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