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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spin, Specificity and a Man from Mississippi

Mississippi Writers Guild                                                                                 Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

November 2, 2013

Natchez, Mississippi




Spin, Specificity, and a Man from Mississippi


                Given my admiration for Richard Wright, it was a “done deal” that I would say “Yes” to the generous invitation from Mark LaFrancis and the Mississippi Writers Guild to address the symposium Richard Wright: The Man and His Legacy. The theme of the symposium echoed so much that I had talked about for many years.  Therein lay a difficulty.  Could I say, especially to fellow writers, anything fresh and stimulating?  Could I formulate new ideas and articulate them?  Surprisingly, the answers came from the sciences and not directly from literature.  They came from thinking about Cornel West’s critique of a lack of specificity in certain Marxist discourses about the affairs of the world.  They came from some reflection on what many writers from Mississippi donate to that world.

                When a writer is in doubt about what to say, she or he should spin.  Spiders and writers intrigue us with their spinning of artful designs.  The spiders, of course, often get rewards for their labor which are more immediate than those earned by writers.  What spiders may happily catch can be consumed and transformed into more material for spinning.  Writers, no matter how great the attention they capture, must often wait much longer for rewards to come.  And many of them are dead when the rewards arrive.  We have to take comfort in the fact that the spider’s delicate art is easily destroyed.  The writer’s art gets preserved in memory, however dim memory becomes; it becomes semi-permanent in print, or in the 21st century in audio forms and website archives.  The question that interests me is at once simple and difficult to answer: what drives a writer’s imagination to create a piece of writing that can simultaneously delight and entrap?

                Part of the answer resides in concept of “spin” as that word is used in the discipline of physics. In quantum theory, spin refers to the angular momentum of a subatomic particle ---electron, proton, neutron ----which continues to exist even when the particle comes to rest.  According to theory, a particle in a specific energy state has a particular spin.  That is the work of Nature.  In the realm of writing, on the other hand, the particles are at once pieces of writing and the people who read, make sense of, evaluate, and reject or ingest what the other particles engender.  The governing principle is how writers endow thought and ideas with possible spins or angles of interpretation.  The analogies are promising, to the extent it makes any sense for writers and writing to exist under the influence of laws of thermodynamics.

                One can say something new about Richard Wright and his readers from that vantage. Wright’s legacy is more than his works that are in-print and the unpublished works that are at rest in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Legacy has an active dimension, the diverse negotiations we have with materials that constitute a legacy.  From time to time we read portions of the legacy.  These interactions quicken curiosity about why Wright chose to write and the life experiences that informed and gave shape to his writing. The interactions provoke questions and speculations.  Our lack of sufficient evidence to answer all of our questions does not hinder our endless  speculating, our ongoing wondering about the role of his legacy in our history and culture-bound lives. Despite what we may have been taught about “correct” responses to writing (the writing identified as literature) and the transcendent  values of “correct” aesthetic responses, most of us are not paralyzed or imprisoned by correctness, nor is the value of our engagements with the work of any writer negated by what literary and cultural critics tell us we are supposed to think.  Reason and common sense, I admit, can persuade us that certain interpretations are less erroneous than others.  Yet, once writing enters the public domain, the writer can’t control misinterpretations.  That is one reason Wright published his manifesto “Blueprint for Negro Writing” in 1937;* it was a guide for his practice as a writer. It is now very useful as  a guide for how his readers, especially those who themselves write, can deal with his legacy and their own angles of interpretation, their own spins.

 *All quotations from “Blueprint for Negro Writing” are from The Richard Wright Reader (New York: Harper & Row, 1978): 36-49.


Although Wright does not use the word “specificity” in his manifesto, it is obvious that when he gave us a description of perspective, he had attention to details and avoidance of sloppy generalizations in mind. Indeed, it is the specificity that comes from exacting calibration that is important.  In item 7, “The Problem of Perspective,” in the blueprint, Wright suggested:

Perspective is that part of a poem, novel, or play which a writer never puts directly upon paper.  It is that fixed point in intellectual space where a writer stands to view the struggles, hopes, and sufferings of his people.  There are times when he may stand too close and the result is a blurred vision.  Or he may stand too far away and the result is a neglect of important things.

Of all the problems faced by writers who as a whole have never allied themselves with world movements, perspective is the most difficult of achievement.  At its best, perspective is a pre-conscious assumption, something which a writer takes for granted, something which he wins through his living.

Specificity demands upon management of the spin. Wright had much to say in a few well-chosen words to writers of a future, to writers of the 21st century, to us.  With my fellow writers, I often have discussions of perspective or what might increase our managing our visions.  I have such conversations weekly with Kalamu ya Salaam in New Orleans.  He is convinced (and has almost convinced me) that unless a writer has a few palpable or figurative scars to show from having been allied with a movement or struggle, he has little to say that the world should notice. Wright might certainly have written  his magnificent poem “Between the World and Me” without having been allied with left-wing movements of the 1930s. Lynching was part of his inheritance as a Mississippian.  Margaret Walker wrote her signature poem “For My People” without having been allied as much as Richard Wright with Marxism.  Nevertheless, these two poems grip us because the perspectives they give us were influenced by the engagement Wright and Walker had in Chicago with the New Deal and the Federal Writers’ Project (Illinois subsection) as part of the WPA, the Works Projects Administration.  That program was very much about documenting details of American life. Read Ira Katznelson’s recently published Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. That book illuminates the early context for appreciating Wright’s legacy.


There are ten items in Wright’s blueprint.  Like item 7, the other nine can assist us in reading Wright’s legacy and writing our own.

Item 1. The Role of Negro Writing: Two Definitions

For Wright, Negro writing was either (1) “a sort of conspicuous ornamentation, the hallmark of achievement” or (2) “the voice of the educated Negro pleading with white America for justice.”  If one merely samples Wright’s early proletarian poetry, Uncle Tom’s Children, and Native Son, one is mislead into thinking he was only pleading with the American numerical majority for justice.  Properly read, Native Son is less a plea than a scathing critique of what was pathological in America’s majority cultures. Native Son is iconic.  It is not a stereotyped “protest” novel but a thesis novel .  If you think William Faulkner’s trilogy The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion is devoid of protest and propagation, your reading spin is entropic, a measure of perceptual disintegration.

Wright believed the best African American writing should have been “addressed to the Negro himself, his needs, his sufferings, his aspirations.”  Under the rubric of science, we writers produce our best writing by addressing the needs, sufferings, and aspirations of people. When Tan Huijuan writes from Hangzhou  that “China is undergoing such radical social changes and reforms that some tragic events are definitely inevitable , since Chinese institutions are much less perfect than that [those] of the United States, and the high population density in some Chinese cities is also the social problem that drive[s] some people into despair. There is Thomas Bigger everywhere, in American and in China,” (Email to Ward, dated October 30, 2013)  I conclude that Native Son’s value, like that of its specific companion Rite of Passage (1994), is transnational.

Item  2. The Minority Outlook

Wright worried about “the enervating effects” of a split between black writers and the social and economic consciousness of workers, those who kept the machinery of capitalism running. A cataloging of past achievements was not productive. “An emphasis upon tendency and experiment,” Wright argued,” a view of society as something becoming rather than as something fixed and admired is the one which point the way for Negro writers to stand shoulder to shoulder with Negro workers in mood and outlook.”  Wright is quite specific about labor in his photo-documentary folk history 12 Million Black Voices (1941) and his autobiography Black Boy (1945) and in the Mississippi-grounded novel The Long Dream (1958).

Contemporary writers in America constitute a minority within our nation’s total population; we do not go astray if we narrow the gap between ourselves and everyone else by using our own “minority” outlook to explore the hidden dimensions of what counts as “work” in an age of excessive data.


Item  9. Autonomy of Craft

Wright was adamant in claiming “the relationship between reality and the artistic image” is complex, that artistry must not be submerged by didactic sloganizing.  For him, “image and emotion possess a logic of their own.”  His first novel Lawd Today! (written circa 1934/1935 and published in 1963) wove together American naturalism with some avant garde techniques from James Joyce Ulysses; in his novels  and short fiction after 1947, The Outsider (1953), Savage Holiday (1954), The Long Dream (1958), and Eight Men (1961) and A Father’s Law (2008), the aesthetic and the didactic are something of a double helix, an entanglement that tests our powers of interpretive unraveling. And in his travel writings –Black Power (1954), Pagan Spain (1957), The Color Curtain (1956) –the persona or Wright’s creation of a narrative voice of Richard Wright ensures the complexity of relationship between image and the mediation of reality.

Craft was autonomous for Wright, but it carried an odd stipulation: “Writing has its professional autonomy; it should complement other professions, but it should not supplant them or be swamped by them.”  The permanent challenge of his legacy for 21st century writers is how to configure the demands of engagement with the demands of technique.

Item  10. The Necessity for Collective Work

Wright inevitably wrote about collective work within the operative boundaries of race in the 1930s.  “On the shoulders of white writers and Negro writers alike,” he asserted with optimism, “rest the responsibility of ending …mistrust and isolation” among all writers. “These tasks are imperative in light of the fact that we live in a time when the majority of the most basic assumptions of life can no longer be taken for granted.  Tradition is no longer a guide.  The world has grown huge and cold. Surely this is the moment to ask questions, to theorize, to speculate, to wonder out of what materials can a human  world be built.”  Is he speaking of 1937 or 2013? The imperatives for writing are fairly constant, but the community of writers now is larger, dramatically diverse, somewhat beyond the boiling point of contention.

The unmistakably Marxist items --- Item  3. A Whole Culture; Item 4. The Problem of Nationalism in Negro Writing; Item 5. The Basis and Meaning of Nationalism in Negro Writing;  Item 6. Social Consciousness and Responsibility; Item 8. The Problem of Theme---constitute the most problematic portion of “Blueprint for Negro Writing.” They are excellent for orienting the spins involved with interpretation of Wright’s works.  The temporal specificity of the items, however, is a field saturated with explosive devices, because Marxism is ill-equipped to deal with the material specificity of African American oppression.*  In item 6, for example, Wright noted that Marxist analysis produced the skeleton to which the writer must add flesh (language), and he echoed that point in Black Boy when he told his mother that the Marxists had ideas but he had the language.

*I am indebted for this idea to Cornel West’s essay “Marxist Theory and the Specificity of Afro-American Oppression” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 17-29.


Wright’s works, including the outpouring of haiku during the last two years of his life (Haiku: This Other World, 1998), contains his ideas about intra-ethnic class struggles  (divisions between masses of black people and the always “rising” black bourgeoisie) that magnify the divisiveness of American culture; his reasons for relegating political and cultural nationalism to the realm of folklore, that vast body of transmitted wisdom which has “[the] vital beginnings of a recognition of value in life as it is lived, a recognition that marks the emergence of a new culture in the shell of the old.”  African American writers and all writers work in bad faith if they ignore the numerous disruptions of society and history.  But Wright was so specific that he offered a “mission impossible” to black writers.

Wright used the word “theme” in a way that refers simultaneously to our traditional meaning of “theme” as the main idea in a piece of writing and to what in classical rhetoric might have been called “special topics,” the subjects distributed among deliberative, judicial, and ceremonial discourses.  Wright created a symbolic “black hole” by proposing

Theme for Negro writers will emerge when they have begun to feel the meaning of the history of their race as though they in one life time had lived it themselves throughout all the long centuries.

Wright spoke of theme as if it had a single manifestation rather than many manifestations in texts.  While he gave the appearance of possessing or feeling the whole by projecting his ideas through the narrative device of the collective “we” in 12 Million Black Voices, the appearance was very clearly an appearance.  As he evolved as a writer in his later works, he often positioned himself as the representative voice of the oppressed of this earth.  Yet, in Black Power, Wright had to confess that he was a man of the West, forged on the smithy of Western presuppositions.  This confession prevented his being sucked into the black hole of insane longing for the impossible.  To be sure, he was a world citizen, but he did not have the lived and specific experiences of all citizens of the world.

Contemporary writers who would hazard speaking for others should take note of Wright’s retreat in 1953/54 from the brash proposal he made in 1937.  Writers do learn from their errors and can correct or adjust their spins. Despite conflicts, writers can spin like a guild of textile workers.  The legacy of a man from Mississippi still affirms that the effort to collaborate with civility is a good thing. I have punned on the words “spin” and “specificity” with a purpose.  Writers can learn from Richard Wright that the most difficult thing in the world is to tell the truth.  As Huckleberry Finn said about Mr. Mark Twain, he told the truth mainly.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Oblivion: A Literary Act

Oblivion: A Literary Act


It is painful but necessary for some Americans over the age of sixty to remember that Medgar Wiley Evers was assassinated on June 12, 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi by Byron “Delay” Beckwith and that Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly assassinated John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.  To minimize remoteness from the actual encouraged by the fantasy of history which enthralls American citizens in 2013, it is necessary to remember.  To remember is painful, because death is an agony, the consolations of faith and spirituality notwithstanding.  Our American penchant for trashing moments of historical martyrdom with celebration is shameful and undignified.  There is some virtue in displacing celebration with analysis of cold facts and the small contributions of lukewarm recall.  Tears for Evers and Kennedy, like prayer, should occur in private.  Analysis of what these assassinations tell us about the present should be internationally public. Analysis unveils how the world is resegmenting itself and why, to some extent, the United States of America is devolving into barbarity.  Can we abstain for a cosmic second from the mechanical fornications of literary criticism and exercise the option of being homo seriosus?

Remembering the deaths of Evers and Kennedy does intensify notice of the gap between privilege and deprivation; the abyss between the primal racial contract of the United States and the regrettable pretense that the contract has been canceled; the distance between magnanimous statecraft and the deadly theatricality of American government which results from sinister deconstruction of the Constitution of the United States.  Analysis of the actual must stand in opposition to the game of critiquing the real.  From such a vantage, analysis retards its becoming more of a whiteface parody of itself than it currently is.

Reading Michael V. Williams’s Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (2011) within a context made available by Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (2013) strengthens the work of memory, because these two books are literary acts informed by moral transparency and integrity.  They are models for engaging the unfreedom of freedom, the dominant oxymoron of the United States in 2013.They expose historical sources for the existential dread explicit in the narrative of oblivion being told by globalization, a narrative we are condemned to annotate with fear and trembling.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                   October 29, 2013



Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dove, Danticat, and the New York Times

Rita Dove, Edwidge Danticat, and the New York Times


Reality evaporates, and a quark restores reality. The change escapes notice.  Good.  The reaction allows writing to produce stasis, the five-dimensional space in which we write.

If your mind, spirit, and body demand that you write, write.  But be honest, or, as we said in the flame-blooming 1960s, be “for real.”  Writing that gains the world’s respect is not a spewing of disassembled feelings, nor is it a pampering of your ego.  Writing is work, a disciplined discovery of patterns and ideas in words.  You must have a sense of human history in order to know your address in time.  You must train yourself to cope with rejection and use it as a reason to perfect your craft.  Before you begin writing, read widely and wisely.  Study your tools --- words and the options for organizing them. Study how and why your literary ancestors, be they poets, philosopher, or historians of science, have used the tools to communicate effectively.  Chew language slowly and reflect deeply on the ideas the flavors release.  Then write.  Know for whom you are writing and why.  Above all, discipline yourself and let your writing become an act of love, a gift of talent for now and the future.

In a future, writing or literature becomes a tool for interpreting the non-literary.  Consider the New York Times article “Dominicans of Haitian Descent Cast Into Legal Limbo by Court” (October 24, 2013, page A1) by Randal C. Archibold.  A strong interpretation of the article requires reading Rita Dove’s poem “Parsley” and Edwidge Danticat’s novel The Farming of Bones (Soho Press, 1998; Penguin, 1999).  You can, of course, make sense of the article by referring to those works of history listed in Danticat’s “Acknowledgments” (311-312), which itself acknowledges “Rita Dove’s wonderful poem, ‘Parsley.’ “But the works by Danticat and Dove provoke a nuanced appreciation of time’s eternal return in the linked story of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Genuine writers do care what the world thinks of their work and how that work gets rewarded in acts of understanding.  Genuine writers hold fast to the wisdom of Langston Hughes.  They are for real and free within themselves, so that a future can grasp reality’s evaporation and reappearance.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                   October 24, 2013

Roman Catholicism Revisited

Proper interpretation of this article requires reading Edwidge Danticat's Farming of Bones and Rita Dove's "Parsley."  

The Pope should excommunicate Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopze Rodriquez for substituting spit for holy water.  He will not, however, because the Roman Catholic Church sleeps with racism day and night.

Dominicans of Haitian Descent Cast Into Legal Limbo by Court

Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
Stripped of Statehood: The Dominican Republic’s top court has declared that the children of undocumented Haitian migrants are no longer entitled to citizenship.
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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — For generations, people of Haitian descent have been an inextricable part of life here, often looked at with suspicion and dismay, but largely relied on all the same to clean rooms, build things cheaply and provide the backbreaking labor needed on the country’s vast sugar plantations.
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Now, intensifying a long and furious debate over their place in this society, the nation’s top court has declared that the children of undocumented Haitian migrants — even those born on Dominican soil decades ago — are no longer entitled to citizenship, throwing into doubt the status of tens of thousands of people here who have never known any other national identity.
“I am Dominican,” said Ana María Belique, 27, who was born in the Dominican Republic and has never lived anywhere else, but has been unable to register for college or renew her passport because her birth certificate was no longer accepted. “I don’t know Haiti. I don’t have family or friends there. This is my home.”
In a broad order that has reverberated across the hemisphere, the court has instructed the authorities here to audit all of the nation’s birth records back to June 1929 to determine who no longer qualifies for citizenship, setting off international alarm.
The United Nations high commissioner for refugees warned that the decision “may deprive tens of thousands of people of nationality,” while the regional alliance of Caribbean nations, which the Dominican Republic has sought to join, condemned how masses of people are “being plunged into a constitutional, legal and administrative vacuum.”
“It is remarkably sweeping in terms of numbers: over 200,000 made stateless — a staggering figure,” said Laura Bingham, who tracks citizenship issues for the Open Society Justice Initiative. She and other legal experts called it one of the more sweeping rulings denying nationality in recent years.
To some extent, the ruling, issued Sept. 23, and the intensity of emotions around it carry echoes of the immigration debate in the United States and other countries, with wide disagreement on how to treat migrant workers and their children.
But given the history of the Dominican Republic and Haiti — a sometimes cooperative, often tense and occasionally violent relationship between two nations sharing one island — the decision has brought to the surface a unique set of racial tensions and resentment toward the waves of impoverished Haitian migrants that fill menial jobs on this side of the border.
An estimated 200,000 people born in this country have Haitian parents, according to the last census, by far the largest immigrant group here and thus the one most widely affected by the ruling. Haitian immigrants occupy the lowest rungs of society here, and have for generations, living in urban slums or squalid sugar plantation camps where wage abuse remains common, as a United States Department of Labor report found last month.
For decades, Haitians, housed in remote shantytowns known as bateys, were brought over on contracts for sugar plantations to cut cane under the blistering sun. Many still labor in the fields, while others work as maids, construction workers and in other low-paying jobs.
Many Haitians proudly embrace the slave rebellion that led to Haiti’s founding as a nation. But Dominicans, although they rushed aid to Haiti after its devastating 2010 quake and maintain many cultural and social exchanges, historically have viewed their neighbors with qualms, identifying more with their nation’s Spanish colonial past and, despite their own racially mixed heritage, often deriding anyone with dark skin as “Haitian.”
“The Dominican Republic is at a crossroads right now over the question, ‘What does it mean to be Dominican in the 21st century?’ ” said Edward Paulino, a historian at John Jay College who has studied the relationship between the two countries. “It is a country of immigrants, but no other group is like the Haitians, which arrived with the cultural baggage of a history of black pride in a country that chose to identify with the European elite.”
Top officials in the government met on Wednesday to determine how to carry out the ruling, which cannot be appealed. In the meantime, the migration director, José R. Taveras, said that people in limbo would be issued temporary residency permits while the country comes up with a plan to grant them some form of immigrant status. But to many people, that means losing the benefits of citizenship, which beyond basics like voting also allows for lower tuition at state colleges and public health insurance for low-income citizens.
Although Haiti technically bestows citizenship on the children of its nationals, the process can be full of bureaucratic entanglements and slowed by missing or incomplete records, let alone the fact that few of the children of migrants here consider themselves anything but Dominican.
The battle has been in the making for years. People born on Dominican soil, with some exceptions, generally were granted citizenship for generations. But people of Haitian descent often complained of discriminatory practices when getting official documents, and in recent decades the country’s civil registry officials often excluded the children of migrants whose papers were in question by considering their parents “in transit.”
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2005 denounced the practice as a way of discriminating against people who had been in the country for a lifetime. Still, the Dominican Republic enshrined the rule in 2010 by a constitutional amendment that excludes the Dominican-born children of those in the country illegally, including seasonal and temporary workers, from Dominican citizenship. The new court decision not only ratifies the change, but also goes a step further by ordering officials to audit the nation’s birth records, compile a list of people who should not qualify for citizenship and notify embassies when a person’s nationality is in question.
Legal experts, as well as two dissenting judges on the constitutional court, called it a violation of legal principles to retroactively apply the standard of citizenship established in the 2010 Constitution. “As a consequence of this restrictive interpretation and its retroactive application, this ruling declares the plaintiff as a foreigner in the country where she was born,” wrote one of the dissenting judges, Isabel Bonilla.
The case arose from Juliana Deguis, a 29-year-old woman born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian migrants and working as a maid. She sought her national identity card, using her Dominican birth certificate, but was rejected because the document indicated that her parents were Haitian migrants, not legal residents. Legal advocates for Haitian migrants and their children took the case to court, arguing that Ms. Deguis’s parents were residents because they had been contracted to work on a sugar plantation and never returned to Haiti, but the court ruled that they were “in transit.”
That came as a surprise to Ms. Deguis, her family and her neighbors, who have scratched out a living for decades in a remote village populated by former sugar-cane workers. Ms. Deguis has never been to Haiti, only knows a few words of Creole and never thought of herself as anything other than Dominican. “I feel terrible because I cannot work without my ID card and without that the school may not register my children either,” she said.
Supporters of the decision, including the immigration commissioner, said it would help the government regularize people and clarify the citizenship rules. The archbishop of Santo Domingo, Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez, called the ruling just and nodded to a sentiment among some Dominicans that international organizations were meddling in their affairs.
“International organizations don’t rule here,” he told reporters after the ruling was announced. “I don’t accept anybody coming here to decree anything. No country, not the United States, not France, nobody. Here, we are in charge.”
For now, Dominicans caught up in the ruling await the next steps. Ms. Deguis is not working and worries about caring for her four young children, all born in the Dominican Republic as well. “If there is now this confusion about me,” she asked, “what about them?”

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ramcat on Paul DeMan

P. DeMan studied
his allegorical mirror

saw Coltrane
conquer a star

why is it can not I be
brilliant black as he

the mirror fled,
falling into infinity

Jeremiah Ramcat
October 23, 2013

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Footnote for a Work-in-Progress

A Footnote for A Work-in-Progress


Doreen Fowler’s Drawing the Line: The Father Reimagined in Faulkner, Wright, O’Connor, and Morrison (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013) is a prime example of how lost in the wilderness one becomes by following psychoanalytic maps of non-referentiality.  Some critics find psychoanalytic theories to be useful in reading texts, because those theories sanction language being in conversation with language. One need not deal with the messiness of referentiality fiction and non-fiction invite. One can momentarily escape the horror of knowing that signifiers co-exist with the material presences which negate signification.

As a Wright scholar, I profit from efforts to link Wright’s works with contemporary criticism.  My profit from reading Fowler’s chapter “Crossing a Racial Border: Richard Wright’s Native Son” is disappointment.  I am disappointed that Fowler uses psychoanalytic theory as an excuse to avoid dealing with the totality of Wright’s reimagining the father, a rich and insufficiently explored topic in Wright studies.

Fowler travels into the dense terrain of Native Son by following paths mapped by Freud, Lacan and Kristeva.  She either deliberately or inadvertently ignores the “map” drawn by Wright’s authoring of and authority in a text that reimagines the father of all its characters as early twentieth-century American society, a deadbeat parent.  Fowler’s assertion that “Wright’s novel also has mapped out a way to reconcile competing drives for culturally specific identities and for solidarity with others” (71) is not illogical.  It is limited. It supports the view that the lawyer “Max embraces Bigger as a son” (71). In terms of psychoanalytic theory, this morphological feature of the text is significant.  It draws sharp notice, however, to the embrace as a single move in a game of language. It confuses the referential import of Wright’s blistering critique of American patriarchy with the theoretical objectives of such feminist thinkers as Kristeva and Jessica Benjamin. This accidental hegemony leaves the act of reading in the wilderness. And Fowler should have been more cognizant of what Shoshana Felman sees as traps and dupery in psychoanalysis.

The extensive map to lead us out of the wilderness is constituted by Wright’s reimagining of the father in The Outsider, The Long Dream, Savage Holiday, and A Father’s Law. Without that map, readers are stuck in the critical funhouse, unable to articulate what Wright language games tell us about American social and cultural histories.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.              October 22, 2013

Monday, October 21, 2013

Free Southern Theater


Free Southern Theater


In his infrequently referenced African American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy (1984), Michael G. Cooke used “intimacy” to denote “a full and unforced communication with the given, the available, and the conceivable in human experience in a particular time and setting”(x).  Twenty-first century usage corrupts “intimacy” with pseudo-erotic connotations.  Cooke’s specialized definition of “intimacy” is lost; the extension of “intimacy” to mean “communion” adds complexity to Cooke’s definition. Intimacy as communion aptly describes a few things that occurred during the “Talkin’ Revolution: FST at 50” convening, October 17-20, 2013, at Tulane University and Ashé Cultural Arts Center. People communed.

One poignant moment of communion that occurred between the two living Free Southern Theater founders, Doris Derby and John O’Neal, involved the late Gilbert Moses, the third founder.  O’Neal had the courage to make a public, confessional apology to Derby for the sexism that was commonplace fifty years ago.  He and Moses had been most unfair to Derby in 1963-64 in FST’s founding months. Although the idea for using drama as an instrument in civil rights struggles was Derby’s brainchild, Moses and O’Neal thought she should subordinate her ideas and walk behind what they thought.  Derby tacitly accepted O’Neal’s apology as she spoke eloquently about how the idea for FST emerged from her family’s notions about action for social justice and her growing up in New York with a special interest in the arts. Genuine intimacy of this kind necessitates our rethinking the motives of contemporary critics who gleefully magnify the confrontational anger between women and men in social struggles and in literature.

Free Southern Theater by Free Southern Theater (BobbsMerrill, 1969) is a partial documentary history of FST’s early years, but it demands such supplements as “The Legacy of the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans,” interviews with Karen-Kaia Livers and Chakula Cha Jua, which is available in the online magazine ChickenBones  and “After the Free Southern Theater: A Dialog,” which Tom Dent and I wrote for The Drama Review 31.3 (1987): 120-125. But more important  is the spotlight FST veterans –Quo Vadis Gex Breaux, Frozine Thomas, Roscoe Orman, Kalamu ya Salaam,  Chakula Cha Jua, and Felipe Smith –used to focus on the history of Free Southern Theater from 1963 to 1985.  Stephanie McKee, Director of Junebug Productions (visit  Junebugproductions.Org ), has planned for eventual broadcasting of the videotaped documentation of “Talkin’ Revolution.” Future scholarship on FST requires working in the Free Southern Theater Collection, the Tom Dent Papers and the John O’Neal Papers at Amistad Research Center, Tulane University.

Kalamu ya Salaam, a FST alum and Tom Dent’s protégé, provided crucial information about FST’s role in the Black Arts Movement in his remarks about Dent’s service (1965-1968) as FST associate director during O’Neal’s two year absence in New York and as director of the FST Writers’ Workshop (1968-1972). FST emerged from the ideology associated with SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), but Dent inserted the radical ideology associated with New York’s Umbra Workshop into debates regarding FST’s status as integrationist theater.  Under Dent’s leadership, FST became a black community theater.  It may be possible to verify that FST pre-dates Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Repertory Theater (BART) as an urban theater catalyst for Black Arts Movement ideologies.  Kalamu ya Salaam’s emphatic argument about FST’s primacy requires intimate investigation and revisiting of tentative conclusions in James E. Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s ( University of North Carolina Press, 2005). “Stories,” as Minrose Gwin suggested in Remembering Medgar Evers, “translate an ethics of collective social struggle based in memory”(172). Salaam’s witnessing transmits lore to ears willing to listen in the twenty-first century.  It inspires my need to ask:


First, to say we ought to attempt to locate the origins, growth, decline and death of Free Southern Theater with the context of the revolution that was the long struggle for civil rights that began in the 18th century and went into hibernation in the 1980s. Like the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the Cuban Revolution, the long struggle culminated in legalistic  changes of the social contract under which people work and coexist. Given that aspects of what Charles W. Mills calls the racial contract were not  and may never be eradicated in the United States of America, the struggle for civil and human rights does not have historical closure.  It is continuing.  FST was a catalyst not a revolution. It intensified the possibility that a blending of politics and art might be effective in achieving certain ends of revolution, a limited number of ends.  I am adamant about clarity of defining so emotional a word as “revolution.”

Second, to shoot bullet-points of memory, the future memory of a twenty-year old senior mathematics major at Tougaloo College in 1963-64.  When I run out of ammo, read The Free Southern Theater by the Free Southern Theater .  That book is full of ammunition.

  • Bill Hutchinson, Tougaloo’s speech teacher and theater director, asked me to talk with Gilbert Moses, Doris Derby and John O’Neal  about the feasibility of a theater that could promote critical thinking about dreadful conditions in segregated Mississippi and the South.  At our meetings I reviewed the initial draft proposals with the FST founders.  Drama as a weapon was a new idea for me.  Wasn’t the bloody drama of risky sacrifices made by local people and SNCC workers, of overcoming the paralysis of profound fear, the emotional cost of empathy  --was this not drama enough?  Obviously not.  My admiration for Doris’s bravery and intelligence, for John’s philosophical pronouncements, and for Gilbert’s boldness convinced me Tougaloo College should support the enterprise as much as it could.  The College with its traditions of supporting forms of resistance to gross injustice was the right space for developing and implementing theater as a form of education about social evils, state-sponsored terrorism, and our entitlement to Constitutional rights.  Cultivating non-academic audiences was a capital idea.
  • What Frances Williams (1905-1995), a seasoned actress who had been an activist since the 1930s, said in conversations during her residency at Tougaloo opened our eyes about how drama could expose the fundamental theatricality of social and political action.  Those talks strengthen my conviction about the rightness of having FST.
  • I was a critical witness at the creation.  FST’s work from 1963 to 1985 was proof that diverse roles and strategies are meaningful in life and death situations which are integral parts of change.
  • Fifty years later we can learn ice-cold lessons about the present state and imagined future of African American theater and writing.  (A)  Although some black writing creates amnesia, much of it still has cantankerous vitality.  (B)  Politically conscious African American theater is pathetic.  It is so Americanized and homogenized as to have lost 95% of its potential to improve consciousness among large numbers of people. It is ill-equipped to deal with our lust for infotainment, our being enthralled and enslaved by endlessly new  visual technologies. I am not “hating” on any single playwright or theater group or spectacle  (performance effort).  I am simply convinced one FST product, Tom Dent’s Ritual Murder, remains unmatched for aesthetic economy and psychological depth in dealing with the major problem in 21st century society ---namely, cultivated self-hatred and total negation of the sanctity of human life. A vital African American /Black theater would address the genocidal implications of nihilism and self-hatred.

In the early planning of FST, Gilbert Moses thought the ideal was to evolve forms of drama to deal with political and moral dilemmas ---to forge “a new idiom, a new genre, a theatrical form and style as unique as blues, jazz, and gospel.  Black music still succeeds in preserving the changing complexities of anchored Blackness and eternal problems.  Measured against FST ideals, contemporary African American theatre fails in general to do. It is patriotic and American, a dream deferred.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                October 21, 2013

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Literary Commerce

Literary Commerce


According to words provided on the publication page, The Wind Done Gone “is the author’s critique of and reaction to the world described in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.”  We may suppose this statement and the dates January 1, 1940 (movie premiere of GWTW) and July 1936 (publication of GWTW) satisfy minimum requirements for cultural literacy in America.  Students in AP English courses are encouraged to know the phrase “gone with the wind”  is from Ernest Dowson’s poem “Non sum quails eram bonae sub rego Cynarae” (I am not as I was under the reign of the good Cyrana).  That information puts AP students a step ahead.  Those who get superior AP education will also know Dowson got the title for his poem from the Roman poet Horace.  In the antiquity of the early 20th century, some black students took pride in retaining such information.

Now, it suffices for any American student to remix Alice Randall’s title The Wind Done Gone as Did the Wind Gone?  So much is missed.

Randall inserts her first novel into the American romance tradition by imitating Hawthorne’s Custom House preface for The Scarlet Letter. In “Notes on the Text,” she pretends to have discovered the document (a leather-bound diary) by Prissy Cynara Brown in the 1990s among “the effects of an elderly colored lady who had been in an assisted-living center just outside Atlanta” (v).  Inside the document was “a fragment of green silk.”  Inside his document, Hawthorne discovered a bit of cloth, a scarlet letter, an overtly historical textile.

Recall that neither Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne nor Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara was a lady.  They were useful tools in the making of whiteness.  Unlike the rich oral narration of the enslaved heroine in Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose (which tells us so much about the world described in Margaret Walker’s Jubilee), the febrile writerly narration of Prissy Cynara Brown tells us more about the pathology of Margaret Mitchell’s “New South” than it does about the slave community.  In that sense, it justifies Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s remark that The Wind Done Gone is “a moving act of political commentary.”  Randall’s novel deconstructs, however, the puffery of Gates’s saying that in The Wind Done Gone “at last the slaves at Tara have found their voice.”  Caveat Emptor.  When the wind leaves, the voice can’t be found.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                           

October 17, 2013

Sunday, October 13, 2013

History Redux

History Redux 2013: Umbra and FST


Two symposia, “Talkin’ Revolution,” (New Orleans, October 17-20) and “ Celebrating the Umbra Workshop,” (New York, November 1) will cast light on the matter of history redux , the ways people remember and reconfigure specific moments of cultural development.

The wording of David Henderson’s announcement about the Umbra symposium is instructive:

Join us for a half century celebration of the Umbra Workshop! Founded on New York’s Lower East Side in 1961 and dispersed in 1964, Umbra’s influence on American literature continues to this day. The Umbra Workshop was comprised of an aesthetically diverse group of young artists, many with “a strong commitment to ‘nonliterary’ black culture.” The Workshop was nurtured by people as disparate as Langston Hughes and Andy Young, actively engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, in questions of diversity in letters, and, later, in the Black Arts Movement. The first in a series of gatherings, this event brings together several of the founding members, including poets, novelists, and activists Steve Cannon, David Henderson, Rashidah Ismaili, Joe Johnson and Ishmael Reed for readings and conversation and focusing on some of the complex aesthetic, political, social, and literary relationships that informed this legendary Workshop.

It whets our appetite to know what impact the post-dispersal activities of the participants –those named in the announcement and those to be remembered in the discussions had and may continue to have on the growth of African American literature.  Tom Dent, Calvin Hicks, Raymond Patterson, Askia Muhammad Touré, Lorenzo Thomas, Calvin Hernton, and Norman Pritchard and others are among those to be remembered.

In contrast, “Talkin’ Revolution” will make inquiries about the Free Southern Theater (FST) from 1963 to 1985 and about what FST may teach us about the present state and the future of African American theatre and writing.  Why was FST founded by John O’Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses at Tougaloo College?  How did its early productions in Mississippi shape discussions regarding culture and civil rights struggles?  Why did FST move its homebase from Mississippi to New Orleans?  Although dispersal is an important feature of FST history, it is more necessary to account for the impact the institution had on the growth, rise, and decline of community  theater in New Orleans and other parts of the South. And we have to think about Tom Dent as a key figure in both Umbra Workshop and FST.

History redux is invaluable for assessing our contemporary use and abuse of culture(s).


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.          October 13, 2013          PHBW BLOG


Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Unghosting African American Literature


Unghosting, as the word is used in the title of Frank X. Walker’s recent collection of poems, Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers (2013), might refer to connotations of “recovery” in the work of criticism and literary history. Aware that “recovery” is a subjective action, we can strengthen our work by exploiting that subjectivity more than we normally do.  Walker’s poems can be discussed in an interpretive context shaped by Michael V. Williams’s Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (2011) and Minrose Gwin’s Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement (2013). When Gwin remarks that Turn Me Loose “takes measure of these long shadows of southern history and the bifurcating forms of memory they elicit in lingering contemporary arguments” (21), we appreciate more Williams’s caution that we not deify Evers but “analyze his contributions so one might understand his overall impact on the movement for social, political, economic, and racial equality” (11). Intensified awareness of subjectivity might sharpen critique of how Williams’s writing of biography, Gwin’s judgments about historiography, and Walker’s poetry cooperate in a process of unghosting.

When I recovered my review in NOBO: A Journal of African American Dialogue of Askia Muhammad Touré’s third book of poems, From the Pyramids to the Projects: Poems of Genocide and Resistance! (1990), I had a shock of remembering.  I had said nothing about Touré’s liberating himself from his birth name, Roland Snellings, nor had I mentioned his membership in Umbra Workshop (1962-65), which Lorenzo Thomas and Michel Oren both recognized as a critical element in the formation of the Black Arts Movement. Had I done so, I might have said something less “ book reviewish” and more intellectually substantial. I did mention “his distinction as a leading member of the Black Arts Movement and his importance in the history of American American aesthetics.”  Failure lies in my not mentioning his name change was itself an unghosting of Askia Muhammad Touré, an emperor of Songhai, a preparatory gesture I suspect for writing the poems in Songhai (1972) and Juju: Magic Songs for the Black Nation (1972). I failed to establish a “thick” context for my act of criticism.  When I write in a future about the Black Arts Movement, I shall be more responsible in my use of unghosting tools to locate poetry in literary history.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.       October 9, 2013       

Monday, October 7, 2013

LeRoi Jones/1963

LeRoi Jones /1963


It seems to be an innocent use of time when we celebrate memory at intervals of fifty years.  The ghosts of things past, however, can become rowdy.  Things can get out of hand.

Reflection on then and now, dignity, and solemnity could have marked celebration of the historic March on Washington. The March was not about Dr. King and a good Baptist sermon about dreaming.  The trek to the nation’s capital in 1963 was about the sacrifices made by thousands for social justice.  The ghosts of the past and the media gave scant attention to original intent. The cameras focused on bickering among heirs of history and the seduction of self-advertisement.

Time does not bow to desire for neat patterns.  James Weldon Johnson published Fifty Years and Other Poems in 1917 not 1913.  We have no opportunity to say he celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) fifty years later.  We could alter history and say LeRoi Jones’s publishing Blues People, a landmark work in vernacular cultural theory, in 1963 was a special salute to Johnson’s admonition “to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without.”  Without resorting to the ahistorical, we can say LeRoi Jones did salute Johnson.  He theorized that the music of the enslaved, the blues, and jazz was a better manifestation of racial spirit than what could be found in “Negro literature.”  In this way, Jones acknowledged Johnson’s insights about the ineluctable connections of music, poetry and spirit.  We celebrate Jones [Amiri Baraka] and Blues People fifty years later by asking what the book tells us about 2013.

The lines

Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy & his Brother

Who killed Dr. King, Who would want such a thing?


                  Are they linked to the murder of Lincoln?


from Baraka’s long poem “Somebody Blew Up America”  (2001) is a dense warning that we may want to be careful in remembering November 22, 1963 and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  We do well to interpret Baraka’s questions in the context of political murder in the United States of American, a context saturated with awareness that terrorism is ferocious, amoral, and vengeful.  We benefit from remembering that for fifty years Jones/Baraka has sandpapered our minds with light.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.           October 7, 2013