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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

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