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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.

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