Black Southern Voices Revisited
Grandt, Jürgen E. Shaping Words to Fit the Soul: The Southern Ritual Grounds of Afro-Modernism.
Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2009.
In his introduction for the anthology Black Southern Voices (1992), John Oliver Killens quoted an observation Richard Wright made in 12 Million Black Voices: “…you usually take us for granted and think you know us, but our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we are not what we seem”(3). Killens knew, and Grandt has learned by virtue of highly principled scholarship, that it is suicidal to take Black South cultural expressions for granted. One valuable function of Shaping Words to Fit the Soul is its reminding post-whatever literary theorists and critics that history is not dead, that recovering histories is a crucial gesture in interpretation.
Grandt’s exploration of Afro-modernism ( in the sense that Houston A. Baker, Jr. articulates that concept in Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance ) led him to examine it as “modernism with a historical conscience” and, thus, to avoid being hit by the boomerang of post-modernism. Grandt is as savvy as any post-modernist I know, but he exercises remarkable common sense in reconfiguring “southern ritual grounds as situated in time and mind rather than in time and place”(9). The key word is mind. Indeed, such Black South writers as Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, and Tayari Jones are noteworthy for how they have artfully inscribed their minds upon the page. Overmuch attention to the mythology of Southern place obscures the genius of their artistry.
Grandt makes a fine contribution to Wright studies in Chapter 3 --- “Roll Call: Richard Wright’s ‘Long Black Song’ and the Betrayal of Music.” I urge Wright scholars to revitalize historical conscience by reading all of Shaping Words to Fit the Soul and giving special attention to the chapter on Wright. Grandt makes a good case for reconfiguring how we study the clash and cooperation of genres in Black South cultural expressions, including the contemporary hip hop representations of the “Dirty South.” But what he does in his commentary on “Long Black Song” is invaluable, because it validates the unending quest for the pre-future in our study of Richard Wright. Read Shaping Words to Fit the Soul and be renewed.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
April 4, 2012