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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Alice Walker

Alice Walker, Autobiographical Contract, and Sciences of Memory


Definition is essential.  What does womanist mean and what is its relation to feminist?  Does the assertion that womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender explain saturation as a major difference in historical experience?  The various essays, bits of interviews, poetry (inside prose frames) and reviews collected in Alice Walker’ In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983) suggest an answer. They suggest that Walker the novelist is of a “revolutionary” mind like a furious flower, is as serious as was Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, and Toni Cade Bambara. These women assumed the freedom to create is an entitlement of nature not of man. And they have the backing of words attributed to Sojourner Truth in 1851: “Whar did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman! Man had nothin’ to do wid Him.”

Walker’s attitude toward literature has a faint echo of Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”  Do not confuse attitude with heritage. Mountains are gendered property, and in Walker’s case, Sojourner Truth holds the mortgage! Interpretation can take the guise of paying interest, escrow, and principle.

Walker’s trope of the garden has a great deal to do with memory and with the fact that canonized writers have no monopoly in cultivating ART. Context requires remembering that Walker first broadcast ideas about mothers and gardens at the 1973 Phillis Wheatley Festival in Jackson, Mississippi and remembering I had taught The Third Life of Grange Copeland the previous year.  My memory of that event and of my teaching has been reactivated by how the biologist Steven Rose commented on the Rosetta Stone in The Making of Memory (1992):

Memory pervades ancient ballads and modern novels alike.  Especially in the present century, from James Joyce and Marcel Proust to the new writing of Margaret Atwood, of J. G. Ballard, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie and Alice Walker, the theme of personal memory, of the constant examination, interpretation, and reinterpretation of lived experience, is central.

And Rose asked in the same paragraph:  Or are we doomed to live always in the divided worlds of subjectivity and objectivity, with no translation possible between these languages? (7)


Mother transmits the seed of art and the desire to grow it into ART to daughter.  We are expected to read the fine print in the title essay “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” as Walker’s autobiographical contract.

Walker’s recent thinking about her autobiographical contract appears in the appended reader’s guide for Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart (2004).  Asked what inspired her to write the novel, Walker replied:  “So in Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart I set out to chart such a journey, the adventures of Kate Nelson Talkingtree, who is named partly for a grandmother, my father’s mother, who was murdered when he was a boy.”  This novel incorporates Walker’s quest for the culture of the Grandmother, her keeping the faith with the autobiographical contract.  Through fiction, Walker provisionally confirms Steven Rose’s idea that sciences of the collective -- “ecology and ethnology, sociology and economics” (7-8) --   are better instruments than the sciences of “individual psychology or neuroscience” (7) for exploring the nature of memory. The jury is still out, however, on any permanent conjoining of subjectivity and objectivity, inside or outside of fictions.


         August 31, 2013

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Between Richard Wright and Me

Acceptance statement for the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award

Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration

February 26, 2011









                We both spent our childhood and youth in Mississippi in the twentieth century.  Like many American males we were sensitive to how we were socialized by the values and expectations of our families.  We were fully aware that law and custom set boundaries for our growth, and we discovered fairly early the peculiar feeling of accomplishment that came from defying limits.  We were curious rebels, and the price we had to pay for our lack of meekness shaped and left indelible marks on our personalities.

                Our curiosity about the things of this world was notably increased by our uses of literacy.  We were avid readers, allowing our imaginations to be much enlarged by words, language, and the lore one can acquire from books and from oral transmission.  We were different from our peers.  We were existential before either of us could pronounce or define that word.  Our differentness was at once a blessing and a curse, a paradox within the matrix of Deep South society. We were blessed with inner strength and will power, with knowing we had the option of refusing to become who and what the less than generous world desired we should become.  Even if our bodies gave scant evidence of disobedience, our minds delighted in transgressive explorations; we entertained ideas that neither our immediate families nor our environments were prepared to understand or condone.  As we grew into adolescence, our observations and reading prepared us to become exceptionally critical of injustice.  And we discovered that the forms of language that so fascinated us could be instruments for effecting change.  Literature and our experiences taught us that we did not have to be passive.  We had agency; it was our entitlement under natural law to deny the possibility of our being wretched and tragic victims.

                Obviously, I have sketched a few parallels between the life experiences that Richard Wright described vividly in his classic autobiography Black Boy and my memories of the trajectory of my own life.  The epiphany I had upon reading Black Boy in my youth created a most powerful affinity between Richard Wright and me.  It also created the recognition that we shared, despite the thirty-five years that separated us, similar values and tough-minded perspectives about the dynamics of good and evil that impact the lives of human beings.  Although our paths in adulthood took quite different directions ---Wright used his talents to establish himself as a writer of international importance, and I used my talents to forge a career in American higher education, we both dedicated our lives to trying in good faith to speak truth about our world, to find receptive ears for our words, and to shake people out of the dangerous habits of inattention and complacency.  Richard Wright has indeed taught me through the full range of his writings about my obligations to humanity.

                Thus, it is with profound humility that I accept the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award and express my gratitude to the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration for deciding that I am worthy of such a distinguished honor.  Of course, that gratitude includes thanks to Carolyn Vance Smith for founding NLCC and to members of Wright’s family who have embraced me with kindness.  The honor entails an obligation to think and write in ways that pay tribute to the model of excellence that Richard Wright set for all of us and to continue my commitment to ensuring that future generations of writers and thinkers never forget how essentially valuable is Richard Wright’s legacy to the world.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Poem for August 28

August 28, 2013



No bells ring in New Orleans

To sound up memory

Of fifty years

Or eight,

To sound up memory

Of fury, fear, flash and flood


The Baptist boom of a dream.


No bells ring in New Orleans, today,

The catholic Catholic city.

Bells ring here

For funerals and other festivals


For realities conserve silence.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Document from Summer 1993

NYU LOG: Summer 1993


27 May 93:  It has little to do with passion or the dominance of the phallocentric instrument in the writing process.  It is simpler than that.  I would simply find it very difficult to be in New York and not write.  This is a writer’s town just as surely as it is the last American city to need theatre.  It is not a metaphor to call New York a stage.  Thursday’s arrival is adventure. Hillery Knight remarked that some time among intellectually and genetically fit people would be good for me.  I looked at him as we drove to the Jackson International Airport.  Perhaps.  My usual skepticism.

Adventure --- my digs for the next two weeks: Apt. 5-R, #1 Washington Square Village.  Getting my ID is one kind of adventure; getting the barcode for library use, another ----and I checked out four books the first day and bought an hour ($4.00) of computer time to do a new draft of the syllabus & bibliography for my seminar.  The real adventure is visual --- the discovery of how many ways the basic human body can be modified and disguised, what can be wrapped, painted; what appended from or tattooed on it.  Called Lawrence Jordan ---he suggests brunch w/Gilbert Fletcher on Saturday.


28 May 93:  Friday –Worked hard in the library today and finished the new drafts of syllabus & bibliography for photocopying; delivered them to Claude Blinsman.  Bought NY Times.  Picked up a free issue of the Village Voice.  Washington Square park is a disaster zone ---every variety of beggar,  mentally unbalanced person, normal person, young and old, traversing the ground  --- all in costume.  One doesn’t dress here.  One costumes.  There are seven million frustrated actors in this city.

I see an article in Friday’s Times, Section B, on Riverbank State Park –“a 28 acre park on the roof of the North River Treatment Plant –a $129 milion job ---over garbage.  It smells.  It is in Harlem ---145th St and Riverside Drive.  Is magnificence malignant?  It reminds me of an extermination unit!


29 May 93:  Lawrence Jordan calls around 9:00 a.m.  Meet him and Gilbert at 112th and Broadway ---Dress up or dress down I ask, already falling into the fashion trap.  It’s Saturday Larry says in his Jesus Christ it-is-Saturday voice.  I’m wearing jeans.  O.K. Dress medium.  Leave around 11:00 a.m., catch the N/R uptown at 8th St and transfer to a (1) at 42nd St.  We have brunch and fairly good conversation at Café 112.  Gilbert, Tom Dent’s friend, I discover works at Publisher’s Weekly.  He looks New Orleans and is reserved but friendly.  After brunch we go to Riverbank State Park.  It is a handsome structure, but the idea of having a park including café over sewerage strikes me as ludicrous, very NY ---an invitation to a new life style.  I have a coffee and croissant at The Violet, get some rest, and have a late dinner at Charlie Mom Chinese Cuisine, 464 Sixth Ave.  The Chinese broccoli & chicken are nicely seasoned and filling.  Buy the Sunday Times on the way back to the apartment.  This is a warm-up exercise for more serious writing, I hope.  To write well, the mood or the necessity must be there.  It just isn’t tonight.  Oh, the Bulls beat the Knicks 103-83!! In Game 3 of the NBA playoffs.  Michael Jordan was less than superb, but he got his team together on home court.


“Black Cinema and the Public Sphere” by Manthia Diawara, La Maison Francaise, 16 Washington Mews –June 8, 1993, 7:00 p.m.


Throughout this lecture a question floats in the foreground: how is black film ituated in the public sphere?  Or how is film as commodity located in the market?  The announced title provoked expectation that were not met by Diawara’s presentation.  The reason emerged at the end of his talk.  His formulation of the concept  PUBLIC SPHERE required a full elaboration prior to our locating anything in relation to it.

Diawara proposed that the black public sphere is akin to Habermas’s notion that the life world is to be considered in relation to systems.  Here one needs to consider whether  in theory the idea of system is abstracted and divorced from actual human action.  Diawara also proposed that modernity as project has the end of emancipating life.  What kind of modernity or modernism is at issue, for Diawara certainly throws forth a complex term.  He does not have in mind quite what Houston Baker means in the book Black Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance.  Baker figures modernism in individual example of model and mastery of form; Diawara’s object is a mastery of agency as collective enterprise, a social, or perhaps cultural, activity as opposed to a singular, privatized set of acts.


Diawara mentions four figures, all male, who seem to him to have created rich discourses on modernity in relation to a public sphere: C. L. R. James, Frantz Fanon, W. E. B. DuBois, and Malcolm X.  Their writings seem to have positioned people to listen.  Did their writing also position people to receive and respond to vision?  That is to say, is the Autobiography of Malcolm X such a work which elicits illocution?


Diawara mentions Chester Himes and the novel A Rage in Harlem, focusing in on the refrain “Don’t trust a short, fat black man.”  Somehow the irony of reification must be tied up with the character who speaks and the other character who encounters misfortune as a result of trusting. Again, more elaboration of this “reading” is necessary to understand Diawara’s ideas.


Diawara, rightly I think, wants to distinguish black popular culture from mass culture in terms of economic force.  Black popular culture seems to involve a tradition of oral advertising and consumption (a satisfaction of ethnic appetites): have you heard (seen) this?  This might be a song by Aretha Franklin or Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale. The problem to be resolved or accommodated involves the overlapping of popular and mass especially with regard to production [making]. Later, Diawara complicates the problem by insisting on a shift of interest from means of production in the Marxist sense to interest in the productivity of “service enterprise” (money generating) in the public sphere.  These levels of analysis seem to be of a very different order.  And what strikes my ear as the great SILENCE is the long history of black American service – forced or necessitated service [labor of slaves/working for].  I think Diawara has in mind another idea of service that is somehow freer, somehow more independent.  It may be that the axis of interdependence is angled differently.


Another feature of public sphere is its character as productive space.  For example, it enables the appropriation of science as procedures that are not the private property of the West.  Science can be appropriated (and translated) for meeting the needs to improve the quality of life in underdeveloped economies.  At this point I think Richard Wright’s White Man, Listen is germane, insofar as Wright addressed modernization as a major change from thoroughly historicized, tradition-boundedness to full participation in twentieth-century focus on technology. The moral consequences are under erasure.  Literacy (recognition of signs) is crucial in the project of modernity.  So too is use of signs.  At the semiotic level Diawara’s interest in public sphere and the interest of my seminar on “Representing the African American South” might have a conversation.


Diawara would read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (he referred to pages 8, 344 and 365 in one paperback edition) selectively for the moments of reflexiveness.  Malcolm  gazing [thinking] upon/into the infinitude of the sky.  Also making a noise, a sound, the use of sound (?).  I take sky to be an infinity.  A “natural” space of endless possibilities.  And Diawara does toss in the idea of man (artifice and activity) and nature.  But how the gesture is made is not clear yet.


He would search for African American economic narratives,for a black economic ethos.  He claim that black Americans fear, have a suspicion of, selling, of commerce.  He claims that black Americans fear the risk of business  --that they lack an economic ethos.  Later he is challenged.  It seems that he might argue for the absence of sustained tradition just as he brings up the matter of KOSHER as the primal Jewish economic myth ---  the mystery that fuels economic behavior/ Islamic prohibition against INTEREST may nurture other kinds of economic behavior.  Diawara proposed the Black American was/is in need of a master narrative of economy to realize a position in the public sphere.


We begin to move toward consideration of film and other objects as he proclaims that African Americans have deep-rooted doubts concerning the use of blk culture as commodity (saleable item). The film, for example, that enlarges the economic possibilities of black people  ---cf. the work created by Spike Lee’s School Daze.  Or M. C. Hammer’s creating jobs through video and performance.  And already I worry about the length of viability.  How long, oh Lord, how long will movie or video produce income?  The market is not infinite.


Diawara criticizes Malcolm X’s placement of the spiritual.  For Diawara, the spiritual is an aspect of culture, is subsumed by culture [ I suppose he speaks anthropologically.  The main components of his idea of he modern project (modernizing project) are 1) politics (human rights as prior to civil rights); 2) economic; 3) culture.  And the crux of his thinking is that man (person) must be the controlling AGENT in use and production in the public sphere. Thus, his rejection of victim studies  --- his affinity with black thinking from the Diaspora that African Americans essentialize blackness and are too mired in attention to slavery rather than visioning themselves as actors in now time.


My initial doubts about Diawara’s construction are centered on vision and definition.  How does the project of modernity deal with the proliferations of the post-modern?  If he does not address or explain dismissal of the post-modern (and its habits of trivializing), then he will be accused of ahistorical analysis.


Diawara does not want to buy into Walter Benjamin’s idea of art in the age of mechanics [ images can be produced in mass and thus disrupt notions of value] – and where he stands in relation to Althusser, Gramsci, Habermas  -- where he stands in the shorthand of Eurothought is not always clear enough.  Yet, his lecture was only a trial, a trying out of ideas rather than a fixing of ideas ( writing in cement).


myth ---transubstantiation of reality


June 18, 1993 log entry


Distance,  lack of access to information --- the cost of returning home; then, too, the absence of a level of intellectual exchange that nurtures the critical consciousness.  For example, the brief exchanges with Manthia Diawara about the critical positions he occupies as one who is engaged in cultural study, exchanges which cast light on the potholes of my pre-future discourse.  But there are advantages, particularly economic advantages, in returning to Ridgeland.


The three weeks in New York have opened ideas about situating verbal aspect of Black film ---reflecting on th use of profanity as limiting device.  It might be argued that FUCK (and other words HO/BITCH as in Menace II Society) are realistic, offer verisimilitude for spectators, and simultaneously represent the critique of inner city limits.  It could be argued that what is real and proper artistically [drowning the ear in vulgarity as it is drowned in daily life] raises concern for values that evaporate/have evaporated  --  cf. Cornel West’s nihilism  -- in the ongoing construction of reality.


June 20, 1993  AFTER NEW YORK


After New York –three weeks of NYC, the crush of daily crowds, the circus of Washington Square, and deranged beggars, the relatively quiet provinciality of Mississippi seems almost necessary, almost refreshing. New Yorkers who survive  -- the lucky ones –deserve respect.  They are the stalwart veterans of America’s urban experiment.  Despite the sanctuary of Washington Square Village #1, five floors above ground, the city, the fact of citiness, would kill me.  I am not at heart an urban person.


So, it is back to Mississippi on a Fathers Day Sunday, the mythologized recollections of my father now thirty-six years dead surround consciousness rather like this mountain air.  Willing farewell to the realpolitik of multiethnicity.


July 15, 1993


The Filmworks: Entering Another’s Dream of One’s Own


Film is best when in the dark you gaze upon the illusion of three-dimensionality, the flatness of  the surface thrust upon your retina by a haunting contour & texture, by the desire to participate as nobodies are transformed, and transform themselves by mimeis, into larger-than-life somebodies.  Your eye feels what your mind can only process through the agency of sight and sound.  Your eyes, surrounded by another, darker and harder Balwinesque [Baldwinian] darkness  ----the magic of being lost in the fun/fearhouse ---of being lost in the manipulation of your own complexity. Film is best when the images of the actors are merely reflections of human beings who are not stars, who bring to your viewing no disruptive baggage.  It is, for example, so disruptive when you are viewing What’s Love Got to Do with It that Angela asset is not TinaTurner (Anna Mae Bullock) but Betty Shabazz out of Malcolm X and Laurence Fishburn ( who is Larry Fishburn from School Daze and the off-Broadway performance of August Wilson Two Trains Running) is not Ike Turner but Dap or the person you wished had portrayed Robert Johnson in Trick the Devil.  The devil does indeed find work in the cinema. The anonymity your mind desires the eye cannot behold; the eye is forced to see what is not there in the anti-philosophical Platonic cave.  Film is foremost entertainment.  Your making it the site for intellection is a perversion!  Film is best when you take it as the disruptive entertainment that it is, and indulge yourself in the pleasure of your vulgarity.  It is not far afield in possibility that contemporary film is a tattle-tale mirror of our most repressed imperfection.


As a representation at least three removes from reality, film has an immediacy and power that is enchanting.  As you reflect on your participation in the work of being entertained, tutored in the intricacies of misreading reality (however much it is argued that film reflects reality  --the mirror is a distorting device).


What is happening physically & psychologically as you witness fil


What does the activity tell you about the social construction/constriction of RACE


Confronting the film, you assume a cultivated positionality  ---If all these years you have been figured as African (American), you IDENTIFY consciously or by sheer animal instinct with the sound, shapes and colours re/presented before your eyes. You remember this was a matter of choice; you paid to enter!

You chose to saturate your cultural life, your audiovisual sensibility.  But the analysis of the film is not a luxury.  It is an essential.  What’s Love Got to Do with It will certainly cure you of any distant romance you have had with pop cult icons.  The cure is only attained through analysis of why the displacement of bodies [Bassett’s and Turner’s] in the film is so problematic.  The camera reveals a certain physicality from workouts, the gym, in Bassett’s body that you did not imagine when you casually spoke of Tina Turner’s strength as a black woman.  What did you expect?


Notes for Something


The T. Turner movie provides a nexus for concerns about

(1)     Non-black representation of the Black

(2)    Transformation from collaborative autobiography to film

(3)    Black indie vs. Hollywood film

(4)    Preoccupation (political/ideological) with film’s possibilities


N.B.  The Turner film parallels Terry McMillan whereas Dash’s film [Daughters of the Dust] parallels T. Morrison in complexity of challenge


Viewed 7/14/93

JUICE  (Paramount/Island World) 1992  95 min. Featuring Omar Epps, Jermain Hopkins, Samuel L. Jackson, Queen Latifah


New York traffic/record overlay-scratch-mix story by Ernest Dickerson


Scan of technology to sleeping figure of Quincy

Preoccupation with style & technology



The Filmworks: Entering Another’s Dream of One’s Own


Watching film is akin to dreaming.  It is also a shared experience.  We share a space with other watchers, and we enter another’s dream  --- that of the filmmaker.  If the film is to reach us (in other words, if we are to enter the dream created for us) it must be accessible: we must share the reality upon which it is based, or be convinced to do so.


David Nicholson, Black Film Review, Issue #1 (December 1984)


A substantial number of so-called black films stink of nihilism ----the rank, male penchant for exercising the  power of death over life!


Russell, Kathy, Midge Wilson and Ronald Hall. The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans.  New York: HarcourtBraceJovanovich, 1992.    305.896 Rus in Northside Branch.


Ghettocentricism = style = driven cult of Blackness or the image of the brute revisited


pp. 59-60 ---language symbolism as source of bias against the darker


origins of the color complex

Jamestown  1607/1619  ---& before


Home of the Brave.  85 min.  Directed –Mark Robson. 1949


Audio-Brandon Films

34 MacQuestion Parkway So

Mount Vernon, NY 10550


Intruder in the Dust.  Dir. Clarence Brown.  87 min 1949


Films, Inc.

227 Pharr Rd. N.E.

Atlanta, GA 30309


Maynard, Richard A., ed. The Black Man on Film: Racial Stereotyping.  Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden Book Company, 1974.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Document from September 3, 1995




Note:  For essential  life history  information about ya Salaam, read “Kalamu ya Salaam 1947-/Art for Life: My Story, My Song” in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 21, pages 179-252. The letter is my response to the typescript of THE SOUND (ING) OF BLACK POETRY: A Study Guide To The Theory and History of Black Poetry.




Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

1872 Lincolnshire Blvd.

Ridgeland, Mississippi 39157-1213


                                                                                                                                September 3, 1995



Dear Kalamu,


                The ideas for the book on the sound(ing) of black poetry remind me of a remarkable (and as you might guess unrecorded) solo performance by the late drummer Freddie Waites  --  sound so keen so fast you would have sworn the man had an extra pair of arms.  So, the two things you warned us about in the prefatory paragraphs are going on: 1) a critique of why there is no sustained critical attention given to poetry and 2) theorizing about the centrality of sound.

                These remarks refer to the book typescript version, running from “Introduction,” pp. 2-77 and notation 1 – 18, pp. 121-146.


pp. 7-8                  Your remarks about oral poetry, the positive/negative features of slave narrative and African aesthetic will need to be amplified to support your theory.  Given that you privilege SOUND (the sounds of the voice, the musical sounds produced by instruments), sound is at once a defining historical aspect of black poetic tradition and a feature of aesthetic classification.  The sound of pre-Reconstruction oral poetry is very likely best preserved in how the folk sing spirituals, in group performance.  Part of your implied argument regarding textual or written poetry is that creation is not necessarily collective and the sound (as one might recover it through study of prosody) is wanting.  Thus, when you posit an origin with the three founding fathers (Hughes, Johnson, Brown), you are obligated to make your sound theory persuasive. The strongest move is to admit that origin for you means the self-conscious poet weds his imagination and craft to the collective sound-productions of his culture(s): speech, song, music.  Your major task is to theorize how SOUND function in or defeats the limits of TEXT. You will ultimately wind up with the conclusion that the SOUND feature of a poem can only be got to by improvising in performance.


p. 14, paragraph 2:  Poetry might be “judged” or “criticized” by prevailing standards, but it would most likely be categorized by genre or theme.


p. 19  Cultural Context


The question on p. 21 about whether a text is a sophistication or a corruption does have an answer: text is a preservation that undermines the power of memory.

P. 22 –your point about the necessity of audience is crucial; the sound of poetry (aside from the white noise of prosody) does not exist without performer and audience.  There are a range of special conditions that obtain in the sound(ing) of poem.  For example, to read (respond emotionally to) Hughes’s ASK YOUR MAMA in isolation, I have to perform the text either with the assistance of recorded music or by evoking musical memory. There is no ideal reading/sound(ing).  I will always fall short one way or another in performed interpretation.

                I mention this early because I want you to anticipate someone’s attacking the idea by way of Houston Baker’s discussion of blues matrix as grounds for interpretation. (Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature)


pp. 22-23  -- on cultural specificity: I agree very much with your pushing the dynamic interaction that does or should exist between audiences and poetry.  Even the most enlightened critics in cultural studies are still text-whipped in the sense that textual features are said to reinforce or challenge rules, conventions, and constraints of a culture.  Your idea allows for the possibility of disruption and recreation.


P. 24     Your extended commentary on democratized literacy is anxiously awaited.  Consider whether this topic refers to “a Black aesthetic” ( a formation) or to “Black aesthetics” which I take to be an ongoing inquiry.


                I think we pretty much covered my concerns about the SEED portion of the book that you will send to Gabbin when we talked last night.  You can write a brief introduction and focus only on Hughes for this piece.  What you might want to cut out is the material on James Baldwin and end the piece with a demonstration of your own response.  The most interesting demonstration in my view would be your marginal “sound notes” which clued us about what must be heard or what you hear for “Mirror-go-found / where a broken glass / in the early bright / smears re-bop / sound” from the segment “Neon Signs.”


                                                                                                                Keep on pushing, brother.








Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

August 27, 2013

Monday, August 26, 2013

John Zheng's Most Clever Response to My Call to Read 105 words to celebrate Richard Wright's birthday, September 4, 2013

A nice suggestion or a call you made, and Wright will look over his shoulder to say thank you (see the last haiku pasted below. I am pasting below two sets of 105 words from Wright's haiku that are kind of biographical, which I will forward to my NEH participants for classroom teaching.
It is September,
The month in which I was born;
And I have no thoughts.
From a cotton field
To magnolia trees,
A bridge of swallows.
A steamboat’s whistle
Was blasted by the spring wind
To another town.
A slow autumn rain:
The sad eyes of my mother
Fill a lonely night.
Don’t they make you sad,
Those wild geese winging southward,
O lonely scarecrow?
From a tenement,
The blue jazz of a trumpet
Weaving autumn mists.
Black men with big brooms
Sweeping streets in falling snow,
Are absorbed by flakes.
In the post office,
A clerk sorting out letters
Hears spring rain falling.
105 words

A September fog
Mute upon the empty porch
Of an empty house.
Autumn moonlight is
Deepening the emptiness
Of a country road.
Is this tiny pond
The great big lake in which
I swam as a boy?
The sad sound of hymns
Flooding on to autumn fields
In hazy moonlight.
My decrepit barn
Sags full of self-consciousness
In this autumn sun.
An empty sickbed:
An indented white pillow
In weak winter sun.
Leaving the doctor,
The whole world looks different
This autumn morning.
Burning out its time,
And timing its own burning,
One lonely candle.
Did somebody call?
Looking over my shoulder:
Massive spring mountains.
105 words

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Woman Brave and Brilliant


Dr. Lula C. “L.C.” Dorsey, December 17, 1938-August 21, 2013


She rose from the spirit-murdering poverty of Mississippi Delta plantations to spirit-giving national service by way of appointments from Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and William Clinton.  She never finished high school.  She earned a Doctorate in Social Work from Howard University.  Although she had purposeful experiences in South Africa, Israel, India, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China, she was primarily a mother of six children and a cultural worker who stayed at home in Mississippi.

She dedicated energy to improving health care and human rights in the Mississippi Delta.  She had the courage and genius to effect crucial prison reform at Parchman, one of the most notorious penitentiaries in America.

In special ways, her life was a response to the question Margaret Walker posed in the poem “Lineage.”


My grandmothers were strong.

Why am I not as they?


The life of L. C. Dorsey replied: My grandmothers were strong, and I am just like them.


In the rare chapbook Mississippi Earthworks (1982), an anthology of the Jackson Actors/Writers Workshop, Dorsey published “The Hunters/Executioners.”  The voice in her poem is that of a woman who offered “no apologies for the events that brought her /here to speak of love and determination.”  Her listeners  ---lawyers, professors and learned folk, fathers, hunters and men ---cried.  The speaker did not cry as she sketched a question of existential irony ---


And when she finished speaking

everyone knew why

this woman did not cry

for her tear well had run dry

as she had pondered this question many

times before

and was desperately trying to understand

the laws of God and man

that would let a bird escape death through


and a rabbit to out run death on the ground

while her sons could neither run or fly

and until she found an answer

she didn’t have time to cry.


Brave people do not cry. They ask diamond-hard questions.  They think. They act.


Dr. L. C. Dorsey is mentioned in a single sentence as one of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’s friends in John

Dittmer’s Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994):

During her last days she felt abandoned by all but a few old friends, movement colleagues like Owen Brooks, Charles McLaurin, June Johnson, and L. C. Dorsey, a woman who shared Mrs. Hamer’s background as a sharecropper and who, inspired by Mrs. Hamer’s example, became active in the struggle in the mid-1960s. (433)


Dr. Dorsey’s personality and voice emerged more vividly from Tom Dent’s Southern Journey: A Return to

the Civil Rights Movement (1997).  Dent asked “But what can we do to change some of this [rapid loss of

hard-won gains in the Delta]?”  Her answer was


All I can see…is that our salvation has to come from looking back at what we’ve done in the past that worked.  We’ve got to do something for ourselves; those of us who see what’s happening have to take more initiative.  For one thing, we have to put money back into the black community.  And we’ve got to do a better job with the education of our youngsters, both in and out of the public schools. (368)


In Kim Lacy Rogers’s Life and Death in the Delta: African American Narratives of Violence, Resilience, and

Social Change (2006), Dr. Dorsey’s importance as an agent of change in Mississippi is quite strongly

projected in what is quoted from interviews Owen Brooks and I conducted on June 21, 1996 and Brooks,

Rogers, and I conducted on July 18, 1997.


Dr. Dorsey’s accomplishments, her gifts to humanity, have been partially documented. There is more to be remembered, especially the standards she set for those who would speak truth in the United States of America.  Future generations can document her achievements more fully.  They and we can give honor and respect by trying to be as brave, brilliant, and strong as she was.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

August 23, 2013





Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Novel Ahead of Time

A  Novel Ahead of Time


The gatekeepers of American culture who think American literature is dying as their worlds hip hop to a start can find consolation in Mat Johnson’s Pym: A Novel (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010).  The book extends the olive branch of hope.  It is evidence of things not seen.  If the gatekeepers have not been convinced to stop playing at being Melchizedek by Garry Will’s Why Priests? : A Failed Tradition (New York: Viking, 2013), Pym will teach them the errors of their ways.

Pym restores the centrality of Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), in American Studies.  It confirms that white cannot possess “the perfect whiteness of snow” without a drop of black.  “Whatever twentieth-century ‘whites’ think about ‘blacks,’ according to Joseph R. Urgo’s Novel Frames: Literature as Guide to Race, Sex, and History in American Culture (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991), “they owe their existence ---politically and culturally, and in many cases, genetically --- to those same black drops”(19).

American gatekeepers, especially the neoconservative ones, thrive in the sugar ditch of binary thinking.

From time to time, however, a few of them recognize society has more than two dimensions. Literature does sometimes manage to make an effective wake-up call.  Consider Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage.  That novel appropriated segments of Herman Melville’s classic “Benito Cereno” to create a new, post-whatever African American narrative and to give “double consciousness” a proper burial.  Mat Johnson goes a step further.  He creates a smart American narrative that guarantees the kind of immortality evoked in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 81: When all the breathers of this world are dead/ You still shall live – such virtue hath my pen --/Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

By resurrecting and blackening Edgar Allan Poe, Mat Johnson precludes the death of American literature and the obliteration of “whiteness.”  We now have 666 dimensions of consciousness.

Ethiopian hieroglyphics live.        



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            August 22, 2013

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Temperature of Death

The Temperature of Death

You want your obituary to communicate the best ideas you have about yourself.  You are pleased, of course, that the New York Times took notice of your departure.  Only the best people have death notices in the Times. You have a small measure of gratitude to National Public Radio.  The use of expensive air time to make a verbal portrait of the artist is not something at which you sneeze.  It was the luck of the draw to have death words splashed in the Washington Post before the paper becomes digital funk. You do wish that person who did a credible profile of you in the New Yorker some years ago had done a more decent eulogy for The Root.  What he wrote says more about literary commerce than it does about the elegant respect that ought to be accorded to a national treasure.  You know in your heart you are better than that.


In this new century, taste and decorum are in low cotton, and the temperature of death is so easily miscalculated.  Something told you, you should have written your obituary last year.  You did not listen to something.


Yes, you did riff in the American mindscape as did Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Ellison, Jean Toomer, Samuel Clemens, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman and other gentlemen who embraced what is genuinely Omni-American. Yes, you did excoriate the betrayal of patriotism and the poverty of class aspiration among proponents of the Black Arts Movement.  You do not deny that these features are appropriate in the social science fiction of the photograph. You are superior to all that. You are more sublime than that.  You are more elegant and profoundly iconoclastic than that. You and Mr. Ellison and Mr. Ellington have style that men of obscene wealth are too impoverished to purchase.  To be frank, style cannot be bought.


 But an obituary is not a photograph.  It is, if it is properly done, a full-length portrait of the artist in the birthpain splendor of the blues and the glory of jazz, 1916-2013.  Unlike the photograph, the portrait tells a better story about the movement of the storyteller from Magazine Point, Alabama to Magazine Print, New York. You are the consummate teller of tales.  You wish the obituaries gave more attention to the fine brushwork of your mind.


To get back to the matter of the representative anecdote.  My primary vernacular, regional, or indigenous, or yes, down-home source is the fully orchestrated blues statement, which I regard and have attempted to define and promote as a highly pragmatic and indeed a fundamental device for confrontation, improvisation, and existential affirmation: a strategy for acknowledging the fact that life is a lowdown dirty shame and for improvising or riffing on the exigencies of the predicament. (The Blue Devils of Nada)


In truth, it is literature, in the primordial sense, which establishes the context for social and political action in the first place. (The Hero and the Blues)


You did not listen to something.  Something told you, you should have written your obituary last year.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            BLOG     August 21, 2013