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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Donald Goines


Blog122912

 

Condemnation & Redemption: The Works of Donald Goines

 

Stallings, L. H. and Greg Thomas, eds. Word Hustle: Critical Essays and Reflections on the Works of Donald Goines. Baltimore: IMPRINT EDITIONS, 2011.

 

Addison Gayle, Jr. was not a signifying monkey.   Many contemporary scholars and critics ignore his existence; they dismiss his insights as strident sub-literary talk, noise not to invite to dinner at the Academic Big House.  A few critics of my generation refuse to erase him.  We do not embrace Gayle’s views without question.  We do, however, respect the historical importance and contemporary relevance of his thought.  We find his exploration of fiction in The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America (1975) to be bracing.  We find useful insights in the essays he collected in The Black Situation (1970), and one of those essays “Revolutionary Philosophy” seems poignant in the midst of debates about the status of the gun in the United States.  Rereading that essay casts light on issues explored in Word Hustle.

In the introduction to commentary on the works of Donald Goines, L. H. Stalling notes that Gayle  acknowledged neither the existence of street literature nor “its importance to a Black Arts or Black Power Movement” (21).  Nevertheless, Dennis Chester’s essay on Goines’ Daddy Cool (1974) recognizes the importance of contrasting Gayle’s quest for freedom, justice, and the creation of a new society with Goines’ s depiction of a new society which is deeply flawed and “whose fundamental principles are contradictory” (100-101).  Chester and other contributors to Word Hustle realize that critiques of street literature are necessary to continue the unfinished projects of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic cultural phenomenon.  As Candice Love Jackson argues in “The Paradox of Empowerment: Colonialism, Community, and Criminality in Donald Goines’s Kenyatta Series” (33-48), Goines’s works urge readers “to navigate new articulations of Black consciousness cautiously and soberly” (47).  The overseers of American literary acceptability miss a lot by trying to confine Goines to the outer reaches of the canonized plantation.  Bourgeois dismissal of Gayle as a critic and of Goines as a novelist only increases one’s appetite for a literary historical epiphany.

In one moment of reading Word Hustle, I imagined condemnation should be “con/damnation” and redemption should become “re/deepenation.”  Such linguistic sport can engender its own kind of hustle, a hustle to expose how the cunning of ex-cons who write novels (prison novels in particular) can advance dread-filled “truths” about the power of language much better than do many post-whatever novelists.  The sport can affirm hip-hop deconstruction of revolutionary dreams in fiction and become a timely enterprise for literary and cultural criticism.  Word Hustle warrants our engaging the counter-canon of American literature, the unsaintly works that boldly address certain realities of intraracial caste and class, of race-riddled sexism and homophobia, of confused descriptions of American masculinity, power and hegemony, and reform/revolutionary acts.  Like their elite and proletarian cousins, Goines’s novels do employ traditional narrative strategies, and they do belong “in non-Hegelian conversation” with criminalization and mass incarceration schemes, aesthetic smokescreens, subliminal concerns regarding praxis, economics, labor, and with the trauma of genuine historical consciousness that orthodox humanities, print or digital, desperately wish to conceal.

Literature is not salvific.  As Addison Gayle reminded us in “Revolutionary Philosophy,” some of us “dreamed not of integration but nationalism, not of a melting pot theory but of a pluralistic theory, not of a great society but a new one.  More important, we dreamed of fashioning Canaan out of the debris of American society, of erecting a nation predicated not upon the gun but upon morality, and if these dreams are hopeless, then  so too is the future of mankind” (221).  Literature can’t save us if we are determined like terrorists to destroy ourselves and everyone else.  But “in conversation,” Gayle and Goines promote recognition that the twenty-first- century world order is gangsta and ratchet. For a nice contextualization  of  “ratchet,” read Imani Perry’s “Of Degraded Talk, Digital Tongues, and A Commitment to Care,” Profession (2012): 17-24

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Our Assignment for January 1, 2013

I. Access

http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_document/emanicpation_proclamation

II. Read

1) Manuscript of the Emancipation Proclamation

2) The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of 1862

3) John Hope Franklin's essay "The Emancipation Proclamation: An Act of Justice," which contains this noteworthy sentence: "The law itself is no longer an obstruction to justice and equality, but it is the people who live under the law who are themselves an obstruction to justice." Franklin also incorporates James Weldon Johnson's "Fifty Years" (New York Times, January 1, 1913) in his essay.

III. Remember

Forms of slavery and enslavement still exist on this planet.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
December 26, 2012
Kwanzaa Day One



Sunday, December 23, 2012

Rereading Henry Van Dyke


Rereading Henry Van Dyke (3 October 1928--22 December 2011): The Pleasure of the Text

 

Often you can derive pleasure from rereading a novel by an author whose contribution to African American literary tradition is not a hot critical topic.  For example,   Henry Van Dyke’s Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1965) provokes laughter, the robust folk laughter of recognizing how rich and educational African American idioms can be.  On the surface, Van Dyke’s novel is a relatively slight Bildungsroman, the narrative of a young man’s learning that “when a peacock’s days are over, they’re over.” But the matter under the surface demands a reckoning.

Van Dkye is a fine storyteller.  Through the voice of Oliver Eugene, a naïve but reliable narrator, you hear about the melodramatic antics of Mrs. Harriet Giles, the Negro housekeeper, who is the narrator’s Aunt Harry and Mrs. Etta Klein, a wealthy Jewish widow who is overly fond of rum and who is as self-deceptive as the mother in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer.  Forty-seven years ago when the novel was published, you might not have noticed the gendered imbalance of the name “Aunt Harry.”  In 2012, you notice the name is metonymic, a shorthand for all the structural imbalances in the tragicomedy of Van Dyke’s first novel.  Etta Klein and Aunt Harry are one of the more remarkable odd couples in twentieth-century American literature, and the moral lessons implicit in their dealings and dalliance with the con-artist Maurice LeFleur are precious.  Precious is a sufficient description of the novel’s sexual identity.   Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes promotes a humor unto life rather than a sickness unto death.

As a novelist writing in the homophobic spaces provided by the integrationist discourses of the early 1960s, Van Dyke digested the practicality of Langston Hughes’ remark that if a Negro writer stepped outside of himself, he would see “how human, yet how beautiful and black [he is].  How very black –even when you’re integrated.”

The narrator deconstructs the hyper-pretense of American English by stepping outside just enough to expose the prohibitions and dispensations in the psychology of Black American English.  Van Dyke was a master chef in using racial flavors.  He was signifying twelve years before Geneva Smitherman dealt seriously with the linguistic dimensions of black modes of speech and twenty-three years before Gates discovered the signifying monkey was a literary critic. Only Zora Neale Hurston could beat Van Dyke to the punch.  His technical mastery of storytelling and language is matched only by the mastery of Al Young, Eudora Welty and Toni Cade Bambara.

Bright laughter is dominant during and after rereading Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes, and Van Dyke’s artistry of complex simplicity is a reason to praise the power of blackness.  He took revenge on the post-racial prior to the nativity of the post-racial.  That achievement is cause for deep and satisfying laughter.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

December 22, 2012

Rereading Henry Van Dyke (3 October 1928--22 December 2011): The Pleasure of the Text

 

Often you can derive pleasure from rereading a novel by an author whose contribution to African American literary tradition is not a hot critical topic.  For example,   Henry Van Dyke’s Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1965) provokes laughter, the robust folk laughter of recognizing how rich and educational African American idioms can be.  On the surface, Van Dyke’s novel is a relatively slight Bildungsroman, the narrative of a young man’s learning that “when a peacock’s days are over, they’re over.” But the matter under the surface demands a reckoning.

Van Dkye is a fine storyteller.  Through the voice of Oliver Eugene, a naïve but reliable narrator, you hear about the melodramatic antics of Mrs. Harriet Giles, the Negro housekeeper, who is the narrator’s Aunt Harry and Mrs. Etta Klein, a wealthy Jewish widow who is overly fond of rum and who is as self-deceptive as the mother in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer.  Forty-seven years ago when the novel was published, you might not have noticed the gendered imbalance of the name “Aunt Harry.”  In 2012, you notice the name is metonymic, a shorthand for all the structural imbalances in the tragicomedy of Van Dyke’s first novel.  Etta Klein and Aunt Harry are one of the more remarkable odd couples in twentieth-century American literature, and the moral lessons implicit in their dealings and dalliance with the con-artist Maurice LeFleur are precious.  Precious is a sufficient description of the novel’s sexual identity.   Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes promotes a humor unto life rather than a sickness unto death.

As a novelist writing in the homophobic spaces provided by the integrationist discourses of the early 1960s, Van Dyke digested the practicality of Langston Hughes’ remark that if a Negro writer stepped outside of himself, he would see “how human, yet how beautiful and black [he is].  How very black –even when you’re integrated.”

The narrator deconstructs the hyper-pretense of American English by stepping outside just enough to expose the prohibitions and dispensations in the psychology of Black American English.  Van Dyke was a master chef in using racial flavors.  He was signifying twelve years before Geneva Smitherman dealt seriously with the linguistic dimensions of black modes of speech and twenty-three years before Gates discovered the signifying monkey was a literary critic. Only Zora Neale Hurston could beat Van Dyke to the punch.  His technical mastery of storytelling and language is matched only by the mastery of Al Young, Eudora Welty and Toni Cade Bambara.

Bright laughter is dominant during and after rereading Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes, and Van Dyke’s artistry of complex simplicity is a reason to praise the power of blackness.  He took revenge on the post-racial prior to the nativity of the post-racial.  That achievement is cause for deep and satisfying laughter.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

December 22, 2012

Rereading Henry Van Dyke (3 October 1928--22 December 2011): The Pleasure of the Text

 

Often you can derive pleasure from rereading a novel by an author whose contribution to African American literary tradition is not a hot critical topic.  For example,   Henry Van Dyke’s Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1965) provokes laughter, the robust folk laughter of recognizing how rich and educational African American idioms can be.  On the surface, Van Dyke’s novel is a relatively slight Bildungsroman, the narrative of a young man’s learning that “when a peacock’s days are over, they’re over.” But the matter under the surface demands a reckoning.

Van Dkye is a fine storyteller.  Through the voice of Oliver Eugene, a naïve but reliable narrator, you hear about the melodramatic antics of Mrs. Harriet Giles, the Negro housekeeper, who is the narrator’s Aunt Harry and Mrs. Etta Klein, a wealthy Jewish widow who is overly fond of rum and who is as self-deceptive as the mother in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer.  Forty-seven years ago when the novel was published, you might not have noticed the gendered imbalance of the name “Aunt Harry.”  In 2012, you notice the name is metonymic, a shorthand for all the structural imbalances in the tragicomedy of Van Dyke’s first novel.  Etta Klein and Aunt Harry are one of the more remarkable odd couples in twentieth-century American literature, and the moral lessons implicit in their dealings and dalliance with the con-artist Maurice LeFleur are precious.  Precious is a sufficient description of the novel’s sexual identity.   Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes promotes a humor unto life rather than a sickness unto death.

As a novelist writing in the homophobic spaces provided by the integrationist discourses of the early 1960s, Van Dyke digested the practicality of Langston Hughes’ remark that if a Negro writer stepped outside of himself, he would see “how human, yet how beautiful and black [he is].  How very black –even when you’re integrated.”

The narrator deconstructs the hyper-pretense of American English by stepping outside just enough to expose the prohibitions and dispensations in the psychology of Black American English.  Van Dyke was a master chef in using racial flavors.  He was signifying twelve years before Geneva Smitherman dealt seriously with the linguistic dimensions of black modes of speech and twenty-three years before Gates discovered the signifying monkey was a literary critic. Only Zora Neale Hurston could beat Van Dyke to the punch.  His technical mastery of storytelling and language is matched only by the mastery of Al Young, Eudora Welty and Toni Cade Bambara.

Bright laughter is dominant during and after rereading Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes, and Van Dyke’s artistry of complex simplicity is a reason to praise the power of blackness.  He took revenge on the post-racial prior to the nativity of the post-racial.  That achievement is cause for deep and satisfying laughter.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

December 22, 2012

Rereading Henry Van Dyke (3 October 1928--22 December 2011): The Pleasure of the Text

 

Often you can derive pleasure from rereading a novel by an author whose contribution to African American literary tradition is not a hot critical topic.  For example,   Henry Van Dyke’s Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1965) provokes laughter, the robust folk laughter of recognizing how rich and educational African American idioms can be.  On the surface, Van Dyke’s novel is a relatively slight Bildungsroman, the narrative of a young man’s learning that “when a peacock’s days are over, they’re over.” But the matter under the surface demands a reckoning.

Van Dkye is a fine storyteller.  Through the voice of Oliver Eugene, a naïve but reliable narrator, you hear about the melodramatic antics of Mrs. Harriet Giles, the Negro housekeeper, who is the narrator’s Aunt Harry and Mrs. Etta Klein, a wealthy Jewish widow who is overly fond of rum and who is as self-deceptive as the mother in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer.  Forty-seven years ago when the novel was published, you might not have noticed the gendered imbalance of the name “Aunt Harry.”  In 2012, you notice the name is metonymic, a shorthand for all the structural imbalances in the tragicomedy of Van Dyke’s first novel.  Etta Klein and Aunt Harry are one of the more remarkable odd couples in twentieth-century American literature, and the moral lessons implicit in their dealings and dalliance with the con-artist Maurice LeFleur are precious.  Precious is a sufficient description of the novel’s sexual identity.   Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes promotes a humor unto life rather than a sickness unto death.

As a novelist writing in the homophobic spaces provided by the integrationist discourses of the early 1960s, Van Dyke digested the practicality of Langston Hughes’ remark that if a Negro writer stepped outside of himself, he would see “how human, yet how beautiful and black [he is].  How very black –even when you’re integrated.”

The narrator deconstructs the hyper-pretense of American English by stepping outside just enough to expose the prohibitions and dispensations in the psychology of Black American English.  Van Dyke was a master chef in using racial flavors.  He was signifying twelve years before Geneva Smitherman dealt seriously with the linguistic dimensions of black modes of speech and twenty-three years before Gates discovered the signifying monkey was a literary critic. Only Zora Neale Hurston could beat Van Dyke to the punch.  His technical mastery of storytelling and language is matched only by the mastery of Al Young, Eudora Welty and Toni Cade Bambara.

Bright laughter is dominant during and after rereading Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes, and Van Dyke’s artistry of complex simplicity is a reason to praise the power of blackness.  He took revenge on the post-racial prior to the nativity of the post-racial.  That achievement is cause for deep and satisfying laughter.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

December 22, 2012

Rereading Henry Van Dyke (3 October 1928--22 December 2011): The Pleasure of the Text

 

Often you can derive pleasure from rereading a novel by an author whose contribution to African American literary tradition is not a hot critical topic.  For example,   Henry Van Dyke’s Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1965) provokes laughter, the robust folk laughter of recognizing how rich and educational African American idioms can be.  On the surface, Van Dyke’s novel is a relatively slight Bildungsroman, the narrative of a young man’s learning that “when a peacock’s days are over, they’re over.” But the matter under the surface demands a reckoning.

Van Dkye is a fine storyteller.  Through the voice of Oliver Eugene, a naïve but reliable narrator, you hear about the melodramatic antics of Mrs. Harriet Giles, the Negro housekeeper, who is the narrator’s Aunt Harry and Mrs. Etta Klein, a wealthy Jewish widow who is overly fond of rum and who is as self-deceptive as the mother in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer.  Forty-seven years ago when the novel was published, you might not have noticed the gendered imbalance of the name “Aunt Harry.”  In 2012, you notice the name is metonymic, a shorthand for all the structural imbalances in the tragicomedy of Van Dyke’s first novel.  Etta Klein and Aunt Harry are one of the more remarkable odd couples in twentieth-century American literature, and the moral lessons implicit in their dealings and dalliance with the con-artist Maurice LeFleur are precious.  Precious is a sufficient description of the novel’s sexual identity.   Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes promotes a humor unto life rather than a sickness unto death.

As a novelist writing in the homophobic spaces provided by the integrationist discourses of the early 1960s, Van Dyke digested the practicality of Langston Hughes’ remark that if a Negro writer stepped outside of himself, he would see “how human, yet how beautiful and black [he is].  How very black –even when you’re integrated.”

The narrator deconstructs the hyper-pretense of American English by stepping outside just enough to expose the prohibitions and dispensations in the psychology of Black American English.  Van Dyke was a master chef in using racial flavors.  He was signifying twelve years before Geneva Smitherman dealt seriously with the linguistic dimensions of black modes of speech and twenty-three years before Gates discovered the signifying monkey was a literary critic. Only Zora Neale Hurston could beat Van Dyke to the punch.  His technical mastery of storytelling and language is matched only by the mastery of Al Young, Eudora Welty and Toni Cade Bambara.

Bright laughter is dominant during and after rereading Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes, and Van Dyke’s artistry of complex simplicity is a reason to praise the power of blackness.  He took revenge on the post-racial prior to the nativity of the post-racial.  That achievement is cause for deep and satisfying laughter.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

December 22, 2012
v

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Quare Jewish Meditations

Heilbut, Anthony. The Fan Who Knew Too Much.  New York: Alred A. Knopf, 2012.


The most valuable part of this book is Heilbut's confessional essay "The Fan Who Knew Too Much" (304-328) with its recognition that a fan is "someone who's discovered an endless storehoue of personal satisfaction" (304), the satisfaction derived primarily from the ability of the computer to "dissolve all the familiar hierarchies" (305).  A reader, however, can defeat the dissolving power of a computer by remembering that hierarchies did and shall once again exist.

The least valuable feature of this book is its lack of endnotes and bibliography, the minimal requisites if entertaining gossip about Aretha Franklin, the queer culture of gospel music, the Jewish contribution to the genre of soap opera, and quaint Jewish self-hatreds are to secure credibility.  We expect better of an author who possesses a Ph.D. from Harvard.  Perhaps we have no right to expect better from a man who has spent considerable time in the company of the gospel children.  It is sufficient that he has been slain by the Spirit and transformed from a scholar into a fan.  God is good and just.

December 16, 2012

Friday, December 14, 2012


Voices Beneath the Water: Arthenia Bates Millican (1920-2012)

 

Listen.  Be still and listen.  Be still and listen and learn something for everyday use.  Our ancestors are stern, purposeful and dignified, impatient with foibles, adamant that memory shall be. During her ninety-two years of navigating life on Earth, Arthenia Jackson Bates Millican listened faithfully. She translated the sounds of ancestral text-messages into the gestures that bespeak profound humanity and enviable modesty, into the works that one might argue leave this world somewhat better than when we arrived.  She produced seeds beneath the snow, the life-kernels we are obliged to cultivate as proof that we are worthy holding her legacy in our minds, our ears, and our hands.  Having given us a model of how to live and make contributions to humanity without pretense, having given us many lessons in altruism or the best habits of the heart, she is now speaking with the millions of voices beneath the water.  Listen to her.  Be still and listen to her. Be still, listen, and learn how best to use the gifts she gave us to do the work that is always there to be done.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

December 14, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Salman Rushdie's Ritual Suicide

Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton.  New York: Random House, 2012.

It is rare to consider literature as a murder weapon, although in the eyes of some beholders Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) appears as the novel that killed the pretense of American innocence and ignorance in the United States. Seven decades later, the Anglo-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie uses fictive biography as autobiography to commit ritual suicide. Fashioning Joseph Anton from the remains of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, Rushdie accomplishes what fatwa could not: the death of the author. Obviously, anxiety, fear, pints of guilt and gallons of spleen drove Rushdie to defend the moral rightness of The Satanic Verses. "He [Salman/Joseph] looked at himself in the mirror and loathed what he saw"(342).  What he saw was the image of an Anglo-Indian, a zigga (T. Geronimo Johnson's magnificent neologism), a male whose desire to become a British gentleman of letters could never be accomplished; thus, the man so alienated from his culture(s) as to become the Other of himself, chose the tragic action of self-murder.

Rushdie can write, can write well, even if the eloquence of his prose descends from time to time into the bowels of what is utterly arch.  But he lacks the deceptive masculinity of an Ernest Hemingway, a writer capable of making suicide the real thing. Instead, he manipulates the kindred genres of autobiography and biography to speak from the grave of being.

Rushdie's ritual suicide empowers him to let slip a truth from which much of the world retreats in fear and denial and trembling: the Sauds of Arabia are ultimately responsible for the tragedy of 9/11. As far as I know, this revelation puts the legitimacy of fatwa under erasure. For providing this choice insight about the cesspool of contemporary history, the intrepid Queen of England should tap him on head and shoulders and give him her garter.  An Anglo-Indian writer who possesses spleen enough to defy Islam deserves no less an honor.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
12/12/12

Friday, December 7, 2012

CHARLIE R. BRAXTON

As a poet, Braxton defies the premature comfort that may accompany change; his is the fierce preservation of traditions of the near past, an affirmation that genuine poetry involves tracing a people's diverse states of being and thought.  Braxton's work is an affirmation that the prophecy that lends power to the jermiad burns productively in "the suffering soul / of a real black artist." Do not ask what is real. Feel what is audacious in the flames of anger as redemption.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
April 10, 2011

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Death of African American Literature


THE DEATH OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE

Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.

John 2.18

 


Most scholars, writers, and readers might agree that African American literature consists of orature (oral literary creations) and writings by people of African descent in the United States from the colonial period to the present. Once we move beyond so simple a definition, we forced to navigate a swamp of competing claims.

The definition of what was called Negro literature from the colonial period up to the 1960s was challenged by two of LeRoi Jones' (Amiri Baraka's) essays ---"Myth of a Negro Literature" and "Black Writing" --in Home: Social Essays (New York: William Morrow, 1966). Following the spirit of Richard Wright's "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937), Baraka argued successfully that Negro literature was created more for the inspection of white people than as a body of work that directly addressed the needs of African Americans; he called for black writing or black (African American) literature that would speak directly to black people. Thus, a new definition of African American literature came into being in the 1960s.

That definition prevailed until it was challenged by Trey Ellis' "The New Black Aesthetic," Callaloo 12.1 (1989): 233-243. By rejecting the ideological import of a Black Arts Movement definition of the literature, Ellis modified the definition to incorporate the interests of younger, often multiracial, writers who felt they could be more "mainstream" (have more aesthetic options) and not enslaved by responsibilities to the tradition associated with  a narrative of struggle as promoted by Baraka.  Without attachment to the ideological constraints of Baraka's notion of black writing, these artists could perfume themselves with exotic theories and create in brothels of free will. Ellis' essay forced a rethinking of what a definition of African American literature actually described.

While Ellis's essay received some attention and then vanished, as it were, into an outburst of writing attached more to the wishes of individual writers than to any imagined needs of a "black community," the rupture of Kenneth Warren's What Was African American Literature? (2011) has been more successful in creating uncertainty, confusion, and urgency regarding the definition of African American literature. The whiteness of blackness falls now like ancient acid rain, and the twin myths of a black community and a white community are moribund. The wasteland is decorated with the coffins of the colorblind.

Without giving any special attention to Ellis, the definition of the literature was adjusted by the essays in Redefining American Literary History (New York: MLA, 1990), particularly by Paul Lauter's essay "The Literature of America: A Comparative Discipline" and by the essays in the volume edited by Hortense J. Spillers, Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex and Nationality in the Modern Text (Routledge, 1991). There was a region-specific modification of definition in the anthology Black Southern Voices (New York: Meridian, 1992), which I co-edited with John Oliver Killens and in Trudier Harris' earlier essay "Black Writer in a Changed Landscape, Since 1950" in The History of Southern Literature (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1985).  Houston A. Baker, Jr.  provided a race-wise matrix in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. went on safari in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

All this adjusting of definition was occurring during the period of canon/cultural wars in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I think the publication of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997) and Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition (1998) made possible a temporary consensus about the definition of African American literature. Those anthologies emerged, however, from competing ideological vantage points. Thus, it is crucial to notice the current, shifting grounds of definition in Kenneth Warren's book. The Cambridge History of African American Literature basically follows what I would call the "consensual definition,” but Warren's book opens the gates for a flood of redefining and rethinking efforts. The consensual definition is fully operational mainly among African American scholars and non-black scholars who embrace its premises. With a few exceptions, American scholars (the majority of them are white) who deal with American literature still believe African American literature is not yet integrated into their definition of American literature.

What Was African American Literature?  was the topic for a roundtable at the 2012 MLA Convention, and the roundtable proceedings are available in "Assessing What Was African American Literature?; or, The State of the Field in the New Millennium," African American Review 44.4 (2011): 567-591. The commentaries from the roundtable give us a reasonable notion of what the contemporary views are.

These views, however, are rooted in the thinking promoted by Charles Johnson’s “The End of the Black American Narrative,” The American Scholar 77.3 (2008): 32-42, Gerald L. Early’s “The End of Race as We Know It,” The Chronicle Review (October 10, 2008) http://chronicle.com/wwwkly/v55/i07/07b01.htm  ,Reginald Dwayne Betts’ “Why I’m No Longer a Black Poet,” Phillis Remastered, February 6, 2012 http://www.phillisremastered.wordpress.com, Joyce Ann Joyce’s “A Tinker’s Damn: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and The Signifying Monkey Twenty Years Later,” Callaloo 31.2 (2008): 370-380, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010) and the essays in Ishmael Reed’s Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2010) and Going Too Far (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2012).

The death of African American literature will occur simultaneously with the death of American literature.  It is prudent to write the obituary for both bodies while obituaries can still be written. Among the crucial documents for writing the subsequent eulogy are

Bolden, Tony, ed. The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspective on Black Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Davis, Thadious M. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Ernest, John. Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Ervin, Hazel Arnett, ed. African American Literary Criticism, 1773 to 2000. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999.

Harris, Trudier. The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2009.

Jackson, Lawrence P. The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Jarrett, Gene Andrew. Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Mullen, Harryette. The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012.

Napier, Winston, ed. African American Literary Theory. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Young, Kevin. The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012.

 

When the death of African American literature rises like the moon in Arab summer, the life of African American literature will be reborn in African winter.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                                                                            PHBW BLOG

December 1, 2012

 

 

 

 

THE DEATH OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE

Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.

John 2.18

 


Most scholars, writers, and readers might agree that African American literature consists of orature (oral literary creations) and writings by people of African descent in the United States from the colonial period to the present. Once we move beyond so simple a definition, we forced to navigate a swamp of competing claims.

The definition of what was called Negro literature from the colonial period up to the 1960s was challenged by two of LeRoi Jones' (Amiri Baraka's) essays ---"Myth of a Negro Literature" and "Black Writing" --in Home: Social Essays (New York: William Morrow, 1966). Following the spirit of Richard Wright's "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937), Baraka argued successfully that Negro literature was created more for the inspection of white people than as a body of work that directly addressed the needs of African Americans; he called for black writing or black (African American) literature that would speak directly to black people. Thus, a new definition of African American literature came into being in the 1960s.

That definition prevailed until it was challenged by Trey Ellis' "The New Black Aesthetic," Callaloo 12.1 (1989): 233-243. By rejecting the ideological import of a Black Arts Movement definition of the literature, Ellis modified the definition to incorporate the interests of younger, often multiracial, writers who felt they could be more "mainstream" (have more aesthetic options) and not enslaved by responsibilities to the tradition associated with  a narrative of struggle as promoted by Baraka.  Without attachment to the ideological constraints of Baraka's notion of black writing, these artists could perfume themselves with exotic theories and create in brothels of free will. Ellis' essay forced a rethinking of what a definition of African American literature actually described.

While Ellis's essay received some attention and then vanished, as it were, into an outburst of writing attached more to the wishes of individual writers than to any imagined needs of a "black community," the rupture of Kenneth Warren's What Was African American Literature? (2011) has been more successful in creating uncertainty, confusion, and urgency regarding the definition of African American literature. The whiteness of blackness falls now like ancient acid rain, and the twin myths of a black community and a white community are moribund. The wasteland is decorated with the coffins of the colorblind.

Without giving any special attention to Ellis, the definition of the literature was adjusted by the essays in Redefining American Literary History (New York: MLA, 1990), particularly by Paul Lauter's essay "The Literature of America: A Comparative Discipline" and by the essays in the volume edited by Hortense J. Spillers, Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex and Nationality in the Modern Text (Routledge, 1991). There was a region-specific modification of definition in the anthology Black Southern Voices (New York: Meridian, 1992), which I co-edited with John Oliver Killens and in Trudier Harris' earlier essay "Black Writer in a Changed Landscape, Since 1950" in The History of Southern Literature (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1985).  Houston A. Baker, Jr.  provided a race-wise matrix in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. went on safari in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

All this adjusting of definition was occurring during the period of canon/cultural wars in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I think the publication of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997) and Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition (1998) made possible a temporary consensus about the definition of African American literature. Those anthologies emerged, however, from competing ideological vantage points. Thus, it is crucial to notice the current, shifting grounds of definition in Kenneth Warren's book. The Cambridge History of African American Literature basically follows what I would call the "consensual definition,” but Warren's book opens the gates for a flood of redefining and rethinking efforts. The consensual definition is fully operational mainly among African American scholars and non-black scholars who embrace its premises. With a few exceptions, American scholars (the majority of them are white) who deal with American literature still believe African American literature is not yet integrated into their definition of American literature.

What Was African American Literature?  was the topic for a roundtable at the 2012 MLA Convention, and the roundtable proceedings are available in "Assessing What Was African American Literature?; or, The State of the Field in the New Millennium," African American Review 44.4 (2011): 567-591. The commentaries from the roundtable give us a reasonable notion of what the contemporary views are.

These views, however, are rooted in the thinking promoted by Charles Johnson’s “The End of the Black American Narrative,” The American Scholar 77.3 (2008): 32-42, Gerald L. Early’s “The End of Race as We Know It,” The Chronicle Review (October 10, 2008) http://chronicle.com/wwwkly/v55/i07/07b01.htm  ,Reginald Dwayne Betts’ “Why I’m No Longer a Black Poet,” Phillis Remastered, February 6, 2012 http://www.phillisremastered.wordpress.com, Joyce Ann Joyce’s “A Tinker’s Damn: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and The Signifying Monkey Twenty Years Later,” Callaloo 31.2 (2008): 370-380, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010) and the essays in Ishmael Reed’s Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2010) and Going Too Far (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2012).

The death of African American literature will occur simultaneously with the death of American literature.  It is prudent to write the obituary for both bodies while obituaries can still be written. Among the crucial documents for writing the subsequent eulogy are

Bolden, Tony, ed. The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspective on Black Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Davis, Thadious M. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Ernest, John. Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Ervin, Hazel Arnett, ed. African American Literary Criticism, 1773 to 2000. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999.

Harris, Trudier. The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2009.

Jackson, Lawrence P. The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Jarrett, Gene Andrew. Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Mullen, Harryette. The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012.

Napier, Winston, ed. African American Literary Theory. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Young, Kevin. The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012.

 

When the death of African American literature rises like the moon in Arab summer, the life of African American literature will be reborn in African winter.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                                                                            PHBW BLOG

December 1, 2012