.
Through their engagements with how literature and politics are linked in cultural discourses, Wright and Warren offer valuable but remarkably different lessons for writers of African American literary history. Wright was fairly clear about his agency and his primary audience. Warren’s agency, on the other hand, depends on the generosity of an audience constituted by probability. Wright did not suggest that the merging “Negro” and “American” expressions was necessary and sufficient warrant for murdering an ethnic literature and transmitting the body to a morgue. Such an act would result in the death of American literature(s) whose ontological being is dependent on diversity in unity and obligate literary historians to become cultural archaeologists. As literary historians read Warren’s essay, they ought to be most attentive to how energizing and bamboozling premature predictions can be.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Aesthetic/Aesthetics/The (…..) Aesthetic:

A Note for Emerging Scholars and Critics


1798, from Ger. Ästhetisch or Fr. esthétique, both from Gk. aisthetikos "sensitive, perceptive," from aisthanesthai "to perceive (by the senses or by the mind), to feel," from PIE *awis-dh-yo-, from base *au- "to perceive" (see audience).

Popularized in English by translation of Immanuel Kant, and used originally in the classically correct sense "the science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception." Kant had tried to correct the term after Alexander Baumgarten had taken it in German to mean "criticism of taste" (1750s), but Baumgarten's sense attained popularity in English c.1830s (despite scholarly resistance) and removed the word from any philosophical base. Walter Pater used it (1868) to describe the late 19c. movement that advocated "art for art's sake," which further blurred the sense. Related: Aesthetically.

From Online Etymology Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary also targets the classical sense of the word in its English translation --- “things perceptible by the senses, things material (as opposed to…things thinkable or immaterial), also perceptive, sharp in the senses.”  How wise was Herbert Spenser to proclaim in 1872 that “To deal fully with the psychology of aesthetics is out of the question.”

                Forty years ago, Addison Gayle did try to restore the wonderful impossibility of the question in his remarks on the mind-opening project of the Black Arts Movement/Black Aesthetic.  In the introduction to the anthology The Black Aesthetic (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), Gayle thought few would disagree with “the idea that unique experiences produce unique cultural artifacts, and that art is a product of such cultural experiences.  To push this thesis to its logical conclusion, unique art derived from unique cultural experiences mandates unique critical tools for evaluation.  Further than this, agreement need not go!”(xxiv).  Gayle’s percussive use of “unique” made sense, because he used it in the orbit of a powerful unifying myth of “the black community.”  The myth was an atom.  It was smashed in the 1980s, its sub-atomic particles flying into the incomprehensible diaspora of thought that has neither color nor material referents, that belongs to everyone and no one.

                Against the shameless academic posturing in talk about the aesthetic and fear of saying that people do indeed have uncountable perceptions of music, genres of writing, dramatic performance,  visual expressions and the multiple blendings thereof within and across cultures, we ought to reinvest in the stardust of Cheikh Anta  Diop’s saying in the very first sentence of his introduction to The Cultural Unity of Black Africa/L’Unite Culturelle De L’Afrique Noire (1959; Chicago: Third World Press, 1978) that he had tried “to bring out the profound cultural unity still alive  beneath the deceptive appearance of cultural heterogeneity”(7).  Diop’s project was one in totalizing historical sociology; Gayle’s, a critique of the bad faith, pseudo-universality and bid for hegemony implicit in Western and Euro-American uses of “aesthetics” (the concept) to project an ideology pertaining to privileged ideas of beauty and art.  Critical reinvestment (reflection ) may allow better identification of who is crawling back into the womb of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind ( New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) and who is walking out of the cave of Plato’s indispensible allegory to learn something from Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993), Trudier Harris’s Saints, Sinners, Saviors (New York: Palgrave, 2001), Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981)and from what Cornel West proposes about “substantive intellectual vigor” in The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).

                Genuine progress in the study of African American literature(s)  and culture (s), which is now the burden of scholars born after 1980, does pivot, in large measure, on using the stern discipline and tao of imagination, the connecting metaphoric capabilities of “the science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception,” the science which is unashamed of confessing its limits, its ideological, sex, gender and ethnic prejudices, and uncertainties as well as exposing its findings to scrutiny. It pivots on sustained thought about what Carolyn Fowler meant in her introductory essay “By Way of Preface: Balancing on the Brink” for Black Arts and Black Aesthetics (1976; Atlanta: First World, 1981) in this assertion: “The term ‘the black aesthetic’ can be subsumed under black aesthetics. The former is a philosophical stance; the latter attempts to trace the history of philosophical stances.  Black aesthetics, because it is historical, is non-exclusive” (v).

Beneath the ocean of chaos that is the twenty-first century, something unique, human, and healing is still alive and awaiting principled commentary from pre-future scholars and critics.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 6, 2012