African American Literature and Southern Tradition
Interview with Professor Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Introduction: 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 on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2005. His works-in-progress include Reading Race Reading America: Literary and Social Essays and Richard Wright: One Reader’s Responses. This interview was conducted by email over several months in 2010. In this interview, Ward comments on several of his 2010 lectures for Chinese universities and makes speculations about the current research on and trends in the development of African American literature.
Jiang: Just now you talked about the African American Literature’s response to the modernity, and you also said the “black responses are different in degree and kind from typical American responses”? Can you give us some examples?
Ward：My saying that 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.
Jiang: In your lecture “Recent African American Studies”，you have talked about literary globalization, what do you think of it? From the African American perspective, what does the literary globalization mean? From a global perspective, what is the African American literature? You are specialized in Richard Wright, therefore, if it is possible, can you take Richard Wright and his works as an example to discuss the problem of globalization?
Ward: 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. [e1] Wright subtitled his book “A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos,” which was a strong signal about his attitudes towards African peoples.[e2] 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), “The Psychological Reactions of Oppressed People” and “Tradition and Industrialization,” deal with topics that are still relevant in discussions of globalization. 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.
Jiang: What are the trends and characteristics of the African-American authors’ creation? What are the trends and characteristics of the study on the African American literature?
Ward: The first question can be answered adequately if and only if a person has done a great amount of work in the sociology of contemporary African American literature. I have not yet done such work and can only speculate about trends and characteristics. It is fair to assume that African American writers will continue to deal with the primal themes that have been of interest to people throughout recorded history. Perhaps the writers will decide to write less about slavery and more about the tragic aspects of alienation as James Cherry has done in Shadow of Light (2007) or the bittersweet humor of alienation as we find it represented in Platitudes (1988) by Trey Ellis. 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).Your second question requires more reading and assessment than I find time to do as I try to balance many projects. There is a very partial answer in my earlier remarks about recent African American studies. We should also consider how probable it is that we shall have more studies of how the electronic revolution affects the reading and interpretation of old and new texts. And there will be new examinations of tradition. I have begun to think about how very necessary it is to reexamine the evolution of African American literature under the influence of historical circumstances and of how ideas about literary evolution may be related to ideas about regional literature. Thus, I share with you the first stage of my work in progress on that subject matter.
Jiang: You said you have co-edited the book of The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011) in your introduction. Does it have some new ideas different from other’s history of African American Literature? Please introduce it for us.
Ward: Yes, The Cambridge History of African American Literature contains many new ideas.
Perhaps the best introduction is a paragraph that Maryemma Graham and I wrote in our 2004 prospectus for the book, the proposal we sent to Cambridge University Press. 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 reason is not far to seek. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. demonstrated in The Signifying Monkey, performance is one of the distinguishing features of African American literature. 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. 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. This project is a part of that emerging recognition. We do contend that a literary history of African American verbal expressions will make a stronger contribution to knowledge about literary production and reception if it exploits insights from Stephen Henderson’s theorizing in Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References and from Elizabeth McHenry’s claim that “to recover more fully the history of African American cultural production…we must be open to replacing our notion of a singular black literary tradition by attending to the many, diverse elements that form the groundwork of any tradition.”
Jiang: What do you think of the future of the African American literature?
Ward: 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. 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.
BLACK WRITERS ARE THE SOUTHERN TRADITION
In Cane (1923), Jean Toomer’s response to 20th century modernism’s tendency to be skeptical about the past, one poem that distills the project of Toomer’s collage and might inform artist, historical, and social consciousness about a sped-up future is “Song of the Son.” The speaker’s apostrophe to land, soil, and the dead is poignant, Romantic in a Wordworthian sense of moments to be recollected, and flush with yearning. The third, fourth, and fifth stanzas are germane to my concerns about the architects of Southern tradition.
In time, for though the sun is setting on
A song-lit race of slaves, it has not set;
Tough lat, O soil, it is not too late yet
To catch they plaintive soul, leaving, soon gone,
Leaving, to catch thy plaintive soul soon gone.
O Negro slaves, dark purple ripened plums,
Squeezed, and bursting in the pine-wood air,
Passing, before they stripped the old tree bare
One plum was saved for me, one seed becomes
An everlasting song, a singing tree,
Caroling softly souls of slavery,
What they were, and what they are to me,
Caroling softly souls of slavery.
Toomer’s poem is akin to such collective academic enterprises as that of the Project on the History of Black Writing (University of Kansas), whose mission is the recovery and documentation of “lost” or forgotten texts. The speaker in the poem wants to recover ethos and performance. The mission of poem and PHBW is to save for memory the songs about the song, the fruit, the plum and the seed. Toomer’s individual artistic effort to defy the obliterating effects of change ought, in my humble opinion, to be taken up again, not as poem or fiction or drama, but as humanistic essays that speak to consciousness of who we Southern Americans are and who we are becoming. In this sense, “Black Writers Are the Southern Tradition” is an essay not an academic paper.
The essay emerges from a larger project entitled Reading Race Reading America: Literary and Social Essays. My project has been much delayed, because it is not easy to redeem with many implications 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. Thus, my remarks are provocative and biased by choice as well as default.
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. Or, to bring language matters to the present day, it is a relief to hear Phyllis Alesia Perry, author of the novels Stigmata (1998) and A Sunday in June (2004), say in response to a question involving Alice Walker’s admonition that black writers must give voice to centuries of “silent bitterness and hate, but also of neighborly kindness and sustaining love” -----
I think that’s true. And 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)
[Duboin, Corinne. “Confronting the Specters of the Past, Writing the Legacy of Pain: An Interview with Phyllis Alesia Perry.” The Southern Quarterly 62.3-4 (2009): 633-653.
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 in 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) Waldstreicher discusses how the writers of the Confederate Constitution used 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), in order to “mimick 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). Waldstreicer’s final sentence is weak as explanation but effective as wake-up call!
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). With faint praise, he excludes black rage from the telling. Imagine my making a study of Southern autobiography and say I omit Eudora Welty and Willie Morris because their autobiographies can only be done justice in a book!
A full exposition of the black writer as the Southern tradition necessitates point-counter-point among John Smith, William Byrd, John Pendleton Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker; George Moses Horton and Henry Timrod; Harriet Jacobs, Mary Boykin Chestnut, Kate Chopin, Lillian Smith and Anna Julia Cooper: Booker T. Washington, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston; Allen Tate and Sterling Brown; James Agee and Richard Wright; Margaret Walker and Margaret Mitchell; Ellen Douglas, Dorothy Allison, and Alice Walker. It demands explanation of the exclusive representation of black writers in Black Southern Voices (1992) 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), a Norton anthology that strives for balance; it demands a fuller examination of motives for representation from either side of the black/white binary. Perhaps the topic does demand a book, but I am content to let someone with a longer life expectancy than I have do that work. I want to limit myself to the essay and to the limits of racial reading to be enlightened about Southerness and Americaness. It is a good choice, I think, for African American critics to comment on their stewardship of one plum and one seed. Otherwise, we shall constantly delay saying how the Southern components of African American traditions of writing are transmissions of profound love and profound hatred.
Jiang: Do you have an idea about study of the African American Literature in China? Can you give some suggestions to Chinese academics circles about the future of the African American Literature study?
Ward: 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. In the latter instance, one needs to be guided by the explanations of such a linguist as Geneva Smitherman or such a critic as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I do urge my Chinese colleagues, however, to give more attention to works by such early African American writers as David Walker, William Wells Brown, Fredrick Douglass, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sutton Griggs, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Pauline Hopkins, and Charles Chesnutt. 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. These are only a few of the many challenges Chinese scholars have in their study of African American literature. I am willing to help them, in such modest ways as I can, with this massive, long-term enterprise. 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 (particularly the wonderful insights about language in Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination (1981). 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. And I do hope that my Chinese colleagues will be receptive of my commitment to assist them with such work.