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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Poetry 1988


Poetry in 1988: A Research Note

 

 

Twenty-five years ago, Naomi Long Madgett edited and published A Milestone Sampler: 15th Anniversary Anthology (Detroit: Lotus Press, 1988).  The book is a collector’s item. Pictured on the front cover are Lotus Press poets who participated in the fifteenth anniversary celebration in Detroit, June 25-27, 1987.The back cover informs us that

 

The press has held, as a major part of its philosophy,  respect for the independence of its black poets in their choice of style and subject matter.  As a result, its products demonstrate remarkable variety, determined not by editorial biases but by technical competence.

 

We learn more about the philosophy of the Lotus Press from the first paragraph of Madgett’s foreword.

 

In a culture which does not revere its poets and does not purchase and read their works, any press that limits its activities to the publication of good poetry would seem doomed to failure.  The major publishing houses publish very little poetry, and the small presses that have survived usually include other, more profitable genres (if they publish poetry at all).  If commercial success had been the goal of Lotus Press when it was founded in 1972  -- or in 1974 when I assumed ownership  -- it surely would have died in its infancy.

 

The twenty poets sampled are

 

Samuel Allen

Houston A. Baker, Jr.

Jill Witherspoon Boyer

Tom Dent

Toi Derricotte

Beverly Rose Enright

Naomi F. Faust

Ray Fleming

Agnes Nasmith Johnston

Sybil Kein

Dolores Kendrick

Pinkie Gordon Lane

Naomi Long Madgett

Haki R. Madhubuti

Herbert Woodward Martin

E. Ethelbert Miller

May Miller

Mwatabu Okantah

Philip R. Royster

Paulette Childress White

 

A photograph of the poet prefaces each of the samplings.

 

My copy was a gift from Tom Dent, whose note of September 17, 1988 I recently found in the book---

 

                                                                                                                                Saturday

                                                                                                                                Sept. 17

 

Jerry,

     Came in last night on the way to Greenville, thanks. I may be returning tomorrow night or Monday, but with Worth Long & Co. there I’ll probably hang around.

     These are copies of Naomi’s Anthology, of which she sent several.  If I miss you will call next week.

 

                                                                                                                Thanks,

 

                                                                                                                Tom

 

 

A Milestone Sampler is a valuable document of time past and a prelude to time future. It is a site for the discovery of forms unknown.

 

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                                                           

March 28, 2013

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Poetry Meditation


Poetry in First World: An April Meditation

 

 

 

After Johnson Publications abruptly discontinued Black World in 1976, Hoyt W. Fuller and others founded First World Foundation in Atlanta and began to publish First World: An International Journal of Black Thought.  In The Black Arts Movement (2005), James Smethurst does not associate the demise of Black World and the birth of First World with Watergate (1974), but future studies of African American poetry will have to account for how the covert activities of Richard Nixon’s administration intensified divisions and decline within the evolving of Black cultural nationalism.

 

Post-Civil Rights assumptions about the aesthetic function of poetry beg to be explained within the total context of dwindling American faith in the credibility of democracy. The “formal turn” in black poetry after 1974, even if it is considered as a pure act of language (a specialized speech act), must be associated with a paradoxical resuscitation of faith in American exceptionalism. I want to sell signifying  tickets with the claim that young black poets born after 1965 consciously and unconsciously were determined in the late 1980s and early 1990s to prove they were more quintessentially “American” in craft than other poets in the United States, much in the fashion Ralph Ellison “proved” he was more American than Saul Bellow.

 

First World’s premier issue appeared January/February 1977.  It is noteworthy that Fuller echoed Carter G. Woodson in the editor’s page, that his words could have been written in January 2013:

 

All too often we settle for personal “success” and “making it” as rationalization for our failure to control the system head-on and to demand that it change to accommodate all the people it demeans and exploits.  And so, generation after generation, we willfully perpetuate a cycle of hope and despair (3). [My italics]

 

Based on his prescience as the long-term editor of Negro Digest/Black World, Fuller knew that magazines can raise consciousness but they do not destroy perpetual cycles, because “the lords of America…have wisely learned to adjust their procedures without disturbing the fundamental structures and thrusts of their empires, and the calculated cooptation of selected Blacks is a minor adjustment” (3).

 

Undaunted by his own pessimism, Fuller launched First World in the hope that black writing might “give tangible support to the universal idea of respect and self-determination for all people and all nations’ (3).  First World died with Fuller on May 11, 1981.   This ending of one wave of modern black cultural nationalism in poetry  is the beginning of questions about what new missions African American poetry assumed.  We can no longer speak with certainty about the mission of black poetry as Eugene Redmond could in Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History (1976).

 

 Perhaps we can no longer speak of mission, because the idols of post-race enthrall many commodified poets to worship their egos. They ignore or reject the premises of T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919) as well as the implications of Blues People (1963) by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka.

 

 

 

To initiate wonderment about where we went from the final issue of First World  (Vol. 2, No. 4, 1980) to the current Holy Communion of prizes , I have listed the poets and poems Fuller published between 1977 and 1980. It is important to notice from the listing which poets have been tossed into forgetting and which ones still resonate in memory.

 

 

 

Vol. 1, No. 1 (January /February 1977)

 

Ahmos Zu-Bolton, “Struggle-Road Dance” (9)

Carolyn Rodgers, “a lament on August 15, 1968/the anniversary of a time ignorant longing” (36)

Everett Hoagland, “Jamming” (52)

Samuel Allen, “Harriet Tubman” (57)

Zack Gilbert, “You Know Who You Are” (62)

 

Vol. 1, No. 2 (March/ April 1977)

 

June Jordan, “I Must Become a Menace To My Enemies” (10)

Peter Clarke, “The Showpiece” (10)

L. B. J. Machabane, “The Jackal and the Fox” (15)

Isaac J. Black, “Taking Precautions In The Air” (55)

Alvin Aubert, “Getting At The Beatles/ Installment I” (63)

 

**If anyone discovers Vol. 1, No. 3, please post the information.

 

Vol. 1, No. 4 (Winter 1977)

 

Kiarri T.-H. Cheatwood, “Of Love and Land” (44)

Naomi Long Madgett, “Nomen” and “Exits and Entrances” (58)

Sonia Sanchez, Five haiku (For Gwen Brooks), (58)

Etheridge Knight, “On Seeing the Black Male as #1 Sex Object in America” (59)

Jerry Ward, “New Orleans/ French Quarter Black Mammies” (59)

 

Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 1978)

 

Mari Evans, “On the Death of Boochie by Starvation” and “Street Lady” (11)

Yusef Komungakaa (sic), “A Short History of Building Fences” (13)

Frank Lamont Phillips,”Chile Lamont” (21)

Melba Joyce Boyd,”Detroit Renaissance Sin” (39)

Gladys Thomas, “Stephen Biko –September 1977” (55)

 

Vol. 2, No. 2 (1979)

 

Julia Fields, “Mr. Tut’s House: A Recollection” (38-39)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vol. 2, No. 3 (1979)

 

Gayl Jones, “Xarque” (13)

David Crooms, “In Memoriam” (13)

 

Vol. 2, No. 4 (1980)

 

Dudley Randall, “Mini-Skirt” (10)

Gayl  Jones, “The Fur Station” (23)

Jerry Ward, “Volcano” (43)

Everett Hoagland,  African Suite [“Nia,” “Umoja: 1978,” “Good Bloods and Bad Water,” “Blue Milk and Black Diamonds,” “Open Will,” “GorĂ©e,” “Dust,” “The Seven Days”] (56-59,62)

 

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                                                           

March 27, 2013

 

Friday, March 22, 2013

MLK's Children



Interesting article to read.

MLK Memorial Foundation Forced To Change Name By King Children

By Joseph Williams and Roland S. Martin
TV One, Washington Watch
They spent six years raising more than $100 million, one cocktail fundraiser, and souvenir mug and lapel pin at a time.
And on October 16, 2011, the idea to build a monument in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., an idea that began 28 years earlier at the kitchen table of a member of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., came to fruition.
Thousands of people of different races and backgrounds watched as President Barack Obama, two of King’s children, and countless other entertainers and veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, dedicated a bold statue to civil rights icon.
Less than two years later, however, the organizing force behind the national monument – the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation – is no more after the surviving children of Martin and Coretta Scott King refused to grant a license for the group to continue to use the name “Martin Luther King Jr.”
The website that served as the centerpiece of the foundation’s fundraising and informational efforts – www.mlkmemorial.org - no longer exists. What used to be a vibrant site that served as the centerpiece for online donations and information related to the memorial has vanished after the King children, through their attorneys, demanded it be turned over to them.
King’s surviving children – Dexter, Bernice and MLK III – control the copyrights to their father’s images and words through a for-profit entity, King, Inc., which was set up after his death to handle all affairs of his estate.
There have been a number of contentious moments between the MLK foundation and King, Inc., over the last few years. At one point as the memorial was ready to be dedicated, King, Inc. had all of Dr. King’s books removed from the bookstore on the site of the memorial. The King children wanted to control the bookstore and reap all profits from the selling of merchandise.
All of this despite the foundation paying MLK children through King, Inc., $2.7 million to use the likeness of King and his quotes on the memorial on the National Mall.
“We are trying to keep the memorial relevant,” said Harry E. Johnson Sr., a Houston lawyer and president of The Memorial Foundation, the foundation’s new name (The site is www.thememorialfoundation.org and bears the slogan, “Builders of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial).
“We had planned a hundred events around the memorial” and King’s famous name – including year-long classes and a seminar on nonviolent protest featuring the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, who was King’s inspiration, Johnson said.
Clarence Jones, who served as a personal advisor and attorney for Dr. King, called the refusal to grant a new license by King, Inc., to the foundation “obscene.”
“They have done something unique in the history of this country in getting corporate America, private America to fund a memorial to honor the greatest hero of the 20th century,” said Jones, a scholar-in-residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute at Stanford University.
“They did this in a tribute to his legacy as an Alpha member…it’s not about protecting the legacy or encouraging discussions of King. It’s not about that. It’s about unexplained, selfish interests, which I believe Martin King would be appalled.”
Civil rights historians who have studied King and his family say the move follows a familiar pattern, one in which King’s children tightly control his image – and use a heavy hand to protect it.
That pattern could be at the center of plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The historic August 28,1963, event has left an indelible imprint on the history of America when 250,000 people gathered before the Lincoln Monument to present a series of demands to the federal government. The march has long been credited with setting the stage for the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But it has also gone down in history due to the stunning speech of Dr. King. Today it is known as the “I Have A Dream” speech, even though that wasn’t the initial name, and the dream portion of it was never in the written text.
The march was convened by the top civil rights organizations and organized labor, including Congress of Racial Equality, the National Urban League, NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was organized by A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
The 50th anniversary march was supposed to commemorate that historic day, but the King children have different plans. For them, that day is more about King’s speech rather than the march. In fact, the King Center, the non-profit entity set up to continue his works, is promoting August 28 as the 50th anniversary of the speech first, and the march second, based on a logo they are using on various materials.
Since late last year, leaders of the civil rights organizations who organized the original march, as well as the Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, have been quietly meeting with King family representatives and officials from the National Park Service, which issues permits for demonstrations on the Mall.
The latest meeting took place two weeks ago in Washington, and involved high-level representatives from some of the organizations involved in the event planning. The talks are so sensitive, however, that no one is willing to speak about them publicly or privately.
National Urban League CEO Marc Morial, Wade Henderson of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and Ben Jealous, NAACP president and CEO, all declined to comment on the record. Sharpton did not return several calls requesting an interview.
“Some things are being sorted out,” said one activist with knowledge of the situation. “In two weeks, we will have a clearer picture… The march is going to happen.”
Eric Tilden, a principal of Intellectual Properties Management, which controls Rev. King’s words and image, agreed to facilitate an interview with Dexter and Bernice King, two of the three shareholders of King, Inc. Their brother, Martin Luther King III, is the other (Yolanda King, the eldest child, died in 2007).
Tilden has not responded to follow-up calls and emails and the King siblings have not been made available for comment. We also called and texted Bernice King and MLK III to no avail.
Civil rights historian David Garrow said if the March on Washington organizers are negotiating with the King children – and putting money on the table – they’re making a mistake.
“As we’ve seen for over 15 years now, the behavior of the family’s financial representatives continue to do active harm to Dr. King’s legacy,” said Garrow, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
“King’s legacy has a reduced visibility and less substantive visibility because of the family’s demands,” said Garrow, noting that the family’s estate has raked in millions through the years by managing their father’s “brand” — something King himself would have adamantly rejected.
At the same time, “it’s not as if (King, Inc.) Is using any of this income for charitable good deeds,” Garrow said. “We’ve seen none of that whatsoever. It appears to be simply self-enrichment for a small number of people.”
For years, the King heirs have used the courts to stop any unauthorized use of their father’s likeness and words, suing for custody of documents or a share of any proceeds in merchandise and publications. In the 1990s, the family reached undisclosed settlements with USA Today and CBS over their use of King’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech without permission; in 1999 a federal appeals court sided with the estate, ruling that the speech was not in the public domain.
Yet the civil rights hero’s words and picture – including images from the March on Washington – have been used in major ad campaigns for products like Apple Computers, Mercedes-Benz and Chevrolet. Neither the corporations nor Intellectual Properties Management have disclosed the amount of money the foundation received for the ads.
In June 2006, Dexter King, then-head of King, Inc., put up the bulk of Dr. King’s personal papers for auction. But then-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin prevented the sale by orchestrating a $32 million deal to buy them and have the papers preserved in the city of Atlanta. That money went directly to King, Inc.
Lawyers for King, Inc. even tried to demand that the man who helped Dr. King craft the “I Have A Dream” speech, and the one who filed the copyright, pay for using the full speech in his book.
Clarence Jones, who served as a personal advisor, attorney and speech writer for King, says when he wrote his book, “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation,” he was told by attorneys for King, Inc., that if he wanted to use the full speech in the book, he could for $20,000.
A stunned Jones said, “If it wasn’t for me copyrighting that speech, the King children wouldn’t today own their biggest moneymaker.”
His small publisher was afraid of getting sued by King, Inc., so Jones indemnified them from any costs associated with a lawsuit and dared lawyers for the King children to sue him.
They never did.
The King children angered many civil rights leaders in September 2011 when King, Inc. sued Jackson, Miss., TV anchor Howard Ballou after he broadcasted a story about the papers his mom collected working for King at the SCLC.
The estate wanted possession of documents, photographs and other items that Ballou’s mother, Maude Ballou, said King gave her when they worked together at the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1950s.
Attorneys for King, Inc. asserted they owned any and all papers of his mom. But last week, a federal court in Mississippi ruled that Ballou could keep documents and other materials associated with Rev. King. The documents include a sermon; a written statement King made after a landmark Supreme Court ruling on segregation; and a handwritten letter to Ballou’s mother from Rosa Parks.
While the March on Washington commemoration is still in the early planning stages, Carol Johnson, a National Park Service spokeswoman, said the Park Service holds the event permit for Aug. 28 on the National Mall. That’s not uncommon, she said, particularly since the march is months away, organizers haven’t specified their plans or outlined how they intend to cover the millions of dollars in baseline logistical and security costs.
Given the costs, it’s likely that the March on Washington organizers will have to raise significant amounts of money just to put the march on the National Park Service calendar. Throw in additional events, such as seminars and a prayer breakfast, and the financial hurdles they must clear get even steeper.
At least one member of the organizing committee, however, isn’t worried.
“The preparations I know about are going just fine,” Clayola Brown, president of the Randolph Institute, told TV One’s Washington Watch. She said organizers have tentatively planned a weeklong series of events, culminating in a rally on the Mall expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people.
So far, she said, there have been about four meetings in Atlanta and elsewhere involving civil rights leaders and various unions. They also met with the National Park Service and members of the King family for additional planning, though she wouldn’t specify the nature of the discussions.
The NAACP’s Jealous wouldn’t talk about the meetings with the King family and rejected any suggestion that the march wouldn’t happen.
“The 50th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom comes in the midst of a moment in which black unemployment remains the highest in recent memory,” he said. “There needs to be a march, and it needs to happen now, or we risk our children becoming truly the first generation of African Americans to be decidedly more worse off than their parents.”
But Garrow cautions Jealous and others from reaching a deal with the King children at any cost without keeping the meaning of the original march in mind.
The organizers “don’t need to deal with [the King heirs] to do a 50th anniversary event, so long as they’re not rebroadcasting a 50th anniversary of the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech,” Garrow said. “Dexter King doesn’t represent anybody, while you’ve got a number of organizations that do represent the African American community. You can honor Dr. King’s legacy without talking to Dexter in the slightest.”
“I think the big question is whether it goes off in a significant way or goes off in an insignificant way,” he added. “Does it really present a policy agenda and focus on issues? Or is it just a commemoration for the sake of commemoration?”
Disclosure: Roland S. Martin is a life member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and played a role in helping the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation raise money to help build the memorial. He has also emceeded a fundraising dinner for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and wrote an endorsement for the book published by Bernice King about her mom, “Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King.”

Lament


LAMENT

(FOR THE DEATH OF GREAT VOICES)

 

 

 

 

Daily the old trapper

nails our pelts on the wall.

No mystery. No magic.

Only nature.

Only the grace

Loss lends to poverty.

 

 

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

March 22, 2013

Monday, March 18, 2013

in torment as in love


in torment as in love

 

time, purple as agony,

ferments by the day

the nights’ purchased joys.

 

expensive toys blash

where  homemade bling

might do as well.

 

who told us space

would read our lips

tilted against the wind?

 

it is not so easy

to do as it is to know.

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

March 18, 2013

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Black Drama


Black Drama and the Alarm Clock

 

TIME PAST

In the early 1970s, people in what was then the Black Community took some interest in the April issues of Black World, a rich source of cultural information edited by Hoyt W. Fuller. Those issues were devoted to reporting and commentary on Black drama; they satisfied our desire to know what was happening in Black theater.  We had a broad sense of how Black playwrights and directors were dealing with themes and influencing inquiry about the state of Black America.  Two items in the April 1972 issue were typical.

Woodie King’s “A Question of Relevance,” pages 25-29, informed us that he did not see a coming together of educational theater and the Black Community “until they begin to understand each other” (25).  King ended his essay with an opinion about change. “The classics [of Black theater] will be captured on video as they are in books.  Educational institutions must the look for the new, the innovative.  I think the new and the innovative are in Black theater” (29).

Kalamu ya Salaam’s report “BlackArtSouth –New Orleans,” pages 40-45, was less sanguine.  He had “a feeling that B*L*A*C*K   T*H*E*A*T*E*R as we know it is on its way out this year. The serious folks are for getting off into other things and the thespians are showing their true nature and ending up on Broadway, television and Hollywood silver screens ( or at the very least striving for that)” (40). He concluded with the bet “that film is the next wave and that, except for the exceptions that will prove the rule, not much Black-produced Black Theater will surface during 1972.  It’s sad but true.  Check it out for yourself” (45).

Educational theater and the Black Community never reached the stage of understanding each other, and the alarm clock ensured that Salaam won his bet.  Black drama did move with deliberate speed from the traditional stage to the screens, surfing into the World Wide Web on yet another new wave.

TIME PRESENT

The illusion that there is a Black Community which Black drama can and is able to address has evaporated.  A very small number of intimate strangers (the descendents of Afrocentric thinkers who boldly embraced dreams of covenant, community, and solidarity) do occasionally attend revivals of ancient Black drama. You are truly have juice and game if you can find and attend and digest  a performance of work by Alice Childress,  Samm-Art Williams, Ed Bullins, Adrienne Kennedy, Tom Dent, J. B. Franklin, Kalamu ya Salaam, Pearl Cleage,  LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, Ishmael Reed and Douglas Turner Ward.  You have to be an aristocrat to enjoy work by Harold Clark and Chakula Cha Jua. You are “normal” if works by Tyler Perry, August Wilson, and T. D. Jakes are sufficient to satisfy your desire. You are even more authentically “normal” if soft-porn music videos and underground DVDs of so-called black films that premiered yesterday make you happy.  You have arrived, transcended the burden of ancestral blackness, and become quintessentially American.

 

TIME FUTURE

The brand of black drama is yet to be determined by Asian cartels and Latino-American corporations.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                                                           

March 16, 2013

 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Ethical Criticism


Title: Django Unchained”: Ambiguous Ethical Response and the Principle of Double Effect

 

 

Abstract:

The overwhelming, contentious responses to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained provide a reason for examining the limits of ethical criticism of modern and contemporary literature. As an anachronistic collage, the film sponsors the illusion that its primary subject is history, the history of American slavery. The film is so open to competing interpretations, however, that it must be viewed as a work of art that brings questions of what is morally permissible to the foreground. Any ethical criticism of the film must deal with the principle of double effect. While Tarantino may have intended to expose undesirable aspects of excessive violence, the film can seduce viewers to embrace excessive violence as a desirable means for achieving justice. Ethical criticism is obligated to endlessly shuttle between propositions about good and bad effects. In this sense, ethical criticism is forced to be self-reflective regarding its own ambiguities and limits.

Django Unchained: Ambiguous Ethical Response and the Principle of Double Effect

The overwhelming public responses to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained during the first two months of 2013 provide one reason for examining the limits of ethical criticism of film as literary expression that infrequently transcends its social location.  We might argue that criticism is itself an ethical activity.  We make judgments about what is good or bad both in theory and in the more immediate space of lived experiences, often using multiple rhetorical strategies to conceal the utter subjectivity of judgment.  We want others to accept our constructions of reality as depictions of what is actual. Our strategies enjoy some success in the protected territories of academic space, but in public spaces those strategies are vulnerable. Logic rarely obtains in public discourses.  The public responses to Django Unchained have been passionate rather than coldly reasoned.  They provide evidence that ambiguity or uncertainty is dominant in our immediate viewing of and subsequent commentary on this film.

We can minimize responsive ambiguity by virtue of prolonged negotiations, but we never succeed in eradicating it.  We do not minimize the ideological functions of film by saying cinema is no more than entertainment.  Entertainment imprints memory more than we might want to admit.  It gives birth to value-laden emotions. We may or may not be conscious of the effects, but those emotions deserve to be accounted for as matters of ethics.

 Just as our reading of a poem culminates in our provisionally liking or disliking the accumulated effects of clustered  words, our witnessing of speech, music, and visual images in Django Unchained brings matters of ethical import to the foreground.  Music in Tarantino’s films, for example, can manipulate our sensibilities with subliminal force. “More than mere accompaniment, ironic commentary, or contradiction,” as Lisa Coultard observes, “music in [Tarantino’s] scenes of violence is instrumental and essential in the audiovisual construction of spectatorial enjoyment and engagement”(2).[1]  Such construction allows us to treat Tarantino’s film as a surreal, incendiary poem.  Any ethical criticism of the film as poem must deal with the principle of double effect.

As an anachronistic collage, Django Unchained projects the illusion that its primary subject is the history of American slavery.  Heated arguments about the film have focused on its inaccurate representation of that complex history. Counterarguments have nailed the point that Tarantino never intended to recreate history; he intended to create a spectacular display of ultraviolence as a work of art. In the battle of arguments, the opposing forces are art and history as oppositional forces. In this contested space, concern for intention is not a fallacy but a necessity.

  It is impossible for viewers to dismiss their socialized ideas about history, ideas which encourage seeing things as either/or rather than as both/and. The alternative to a reductive reading (or interpretive viewing) of the film involves realizing that American slavery is a pretext for a subversive treatment of the film’s real subject: the history and “legitimacy” of American bounty hunting. Without special prompting, only a few legal scholars and American historians are predisposed or sufficiently informed to notice this fact.[2] The problematic effects of Django Unchained would be clearly understood by the legal scholar Rebecca B. Fisher.  As she observes, American bounty hunting as “a profession virtually unregulated for hundreds of years, is certainly relevant to understanding how increased privatization in the criminal justice system will impact the least empowered in our society” (233). What she examines is germane to considerations of how the both/and relationship of slavery and criminal justice complicate response and critical commentary on response. Tarantino’s film succeeds, either by accident or intention or both, in reaffirming the Constitutional entitlement of Americans to bear arms and make havoc among themselves and those deemed “fugitive outlaws” in the United States. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which enforced the Constitution, Article IV, Section 2, “legitimized” bounty hunting, as did the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Thus, slavery and bounty hunting were entangled.

Django Unchained is so overdetermined, so open to competing interpretations, that it must be processed as a work of art which brings questions regarding what is morally permissible to the foreground. While Tarantino may have intended to expose undesirable aspects of excessive violence, his film can equally as well seduce viewers to embrace excessive violence as a desirable means for achieving justice. Ethical criticism navigates between propositions about good and bad effects.[3] In this sense, ethical criticism does not achieve certainty; indeed, it is forced to reflect upon its own ambiguities and limits.

Our interpretation of Django Unchained is largely determined by the angles, prejudices, and ideological luggage we bring to the acts of viewing and talking.  If the film is approached as an effort by a white director to tell a black story, the viewing is shaped by assumed expectations about how a black story of enslavement ought to be written and reconstructed or translated into film. It is more profitable to assume the film is a story about white American historical fantasy that uses dominant black elements to intensify a terminal vision of white power. This assumption makes possible a multiethnic representation of American history circa 1858-1859. Our attention is better drawn to the paradox of violence in the shaping of the United States from 1619 to 1776 to the present.  The indivisible presence of the black story functions as an inner light to reveal what is gross and vulgar on the surface of American democracy’s saga.  The film fails to challenge the exhausted and exhausting black/white binary conventions of America sufficiently, but it does begin to expose a fantasy of oppositional progress.  It is neither good nor accurate history, nor was it meant to be.  It is an exposure of how American entertainment nurtures national pathology. That fantasy undermines or erases fact works against sympathetic reception of the film, but it does not prevent our understanding why violation of the human body and the worship of violence is an innate element in our historical being.  Ultimately, Django Unchained is an anatomy of the imperfections of whiteness, the hypocrisy of Euro-American founding dreams, and America’s violent soul. It is a violent cartoon that magnifies the ironic aesthetics of the spaghetti Western genre and American social history as wife and husband, Broomhilda and Django ride off into the bliss of fugitive darkness.

We have been trying, without much success, to have a conversation about what it means to be an American since the nineteenth-century publication of Alex de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Although any awakening of consciousness occasioned by Django Unchained will be somewhat limited, the grounds for a crucial conversation have been “immortalized” as a richly satiric cartoon, a cinematic allegory that divides spectators into pro-Django, anti-Django, and disingenuous neutral camps.  Since mid-2012, the Django conversation snowballed. It has now melted. We are left, at least for the anticipated future, to make judgments about the ethical problems the film brought into being.

These ethical problems are dramatic.  We are troubled to remember that the philosophical principle of double effect asserts that it is sometimes morally permissible to do what is ordinarily forbidden by natural law. I borrow an example of the principle from the textbook Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995) by Barbara MacKinnon.  The example refers to the violence of killing in wartime.  A pilot who bombs an enemy’s munitions facility does risk killing innocent civilians. The pilot may intend the good end or effect of minimizing the enemy’s ability to cause massive destruction and thus facilitating the saving of lives.  The bad effect is the killing of innocent people. Under the rules of Western ethics, the pilot must not intend to kill the innocent.  Moreover, the act of bombing must contribute to a positive outcome of the war, and this good end “must outweigh any harm that is done.  The principle of double effect requires that three conditions be met: 1) the act itself must be morally permissible; 2) the good end must be the intended goal; 3) the good end must outweigh the bad end (MacKinnon 87-88).

What frustrates the application of ethical criticism to Django Unchained is the dealing with an imagined literary artifact, the making of normative (evaluative) judgments.  We are really applying descriptive (empirical) judgments to reaction and response as factual matters.  The film at once escapes the three justifying requirements even as it invites their application.  It magnifies a viewer’s relatively primitive ideas about justice and revenge. Viewers who make vested historical or ancestral identifications with the enslaved characters in the film may gleefully embrace violence as a good means of achieving a good end. Viewers who have no such identifications may just as gleefully fail to critique how excessive representation of violence assaults moral judgment.  Under these circumstances, ethical criticism must question whether catharsis (release of psychological resentments) outweighs the damage of intensifying the “love” of violence. The answers can never be conclusive.  Ethical criticism comes to recognize its own ambiguity, its own philosophical limits.  It figuratively bashes its head against the brick wall of audience response, because it is complicit in not divorced from that response.  Ethical critics realize they are not objective instruments of judgment.  They are bound by human subjectivity and cultural relativity in the very act of making judgments.  Django Unchained as a provocative poem invites us to engage the principle of double effect, but it leaves the trained critic and the ordinary viewer/reader treading the treacherous waters of human uncertainty.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Central China Normal University

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Coulthard, Lisa. “Torture Tunes: Tarantino, Popular Music, and New Hollywood Ultraviolence.” Music and the Moving Image 2.2 (2009): 1-6.
[2] See Fisher, Rebecca B. “The History of American Bounty Hunting As a Study in Stunted Legal Growth.” N.Y.U. Review of Law and Social Change 33.199: 199-233.
[3] In philosophy, the principle or doctrine of double effect pertains to conditions that allow us to justify actions which on the surface appear to be dubious cases in the frames of morality and ethics

Title: “Django Unchained”: Ambiguous Ethical Response and the Principle of Double Effect

 

 

 


 

 

 

 



[1] Coulthard, Lisa. “Torture Tunes: Tarantino, Popular Music, and New Hollywood Ultraviolence.” Music and the Moving Image 2.2 (2009): 1-6.
[2] See Fisher, Rebecca B. “The History of American Bounty Hunting As a Study in Stunted Legal Growth.” N.Y.U. Review of Law and Social Change 33.199: 199-233.
[3] In philosophy, the principle or doctrine of double effect pertains to conditions that allow us to justify actions which on the surface appear to be dubious cases in the frames of morality and ethics