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Monday, January 28, 2013

Gaiter's Study Questions for Black History Month


I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang"

- by Leonce Gaiter

Study Questions

1. Through his parents, who suffered forced relocation and slavery, Rufus Buck had felt the

sting of violent injustices perpetrated on his people. He was personally witnessing another—

the usurpation for promised Indian lands. How much of his crusade was based on a reaction

to injustice?

2. How would you describe Judge Parker’s attitude toward the Indians of Indian Territory?

3. What are the limits to fighting injustice against an infinitely more powerful force?

4. What are Judge Parker’s goals in his manipulation of Theodosia’s role in the Buck gang’s

trial, and why is it important to him to achieve those goals?

5. What would have prompted Rufus Buck to consider rape a legitimate weapon of war?

6. Why does Parker react so vehemently to the Darwinian text? How does he associate the texts

with his life as de facto ruler of Indian Territory?

7. Name historical instances in which tactics we would today label as “terrorist” have and have

not succeeded in achieving the aims of those who employ them.

8. Discuss the meaning of the following quote:
“Parker believed in retribution; he did not

believe in unpunished lies or unrequited obfuscations. He believed that deception and

injustice literally bred—that they spawned and reproduced themselves to even worse effect.

And in egregious cases, God in his wisdom made their bitter fruits manifest in flesh, and

sinners suffered at the hands of their own misdeeds. When he heard of Buck’s first warning,

and when he suffered the torturous details of the rape of Rosetta Hasson, he knew that Buck

was such a plague, more conjured than born.”

9. Do you see any similarities between the moral universe of Judge Parker, Rufus Buck and

Cherokee Bill and ours?

10. If you had been alive and Native American in 1895 and wanted the United States to honor its

commitment that the Indian Territory would be just that--Indian--what would you have done?

11. Name the fiction you've read or films you've seen that discuss Africa-Americans fighting

back against slavery and violent injustice with the same zeal and ruthlessness with which, for

instance, white Southerners fought "northern aggression."

Saturday, January 26, 2013

DuBois and the Blues

A Blues Moment in Dusk of Dawn: A Note on Autobiography


W. E. B. DuBois’s writing in The Souls of Black Folk (1901) is spiritual, and Dusk of Dawn (1940) complements the first installment of his autobiographical project with a secular sorrow song, with the blues.  Despite the magnification of difference between Booker T. Washington and DuBois, it is refreshing to know that DuBois admitted his kinship and parallelism with Washington in the matter of miscalculating a solution for the problems of black folk.  In Dusk of Dawn, Chapter 7, “The Colored World Within,” DuBois frees the cat from the bag. A truth scampers out.

Here in the past we have easily landed into a morass of criticism, without faith in the ability of American Negroes to extricate themselves from their present plight.  Our former panacea emphasized by Booker T. Washington was flight of class from mass in wealth with the idea of escaping the masses or ruling the masses through power placed by white capitalists into the hands of those with larger income.  My own panacea of earlier days was flight of class from mass through the development of a Talented Tenth; but the power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and character and not in its wealth.  The problem which I did not then attack was that of leadership and authority within the group, which by implication left controls to wealth --- a contingency of which I never dreamed.  But now the whole economic trend of the world has changed.  That mass and class must unite for the world’s salvation is clear.  We, who have had least class differentiation in wealth, can follow in the new trend and indeed lead it.

Does one respond to DuBois’s idealism with a mixtape of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and Gil Scott Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is”? It may be better to up the ante of ambivalence by reading Andrew Zimmerman’s “Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute and the German Empire: Race and Cotton in the Black Atlantic.” GHI Bulletin No. 43 (Fall 2008):9-20, the coat-pulling essay Gregory Rutledge brought to my attention.  Washington by way of a practical enterprise and DuBois by virtue of his German education came to unfortunate conclusions in the danger zone of global capitalism.  They ultimately had to pay the piper of grand designs.  DuBois lived long enough to recant; Washington died too soon to make amends.

 The blues moment does not eradicate our ambivalence, but it retards our temptation to settle for hasty conclusions about leadership.  We check ourselves by reading what Robert  J. Norrell says about Washington and Africa in Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009). We reread DuBois’s The World and Africa (1946) with greater skepticism. We ask what is leadership to us.  A panacea is a mirage, and DuBois’s blues epiphany confirms that the unity of mass and class is an impossible dream, that salvation cannot materialize.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            January 26, 2013

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Inaugural Poems

Inaugural Poems: Touching Bones of Consciousness


Rudolph Lewis, publisher of the online journal ChickenBones , has suggested that we welcome Richard Blanco’s use of proletarian elements in “One Today.”  I concur. With the exception of Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” an old poem he substituted for “Dedication” which he had written for the 1961 inaugural, inaugural poems do refer to the proletariat or to labor. Frost could not read “Dedication” because the glare of sunlight on snow stabbed his eyes.  Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” and Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” refer to work.  One might argue that Frost also referred to the labor of colonizing.

What I remember best from Angelou is rock, river, and tree, how Nature’s work fits within her commentary on a narrative process:


History, despite its wrenching pain

Cannot be unlived, but if faced

With courage, need not be lived again. 


and from Alexander’s poem I ponder a single labored line:


A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

It is the use of “we” in the four poems, however, that moves us from selective remembering to critical reflecting.  Frost’s “we” is unsurprisingly Eurocentric.   Angelou conjures Walt Whitman in nuancing “we” as a catalogue of ethnicities.  Alexander’s “we” is metonymic; it must be translated from six crucial lines:


Say it plain: that many have died for this day.

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,

who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,


picked the cotton and the lettuce, built

brick by brick the glittering edifices

they would then keep clean and work inside of.


Blanco gives identity to “we” by way of uttering greetings:


….Hear: the doors we open

for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,

buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or bueno dias


And yet do I marvel not to hear ---zaoshang hao, yah’eh-the, suprabhat, and ohayogozaimasu.  Perhaps Blanco knows too well which immigrants are unmapped and unnamed, which immigrants and indigenous peoples are repressed in national consciousness.  When his poem speaks to us of “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain/ the empty desks of twenty children marked absent/ today and forever,” we sense that the “impossible vocabulary” silences the survivors of the American Holocaust and of the benign genocide that cultivates mass incarceration.  I do not marvel that inaugural poems touch bones of consciousness, for that is the function of poetry embroiled in ceremonies of the Republic.

Given the widespread consumption of poetry in the twenty-first century, it is understandable that we are blessed with a surplus of poets and poetry.  It is equally understandable that our appetite for poetry marked by proletarian elements may be increasing.

Consider that in the epilogue for Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Lawrence W. Levine highlights the anti-democratic conviction that informed Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, that still informs the jeremiads of Bloom’s ideological children: “that only the minority can fruitfully investigate and discuss the nature of the cultural authority which the majority needs to accept”(252).  Some contemporary poets and critics embrace this conviction without question, but the majority of us who write and consume poetry recognize the conviction is a pile of excrement.  Fully capable of distinguishing what is accomplished or dreadful in honest labor-respectful poetry from what has been trimmed by anti-democratic scissors and merchandized by Bloomians as masterpieces, we know which poems are painstakingly crafted to touch the bones of consciousness.  We know that Brenda Marie Osbey’s History and Other Poems (2013), David Brinks’s The Secret Brain; Selected Poems 1995-2012, Sterling D. Plumpp’s long poem “Mississippi Suite”(published on Triquarterly Online (, Frank X. Walker’s Affrilachia (2000),  Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split (2011), and Richard Blanco’s “One Today” are touching our bones of consciousness.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                                                            PHBW blog January 24, 2013




Sunday, January 20, 2013

On Richard A. Long (1927-2013)

Richard A. Long (February 9, 1927-January 4, 2013): A Spirit Not a Ghost


In the final scene of Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998), the poet Amiri Baraka, portraying the streetwise voice of wisdom, eulogizes: “You’ve got to be a spirit not a ghost.”  Had one asked Richard A. Long about this film, he might have given a brief answer: “It’s entertainment.”  Then, looking at, through, and beyond you, he might have added “Ought we not consider Oscar Micheaux’s contribution to cinema?” In fewer than a dozen words, Long would have delivered a seminar as he archived Baraka’s eulogy for a more needful time.

Dr. Long was more than a scholar and a gentleman.  He was a presence, a thoroughly cosmopolitan presence.  I last talked with him the 2012 College Language Association Convention.  At 85, he was as radiant and magnetic as he had been when I first meet him four decades earlier at one of his legendary CAAS meetings at Atlanta University.  He belonged to that generation of African American intellectuals who assumed they were entitled to have a humanistic worldview, to arm themselves with knowledge of countries and cultures as they shaped African American scholarship, teaching, and a complex intellectual tradition.  Even when we could not agree with their ideologies and idiosyncrasies, we younger scholars always had the greatest esteem for their sacrifices and their authority.

Dr. Long’s authority was grounded in his breadth of knowledge about languages, literature, the visual and plastic arts, history, dance, music, and linguistics.  We who mourn the deaths of so many African American thinkers and artists in 2012 are obliged to honor yet another spirit who is not a ghost. He continues to be a presence in a different plane as we recall the people he knew, the lives he touched, the places he visited, and the integrity of his service to such institutions as Atlanta University, Emory University, the College Language Association, and the Association for the Preservation of the Eatonville Community by way of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival Planning Committee.  Dr. Long was noted for mapping his own location in the world by casual references to such figures as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Romare Bearden, Hoyt W. Fuller, Leon Damas, Rex Nettleford, Stephen Henderson, and Roberta Flack.  There was a peculiar legitimacy in this habit, for Dr. Long indeed enjoyed more than casual relationships with the people about whom he spoke.  One was awed by the fact that he knew everyone who mattered; one was awed too by his intimate knowledge of the Harlem Renaissance, black dance, black literature and the theatre. And how fondly I recall his lecture on Edward Said’s book Orientalism as a model of our responsibility to control how African Diaspora and African American cultures are talked about and evaluated.  Extracted from its cinematic context, Amir Baraka’s intoning “You’ve got to be a spirit not a ghost” is a mantra for remembering Richard A. Long.


To experience how poetry can assist us in remembering the spirit of Dr. Long, dwell awhile with this segment from René Char’s “Partage Formel” (“Formal Share”):


At the threshold of gravity, the poet like the spider constructs

his path in the sky.  Partially hidden from himself, he appears to

others, in the light beams of his unbelievable ruse, mortally visible.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 20, 2013

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Peace is still budding

defiantly flame colored ---

a rose in winter.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Confirmation of "America's Soul Unchained" from NYRB

Wagner with Guns

Christopher Benfey

Jamie Foxx in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained
I took a three-hour break from reading books about John Brown and his midnight raid on Harpers Ferry to go see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which was rumored to have something to do with liberating slaves by extremely violent means.
It was Boxing Day, when rich folk were once expected to hand out boxes of gifts to their servants and the deserving poor, and this year the movies at the Cineplex seemed to have taken up the theme of human misery. From what I could see, the mothers and their daughters were heading for Les Misérables while the guys (I went with my older son) gravitated toward Tarantino. (Senators, meanwhile, were flying back to Washington for some Lincoln-esque horse-trading, to decide whether the rich should pay higher taxes or the poor should have their programs slashed, or both.)
It seemed mildly transgressive to be watching Django. The school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, a couple of hours south of where we live, had led to the cancellation of a red-carpet celebration of the gun-filled film on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, and Spike Lee had announced on Twitter that he personally was boycotting Django in honor of his ancestors. “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western,” he wrote sternly, as though someone had rashly claimed it was.
As the film got underway, the crude credits, the Ennio Morricone tunes, the fake boulders and cheesy mountain backdrops made you think that Spike Lee might have a point, though it was hard to resist a scene, more Blazing Saddles than Birth of a Nation, where Jonah Hill turned up in a KKK rally led by Don Johnson’s Big Daddy, and the nightriders found they couldn’t “see fucking shit” through the holes in their hoods.
Something more serious entered the mix with the marvelous Christoph Waltz character, a German bounty-hunter and dentist, by pretense or profession, named Dr. King (as in Martin?) Schultz. Dr. Schultz is no John Brown, at least not at the start of the film. Though he finds slavery distasteful, he sees an analogy between his own business—“I kill people and sell the corpses for cash”—and the lucrative slave-trade in living bodies.
We first see Schultz’s little horse-drawn coach in the distance on a dark night, with its giant tooth (for hiding stuff like dynamite) bobbing crazily on a spring. King confronts two white men driving seven slaves chained together with ankle-irons. He’s looking for a slave who can identify the Brittle brothers, outlaws with a hefty price on their heads. Django (given a strong and sympathetic performance by Jamie Foxx) turns out to be that slave. Schultz, eyes twinkling and moustache twitching, pays to get him unchained. He answers the slave drivers’ indignation with a cool (and ruthlessly violent) efficiency that we’ll grow accustomed to, carefully establishing a motive of self-defense before opening fire. Django and Schultz embark on a profitable partnership; by the end of the film, each man has entered the other’s world and been changed in the process.
Schultz, a trickster figure, has a taste for theater and masquerade. Django, dressed preposterously as Gainsborough’s Blue Boy (later he’ll don a black hat and menacing shades), poses as Schultz’s valet. Trained by Schultz to be “the fastest gun in the South,” he will help track down outlaws, getting paid a third (not half) of the profits. In exchange, Schultz will help Django rescue his wife (played somewhat listlessly by Kerry Washington, though the script gives the role little scope) from a notorious plantation in Mississippi.
Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained
What might have started as a way of explaining Waltz’s German accent (he’s an immigrant, etc.) seems to have spread into the plot. Schultz is surprised to learn that Django’s wife is called Brünnhilde (actually, Broomhilda) von Shaft (via Wagner, presumably, and maybe Isaac Hayes), and has learned to speak excellent German from her German owners. On a leisurely evening among the fake boulders, Dr. Schultz tells Django the story of Siegfried’s rescue of Brünnhilde, foreshadowing the ring of fire that will eventually encircle Broomhilda’s place of imprisonment, and Django’s avenging raid, rifle in hand, to free her.
The film is in love with such European allusions. A trained “Mandingo” fighter—a participant in fight-to-the death spectacles more firmly rooted in the history of Blaxploitation films and Roman gladiators than in the history of American slavery —named Dartagnan inspires some back-and-forth about The Three Musketeers before the predictable payoff from Dr. Schultz: “Alexandre Dumas is black.” Broomhilda, more a remembered ideal than a flesh-and-blood character, resembles other fallen women from French novels, such as Dumas’s Milady, branded like her, or Les Miz’s Fantine (played by Tarantino stalwart Uma Thurman in a pre-Anne Hathaway version directed by Bille August in 1998).
The chief villain in a film chockfull of them is Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the slimy plantation master of Candyland and current owner of Broomhilda, a “comfort girl” for Candie’s slave fighters. Tarantino is perhaps more interested in Candie than we are, or, for that matter, DiCaprio appears to be. He is given a very long routine with a skull and a handsaw, explaining that slaves, as shown by phrenology, are innately servile. Candie’s not very shrewd, though; his incestuous sister, who plays “Für Elise” on the harp, and his head house-slave, Stephen, do a lot of his thinking for him.
It is perhaps a weakness of Tarantino’s film, though surely consistent with the spaghetti western genre, that a great gulf separates the good guys from the bad. No room is left for the ugly, the ambiguous, the in-between. The obvious candidate would be the loyal Stephen (wonderfully and frighteningly played by Samuel L. Jackson), who is surely as much a victim of slavery as anyone in the film, and yet the death reserved for this traitor to his race is notably cruel. Tarantino, true to his chosen genres and perhaps his temperament, revels in exacting revenge on history’s most notorious torturers, on Nazis in Inglourious Basterds and now on slaveholders, as though sufficient blood could redeem the fallen world.
The specific question raised by John Brown’s raid is whether it is morally defensible, in the face of evil laws, to go beyond civil disobedience and embrace outright violent law-breaking instead. (“Assuredly, if insurrection is ever a sacred duty, it must be when it is directed against Slavery,” Victor Hugo wrote of Brown.) The question is easily answered in the Dirty Harry movies (Clint Eastwood’s other classic role, when he’d moved on from spaghetti westerns) but given more thought by Schultz, who, as a bounty hunter, has observed the law punctiliously his whole career and profited handsomely from it.
In a pivotal scene in the big house in Candyland, we watch Dr. Schultz, his back turned to us, turning over the question in his mind and in his hunched shoulders before he grasps a Derringer hidden down his sleeve. Django’s triumphant return, rifle in hand on a galloping horse, is yet to come, when the whole audience can breathe a little easier as the avenging black angel settles the score and drenches the premises with several layers of fresh blood. “Hung be the Heavens in Scarlet,” as John Brown wrote before unleashing holy hell on Harpers Ferry.
Quite apart from its out-of-season gunslinging, Django Unchained is predictably being spoken of as “controversial,” with some questioning Tarantino’s right to show this or that aspect of slavery and others celebrating a righteous black man, an African-American Dirty Harry, taking care of the flawed nation’s business. “In my world, you gotta get dirty,” Django murmurs to Schultz. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m getting dirty.” As for Dr. King Schultz, he may not be John Brown, but with his quirky, trickster’s temperament, which matches the filmmaker’s manipulations, he’s got his priorities right.
January 5, 2013, 9:55 a.m.

Reading Sterling Plumpp



Poets House

March 30, 1995



In March 1995 I spoke about Sterling Plumpp in the PASSWORDS series at Poets House, proud to be a Mississippian in New York speaking about a Mississippian.  Poets House was then located at 72 Spring Street.  It is now located at 10 River Terrace.   In 1995, I thought Plumpp was the finest blues poet our nation had produced, surpassed only by Langston Hughes.  Much has changed.  In 2013, I am convinced Plumpp is still standing next to Hughes; no writer who claims to be a blues/jazz poet surpasses him with the exception of Amiri Baraka, who is our most total music poet.  Should I discover that anyone agrees with my opinion, I shall promptly have a minor heart attack.  That person will have killed my ability to have the blues.

I venture into the future to find the present and leave the past frozen.  Obviously, I am troubled by the apostasy that infects our contemporary discussions of poetry.  I will learn you to play bid whist with Death.   If you choose, you may turn ice into either steam or water.  It is entirely up to you.



One poet looks at another.  He watches him coming through and out of chaos, out of Mississippi ---the blood, sweat, mud and terrors of the near past, coming out of Clinton, MS --a hoot and a holler down the road from the Delta, the womb of the blues.  Watches him follow that smokestack lightning, up the tracks the train will take to sweet home Chicago, Mecca, Chi-town, the promised land.  Watches too the proverbial progress from the frying pan to chaos to the skillet, the jump from bad to bad in the territory where one sings the blues, or constructs a sensibility, an aesthetic, a whole body of work from Portable Soul (1969) to Hornman (1995)

Intervention at 12:32 a.m. ---For commentary on Plumpp and his post-1995 books -- Ornate With Smoke (1997), Blues Narrative (1999), and Velvet Bebop Kente Cloth (2001), read Valley Voices 9.1 (2009), edited by Hermine Pinson and Duriel E. Harris.  The deep pleasure of remembering that Plumpp, Keropetse Kgositsile , and I listened to Fred Anderson playing horn and Duriel Harris reading her poetry at the Velvet  Lounge (Chicago) in 2001; that Lorenzo Thomas, Plumpp and I had to do some serious learning when Junior Wells sang somewhere at sometime.

One poet worries out the meaning of the other poet’s dark journey from peasant origins to achievement by dint of pure will, mastery of craft and the particularity of speech and music as referents that mark the contours and qualities of the new black [American] poetry (Stephen Henderson’s theory), by continual autobiographical exploration of the ethos of the blues until the other poet strikes a massive vein of gold in the rockbed, only to reveal that there under everything is a diamond in his African ancestry.

The poet from Clinton, who now claims and is claimed by Chicago, is Sterling Dominic Plumpp.  It is his work I celebrate, not by lecture but by a collage of sound  -- an effort to freeze patterns of meaning in his work.  For he is the best blues poet of my generation (alongside the blues musicians who are poets) driven to an awakening by Johannesburg and the possibilities of finding the majesty of the blues in jazz.

In his first book, Portable Soul (1969),  Plumpp’s poems conform most to an urban mode or to the UpSouth idioms of the 1960s/1970s to be found in much black poetry, that reformation of language which threatened to render all of the collective voices, in the worst instances, not distinguishable from one another.  If you did not know how to pay attention to context clues, you might mistake a poem by Plumpp for a poem by Don Lee (Haki Madhubuti)  --  so strong was the OBAC/Chicago sound issuing from the workshops as the seeds of the Black Aesthetic began to assume shape.  But the blues in Plumpp came through in the poem entitled “Black Resurrection” (Portable Soul 18).

Three deep blues features in this poem  deserve special attention.  First, there are the compressed images of blues origin ( murmur of chains/ chords of my captivity) which evoke a cause-effect relation between historical experience and musical expression.  The surreal, gripping image of “tears hanging / down into the waiting grave” strike a tonal memory of the blues as “crying songs of laughter.”  The crossing of the sacred and the secular where the specific song titles are the communion bread and wine (Roman Catholic rite) is a counter-gesture to the usual careful distinction kept between the godly and the ungodly among blues people.

So the blues was a way out of the dilemma of craft for Plumpp.  Not to write in the fashionable style, but (like some early 20th century Harlem Renaissance poets) to mine what had always authenticated Black Art, namely according to Plumpp in his essays on psychology (Black Rituals 1972), the Blues, Spirituals, and the Black Church.  Even if one rejects the so-called intentional fallacy in interpretation, it does not hurt to know that Plumpp was working through an ideological/technical crisis that put him in some opposition to the poetic outpourings of cultural nationalism.  Plumpp has intentions.

Listen to this: “Another misunderstanding concerns the Blues.  People who sing the Blues are reflecting a worldview that is particularly Black.  They have not resigned to accept their fate but have found ways to admit to themselves and their brethren their troubles.  I don’t think this necessitates a dichotomy with Blackness” (Black Rituals 71).

So Plumpp would opt for the blues basics of his origins in Mississippi.  The option does not bespeak raw imitation of blues structure but sophisticated use of blues substructures, the multi-leveled feelings behind the class AAB stanza and it variations.  Yes, Plumpp could do that.  Two demonstrations.  Listen to the version of his poem “Son of the Blues” recorded by SOB/Chitown Hustlers [ Billy Branch and Sons of Blues, Where’s My Money?( Red Beans RB 004)] and then read/juxtapose “Worst Than the Blues My Daddy Had” which was published in the 1993 collection Johannesburg and Other Poems, pages 10-11.  Both poems come from the 1982/83 manuscript entitled “Worst Than the Blues My Daddy Had.”   But the bulk of the poems written in this style are not published.  There was a watershed moment in Plumpp’s understanding of what he was doing as a poet.  Referring to such poems in notes appended to the manuscript, Plumpp claimed

The individual blues piece, Blues Song-Poems as I call them, are direct referents to a wide variety of feelings, emotions, concern, attitudes, and situations which confront on three levels:  as an individual, as a member of the Afro-American national group, and as a member of the human world threaten [ed] with extinction because so few men hold the power to destroy.  For me, they broaden the range of my voice and bring into focus elements of concern submerged:  irony, lightheartedness, empathy with females, and a deep preoccupation with the sensual.


They are pieces reaching to the largest possible audience since aside from the blues form (AAB) they deal with situations real people find themselves in and they don’t pose any easy solutions.


The blues poet writes so his lines are lyrical yet song as read; they do not depend upon a performance for their effect.  The temptation to condense and edit out the raw oral quality of blues poems will only amputate their authenticity; for blues are feelings at their most unexpurgated level.

Are we quite certain that blues effects do not depend upon a performance?   Make a test.  Listen  to the bluesman Willie Kent sing Plumpp’s poem “911.”[Too Hurt to Cry. Delmark DE 667]  Kent’s vocal interpretation convinces me that performance makes all the difference.

On May 20, 1983, I wrote to Plumpp:

Sterling, I feel the poems that are identified as blues songs are too conscious of the formal properties of blues  --you let repetition and the impulse to rhyme dominate feeling, the heartbeat and muscle of the blues.

In making your blues song-poems you are too aware of yourself as a poet, too little inside your feelings or the feelings you assign to the persona in the poems.  Remember Ellison’ saying the blues are about running one’s finger over the jagged edge of life?  Well, after you cut your finger, you suck the poison out, wrap the wound in a cobweb, and keep on moving.  If the blues was about staying with the pain, the jooks would be empty on Saturday night.

Sterling’s revenge was to dedicate the poem I said was the best example of a Sterling Plumpp blues, “Muddy Waters,” to me in Blues: The Story Always Untold.


Intervention at 1:57 a.m.  My letter to Plumpp was written after reading and discussing Plumpp’s manuscript with the young poet Charlie Braxton.

 A historian might connect Mississippi and South Africa through comparative study of systems of oppressions. Plumpp connects those sites of humanity and experience by responding to a historical call in “Thaba Nchu” (Johannesburg and other Poems 107)  When a special collection of signature poems by twenty-three poets was printed in September 1994 for the “Furious Flower: A revolution in African American Poetry” conference (James Madison University), “Thaba Nchu” was Plumpp’s contribution.  This poem may be a new writing of his name, a poetic completion of the search for temporal location (not to be confused with search for roots) which is initiated in early poems in the volumes  Portable Soul and HalfBlack, Half Blacker and in a telling stanza in the long poem Steps to Break the Circle (1974):

My Black Man’s days are epic curtains

Drawn shades of my light moments

Pyramidal drapes of red, green and black

Shaking their round asses to the beat

Of a tom-tom and conked conga

Falling dreams sliding down

To ponderous claps of wonder

                                                                And a predictive closure

My feetsounds is thunder blows

I shango I shango shango shango

Shango down the freedom road…

                                                                a return to the ancestral homeland of the

                                                                New World blues.  The circle can only be

broken by taking the steps to  reestablish the circle of African authenticity in

which the African gods are active verbs,

                                                                because anyone who dares to transform

the name of a god into a verb certainly would have to go where the

mojo hands called. (25)


From the collection The Mojo Hands Call, I Must Go (1982), which won the 1983 Carl Sandburg Award for Poetry,  your reading of the stunning “I Hear the Shuffle of the People’s Feet” (35-42) can perform the verbalizing of a god.  When Plumpp started talking on the autobiographical highway of Clinton (1976), he told you everything you must know until you arrived at Johannesburg & Other Poems (1993) and heard  Hornman (1995). In his early poems and in Blues: The Story Always Untold (1989), Plumpp had played the totality of the blues, inscribing the urgency of refiguring his Mississippi self in relation to Africa by way of the rituals, social performances, and folkways urbanized in Chicago.  He mapped the territory in sentiments and forms.  He was a native son of the blues, sending its light through the Chicago prism of his imagination until….until Hornman celebrated the saxophonist Von Freeman and took us and him into a jazz end zone.

Jazz appropriation does not mean Plumpp has abandoned the blues.  No.   The man has gone deeper.  Through the prism of his acute sense of where he came from and who he is, Plumpp has made poetry an instrument of consciousness.  At the crossroad of blues and jazz, reading Plumpp’s poetry is an act of metamorphosis, one poet talking to another in the university of a blues club.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 15, 2013




Sunday, January 13, 2013

Against Academic Tyranny



Although the Django Unchained syndrome will have a short life, it should convey a powerful lesson to scholars who teach American literature and culture:  Americans are exercising their First Amendment rights and speaking slantwise against the tyranny of literary and cultural criticism. The particulars of the syndrome will evaporate with the advent of Women’s History Month 2013. Reawakened interest in “History” and the sentient histories we inhabit, however, will prevail a bit longer.

 Scholars do not always know, as they argue about the validity of responses to a work of art, what is best.  Myopic albeit practical concerns regarding promotion and tenure, possession of authority, and esteem among their multiracial colleagues too often alienate scholars from their students and the general public.  They forget the excellence of Barbara Christian’s 1987 essay “The Race for Theory”  and of pioneering work by Carolyn Rodgers and Stephen Henderson regarding speech and music as interpretive referents;  of  Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (1938),  LeRoi Jones’s Blues People ( 1963),  Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970),  George Kent’s Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture (1972), Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985),  Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Kalamu ya Salaam’s What Is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self (1994), and Charles W. Mills’s The Racial Contract (1997).  These works and others assert the centrality of reader or viewer responses in our interpretations of literature and non-literary writing, and in interpretation of history as narratives of lived experiences.

The professional scholars dwell in dream-sprinkled elite and middle-class cloisters and worship the mysteries of the canon.  They forget the primal obligation of women and men to communicate with men and women.   Isolated by obtuse clerical languages, they minimize how self-publishing, the interests of global capitalism, newspapers, the spectrum of music and entertainment, specialized non-academic magazines, and the ocean of Internet social networking actually shape public tastes, consumption, and responses.  Either by intention or by accident, they are agents of academic tyranny.  Significant numbers of Americans have revolted against such tyranny. They have become students in the public sphere.  They refer to findings and opinions offered by traditional scholars and soi-disant public intellectuals, but their conclusions tend to be radical in the most positive sense of that word.  They teach themselves the contradictions.

“Students,” according to Richard Schramm, National Humanities Center vice president for educational programs, “learn subjects like history and literature best when they are put in the position of scholars  --  that is, when they study primary resources, draw their own conclusions from sometimes ambiguous or conflicting evidence, and make arguments that organize a host of details into a unified statement” (“Focus on Close Reading, Primary Documents Aligns Well with New Standards,” News of the National Humanities Center, Fall/Winter 2012, page 5).  Unlike the students Schramm has in mind, independent students are not bound to formalist assumptions in their quest for knowledge.  They penetrate form to access content and to discover how content has been socially constructed.  They are not stymied if they lack the jargon of literary and cultural criticism, if they can’t twist their mouths around tortured propositions.  Their ordinary, everyday language is sufficient.

Key documents for understanding what is happening in the revolt against academic tyranny are Louise Rosenblatt’s The Reader the Text the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978) and Edward Said’s The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983). Americans who engage in democratic criticism are experimenting with what Rosenblatt called “efferent reading” (focus on what one carries away from one’s reading) and “aesthetic reading” (focus on what one experiences in the process of reading).  Redesigning an insight Said had about what traditional criticism must think itself to be, participants in the Django Unchained syndrome really do make critical thinking “life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom” (The World, the Text….29) Behold, however, an irony of irony. Democratic criticism in the interests of freedom of thought must deal with contradictions that are undeniably coercive.  That is the price of the ticket for passage to brutal honesty.

A film is only a film.  Our momentary fateful attraction to a film’s disturbing properties can be an empowering example of the work we must undertake in the face of overwhelming human problems ---global warming as Nature’s revenge and our ecological irresponsibility; genocide and systemic oppression; diabolical trends in capitalism, criminalization and mass incarceration; ethical issues embodied in technological and scientific progress; violence, terrorism, and the gap between poverty and wealth.  We have to triage our commitments.  Art is necessary and so too is minimizing academic and other forms of tyranny. The sooner we digest what Barbara Christian said eloquently in “The Race for Theory” and what David Walker appealed to the citizens of the world to do, we increase the probability of winning the absurd game of human survival with brutal honesty.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 13, 2013

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"Django Unchained"



“Django Unchained” is the most patriotic American film of 2012, because Quentin Tarantino plunged into the system of Dante’s Inferno and brought up the bloody, violent and unchained soul of the myth of the United States of America.  He succeeds in making viewers frustrated, angry, and anxious to debate the merits of reducing Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung to a soap opera and ending a fragmented black love story with Broomhilda and Django riding off into the bliss of fugitive darkness.

 We have been trying, without much success, to have a conversation about what it means to be an American since the nineteenth-century publication of Alex de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Although any revolution of consciousness occasioned by “Django Unchained” will not be televised, the grounds for a crucial conversation have been “immortalized” as a richly satiric cartoon, a cinematic allegory that divides spectators into pro-Django, anti-Django, and disingenuous neutral camps.  Unfortunately, the crucial conversation will evaporate as soon as the next film of outrage lights the screen.  Nevertheless, Tarantino’s genius deserves all the kudos and barbs, detractions and commendations we shall give it from here to infinity.  Indeed, the National Rifle Association should give Tarantino a special award for the patriotic fervor of “Django Unchained” in reaffirming the Constitutional entitlement of Americans to bear arms and make havoc among themselves and people on an endangered planet.  An Oscar will not suffice.

If there is credibility in Irving Howe’s famous Hebraic judgment that “[t]he day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever”   [“Black Boys and Native Sons.” Dissent, 10 (Autumn 1963): 353-368], there is equal credibility in the claim that the day “Django Unchained” was first screened, American cinema culture was altered.  While pure violence is a staple ingredient in our forms of mass entertainment, few films depict how Americans are permanently enslaved by love of violence. Like Richard Wright’s novel, Quentin Tarantino’s film broadcasts a message that the prudent among us will not ignore, a message that puts the agony of interpretation in a harsh, politically incorrect spotlight.

Our interpretation of “Django Unchained” is largely determined by the angles, prejudices, and ideological bags we bring to the acts of viewing and talking.  If the film is approached as an effort by a white director (although Tarantino is not exactly a “white” surname) to tell a black story, the viewing is shaped by assumed or specified expectations about how a black story of enslavement ought to be written and reconstructed or translated into film.  If it is assumed that “Django Unchained” attempts to be a multiethnic representation of American history circa 1858-1859, our attention is drawn to the legitimacy of violence in the shaping of the United States from 1619 to 1776 to the present; the presence of the black story is a kind of inner light that illuminates the gross and vulgar surface of American democracy’s saga.  In this instance, the film fails to challenge the exhausted black/white binary conventions of America sufficiently, but it does begin to expose a fantasy of oppositional progress.  It is neither good nor accurate history, nor was it meant to be.  It is mainly an exposure of American entertainment as national pathology. That fantasy undermines or erases fact works against sympathetic reception of the film, but it does not prevent our understanding why violation of the human body and the worship of violence is an innate element in our historical being.  Ultimately, “Django Unchained” is an anatomy of the imperfections of whiteness, the hypocrisy of Euro-American founding dreams, and America’s violent soul.

Ishmael Reed, one of our most astute cultural critics, notes in his review “Black Audiences, White Stars and ‘Django Unchained’ [“Speakeasy Blog,” The Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2012] Black Audiences, White Stars and 'Django Unchained' - Speakeasy - WSJ  that the film is a representation of slavery for mainstream audiences.  Reed concludes Tarantino is not a responsible white historian and “the business people who put this abomination together don’t care what I think or about the opinions of the audience members who gave Tarantino a hard time during that recent q. and a.”  The q. and a. to which Reed refers is briefly described in Hillary Crosley’s “ ‘Django Unchained’: A Postracial Epic?,” The Root, 25 December 2012. 

Reed’s conclusion directs attention to the agony of interpretation and the cultural politics that informed the making of Tarantino’s film.  In suggesting that neither Arna Bontemps’s Black Thunder nor Margaret Walker’s Jubilee would be a candidate for a film, Reed is silently telling us why his novels Flight to Canada and Yellow-Back Radio Broke Down would never fit into a Hollywood scheme of representation. It may be impossible to prove that Reed’s novels or Slaves ( 1969 )by John Oliver Killens  inspired Tarantino in the way Sergio Corbucci’s “Django” (1966) and “Mandingo” apparently did, but it is fascinating to speculate that Reed’s defamiliarizing of historical time and space played some role in Tarantino’s defamiliarizing of America’s core values.  Reed’s narrative strategies are neatly matched by Tarantino’s technical strategy of shooting the movie in anamorphic format on 35 mm film. Whether we like or dislike Tarantino, we do have to deal with his art. And we have to deal also with the stellar performances of Jaime Foxx, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christopher Waltz;  Laura Cayouette’s face will be etched in memory as the perfect image of what a Southern belle looked like in 1859 and Samuel Jackson’s palpable discomfort in the role of Stephen, the HNIC, warrants several essays.  Were the acting in the film not so good, the agony of interpretation would be less intense.  It is downright unsettling that even the minor actors do not disappoint us as cartoon figures. It is deeply troubling that what George Kent named “ceremonies of poise in a non-rational universe” can be had at a discount.

Much has been made of the fact that Tarantino retrofits the Italian spaghetti Western into an American noodle narrative of the South. Thus, he achieves, if we must use a culinary metaphor,  a casserole of cinematic genres, a highly valued artistic abomination .In the world of filmmaking, an abomination may not be a failure, particularly if the aesthetic of merde and the mimesis of violence is at issue.  The visual allusions in “Django Unchained” lead us to suspect that Tarantino is much influenced by the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Bunuel, and Ingmar Bergman.  It is obvious that he is indebted to the accidental or intended comic excesses of blaxploitation film and to the cinema of cruelty exploited in Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade.” As future cultural studies of “Django Unchained” will demonstrate, Tarantino generously tips his hat to his ethnic and  cinematic ancestry by transposing elements of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo” (1975) into his film.  Pasolini, it must be noted, has the dubious honor of having produced the most reprehensible abomination in the history of film.  

Perhaps  Tarantino’s dwelling in the bowels of exaggeration by way of “Django Unchained”  is  just what Americans needed most to see. They need to look at themselves, at  who they were as they publicly “mourned” for the children and adults murdered in Sandy Hook. They were not mourning for hate crimes, self-hatred, or the condition identified by Carolyn Fowler as “racially motivated random violence.” They needed to see they were not mourning for the 506 victims of homicides in Chicago during 2012 or for the thousands of flesh and blood victims of rampant violence and abuse in America’s cities and suburbs. Americans simply do not grieve for the Zeitgeist that is seducing our nation to consider  social implosion as an option.  “Django Unchained” was perfectly timed to provide 165 minutes of violent entertainment and to cast light on the nature of America’s soul unchained.  That soul, which we all possess, is incapable of authentic grief. It has “normalized” violence.  Violence is salvation.  Our souls have  mastered the art of indifference, and we are post-humanly happy to have a tragic catharsis on the plantation of life and to walk hand in hand with blind fatalities and unqualified love for our country.  Quentin Tarantino is alarmingly intimate with the habits of the American soul, and he serves us slice after slice of synthetic white cake.    


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 5, 2013