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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ishmael Reed, Charles Blow, and Cultural Literacy

 Cultural Literacy and the New York Times


One of the few newspapers in America that still addresses readers who believe in old-fashioned cultural literacy, the New York Times deserves applause for its December 19, 2013 edition.  Reminding us yet again that we are at once subjects and objects of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, the paper tempers the sting of anxiety, dread, and a winter of discontent by publishing articles by Ishmael Reed and Charles M. Blow.  In the online edition, one finds Reed’s “The President of the Cool” in the Editors’ Picks section and Blow’s “Defining Moments and Crystal Stairs” at the top of the Op-Ed segment.  Bravo.

Reed uses his considerable musical literacy to suggest that “cool musicians carried themselves with a regal bearing.”  By associating President Obama with such legendary figures as Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Stan Getz, Milt Jackson, and Miles Davis, pays a fine tribute to the President’s mastering of the aesthetics of the cool.  And Reed puts icing on the proverbial cake when he quotes the President’s gratitude to Theodore Walter “Sonny” Rollins.  Two of the most culturally literate, cool people I know return the favor by saying “Reed is the epitome of cool” (Ja Jahannes) and “Loved this article.  Clearly folks continue to mistake cool with swagger” (Frank X. Walker). [Emails from Jahannes and Walker to Ward, 19 Dec 2013]

There is no hint of swagger in Blow’s desire to share racial wisdom with America’s youth regarding how to remain cool while remembering the deaths of James Byrd, Jr., Emmett Till, and Trayvon Martin as defining moments of how racial hatred thrives in perpetuity in the United States of America, a nation that often promotes itself as the moral center of the planet.  On the contrary, there is a cool, generous, and rational measure of cultural literacy in Blow’s reminding young people (and all of us) of the need to read and absorb Langston Hughes’s poem “Mother to Son.” I would add that Blow’s excellent advice can only be supplemented by internalizing Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It is crucial to know of ignorant armies clashing night and day.

In these articles, the writers use cultural literacy to champion the ethics of balance.

Patience is platinum.  To my knowledge, no African American has every played the Edward Snowden card.  Let us salute Charles Blow and Langston Hughes for reminding us why that is the case.  Indeed, the only acts of black treason were performed when Uncle Y hastened to alert Master Z that his fellow-slaves were plotting to be free!

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

December 19, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Note to imprisoned writers

Send your manuscripts to Random House.  The market for pain is very active, and you may earn enough money to purchase your freedom.

Random House Acquires 1800s Prison Memoir

The recently discovered manuscript believed to be the first prison memoir by an African-American was swiftly acquired by Random House, the publisher said on Sunday. The 304-page manuscript, by Austin Reed, was recently authenticated by scholars at Yale University.
Titled “The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison”, it traces Reed’s story of imprisonment and harsh punishment while he was at a state prison in upstate New York from the 1830s to the 1850s. After details of the manuscript were disclosed last week, Random House snapped up the rights to publish it, offering a mid-six-figure sum, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations who was not authorized to speak publicly. (A spokeswoman for Random House declined to comment on the advance.)
The book is expected to be released in early 2016, with a foreword by David Blight, a professor of American history at Yale, and an introduction by Caleb Smith, an English professor at Yale. “It is the story of a hard life, told with anger and with irony, exploring some of the deep connections between race and incarceration in America,” Mr. Smith said in a statement. David Ebershoff, an executive editor at Random House, will edit the book.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Gifts of Black Prisoners

The Gifts of Black Prisoners


Just as DuBois’s The Gifts of Black Folk (1924) is overshadowed by The Souls of Black Folk (1903 ), the long shadows of our classic slave narratives obscure the importance of studying other autobiographical forms in efforts to write more expansive histories of how African Americans have used literacy and literature or black writing in English since the 18th century.  Accidental “discoveries” of lost materials are special moments in the growth of scholarship, enabling us to enlarge the body of black writing and to conduct archival projects to refocus our perspectives. Julie Bosman’s article Prison Memoir of a Black Man in the 1850s -  notifies us that a special moment is in the offing.

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s acquisition of Austin Reed’s “The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison,” dated 1858, is a great find if the memoir is indeed authentic and not a parody written by a white prisoner or white prison guard in the 1850s, by a person who wished to exploit the popularity of slave narratives. We do not need yet another example of bogus black writing.  We are still in a state of uncertainty about whether Hannah Craft’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative is truly what we have been told it is. We do need a 19th century bit of prison writing that is beyond dispute, that can be analyzed in some framework of African American autobiography and set against the literary/non-literary qualities of, let us say, George Jackson's Blood in My Eye and Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson and other writings by the imprisoned (e.g. the early poetry of Etheridge Knight).  It is better to err in the direction of extreme skepticism than to be duped.

Contemporary literary and cultural studies often play deadly games with African American intellectual property, and I think it is prudent for the Project on the History of Black Writing to issue a caution regarding what Bosman described as “the first recovered memoir written in prison by an African-American.” Thus, I sent the following e-mail to Professor Caleb Smith:




Jerry Ward (
Thu 12/12/13 1:56 PM
To: (

Dear Professor Smith:

As a member of the Project on the History of Black Writing advisory board, I was pleased to read in today's New York Times that you will prepare Austin Reed's manuscript for publication. This project extends, and perhaps deepens, your previous studies of incarceration. I am confident you will provide judicious contextualization for our analysis and interpretation of the memoir. Those of us who have special interest in African American literacy and literature welcome the challenge of dealing with the literary and non-literary aspects of "recovered" works. This example of 19th century prison writing raises questions about autobiography in general and African American autobiography in particular and about how the genre functions in a multi-layered national literature.

I do hope that Christine McKay and others used the most exacting scientific principles in establishing the authenticity of the memoir for the Beinecke. What we do not need is to discover, after publication, that the memoir is a devastatingly clever imitation of 19th century black writing. Use of the most rigorous standards of authentication and bibliographic or textual scholarship must provide the evidence that inspires confidence.

Please accept my thanks for your helping us to create more precise literary histories of African American writing.

Sincerely yours,

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Distinguished Overseas Professor
Central China Normal University (Wuhan)


Professor Smith graciously answered within a few hours, assuring me that  The Reed manuscript really is a haunting text. We have worked very hard to piece together the facts of Reed's life and the circumstances of his writing. I expect that the publication will be just the beginning of a long conversation.” (Email from Smith to Ward, December 12, 2013)  We should anticipate that the “long conversation” will give birth to a rich discourse about genres, the possibility of deconstructing incarceration as enslavement in American historical contexts, canons, and the aims of scholarship inside and beyond the fragile boundaries of American higher education. We may, despite ourselves, be once more enlightened by the gifts of black prisoners and by the assertions of Americans who do not know the kinship they share with the imprisoned.




Sunday, December 8, 2013

Judicial Water



You regret

Quare square molecule

The error

Morphing to meditate


Why is this so

Lately soon

A blues rupture


Eyes seeing eyes through stars

Haunting mood

Indigo and indigenous


Morphing to mediate

The terror

Fractal failures

You regret


So this is why

Sponge spoon

Detains a myth

Too cold to freeze


Wisdom coiled

Blind might

Delight neither pond nor sea.




Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

December 8, 2013



Collins, Lisa Gail and Margo Natalie Crawford, eds. New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006.  Divided into three sections ---I. Cities and Sites,  II. Genre and Ideologies, III. Predecessors, Peers, and Legacies, this collection of essays uses fresh research to deepen understanding of one of the most important periods in African American literature, art, and culture. These inquiries expose the lame tendentiousness of efforts, in certain sectors of literary theory and criticism, to dismiss the value of the Black Arts Movement in our nation’s literary history.


Davis, Thadious M. Southscapes:  Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Discussions of “place” have long been a staple of commentaries on Southern literature, but Davis explores previously uncharted territories in her impressive, sustained twofold argument: “First, African Americans who wish to have a regional identity as southern can and increasingly are claiming that right. Second, the traditional literature of the South has begun to acknowledge more fully the presence of blacks and other minority groups within its ranks, including the previously overlooked remaining southern Native American and Chinese populations or the growing newer communities of Latinos, Vietnamese, and South Asians” (19).  Davis’s intervention is timely, because it casts light on the discrepancy between the evolving of literature and the regressive social and political actions which do not bode well for a future in the American South.


Elam, Michele. The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium.  Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 2011.  Elam exposes the deceptiveness of “post-racial” claims.  She “takes as a given the political nature, versus a presumed taxonomic neutrality, of mixed race, beginning with the assumption that mixed race is no fait accompli but still very much a category under construction”(6-7).


Fowler, Doreen. Drawing the Line: The Father Reimagined in Faulkner, Wright, O’Connor, and Morrison. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013. This book is a good example of how lost in the critical 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 that fiction and non-fiction invite. One can momentarily escape the horror of knowing that signifiers co-exist with the material presences which negate signification. What works for commentary on the magic realism of Faulkner, O’Connor, and Morrison fails when it is applied to Wright’s scathing realism. Fowler’s chapter “Crossing a Racial Border: Richard Wright’s Native Son” is disappointment.  Fowler travels into the dense terrain of Native Son by following paths mapped by Freud, Lacan and Kristeva, but she ignores the roadways Wright paved in The Long Dream and A Father’s Law.  Failure to discuss novels wherein Wright painstakingly “reimagined” fathers and sons is poor scholarship.


Gotham, Kevin Fox. Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy.  New York: New York University Press, 2007. Many books have tried to explain New Orleans as a locus of virtue and vice. Lawrence N. Powell’s The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), for example, focuses on risk and inventiveness as key aspects of the city’s origins. But Gotham takes improvisation to a new level with his surgical examination of how tourism creates and destroys the idea of the city’s authenticity. Indeed, this study is quite the tool needed for assessing the unique racism of New Orleans and why the post-Katrina “new New Orleans” is an Eden for the rich and hell for the displaced, the marginalized, and the working class.



Gwin, Minrose. Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013.  Like her ground-cracking novel The Queen of Palmyra (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), Gwin’s five essays provide extraordinary insights about the discipline of history and about absorbing the significance of Medgar Wiley Evers in the unfinished struggles of civil and human rights in the State of Mississippi. Gwin’s sensibility as a creative writer who is also a scholar enables her to make keen judgments about literary works by James Baldwin, Margaret Walker, and Eudora Welty ; the aesthetic tensions among the Jackson Advocate, the Mississippi Free Press, the Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News; the importance of Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968) and Myrlie Evers-Williams’s For Us , the Living (1967); the preservation and transformation of memory in music; the commendable achievement of Frank X. Walker’s Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers (2013). Gwin’s essays and bibliography are valuable resources for remembering or for learning why struggles for humanity are always unfinished. This book should be read in tandem with Michael Vincent Williams’s superb biography Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2011).




Haile, James B., ed. Philosophical Meditations on Richard Wright. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012. These seven meditations comment on Richard Wright’s incorporation of existentialist, ontological, and phenomenological ideas in his fiction and non-fiction.  They expose facets of Wright’s intellectual imagination which are usually ignored or blurred in “traditional” literary readings of his works.


Holloway, Jonathan Scott. Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory & Identity in Black America since 1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.  Threaded with astute references to the works of Richard Wright, Jim Crow Wisdom is a refreshing meditation on the uses of memory and forgetting in the United States. Given the current trend of visualizing enslavement and minstrelsy, Holloway’s comments on the filmmaker William Greaves, a pioneering black documentarian, are invaluable. Holloway’s conclusion is empowering: “…’home’ is a place where the possible and impossible can commingle, where contradiction makes more sense than tidy narratives that speak of unflinching progress, and where the psychological shelter of the figurative can offer protection that is as real as the roof over one’s head” (229).


Mullen, Harryette.  The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012.   One of our most innovative poets and scholars, Mullen possesses an independent spirit (do not confuse with “free spirit”) which enables her to walk in balance with the arbitrary options of languages and identities, to write poems and essays that do not bear the onus of predictability.  Her essays and interviews tease us into profound reflection on ideas derived from her flexible locations within African American, global and womanist traditions.  Her burnished, critical independence validates her choice “to explore diversity and variety rather than universality or consistence” (262). It is reasonable to hazard that the essays “Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem: Wislawa Szymborska in the Dialogue of Creative and Critical Thinkers” (35-43) and “The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Stretching the Dialogue of African American Poetry” (68-76) are exceptional prose photographs of Mullen’s mind at work.


Norris, Keenan, ed. Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2014.  Norris’s penetrating article “The Dark Role of Excess in the Literary Marketplace and the Genesis and Evolution of Urban Literature” in JEAL: Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Issue 1 (2011): 9-30 was a forecast for his editing of this anthology of critical perspectives on Street Literature.  He and the contributors rupture dated notions regarding popular African American fiction and nonfiction, challenging us to recognize the urbanity of the urban and to reexamine the bottomless well of African American oral traditions. Thus, this anthology invites revised thinking about narrow, purely academic canons of African American literature and why large numbers of readers may find uncanonized works to be of great significance, to be empowering equipment for the vexed navigations of everyday life. Omar Tyree’s “Foreword” is itself a rewarding commentary on progressive creativity; along with Norris’s pointed introduction, it provides a framework for dealing with repressed dynamics in the evaluations of African American literature.  Street Lit extends the discourse on urban literature represented in Word Hustle: Critical Essay and Reflections on the Works of Donald Goines (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2011), edited by L. H. Stallings and Greg Thomas.


Osbey, Brenda Marie. History and Other Poems. St. Louis, MO: Time Being Books, 2012. Anointed with complexities, History and Other Poems is superbly executed.  Brenda Marie Osbey’s poems invite exploration of the chaos and créolité of history.  They urge us to attend to their nuances, to be renewed by radical, rich aesthetic permutations.  In her previous collections ---- Ceremony for Minneconjoux, In These Houses, All Saints: New and Selected Poems, and Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman, Osbey acknowledged her sustained research and investments in history. History and Other Poems confirms her poetic mastery of time, space, and narrative, her authority to guide us in the process of becoming enlightened by the profound structures of existence.  This is a rare book that secures our participation in and control of the dialogic imagination.


Redmond, Eugene B. Arkansippi Memwars: Poetry, Prose & Chants 1962-2012.  Chicago: Third World Press, 2013. Redmond’s fame for his seminal work Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry (1976) and for his photographs as cultural documents (see Howard Rambsy, “Eugene B. Redmond, The Critical Cultural Witness.” JEAL, Issue 1 (2011): 69-89) often overshadows his achievements as a sound-driven poet, founding editor of Drumvoices Revue, and creator of the “kwansaba,” a demanding poetic form.  Arkansippi Memwars makes fifty years (1962-2012) of Redmond’s contributions to literature and culture available for critical assessments.



Rowell, Charles Henry, ed. Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry.  New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. This anthology suggests that rap and hip hop/spoken word creations have no place in contemporary poetry, and the Callaloo-canonized work included presents a naïve view of dynamics in the field of poetry.  Rowell’s belief that publication history should trump autobiographical history is a major flaw, because it misinforms readers about complexity and partisan contradictions.  Equally flawed is his effort to assert that poetry of the Black Arts period lacked “literary” importance, an effort that merits non-academic  condemnation. Rowell would avoided glaring flaws of explanation had he read Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry (1976),  Kalamu ya Salaam’s What Is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self (1994)and  Lorenzo Thomas’s Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2000) very carefully before compiling and editing Angles of Ascent.



Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013). In this exceptionally informative inquiry about the bloody origins of American higher education, Wilder has constructed a brilliant model of what scholarship should be. Just as Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: Liveright, 2013) enhances the importance of Robert H. Brinkmeyer’s The Fourth Ghost: White Southern Writers and European Fascism, 1930-1950 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), Wilder’s work lends an urgency to serious engagement with Gene Andrew Jarrett’s Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature (New York: New York University Press, 2011) and John Ernest’s Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). Critical attention to the dazzling “funk” of variety and accomplishment in contemporary African American literature should be balanced by scholarly attention to texts which are generic foundations for the forms and content of black writing from 2000 to the present. To increase the possibility of having a larger selection of informed African American literary histories, it is essential that younger scholars be encouraged by the majesty of Ebony and Ivy  to do archival work and to discover the problematic and enlightening pleasures of documents which are crucial for understanding the conditions of the twenty-first century .


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.


December 7, 2013



Wednesday, December 4, 2013

New book on Russell Atkins

Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master

Click to order via Amazon

Edited by Kevin Prufer & Michael Dumanis

Paperback: 210 pages
Publisher: Pleiades Press (June 15, 2013)
ISBN-10: 0964145448
ISBN-13: 978-0964145443
Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.4 x 0.5 inches

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

This is an astounding tribute to one of the most innovative American artists, Russell Atkins, by a small, independent publisher, Pleiades Press. Prufer, a professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston , and Dumanis, a professor at Bennington College, put together this labor of love, paying homage to Atkins, this peerless yet largely unknown poet, composer, dramatist, theorist, and editor.
When I was a very young writer in Cleveland, I met Atkins at a performance at Karamu House, one of the oldest Black theatres in the nation. Along with renowned poet-playwright Annetta Jefferson, I learned from Atkins about the value of words and reading, the mechanics of composition and techniques, and which writers to study. Most Cleveland artists and writers respected Atkins for his uncompromising poetry, plays, music, and possibly the black-owned poetry magazine, Free Lance.
Now, Prufer and Dumanis are trying to revive interest in the enigmatic Atkins, who created some of the boldly original, courageous, important work as one of the most significant 20th century avant-garde innovators. Born in 1926 in Cleveland, Atkins studied music at seven and published poetry in leading journals and newspapers at an early age. His supporters of his poetry included Langston Hughes, Clarence Major, Marianne Moore, and others, noting his challenging concepts in form, meter, style, and content. He refused to pigeon-holed or submit to any ideology or movement. When he founded Free Lance, A Magazine of Poetry and Prose, in 1950, with his friend, Adelaide Simon, it attracted writers from all over the world, leading the now-defunct Black World to call it “the only Black literary magazine of national importance in existence.”
Supported by a generous collection of Atkins’ poems, there are a number of scholars and poets write about his unconventional, mathematical approach to verse and music, including Evie Shockey, Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Tyrone Williams, Sean Singer, and Tom Orange. They dissect his credo of total structural freedom, a tendency toward artistic mayhem and dissonance, varying images and rhythms between sound and silence, all designed to liberate the mind and imagination.
Now sweet Cathy
Is pouring beer here in a bar
Pouring beer in a bar
Where hard workers are.
Endure costs her; her dreams fewer,
Cathy with promoted bust is mature.
-from Now Sweet Cathy (1961)
Trained as a musician and visual artist, Atkins studied at Cleveland College, Cleveland Music School Settlement, Cleveland Institute of Music, Karamu Theatre, and Cleveland School of Art. In the 1955-1956 issue of Free Lance, he published his landmark article, “A Psychovisual Perspective for Musical Composition,” using the Gestalt theory of pattern formation to stress the importance of the brain rather than the ear as the critical element for composition. The music world took notice.
With his plays, The Abortionist and The Corpse debuting in 1954, Atkins seriously turned to poetry, producing several volumes including Phenomena (1961), Objects (1963), Heretofore (1968), The Nail (1970), Maleficium (1971), Here in The (1976), and Whichever (1978). All of his poetry, plays, and music collectively spoke as one of strongest avant-garde voices to appear in African American literature, and in our national world of letters, with some critics comparing him to the experimental work of jazz greats John Coltrane and Anthony Braxton.
When the editors approached Atkins about this project, the poet-composer said: “Why, who would want to read about me?” Well, meet Russell Atkins, an American original, whose works have been neglected and ignored. Learn about this unconventional elder and see why he turned the literary and music world upside down. This is a historic, intellectually challenging book to digest slowly and savor.