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Tuesday, February 28, 2012



Essay for COMING HOME TO MISSISSIPPI



OF BEING LIKE MY TREE



            I am an outsider/insider Mississippian, the subject of other people’s observations and the object of my reflections.  Born in Washington, D. C. in 1943, I was repatriated in the late fall of 1949 to Moss Point, my father’s hometown.  My six-year old self changed rapidly from being happy, care-free, and urban to being  town-trapped, sullen, and  confused.  I could not understand why having an ice cream cone in the local drugstore was forbidden. So, this was Mississippi.  A land of do-not-say-that and do-not-do-this.  I was too young to sense the invisible segregation of the nation’s capital and unprepared for the racism of the South and the permanent scar it would leave in my sensibility.

            Even a six-year old can have agency, however, even in 1950s Mississippi.  I chose to keep, as much as I could, the speech patterns of my brief years in the North. You do not have to talk like a Mississippian to be one.  I did not want to sound like my slow-talking cousins and older relatives, to sound like molasses creeping uphill on a cold day. The enervating drawl of the South did not appeal to me. I kept my vowels and my consonants and my distinct word-endings.  I was teased for sounding “white.” And by the measures used by my peers, I was odd for indulging my passion for reading, for wishing to be smart, as smart as my innately brilliant father and as well-mannered as my Louisiana-born mother, who insisted that she was not Negro but Creole and that I would not become food for the tragic appetites of Mississippi’s white folks. The nightmares I had in 1955 about the lynching of Emmett Till assured me that she did not insist too much.

Unlike a few of our relatives, we did not have money.  We were working-class, poor in pocket but rich in aspiration, sense of self-worth, dignity. I did not know we were poor. Poor people begged for things. We did not beg.  If we asked for favors, we had to repay them.  When my father’s early retirement pension was not enough, my mother did domestic work.  In my childhood imagination, I was an aristocrat exiled in a place called Mississippi. I was accustomed to the civilization of a bathroom.  I resented having to learn the ritual of the outhouse and the art of bathing in a tin tub. I silently hated and resisted the low expectations most non-black Mississippians had for black Mississippians and used my intellectual gifts to become who I am, a person for whom liking or disdaining Mississippi as home is a remarkably free choice.

            The story of choice begs for a plot, a charting of a life history in which Mississippi is the home space for departures and returns. Perhaps plot can be an idiosyncratic almanac, an emotional structuring of time and place:

1943-1949----Washington, D.C.--Moss Point, Mississippi : The bliss of childhood was destroyed when my father took an early retirement for health reasons from his civil service job, and we moved from the city to the country in November 1949.  My first Christmas in Mississippi was strange but not unpleasant.  Eating oranges and apples in front of a fireplace and the pungent smell of a cedar Christmas tree is a decisive moment in becoming a Mississippian.

1949-1964 ---Moss Point--Tougaloo, Mississippi : These fifteen years are the longest continuous period of my claiming Mississippi as home, years that resonant the sorrow song of  Richard Wright’s Black Boy far more than the fantasia of Clifton Taulbert’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. Planting a pine tree when I was eight years old in our two-acre yard was a symbolic act of attaching myself to the soil, and it was and remains the symbiotic sign of self.  That tree and I have survived dramatic changes of weather and social climate in Mississippi; it is the fixed point of the compass, the point to which I return in my mind no matter where my body might be. Whatever is Choctaw in my bloodline allows me to believe in the spirit of the tree and our primal entitlement to the land that time will restore to us.

The disadvantages of second-class citizenship in Mississippi killed any genuine feelings of patriotism I might have had for the United States and made me a loyal cynic in the Magnolia State. The false promises of American democracy as orchestrated in a sovereign closed society did, however, inspire me to be very serious about my education in public and parochial schools, and to be very receptive to a liberating education in mathematics, social responsibility and life at Tougaloo College. There I embraced the ideals of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and transformed my private anger into the public assertions of the Civil Rights Movement.  Graduation from college was the beginning of six years of absence from home.

1964-1966 ---Chicago: Two years of working for a master’s degree at Illinois Institute of Technology opened windows for seeing the joys and the horrors of urban experiences and for understanding that only New Orleans could meet my expectations of what urban life should be.









1966-1968 –Albany, NY: Two years of work on English Renaissance literature at SUNY at Albany, of learning about diversity in the mindsets of New Yorkers.

1968-1970 ---United States Army, Fort Knox, KY and  Vietnam: Although I opposed the war, I was loyal to my country; on the other hand, my Asian exposure hardened my heart against the hypocrisy of America, against its casual , Aztec-like sacrificing of young men on the altars of the war gods.

1970-1974Mississippi:  I returned to teach at Tougaloo College.

1974-1977 –Charlottesville, VA: I would serve my alma mater better if I had a terminal degree, so I went to the University of Virginia, wrote my dissertation on “Richard Wright and His American Critics, 1938-1960,” and received the Ph.D. in 1978.

1977-1984—Mississippi:  I returned to  teaching at Tougaloo College, served for four years on  the Mississippi Humanities Council, and chaired the Department of English, 1979-1986

1985 ---Washington, D.C.  The opportunity to return to the city of my birth and to work at the National Endowment for the Humanities as a program officer was a godsend.

1986-88 ---Mississippi, teaching at Tougaloo College

1987-88 ---Alabama: UNCF Scholar-in-Residence at Talladega College

1988-1989 –Mississippi, teaching at Tougaloo College

1990-1991---Charlottesville, VA; Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change, UVA

1990 ---Publication of Redefining American Literary History

1992 –Publication of Black Southern Voices

1991-2002 –Mississippi, teaching at Tougaloo College; Germany and France, 1993; United Kingdom and the British Museum, 1995

1996—Tennessee: Moss Chair of Excellence in English, University of Memphis

1997 –Publication of Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry

1999-2000 ---Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Fellow, National Humanities Center

2002-presentLouisiana: Distinguished Scholar and Professor of English, Dillard University; epiphany in Senegal, 2004 and induction into the Tougaloo College Alumni Hall of Fame, 2009.

2005-2006 ---Vicksburg, Mississippi: exile after Hurricane Katrina and the breaking of the levees flood New Orleans

2008 –Publication of The Richard Wright Encyclopedia and THE KATRINA PAPERS: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery

2009, 2010, 2011 –Visits to China

2011 ---Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award and publication of The Cambridge History of African American Literature; designated a Famous Overseas Professor at Central China Normal University –Wuhan (2011-2014)

            The vertical quality of the almanac represents ascent.  Something, rather like the bark of the pine tree, conceals the horizontal, the growth rings, the outward movements that have an inner core.  Like the tree, my life has been a process.  The tree does not control changes in climate; it endures them even as it is changed by them, and so too have I been changed by the historical events that have reshaped Mississippi from 1949 to 2012.  The concentric circles of my life are forever attached to Moss Point and Tougaloo College and the profound affinity I feel with the life and works of Richard Wright, il miglior fabbro.  And there is also the rootedness in the soil of Mississippi. In my life, long teaching career, and writings, I have sought and still seek to fulfill a moral obligation: facing naked truths squarely and articulating them for a future.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.





Bio





Jerry W. Ward, Jr., is a Distinguished Scholar and Professor of English at Dillard University and a Famous Overseas Professor at Central China Normal University (Wuhan).   He spent 32 years as the Lawrence Durgin Professor of Literature at Tougaloo College (Mississippi).  Recognized as one of the leading experts on Richard Wright, he is a founding member of the Richard Wright Circle and co-editor of The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2008).  He received the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award in 2011 from the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration. Ward edited the anthology Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry (Mentor, 1997), and his poems and essays have been published in such journals as The Southern Quarterly, African American Review, Yawp, Mississippi Quarterly, and Black Magnolias.  His most recent books are THE KATRINA PAPERS: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO Press, 2008) and The Cambridge History of African American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2011). His work –in-progress includes Reading Race Reading America (essays), Jazz South (poems), and Richard Wright: One Reader’s Responses.























Essay for COMING HOME TO MISSISSIPPI



OF BEING LIKE MY TREE



            I am an outsider/insider Mississippian, the subject of other people’s observations and the object of my reflections.  Born in Washington, D. C. in 1943, I was repatriated in the late fall of 1949 to Moss Point, my father’s hometown.  My six-year old self changed rapidly from being happy, care-free, and urban to being  town-trapped, sullen, and  confused.  I could not understand why having an ice cream cone in the local drugstore was forbidden. So, this was Mississippi.  A land of do-not-say-that and do-not-do-this.  I was too young to sense the invisible segregation of the nation’s capital and unprepared for the racism of the South and the permanent scar it would leave in my sensibility.

            Even a six-year old can have agency, however, even in 1950s Mississippi.  I chose to keep, as much as I could, the speech patterns of my brief years in the North. You do not have to talk like a Mississippian to be one.  I did not want to sound like my slow-talking cousins and older relatives, to sound like molasses creeping uphill on a cold day. The enervating drawl of the South did not appeal to me. I kept my vowels and my consonants and my distinct word-endings.  I was teased for sounding “white.” And by the measures used by my peers, I was odd for indulging my passion for reading, for wishing to be smart, as smart as my innately brilliant father and as well-mannered as my Louisiana-born mother, who insisted that she was not Negro but Creole and that I would not become food for the tragic appetites of Mississippi’s white folks. The nightmares I had in 1955 about the lynching of Emmett Till assured me that she did not insist too much.

Unlike a few of our relatives, we did not have money.  We were working-class, poor in pocket but rich in aspiration, sense of self-worth, dignity. I did not know we were poor. Poor people begged for things. We did not beg.  If we asked for favors, we had to repay them.  When my father’s early retirement pension was not enough, my mother did domestic work.  In my childhood imagination, I was an aristocrat exiled in a place called Mississippi. I was accustomed to the civilization of a bathroom.  I resented having to learn the ritual of the outhouse and the art of bathing in a tin tub. I silently hated and resisted the low expectations most non-black Mississippians had for black Mississippians and used my intellectual gifts to become who I am, a person for whom liking or disdaining Mississippi as home is a remarkably free choice.

            The story of choice begs for a plot, a charting of a life history in which Mississippi is the home space for departures and returns. Perhaps plot can be an idiosyncratic almanac, an emotional structuring of time and place:

1943-1949----Washington, D.C.--Moss Point, Mississippi : The bliss of childhood was destroyed when my father took an early retirement for health reasons from his civil service job, and we moved from the city to the country in November 1949.  My first Christmas in Mississippi was strange but not unpleasant.  Eating oranges and apples in front of a fireplace and the pungent smell of a cedar Christmas tree is a decisive moment in becoming a Mississippian.

1949-1964 ---Moss Point--Tougaloo, Mississippi : These fifteen years are the longest continuous period of my claiming Mississippi as home, years that resonant the sorrow song of  Richard Wright’s Black Boy far more than the fantasia of Clifton Taulbert’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. Planting a pine tree when I was eight years old in our two-acre yard was a symbolic act of attaching myself to the soil, and it was and remains the symbiotic sign of self.  That tree and I have survived dramatic changes of weather and social climate in Mississippi; it is the fixed point of the compass, the point to which I return in my mind no matter where my body might be. Whatever is Choctaw in my bloodline allows me to believe in the spirit of the tree and our primal entitlement to the land that time will restore to us.

The disadvantages of second-class citizenship in Mississippi killed any genuine feelings of patriotism I might have had for the United States and made me a loyal cynic in the Magnolia State. The false promises of American democracy as orchestrated in a sovereign closed society did, however, inspire me to be very serious about my education in public and parochial schools, and to be very receptive to a liberating education in mathematics, social responsibility and life at Tougaloo College. There I embraced the ideals of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and transformed my private anger into the public assertions of the Civil Rights Movement.  Graduation from college was the beginning of six years of absence from home.

1964-1966 ---Chicago: Two years of working for a master’s degree at Illinois Institute of Technology opened windows for seeing the joys and the horrors of urban experiences and for understanding that only New Orleans could meet my expectations of what urban life should be.









1966-1968 –Albany, NY: Two years of work on English Renaissance literature at SUNY at Albany, of learning about diversity in the mindsets of New Yorkers.

1968-1970 ---United States Army, Fort Knox, KY and  Vietnam: Although I opposed the war, I was loyal to my country; on the other hand, my Asian exposure hardened my heart against the hypocrisy of America, against its casual , Aztec-like sacrificing of young men on the altars of the war gods.

1970-1974Mississippi:  I returned to teach at Tougaloo College.

1974-1977 –Charlottesville, VA: I would serve my alma mater better if I had a terminal degree, so I went to the University of Virginia, wrote my dissertation on “Richard Wright and His American Critics, 1938-1960,” and received the Ph.D. in 1978.

1977-1984—Mississippi:  I returned to  teaching at Tougaloo College, served for four years on  the Mississippi Humanities Council, and chaired the Department of English, 1979-1986

1985 ---Washington, D.C.  The opportunity to return to the city of my birth and to work at the National Endowment for the Humanities as a program officer was a godsend.

1986-88 ---Mississippi, teaching at Tougaloo College

1987-88 ---Alabama: UNCF Scholar-in-Residence at Talladega College

1988-1989 –Mississippi, teaching at Tougaloo College

1990-1991---Charlottesville, VA; Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change, UVA

1990 ---Publication of Redefining American Literary History

1992 –Publication of Black Southern Voices

1991-2002 –Mississippi, teaching at Tougaloo College; Germany and France, 1993; United Kingdom and the British Museum, 1995

1996—Tennessee: Moss Chair of Excellence in English, University of Memphis

1997 –Publication of Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry

1999-2000 ---Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Fellow, National Humanities Center

2002-presentLouisiana: Distinguished Scholar and Professor of English, Dillard University; epiphany in Senegal, 2004 and induction into the Tougaloo College Alumni Hall of Fame, 2009.

2005-2006 ---Vicksburg, Mississippi: exile after Hurricane Katrina and the breaking of the levees flood New Orleans

2008 –Publication of The Richard Wright Encyclopedia and THE KATRINA PAPERS: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery

2009, 2010, 2011 –Visits to China

2011 ---Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award and publication of The Cambridge History of African American Literature; designated a Famous Overseas Professor at Central China Normal University –Wuhan (2011-2014)

            The vertical quality of the almanac represents ascent.  Something, rather like the bark of the pine tree, conceals the horizontal, the growth rings, the outward movements that have an inner core.  Like the tree, my life has been a process.  The tree does not control changes in climate; it endures them even as it is changed by them, and so too have I been changed by the historical events that have reshaped Mississippi from 1949 to 2012.  The concentric circles of my life are forever attached to Moss Point and Tougaloo College and the profound affinity I feel with the life and works of Richard Wright, il miglior fabbro.  And there is also the rootedness in the soil of Mississippi. In my life, long teaching career, and writings, I have sought and still seek to fulfill a moral obligation: facing naked truths squarely and articulating them for a future.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.





Bio





Jerry W. Ward, Jr., is a Distinguished Scholar and Professor of English at Dillard University and a Famous Overseas Professor at Central China Normal University (Wuhan).   He spent 32 years as the Lawrence Durgin Professor of Literature at Tougaloo College (Mississippi).  Recognized as one of the leading experts on Richard Wright, he is a founding member of the Richard Wright Circle and co-editor of The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2008).  He received the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award in 2011 from the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration. Ward edited the anthology Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry (Mentor, 1997), and his poems and essays have been published in such journals as The Southern Quarterly, African American Review, Yawp, Mississippi Quarterly, and Black Magnolias.  His most recent books are THE KATRINA PAPERS: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO Press, 2008) and The Cambridge History of African American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2011). His work –in-progress includes Reading Race Reading America (essays), Jazz South (poems), and Richard Wright: One Reader’s Responses.




















Sunday, February 26, 2012

Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration

February 24, 2012

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.







Richard Wright’s Spinning of Tales









                Spiders and writers intrigue us with their spinning of artful designs.  The spiders, of course, often get more immediate rewards than writers or storytellers for their labors.  What they may happily catch can be consumed and transformed into more material for spinning.  Storytellers and writers , no matter how great the attention they capture, must often wait much longer for rewards to come.  The spider’s delicate art is easily destroyed; the storyteller’s or writer’s, gets preserved in memory, in print, or in this new century on disks and websites. The question that interests me is at once simple and difficult to answer: what drives the storyteller’s imagination that creates the design?

                The wording and syntax of that question is slightly askew, because the ambiguity is necessary to keep in motion a long-range project on the mind of Richard Wright, an extensive inspection of the ebb and flow of his imagination as it spun tales (his fictions) and negations or razor-sharp critiques of realities in the twentieth century (his non-fictions).  My work and meditations on the continuing significance of his stories have benefited greatly from the pioneering work of E. Eugene Miller in Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright (1990) and from thousands of pages devoted to the life and artistry of Mississippi’s native son.  Nevertheless, I am quite some distance from hitting the target, and the reason is not far to seek.  To some extent, Wright was amazingly transparent about his aesthetic and his poetics.  The Marxist parameters of his 1937 “Blueprint for Negro Writing” are indeed useful frames of reference for the stories in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and for “The Man Who Was Almos’ A Man” and “The Man Who Saw the Flood,” two stories included in Eight Men (1961).  The “Blueprint” is a defiant manifesto akin to the famous 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes, but Wright brought to his essay a remarkable clarity and discipline regarding the craft of writing and the choices a writer must make about mimesis (showing) and diegesis (telling).  It was very clear to Wright that the cultural consciousness that informs the spinning of the black tale emerges from the black church and its “archaic morphology of Christian salvation” and from the folklore of black people  (blues, spirituals, and folk tales).  For him, folklore was as much a process as a product, involving as it does racial wisdom and “the fluid state of daily speech.”  The storyteller must have perspective, “that fixed point in intellectual space where a writer stands to the view the struggles, hopes, and sufferings of his people.”  In a nice turn of phrase with reference to theme, Wright claimed “the social units in which [storytellers] are bound have a story, a record.” And he certainly thought that craft or artistic skill had “functional autonomy.” The rhetorical transparency of Wright’s ideas does conceal something, because Wright had a wicked sense of humor and his powerful webs might catch and entrap us.

                Giving notice to the oddity of Wright’s including “The Man Who Went to Chicago” in Eight Men, which one initially assumes is a collection of fiction, makes one aware that in the spinning of tales the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is not stable; it shifts in relation to the teller’s purposes. Reading the delightful, unpublished short story “The Colored Angel,” which begins

“Once upon a time there lived in the heart of the deep South a poor black Negro.  All his life he had had a hard time.  He had worked under hot suns and in cold rains.  Always he could never get enough to eat.  And the whites held a high hand over him which he feared.  So this poor black Negro served God and prayed that he might go to Heaven when he died.  If he could not get the good things of life in this world, then he would concentrate all of his energies upon getting them in the next.”

One knows from the very beginning that Wright is using a stock convention of the fairytale to elaborate a very familiar item from the barrel of African American folklore : “Lady, when I was flying, I was one more flying fool.”  But it is the very ending of this tale which betrays Wright’s indebtedness to something beyond the humor of folklore, something that is identifiable as an item of highbrow culture.

“And to this day, on a snowwhite stone in a shaded corner of Heaven, sits a poor black angel with his hand on his jaw, speaking to no one, and dreaming of his past glory.”

Wright is indebted here to  Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker (1879-1889).” He has spun an amusing tale out of what he has heard in oral tradition and has seen as part of his aesthetic education.   What is not especially amusing about “The Colored Angel” is that the “poor black Negro” suffers eternally in Heaven as much as he suffered temporarily on earth.  This, of course, is vintage Richard Wright, the satisfaction of his materialist penchant for depicting the shortcomings of “archaic morphology of Christian salvation.”  Ultimately, his readers get the impression that the morphology is both archaic and malicious, reiterating as it does a punishment for being black and wrong.  Thus, noticing the oddity of Wright’s recycling segments of Chapters 15 and 16 from his autobiography Black Boy (1945) under the title “The Man Who Went to Chicago” and presenting them as a short story sends up a red flag.  There is more to this spinning than greets the ear or the eye.

                The more that is crucial for understanding  what drives the storyteller’s imagination and  creates the design is wonderfully revealed in Wright’s undated and unpublished 26 page typescript “Memories of My Grandmother” [Beinecke Library, JWJ MSS 3: Box 6, folder 119], an elaborate explanation of what enflamed his imagination as he wrote “The Man Who Lived Underground.” That story had its germ in Wright’s reading of a story in the pulp magazine True Detective in 1941, and we know it best from the version published in 1944 in Cross Section and later in Eight Men. The story is a stunning tale of Fred Daniel’s bringing truth from the underground, the perspective of the sewers in an urban setting; his reward, the reward of the messenger , is being shot to death by a policeman who coldly remarks “You’ve got to shoot his kind. They’d wreck things” (EM 84) Yes, they’d wreck things like the colored angel who had his wings clipped for causing exuberant havoc in Heaven with his two left-wings.

The version we read now is not the one Wright had in mind as he wrote “Memories of My Grandmother.”  He was thinking of a much longer manuscript entitled “The Man Who Lived Underground,” the one that served as a structural prototype for how Ralph Ellison’s nameless narrator spun his own tale in that classic novel Invisible Man.  “Memories of My Grandmother” is as important for understanding Wright’s storytelling imagination as his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” is for understanding the complex simplicity of Native Son.  This seminal essay about the creative origins of Fred Daniels’ story has been noted so frequently by Wright scholars that it begs for publication and sharing with Wright’s readers.

E. Eugene Miller’s situating the essay in his commentary on Wright’s poetics warrants specialized  quoting.

Most critics might agree that Wright came as close as he ever would to achieving [ a marriage between modernism and traditional African American folk expression] in his three most acclaimed works: Native Son, Black Boy, and some of the stories in Uncle Tom’s Children, but Wright, at least at one time, felt that the original manuscript of his eventually much abused novella, The Man Who Lived Underground, best captured this “something” ---the quintessential element in Afro-Americans that so characterized their sense of what is real ---and best expressed in the story’s “contour” his most successful rendering of his own blueprint.  In addition to Stein’s prose and Surrealism, other experiences ----his discovery of Freudian dream theory (closely connected in time as well as in content with his discovery of Surrealism), of Twain’s iconoclastic “What is Man?”, and childhood viewings of movies based on Wells’s The Invisible Man  ----also have bearing on the novella’s construction and content.  Wright’s own special emphasis on the story as symbolic enactment of the action of his grandmother’s and all Afro-American folks’ psychosis (Kenneth Burke’s sense of the word, not exactly meaning a disease) focuses primary attention on the center and shape of his novella.  Looking at it in Wright’s own terms, it furthers an understanding and appreciation of Wright’s abiding interest in the problems of literary creation. (Voice of a Native Son 95-96).

                In the space of less than a single paragraph (albeit a lengthy one), Miller leads us into the vortex of spinning, the spiraling adoption of influences and techniques,  “the result of nonmystical yet mysterious unconscious dynamisms moving the writer to produce inexplicable, wondrous combinations of personally and objectively derived phenomena into what come to be seen as ‘story.’ “(Voice of Native Son 97)

                As I said at the beginning the question that interests me is at once simple and difficult to answer: what drives the storyteller’s imagination that creates the design?  The provisional answer can only be achieved by exploring the territory of “Memories of My Grandmother” with Wright serving as the Virgil for our Dante and then reexploring the territory from which we all come ----the memories of our grandparents who spun the tales. Ah, the magic of spiders, the magic of story, the magic of our ancestors.
Note: This is the short version of the longer lecture.










Monday, February 20, 2012

Ishmael Reed on the East Village Other

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HISTORY: Ishmael Reed on the Miltonian Origin of The Other - The Local East Village Blog

Ishmael Reed on the

Miltonian Origin of The Other

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Last weekend, in one of our posts celebrating The East Village Other, Ed Sanders wrote that poet Ted Berrigan may have named the alternative newspaper after the Rimbaud line “I is an Other.” Mr. Sanders acknowledged, “Another account has Ishmael Reed coining the name.” In the comments, EVO editor Peter Leggieri wrote that Allen Katzman (who founded the paper along with Dan Rattiner and Walter Bowart) “always gave the impression that he had suggested the name ‘Other.’” After citing the reasons, Mr. Leggieri wrote, “However, if the question of origin came to a vote, I’d probably pull the lever for Ishmael Reed.” Here, now, is Mr. Reed himself, on his role in shaping The East Village Other.
Ish
Ishmael Reed, 1967 / Isamu Kawai

My receiving a job as the editor of a newspaper in Newark, N.J., led to the origin of The East Village Other. I worked a number of temporary jobs from the time I arrived in New York in the fall of 1962 until I left for California in the summer of 1967. One of those jobs was that of a pollster for The Daily News. So when I went to the Department of Labor to get a temporary job, after the poll was completed, I was informed of an opening for a reporter for a new newspaper in Newark.
I had written for a newspaper in Buffalo called The Empire Star, edited by the great A.J. Smitherman, who was the target of mob violence during one of the worst riots in American history, the Tulsa riots of 1921, which left 300 blacks dead.
Smitherman believed in armed self-defense against lynching. After an interview with the investors, it was decided that I would be the editor of a newspaper that I named Advance. Although I had watched the production of a newspaper using the old linotype method while working for the newspaper in Buffalo, I hadn’t a clue about offset printing.
Walter Bowart was a bartender at Stanley’s, which was our hangout. It was owned by Stanley Tolkin who was a patron of the arts and our benefactor.
T1616454_07
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images John Wilcock (at left), Allen Katzman (in striped shirt), and Walter Bowart prepare a layout on Aug. 25, 1966

During the summer of 1965, Walter and I developed a friendship. Walter always reminded me of a leading man in a Western movie. He was also a painter, one among many painters located on the Lower East Side, some of whom were abstract painters; others were using technology. Bowart was a collagist.
Both Walter and I had cut-and-paste minds. While attending the University of Buffalo, I was influenced by Nathaniel West’s short work, a collage in writing, “The Dream Life of Balso Snell” (1931) and Erich Kahler’s “The Tower and the Abyss” (1957), a book about discontinuity, translated by W.S. Merwin.
So I paid Walter to come up with a model for Advance. I went to his loft to see the result. It was something unlike anything that I’d ever seen – suitable for an exhibit of Neo Conceptual art at the Whitney, but not for a community newspaper. He called the philosophy behind the paper pata-realist. But before I could utter my criticisms, he said, excitedly, “Hey, why don’t we start a newspaper down here?”
I was skeptical, but agreed to sit in on a series of meetings. During one meeting, there was a discussion of a name for the paper. Walter wanted to call it The Joint. I suggested The Other. I’d just read Carl Jung’s introduction to Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” where he referred to Milton’s Satan, the revolutionary Satan, as the “Other.” And that’s what we were: Cultural outsiders, who were not native New Yorkers; people who had ambivalent attitudes toward the city where we hoped to make our reputations as artists. We saw comic books as art, and now a newspaper that was a work of art. Walter took his painter’s style to the newspaper.
Bowart needed a writer to assist him. I was working in Newark and wasn’t available and so I introduced Walter to poet Allen Katzman. We hung out a lot together. He worked at a place called The Ninth Circle, where I met Norman Pritchard, the poet, for the first time. Allen Katzman and I use to go to literary parties. We were part of Panna Grady’s salon at the Dakota, where we ran into Ralph Ellison, Norman Podhoretz, Alfred Kazin and others. At Norman Mailer’s one night, he insulted Mailer’s wife. Mailer’s friends – boxing champions, including Archie Moore – surrounded us. I got him out of there. “Allen,” I said, “This is not the place to make a stand.”
He was a disciple of William Carlos Williams.
On the night of the newspaper’s release, I was in Newark and so I asked Penny Shaiman – my girlfriend at the time, who was studying art history at NYU – to help Sherry Needham to pass out copies of the newspaper to patrons in restaurants and bars. She used to run into Ed Sanders at the school library. He was studying Egyptology. She now runs a gallery in Seattle and is an art dealer.
The appearance of the newspaper was stunning.
I wrote a few articles for the newspaper, one of which was a blast at the owner of The Metro, who’d hired some plainclothes thugs to monitor blacks who attended poetry readings there. He’d previously threatened musician Archie Shepp and his “Goldwater for President” sign in the window was meant to be a red flag for blacks. One night, one of them attacked Tom Dent, the leader of our magazine Umbra (one of the most important literary magazines to be published, though it gets ignored because the media, when covering the Lower East Side of the 1960s, bond with those who resembled their journalists and their tokens.) It was at Umbra workshops where the revolution in Black Arts began.
I went to Tom Dent’s aid and was punched. Penny and I left the Le Metro Café and halfway home I turned and went back. Poet Walter Lowenfels was reading. I told Walter that if he continued reading I would never speak to him again. The café emptied out and that was the end of the readings there. William Burroughs, who was scheduled to read the following week, cancelled. After a weekend of searching for other places, bars, restaurants, coffee shops, where readings might be held, Paul Blackburn and I asked the then rector, Michael J. C. Allen, whether we could hold readings at St. Mark’s Church.
That was the beginning of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Joel Oppenheimer ran the poetry workshop; I ran the fiction workshop. If you check out the St. Mark’s Poetry website, none of this is mentioned, another example of how the black participation in the counterculture gets expunged from the record.
After I resigned from editing my Newark paper, as the investors wanted it to become a mouthpiece for the local government, which was a criminal operation, Walter asked me to write for The Other. I chose to begin my first novel, “The Free-Lance Pallbearers.”
I was sharing rent with choreographer Carla Blank who was a rising star in the Judson Church post-modernist dance movement. Her classic, “The Wall Street Journal,” a dance based upon a collage score, was revived in 2009 by Carla and Robert Wilson as part of their collaboration about their work with Suzushi Hanayagi, called “KOOL.” She was in contact with South Asian and Japanese artists. I introduced some of these international artists to The Other. Carla contributed a couple of collages, so did my friend, the late John Harriman. The great cartoonist Mary Wagner was also a contributor. When my first novel was published, Allen Katzman gave the book a great send off.
I was one of those featured on a record that Walter produced called “The Electric Newspaper.” Walter and I worked on a project called International Mind Mining, but nothing came of it. I took the idea west, where I founded the Before Columbus Foundation, a multicultural service organization for writers and sponsor of The American Book Awards, now in their thirty-second year.
Walter hooked up with Timothy Leary and got off into drugs. I think that was a turning point in our relationship. One night he slipped a tab of mescaline into my glass of orange juice without my knowledge. After this creepy act, our relationship became strained.
I left New York in 1967 and on the basis of having written “Pallbearers” obtained a 35-year teaching job at the University of California at Berkeley. Mike Gold compared California with a sanatorium. After the turbulence and excitement of New York, I needed one. With the fame accompanying The East Village Other, Walter went uptown. On one occasion, Carla and I had dinner with him and the rich woman whom he married. Actor Rex Harrison’s ex-wife served the dinner.
I saw him and Allen Katzman a couple of times after that. Carla and I had dinner with Walter and his wife in Tiburon. Timothy Leary was one of the guests. Allen Katzman and his girlfriend at the time, the painter Carol Alonge, came to visit us in California. I visited them at Westbeth in New York. As soon as I stepped over the threshold the lights went out. Allen laughed. “That’s Ishmael,” he said. “Powerful.” He and his daughter were killed in a car accident in 1985. Allen was on the way to becoming a major American poet. Someone sent me a poem by his daughter. I saw Walter Bowart in the 1990s when I read from my work at the University of Arizona at Phoenix.
And finally at Long Beach, when I was the guest of Malauna Karenga, Walter and an associate made a videotape of my reading.
ishmael2
Walter Bowart was a restless, troubled genius. A visionary. An iconoclast. His idea of the anarchic-technological utopia influenced my second novel, “Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.” He was a fan of Buckminister Fuller and Marshall McLuhan. He invented the New Journalism when he hired poets and novelists to write stories and features and lifted cartoons to the status of an art form. His mind belonged to the future, but he also could be small minded and petty. They’re all deceased now — Sherry Needham, Allen Katzman and Walter Bowart — but when I think of them, my family, it brings me back to those days in the 1960s: The music, the cheap rents, food, the energy and excitement, the buzz of something new. What lovely days those were! We were all young, experimental, ready like Muhammad Ali, our hero, to shake up the world. It remains to be seen whether we Others succeeded.
Ishmael Reed’s latest novel is “Juice!” published by Dalkey Archives, which he illustrated with his cartoons. He is the editor of “Konch” available at ishmaelreed.com.
For more on “Blowing Minds: The East Village Other, the Rise of Underground Comix and the Alternative Press, 1965-72,” read about the exhibition here, and read more from EVO’s editors, writers, artists, and associates here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Reading Poetry

Reading Poetries







We are reading the poetries. Reading = an activity [  of the intellect ]possessed of many denotative and connotative dimensions.

[insert: of the emotions that have full agency without the intellect/ of the body’s splendid and satisfying aesthetic productions]

What is a man to tell

A woman

Whose

Silence is an encyclopedia

 [remove “tell,” silence his voice, arrive at the core

What is a man to

A woman

Whose

Silence is an encyclopedia]

((If you remove “to,” the relationship dissolves and the leap ends in a plural singular or a singular plural))


They (a woman, a man)

 are reading the existing narratives

and critical commentaries

 on the poetries from 1900 to the present.


They are reading and reflecting on how to make choices that increase the ability to deal with an
enormous* amount of material without being paralyzed or throwing up the hands in defeat.

*at last count, enormous  = infinity

Yes, reading to make choices based on historical consciousness of change.


Reading they are how some  (highbrow without volition) print poetry hangs out with its noisy cultural cousins ---the blues and jazz and vernacular remixes, and how the free and funky cousins often (and especially lately) turn up their noses at the conservative, constipated antics of ultra-intellectual kin who, despite denial, are begging something from the powerful somebodies.



Was June Jordan the only poet to notice ------

Whitman was right long before Pound went wrong?

Was (fill in the blank) the only poet to notice ----
(fill in the blank) was lef long before (fill in the blank) turned right?



Are all the messages in the family equal?

All messages in the family are equal!



 It is poetry as a cultural family affair over an eternity that has not denied the authenticity and legitimacy of innovations (deformations and reformations from a debated and debatable black  hole command center of  antiquity, modernism, post-modernism, and the unnamed identities of now); of  departures (i.e., diversity in practices, ideologies , performance ---swings between the poles of the oral/spoken and thought/written); of ordering the chaotic process of poetry.

Language, like nature, does not violate the logic of its chaos.



This exercise is about reading with a furious discipline.

 Reading is decoding, trying to understand how poetry demands a sense of history and of the people who have made/make/ will make certain kinds of poetry, a sense of aesthetic as perception and aesthetics as a theorizing of perceptions, and a sense that poetry in the United States is dynamic and is definitely not a limited number of monuments before which people must kneel and worship.

Technologies make the eyes squint.



The exercise  is about reading so as not to deny the necessity of using technology to transmit (as in the humanistic imperative) a total process of knowing, interpreting , using selected traditional as well as digital humanities  insights from  critical thinking about poetry for the purposes of public humanistic pedagogy;  and doing---whether one is a maker of poems or a receiver of poems or a both.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Manifesto of Remarkable Integrity

I salute Reginald Dwayne Betts for providing a lesson that people inside and outside the realm of poetry need to know.

Phillis Remastered

Why I’m No Longer A Black Poet

February 6, 2012
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Robert Hayden

“Why I’m No Longer A Black Poet”

………by Reginald Dwayne Betts, ………PR Guest Blogger

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Forgetting is the gift to folks who don’t mind circling the same wagon, year after year, decade after decade. It seems that is the case for black poetry in America, this circling of the wagon, a perpetual seeking of place and definition. How one manages racial identity in these fifty states has become something that can always be mined for content and controversy.
I’m thinking about Robert Hayden and about his position on the infamous question, “Am I a poet, or am I a black poet?”—that “to be or not to be” used to bludgeon African-American men and women who write in America. It’s what prompted the 1966 Black Writers Conference at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee; it was an historic gathering of writers, civil rights workers, and others to discuss the image of the Negro in literature.
At the Conference, the poet Robert Hayden remarked, “Let’s quit saying we’re black writers writing to black folks—it has been given importance it should not have.” His remarks preceded those of Melvin Tolson, who famously went on to proclaim, “I’m a black poet, an African American poet, a Negro poet. I’m no accident – and I don’t give a tinker’s damn what you think.”
This contentious encounter is all recorded in the June 1966 issue of Black Digest, and if you aren’t careful, after reading the account of this encounter, you might walk away thinking that Hayden’s and Tolson’s poetics were a world apart. But read a bit of Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia and you will find Tolson doing what Hayden did time and again: write about black folks with a serious sense of wordplay, with panache. Tolson’s poetry makes this public spat over the question all the more interesting, and all the more redundant.
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Melvin Tolson
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The backstory to this is everything Robert Hayden’s writing has taught me: Nat Turner, the Amistad Mutiny, all those figures from the (Detroit) Paradise Valley series, Bessie Smith, the meticulous emotional turmoil that was the Middle Passage, Paul Robeson – all names and historical moments that are but a sample of what I found early on in his verse. I think that I benefited from having read Hayden before I had any real idea that I wanted to be a poet, because at that time I read him alongside Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Lucy Terry and countless others, including the anonymous authors of the Spirituals and Work Songs, without yet having a social or historical context.
There is no one that could walk away from the Hayden’s Collected Poems not knowing these poems were soaked in what it meant to be black in America from slavery to beyond the 1960s. Hayden was the guy with narratives, history, myth. He dropped science in a way that the other poets I read just weren’t.
At this point, it’s almost a waste to go into comparisons between Hayden and poets of the Black Arts Movement. Any such comparison would be more about personality, less about poem. And at the end of the day, Hayden maintained an exquisite balance in his poetry, work that didn’t seek to demonize or make heroic the figures that found their way into those poems. Hayden sought less to grant historic black figures anything (be it humanity or heroism) and more to carve a truth out of words that didn’t exist, exactly that way, before they were written. When I first learned of the Fisk Conference controversy, of Hayden’s not wanting to be referred to as a “black” poet, I hadn’t thought about how naming can be akin to handcuffing. And frankly, I left that issue alone. I wanted to be black because I already had been black as a failure and so I wanted to be black as a success.
For me, being black, wanting to be a writer, wanting to engage in the world larger than my block and my fears, have been about using color as the first filter. I was the kid who wanted to know why we read Shakespeare in high school and not Chinua Achebe, the kid who read the Stolen Legacy and waxed poetic about how Aristotelian thought was stolen from a library in Egypt. My mind was the constant playing of Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back—and I had yet to hear the album.
The thing is, you get older. And when I did, I recognized how racial solidarity addled my brain. My obsession with race became more important than the history I didn’t know.
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Langston Hughes
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In “The Negro and the Racial Mountain,” (1926) published in The Nation, Langston Hughes did not argue for a singular blackness, but I read it that way, missing the part where he wrote, “If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either.” No, I was stuck on his chastising Countée Cullen for his desire not to be known as a “Negro poet,” his wanting to be brave where Cullen seemed so awkwardly afraid of his blackness.
This craving worked as gift and detriment for me. And it was silly. At the time, I viewed black poetry—all black literature—as a kind of service literature. The problem, of course, is that the best of black literature is far more than service, even when the writers are completely devoted to a kind of service. Ultimately, when I am moved to shirk racial symbolism, it’s partly because no one wanted my wearing “race” when I ran wild in the streets, and partly because there is a little dishonesty in the ordeal–as the idea of blackness too often replaces the fact of blackness. And so, a group of black writers who scrape with words to create a world gets reduced to: “X confronts his black identity (or decides to abandon it).”
What has been lost as I enter into present, public conversations about black literature is the myriad ways of conveying blackness. Conversations about “blackness” always overshadow the elements, the sounds, the nuance, the slang and vibrancy that reduce regional distinctions in African America to places where words become worlds. In having discussions about what it means to be a black poet, I forget that my moms went to work at four every morning without having to name herself “black” anything. That my folks, all of them, lived fully in their black skins, and, when need be, discussed racism and dealt with it—but they needed no obsession with adjectives. None of my friends who aren’t writers or reading the books about “post black” use these terms, or talk about them. They talk about the cost of daycare, of healthcare, of rent – and I imagine there is a poet singing his songs right now who only will be noticed for writing “black”—or being black while writing.
All of this returns me to Robert Hayden, whose “blackness” was called into question because he, like Cullen, didn’t want to be relegated to a literary ghetto (like today’s black literature section in popular bookstores). I’ve come to realize that black poets’ racial solidarity has become tantamount to another restraint: our thinking about black poetry has been reduced to how and why we represent racial issues—and our commitment to language has been allowed to fall slack. We will not call it service literature, but we do want it to serve.
I have found access within the black literary community and felt at home, but that community sometimes has looked askance at me when I’ve admitted to feeling at home at largely white institutions, too. As the saying goes, I am “the Negro of the moment.”—And yes, there is a trace of truth to this saying, but the idea behind it is corrupt and corrupting. Am I to understand the entire history of literature and black folks in America as merely a succession of chosen Negroes?
What is apparent is that the erasing of history that goes on is layered and complex. If you aren’t careful someone will dress you in a beret and an Afro pick before your first good line is written, or they will have you referring to your complexion as a mere coincidence. It’s all from the same bag, a not-so subtle-way to erase the nuance out of you.
Sometimes the black community that raised me is a far cry from the community represented in the work I read, often the work I write. Sadly, many of the people who are my “black” peers display an overwhelming gap in information. But our poems dance. They dance before a crowd that has no sense of literary tradition. (Or does). They dance before those most concerned (if concerned at all) with what moves them, and little else.
And at a time when we black poets must demand our presence be acknowledged, must scrap and badger with decision makers and power holders of largely white institutions, we have survived, in large part, due to racial solidarity. Yet, this same solidarity has now lead to a climate where to criticize the work of another black writer is tantamount to racial treason.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe these aren’t real issues issue at all.
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I want to say I stopped being a black poet when I discovered that black poets had the audacity to question Robert Hayden’s authenticity—but the truth is that it is deeper than that. The truth is I have found myself longing to be fuller in my own skin, to dismiss the rhetoric that surrounds what it means to be a black poet and find a way to write a poetry that better reflects the sounds I hear in my sleep, the sounds I hear when I walk down the streets that are most familiar with me – and the sounds that I hear when I am in a strange place filled with black faces.
At the Fisk Conference, Robert Hayden ended his speech by saying the blackest thing ever said at an academic conference (at least to me). Speaking to those whom he expected to disagree with him, Hayden remarked, “Baby, that’s your problem, not mine.”
With that statement, he took it back to where the truth always exists: don’t listen to what a person calls him- or herself, just listen to what is said when the guards are down. And the proof is always in the poems, because if your guards aren’t down when you go to that necessary place, then you were lying before you even started.
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Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. His memoir, A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin 2009), won the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, and his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), was awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Open Society Institute, Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and Warren Wilson College. As a poet, essayist and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society.