Follow by Email

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Black Writing: A New Orleans Example

Seldom is the interrelated difference of black writing and black literature a topic of conversation or a point of sustained discussion in undergraduate and graduate courses.  Black writing in the United States of America includes the sounds and visual combinations (graphology) which represent the contours and nuances of African American thought; black literature is the body of work which is squeezed from black writing, filtered and otherwise processed by scholarship and criticism, poured into anthologies, and offered up to Culture as a consecrated wine.  Black writing is free from the rituals and niceties of wine-tasting.  It is just the robust wine that it is.
In everyday life, black writing is more widely read than black literature.  It might be argued that writing has greater practical value than literature.  It tends to be reader-friendly.  It rarely offers obtuse apologies for being didactic.  There is, of course, much back and forth slippage between literature and writing.  For the sake of cultivating literacy, this phenomenon of instability is a good thing.
One instance of black writing for a local scene that can appeal to a global audience is
Medley, Keith Weldon. Black Life in Old New Orleans.  Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2014.
The book is informed by a more intimate, personal vision of  historiography than such works as John W. Blassingame’s Black New Orleans, 1860-1880 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19730 and Lawrence N. Powell’s The Accidental City:  Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). Read against Blassingame’s and Powell’s use of a full arsenal of scholarly devices to give persuasiveness and heft to their theses, Medley’s use of scholarship is skeletal.  He is not a neophyte in doing archival research and selecting visual evidence to buttress his assertions, so one must seek elsewhere to account for what severe readers might conclude is the book’s “thin” discussion of cause and effect.
 Aware of audience and purpose, Medley chose not to construct a dispassionate, profound, closed narrative of black presence in the making of New Orleans. His story-telling is open and deliberately episodic; it puts into motion authorial call and reader response; it evokes the shared authority that is a standard feature of oral history. Medley does not hesitate to locate his family’s history and himself in a meditation on space, time and place which bespeaks community.
In his first book, We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson (2003), Medley demonstrated his command of “academic” notions of what history as story should be. In the introduction for his most recent book, Medley’s purpose and aims are transparent.
The purpose of Black Life in Old New Orleans is to explore different eras of black New Orleans by focusing on specific institutions, social movements, and individuals.  Each chapter is self-contained.  When read cover to cover, the book provides a timeline of black New Orleans (12-13).
This book seeks to highlight the history of black New Orleans and recognize those who survived and achieved in spite of social and racial obstacles.  Thus, the book is inspirational as well as historically enlightening (13).
Medley is forthright about his populist intentions, and a reader is not misled into believing she or he understands the history of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. A reader understands the unfinished work of understanding the lived experiences of Africans and African Americans between the 1790s and the 2000s in a place named Nouvelle- Orléans.  Natives of the place as well as the newly arrived ----especially those tempted to gentrify the place in their own potentially ahistorical images ---can learn the discipline that history demands, the discipline employed yearly by Mardi Gras Indians in the tradition of making a new suit.  Medley’s writing is a crucial blueprint for young New Orleans citizens who desire to grasp the painful beauty of heritage, legacies, and traditions, and forking paths of DNA and ancestry.  Medley has written a noteworthy guide for acquiring authentic education. His book is a godsend for older citizens who want to strengthen their command of the art of memory and (re)membering. It is a document of importance for local and global participants in history as an unpredictable process.
As lagniappe, Black Life in Old New Orleans reveals that black writing and black literature are symbiotic.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
December 30, 2014


Sunday, December 28, 2014

2015 Message

2015 is the year for cold, razor-thin, deliberate ACTION.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson's birthday greeting to
Isaac Newton (b. 25 December 1642) was an appropriate AFFIRMATIVE ACTION.

2015 is the year during which we must not have the NEGATING ACTION
of GUANTANAMIZING ourselves.

Jeremiah Ramcat
December 28, 2014

Saturday, December 27, 2014

An open letter to Howard Rambsy II


December 26, 2014

Dear Howard,
Your email of December 24, 2014, “Is African American Literature Really American Literature?”, raises an excellent question, and your missive warrants the response of an epistle.  You illustrate well that the ontology of American literature is relative.  Given that African American literature is a philosophical member of the family, its ontology also changes in the four dimensions of the job market in American higher education and in the five dimensions of scholarly and critical thought.  From the angle of raw materiality, American literature is a body of moveable ethnic parts; your missive begins to expose how the parts of American literature are vulnerable in games of power where the rules are economic and ideological.  Our profession, like our nation, is reluctant to have full disclosure of the educational games we play.
It is to your credit that you agree in theory with the belief of your senior colleagues in the field of African American literary studies that African American literature is American literature.  It is legitimate for you to shift your theoretical opinion when you survey the contemporary job market for teaching positions. I encourage you, however, to think more deeply about the probable sources from which comes the authority of senior colleagues. 
Their graduate educations were remarkably different.  They might have been required, for example, to learn Anglo-Saxon in order to translate Beowulf, to study Shakespeare in depth, to take courses in linguistics and the history of the English language, and to read Jonathan Edwards, Charles Brockden Brown, Poe, Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Whitman and Dickinson as well as Chaucer, John Milton, Alexander Pope, the Romantic poets, Oscar Wilde, and Matthew Arnold (or some other combination of British and American authors).  They had to possess such cultural literacy if they were to pass their qualifying examinations before writing their dissertations. It is important that their minds were shaped by reading print materials rather than digitized echoes thereof.  Their ideas about theory existed in intimate connection with the works they read in historical perspectives.
Your  most senior colleagues got scant help from their graduate experiences in understanding African American literary history and slave narratives, works by David Walker and other black nationalists, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes, Anne Spencer and writers of the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances.  It was from such brilliant and visionary scholars as John Hope Franklin, Blyden Jackson, George Kent,  Martha Kendrick  Cobb, Saunders Redding,  Margaret Walker, Nick Aaron Ford,  Richard Barksdale,  Charles Nichols, Sterling A. Brown,  Sterling Stuckey and Darwin T. Turner that they learned to speak of American literature as African American literature. Those whom your contemporary  senior scholars respect  found the doors of the Profession closed against them;  they joined Hugh Gloster in founding a forum of their own, namely the College Language Association in 1938.
Testimonials from Trudier Harris, Houston A. Baker, Jr., Joycelyn Moody, Aldon Nielsen,  Maryemma Graham, R. Baxter Miller, Hortense Spillers and other scholars of their generation are needed to understand the journey to American literature professorships.
Howard, you need empirical evidence to support your claim that “hiring committees for assistant professors clearly do not believe that African American literature is American literature.”  Otherwise, you will lead me to think, quite irrationally, that hiring committees worship at white altars and detest “junior scholars who have been trained and identified as African Americanists” and who perhaps were baptized in black fire.  We need iron-clad evidence to describe what kind of Church, replete with canons, pagan rituals, and saints, the Profession ( defined variously by the Modern Language Association) actually is. The Profession can be murdered by its own metaphors.
You may be right in guessing that HBCUs and community colleges “are often willing to hire African Americanists for American literature positions.”  But we still need hard evidence to prove that your guess is accurate.  HBCUs and community colleges may have more expertise in capitalism and the fine art of exploitation than first-, second-, and third-rate American universities and colleges.  People who teach everything, as you put it, either have superior intellects and educations which qualify them to teach everything  or sacrifice careers to arm themselves to teach everything or content themselves with being divine agents in secular operations. After more than forty years of teaching in HBCUs, I know you are right; my knowledge is little more than a gnat in a hurricane when one is required, as you are, to make a thoroughly persuasive argument.
If “hiring committees want candidates who have familiarity with well-known white and black writers,” do tell me what happens to candidates who have extensive knowledge of Asian American, Native American, and Latino/Latina writers. Should I conclude that their graduate educations did not equip them with sufficient knowledge of black and white authors?  Are these candidates unfit to teach and expand knowledge about what American literature is?  Were their educations bereft of insights from African American Studies and American Studies?  And how and by whom is the “standard” for American literature constructed?  Unless the “standard” is an ideal which transcends human agency, I believe it is manufactured by the graduate faculty members who taught both the fortunate and unfortunate candidates for jobs.  This “standard” is subject to the historical conditions of the fourth and fifth dimensions of ontology and metaphysics.  I suspect that something akin to calculated, fishy “miseducation” is operative in American graduate education and that the quality of “pragmatic education” differs greatly among graduate programs.
Your question, Howard, is at once excellent and devastating.  Given the drastic changes occurring in American higher education, the day of the light teaching load may be ending for all scholars. The surreal luxury of living by reputation alone may be dying. Teaching in real-time, providing responsible mentoring and stronger career preparation at both undergraduate and graduate levels, and laboring to enhance the dignity of work may be dawning.  As we await evidence of things to come in a job market, I want to thank you for giving eyesight to the blind.

With best wishes for 2015,

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

Howard Rambsy’s email of December 24, 2014 is appended with his permission.    

I realized that the semester passed without me sending out a missive 
on the professional. So here goes, beginning with a question: Is
African American literature really American literature?

I hear many of my senior colleagues in the field of African American
literary studies make that point, that Af-Am lit is American lit. I
understand what they mean. And I agree. Well, I agree in theory, which
is to say that my opinion shifts when I look at the job market. Here’s

I know several senior African American scholars who have appointments
as “American literature” professors. My friend Joycelyn Moody has such
an appointment. Aldon Nielsen, the black poetry scholar, has such an
appointment. Thadious Davis has one of those appointments. I think
William Andrews and John Ernest have such appointments. There are
various others.

But I’ve had a really hard time identifying junior scholars who have
been trained and identified as African Americanists gaining employment
for American literature jobs. It almost never happens at the junior
level. In other words, hiring committees for assistant professors
clearly do not believe that African American literature is American

There are two notable exceptions: HBCUs and community colleges. Those
institutions are often willing to hire African Americanists for
American literature positions. My friends at HBCUs and community
colleges teach everything.

Perhaps one reason that universities hire senior African Americanists
for American lit. positions is because they do not expect senior folks
to carry heavy teaching loads. (Senior scholars are expected to assist
with raising the scholarly profile of the department through
publications and such). At many schools though, the teaching load
matters for junior folks, and hiring committees and the department
scheduler need to know that the new assistant professor for American
literature is covering whatever the ‘standard’ is for American
literature at the university. Obviously, we know that Douglass and
Hurston and Wright and Morrison are part of the standard, but my sense
is that for an interview, hiring committees want candidates who have
familiarity with well-known white and black writers.

My friends who were trained in American literature seem, generally
speaking, more capable and comfortable talking through the kind of
“American literature” that search committees have in mind than those
of us who are or were trained in African American literature. And that’s not a
knock on training in Af-Am literary studies. In fact, the growth and
accomplishments of the field over the last couple of decades explain
why training in the field focuses more on depth in black subject
matter than in giving attention to white subjects. (At some later
date, we'll probably want to question the pluses and drawbacks to the
"depth" or "specialized" approach).

Whatever the case, the unprecedented growth of “African American
literature” jobs throughout the 1990s and early years of the 2000s
gave our field confidence that people could and should specialize in
African American literary studies in grad school in ways that were not
as possible in previous decades. Back in the day, graduate students
with interests in African American literature were obligated to
nonetheless study large numbers of white writers. Remember that
Houston Baker, for example, was initially a Victorian lit. scholar.

So, is African American literature really American literature? If
you’re studying literature, or if you're a senior scholar, a scholar
at an HBCU or community college, yes. If you’re trying to enter the
job market, no.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Reading Rudolph Lewis

Reading a Poem by Rudolph Lewis at Winter Solstice

Good readings are sometimes governed by iconoclasm, the smashing of established gestures of decoding.  A reader just walks out of the prison built by guardians of culture; she or he discards mindcuffs and explores; he or she discovers the wilderness is more intellectual than the glacial chambers in palaces of wisdom, the prisons of correctness.  Despite probable errors of misreading, the reader’s sense of being independent is rewarding.

When I first read the typescript of Rudolph Lewis’s Mockingbirds at Jerusalem, I felt that I was discovering traces of unbridled creativity.  The most important features of his craft and craftsmanship were derived from paying more attention to life rhythms than to treatises on prosody and monographs on how to write a poem.  The bane of much contemporary poetry is disingenuous professionalism. What does it profit a poet to achieve technical brilliance without fire?  Lewis has mastered fire and artistry.

After reading the published version of Mockingbirds at Jerusalem (Pikesville, MD: Black Academy Press, 2014), I have rediscovered “Defying Raging Night,” one of several touchstones in the book.  Lewis has the discipline needed to write such fresh, engaging villanelles as “The Thrill Is Gone: A Blues Villanelle” and “Get Up Dead Man: Blues Villanelle #2.”  I am attracted more, however, his playing a riff on the formality of the villanelle by invoking the blues in “Defying Raging Night.”  The poem is a defiant tribute to Dylan Thomas’s masterpiece “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” a tribute that confirms the rightness of Thomas’s general imperatives to resist the inevitable by displacing them with specific, burning recognitions from African American blues ethos.  Thomas inspires. Lewis empowers.  Lewis demonstrates that fixed poetic structures can be unfixed to one’s advantage.

Lewis’s achievement in this poem depends on cultural literacy, a reader’s ability to grasp allusions: “in ancient cypress swamps” ---James Weldon Johnson; “ringing insect sounds affirmed” ---Richard Wright; “I’ve known black wonders”---Langston Hughes. Place names evoke knowledge of African geography and scenes of ethnic language creation as well as genocide—Bukavu, Lake Kivu, Goma, Grand Marché, and Kongo. A genuine reading of “Defying Raging Night” absorbs a reader, uniting her or him with the lyric persona as a Middle Passage survivor who can know “black wonder soothing enough to/write letters in hope of a Mockingbird spring.” 

The poems in Mockingbirds at Jerusalem are aesthetic tools for building something positive and as yet unknown during winter in America.  Read.  Use the tools Rudolph Lewis has given us to increase our collective ability to resist ignorant armies that clash in raging night.  Read. Build critical independence.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            December 21, 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Reading 2015


Having abandoned the bad faith of making New Year’s Resolutions, I am determined in 2015 to pursue three priorities:




The trio demands specialized kinds of reading.  2014 produced increased awareness of Cosmic Evil, of the international insanity that Cosmic Evil makes its primary work, and of the domestic insanity in European genocide, rape, and dispersal of indigenous peoples that is the origin of what is now called the United States of America. Using the bodies of Africans as objects of commerce is a nasty feature of American history; nastier still is the complicity of certain Africans, educated by an Arab slave trade, in supporting demeaning trafficking with human lives. The vulgar outcome is that Americans in 2014 are enslaved by custom, rancid ideologies, criminal passions, Darwinian penchants, and law.

 America’s history is stamped SNAFU.  Its contemporary chapters are written by people of no-color.  They are fully aware that theirs is a dying race in the global scheme of things.  Inspired by Cosmic Evil, they work feverishly to lay the groundwork of World War III and the near-total end of human and animal life on this planet and the dawn of post-whatever everything.  People of no-color may indeed succeed with generous help from a minority of Islamic demons and other beings who dance the militarized police foxtrot and procreate with Satan. One must be prepared for anything.

I have not abandoned hope that the story can end differently, but I have profound reservations about the efficacy of hope as an abstraction.  Some narcotics are not worth ingesting.

The reading plan for the first months of 2015 includes rereading W. Keorapetse Kgositsile’s essay “I Know My Name” [The Black Position, No. 3 (1973): 60-69], Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Henry Giroux’s Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education,  Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Antony Easthope’s Literary Into Cultural Studies,  Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, Richard Wright’s The Color Curtain, Lucien Goldmann’s The Human Sciences and Philosophy, Origins of Terrorism, edited by Walter Reich,  Karl R. Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land, and Floyd W. Hayes’s “The Paradox of the Ethical Criminal in Richard Wright’s Novel The Outsider: A Philosophical Investigation,” Black Renaissance Noire 13.1 (2013): 162-171.

Such revisiting, as it were, of old friends will strengthen me to grapple with such works as the Dao De Jing,  In the Wake of Hurricane Katrina: New Paradigms and Social Visions (2010), edited by Clyde Woods,  Thomas Brothers’s Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans (2006) and Black Gold: An Anthology of Black Poetry (2014), edited by Ja A. Jahannes.   All of this is reading to inform my writing of READING RACE READING AMERICA: SOCIAL AND LITERARY ESSAYS, a book I may finish and publish before my burial.  Wish me luck.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            December 18, 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

Bob Kaufman's Necessary Poem

Bob Kaufman’s Necessary Poem

Like Countee Cullen, you must doubt not that God is good, well-meaning, and kind.  Omnipotent in mercy, God is eternally watching and listening. If you are a hard-shell, titanium-plated Christian, you believe. Period.
Nevertheless, you ought not wear out your welcome with incessant knocking on heaven’s door and 24/7 requests that the Lord should resolve a problem that you can manage with help from poems by Bob Kaufman, Wanda Coleman, Walt Whitman, Amiri Baraka, Howard Nemerov,  Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez,  Lucille Clifton and a thousand other American poets.   Chinese philosophy, empirical evidence paid for with your tax dollars, and Einstein’s general and specific theories of relativity can also be of some assistance.  No, poems do not solve problems.  Poems put you in a state of mind to think about solutions. This is not a claim that poetry is innately more effective than prose, only that some readers are more stimulated by poetry.
The Old Testament prophet was right: there is a time for everything.  There is a time for torture and terror.  There is a time for beatitude There is a time for violence (racial and non-racial), for post-global insanity, for civility and tolerance, and for revenge. There is a time to be as brutal and dumb as war, and a time to be as still and wise as peace. There is a time for paradox.
 If the atomic clock is accurate, late 2014 is a time for interrogating Kaufman’s beautiful lyric “I Have Folded My Sorrows.” [See Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness. New York: New Directions, 1965.]
When you need the common words to deal with the surreal in 2014, you find them easily in televised Democratic, Independent, Republican and politically unidentifiable noises, in the clamor of those Kaufman identified as “addled keepers of yesterday’s disasters.”  Some of the speakers do employ poetic devices in their speech, but they usually intend to establish the shock of difference.
In reporting or commenting on “the news,” many journalists and pundits seem have a remarkable poverty of understanding that cheap reification of the threadbare “black and white binary” lacks credibility in a world that has many colors. If you want words that have a better claim on being “true” and worthy of communicating serious news rather than slimy distractions,  you have to risk getting them from combat zones created by morally compromised hackers. A safer alternative is to depend on common sense and instructive poetry.
Kaufman’s “I Have Folded My Sorrows” is designed to enlighten.  He begins the poem with a conceit of fictive truth:
I have folded my sorrows into the mantle of summer night,
Assigning each brief storm its allotted space in time,
Quietly pursuing catastrophic histories buried in my eyes.
Six lines later, Kaufman asserts “Blues come dressed like introspective echoes of a journey,” thereby establishing that an essentially American music can sponsor rational thought. The next three lines, marked by the anaphoric “And yes, I,” speak of searching “the rooms of the moon,” of refighting “unfinished encounters” although they “remain unfinished,” of wishing to be “something different.”
The poem ends with a poignant couplet:
The tragedies are sung nightly at the funeral of the poet;
The revisited soul is wrapped in the aura of familiarity.

Does the initial “I” refer to Kaufman the poet, to a persona he constructed as a supreme authority, or to you the reader?  If you allow the lines to activate full affect, you can identify your existence in 21st century “catastrophic histories.”  It is a mark of your intelligence to refuse to have your identity named by others, even by others who are said to look like you. Your intellectual soul can select its own society.
As you wrestle with Kaufman’s form and content, do memories of then link up with your ongoing awareness of now? Does a critical unification occur? Can the spatial and temporal patterns of a problem (or many problems) begin to give you greater focus and agency?  If you can honestly say “Yes” to each question, you have begun the work of determining what individual and collective solutions will be. Kaufman’s necessary poem has helped you to elect your destiny. Even if you absolutely reject theological narratives, you will have made a crucial choice in folding your sorrows.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            December 15, 2014

On a novel by Caryl Phillips

On a Novel by Caryl Phillips

Phillips, Caryl. Cambridge. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., 1991; London: Vintage, 2008.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved deftly exposes the psychology of enslavement in North America, but it is Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams that succeeds best in exposing the narratological features of a female slave’s “story,” namely the verbal strategies she uses to retard the extent to which her story (herstory vs. history) can be stolen.  Caryl Phillips, however, ought to be valued as much as Williams and Morrison from the angle of post-colonial witnessing.  In his novel Cambridge, he “films” the tragic irony of the metanarrative of the enslaver and the enslaved, bringing to fiction what Hegel brought to philosophy.

Morrison, Williams, and Phillips inscribe the space of slavery in the so-called New World.  That space, or actually what is a remembered space-time continuum, also includes time-management in Margaret Walker’s Jubilee and Gayl Jones’s Corregidora.  Walker and Jones sharpen views of how novels on slavery overflow generic boundaries and conventions; their novels are glosses on the phenomenology of slavery in human histories.  The spectacle of shared responsibility regarding the multi-layered “Other” in the production of identity riddles, paradoxes, and dilemmas. We gaze on the “Other” as an ancient entity that has newly migrated from Chaos to Reality. And our gaze establishes proof that we are looking at nothing.

Phillips’s special contribution to the mimesis of the absurdly absent is his excellence in dealing with dialogic imagination.  He enables language to penetrate slavery’s dark shadows.

Phillips is meticulous in recovering 19th century British English in several registers throughout the linked parts of Cambridge: 1) Emily Cartwright’s journal of her visit to her father’s West Indian plantation is a travelogue that doubles as both a treatise  on animal nature and as a “blind” confessional memoir regarding abolitionist yearnings; 2) the slave Cambridge’s autobiographical justification of revenge, so resonant of Equiano’s narrative and Nat Turner’s disputed confession; 3) the feature story by an unnamed journalist which details Cambridge’s murder of “a person by the name of Brown.” Brown, the overseer of the estate which belonged to Emily’s father is, one must guess, the father of the bastard to which the very proper Emily gives birth.  Thus, the newspaper story is a public deposition for the enlightenment of colonial slave-owners.  The narrator’s Prologue and Epilogue frame the white female and black and white male gendering of story.  Phillips uses his excellent mimetic skills to reveal the twisted psychology and ethics of the always already fallen world made by the enslaved and the enslavers.  Cambridge is one of the finest examples of the purpose post-colonial fictions serve.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            December 15, 2014

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Literary Crime and Punishment

I believe you do remember a scene from the 1971 film of Anthony Burgess's dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, the scene where the young criminal Alex is strapped in a chair and forced to watch hours and hours of violent, graphic films. What a lovely bit of British black humor, of an objective correlative of the Old Testament, of violent salvation.  Let us dream a political scene of American white humor: all of our senators and representatives are forced to endure aversion therapy. Strapped in hard Puritan chairs, they wear headgear that does not allow their eyes to blink.  They are forced to watch Pier Paola Pasolini's film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.  They are forced to watch the film twice before they are released. The film is a pornographic monstrosity, a very Italian bit of red humor.  The film is, as Francesco W. M. Palmieri noted inLiberazione, October 2005, "the erotic spasm of a diabolical angel."

I remember that when I discussed Pasolini and Salo very briefly with James Baldwin many years ago that we agreed that Pasolini had crossed a moral line of no return, a soul-murdering line.  In the Age of Cosmic Evil, it would be a fine gesture of post-human justice to compel our politicians to watch themselves and regurgitate "the pleasure of corruption."  They might emerge from the experience as paragons of patriotic justice.  As our nation goosesteps into Armageddon, we should dream. 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. 
December 13, 2014

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The C.I.A. Report

Affairs of the State
Bullets lust for flesh
As testy water
Seeks a level to
Torture barley
Into tea.  And things just be
Into tea.  And things just be
 Plagiarizing peanuts
So fine, so free, so fair
As iconic pain
Bleeds blue to bleed,
The ink of treason’s trust.
Bullets’ lust for flesh,
Torment time
Into  tea. And things just be.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    December 10, 2014

Monday, December 8, 2014


Tonight I listened to six women who alleged on CNN that  they had been raped by Bill Cosby.

As I listened to them, I heard the voices of six women who gave birth to proof that they had been raped on slave ships and plantations by Bill ABCXYZ.

What is to be learned from such uncanny experience?

J. W. Ward, Jr.
Decemember 8, 2014 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

December 7, 1941-2014


“If any are anxious to ascertain who I am, know the world, that I am one of the oppressed, degraded and wretched sons of Africa, rendered so by the avaricious and unmerciful, among the whites.”

David Walker, Appeal, Article IV (1829)

40.  Verily the Day of Sorting Out is the time appointed for all of them.
41.  The Day when no protector can avail his client in anything, and no help can they receive,
42.  Except such as receive Allah’s Mercy: for He is Exalted in Might, Most Merciful.
43.  Verily the tree of Zaqqum
44.  Will be the food of the sinful,--

Qur’an, Surah 44

From the notebook of a visitor to Earth

August 16, 2014

Dreams of harmony and peace or absurd visions of the end of time are legitimate constructions of human imagination. If you are dealing with pure cinema, they are effective.  Such spectacles appear to confirm the implacable universality of violence, the murky origins of terrorism, and the marriage of reason with insanity. They are primary features of life on planet Earth. Women and men may satisfy their fantasies by speaking of amoral Nature in their own images. They are free to tamper with Nature in efforts to make a more living-friendly “world.”  They may succeed for brief periods of time. 

Ultimately, they fail. They manufacture abstract and material “worlds” that are mercurial, that speak back to them of their cosmic insignificance in visual and audible languages which negate interpretations.
Ultimately, they forfeit Cosmic Good.  They replace a greater god with a lesser one.  Ultimately, they worship Cosmic Evil. Planet Earth assumes a death-bound color.

All that happened in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 is a bitter rerun of tribally-motivated antiquities. A frantic male of one tribe, believing himself to be authorized by the Holy Bible, the United States Constitution, a badge of office, and the laws of Charles Darwin, murders a male of a different tribe. People who identify themselves with the dead male react naturally.  They are shocked.  They grieve. They make counter-violence.   Unfortunately, the grief of injustice is paradoxically understood and misunderstood in a nanosecond by the American body politic.

December 7, 2014

Today is the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Violence obeys folklore and Holy Bible injunctions to increase and multiply.  American as well as foreign mass media take delight in spewing misinformation (or disinformation) about how violence procreates.  Mass media refuses to analyze the systemic nature of violence. Infotainment becomes impotent when it beholds what is actually systemic.

In the historical drama entitled “The United States of America, “the George Zimmermans, Darren Wilsons, Peter Liangs, and Daniel Pantaleos are proclaimed to be the stars of the show. They are the militants who keep democracy safe for those who are wealthy enough to buy it. It is most often the case that oddly instructed grand juries applaud them. The Michael Browns, Akai Gurleys, Eric Garners, Trayvon Martins and the thousands of unarmed dead who were the targets are treated as footnotes in the smallest print on the playbill. Do you dare to ask why many (but not all) African Americans are profoundly angry?  Do you dare to ask whether some (but not all) American police officers are clones of Rosemary’s Baby?

 In the sacred narratives of womankind and mankind, violence is proclaimed to be natural and universal.

 According to such logic ---

the American Nightmare that has replaced the American Dream;
the death-bound mission of Europe and international cartels;
the family squabbles between Palestinians and Israelis and diabolic plots in the Arab/Islamic winter of the Middle East;
the symbolic assassination of the President of the United States;
the neo-barbarism of ISIS and other agents of imperial terrorism;
the progress of environmental destruction in Asia and the Americas;
the rampant neo-colonialism and unique ethnic hatreds on the continent of Africa;
 a periodic outbreak of such health treats as Ebola, HIV-AIDS, and yearly variations of influenza;
the refusal to acknowledge the humanity of indigenous peoples everywhere;
 the wages of global climate change;
the open season that males of no-color have declared on males of color

-----according to such logic, all these things are normal on Earth. After all, this is the season of Advent and Christmas shall arrive despite the blessings of Cosmic Evil.

The growing number of murders of African American males should anger many Americans to the point of being totally irrational.  They should petition the United Nations to investigate whether the United States of America should be brought to the World Court for crimes against humanity, for the injustice of benign genocide. Unfortunately, the iron-clad logic of the absurd may stall such a request.  Many Americans confuse transparent criticism with treason. They want to believe that a meek savior will serve peace and harmony at a post-post-racial banquet.  They forget that the dessert at the feast will be the fruit of the tree of Zaqqum. The Day of Sorting Out has arrived.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The web of 2014 circumstances

2014 Circumstances

Given the webs of circumstance this December, it is just to quote the final paragraph of Charles Chesnutt’s “The Web of Circumstance.”

Some time, we are told, when the cycle of years has rolled around, there is to be another golden age, when all men will dwell together in love and harmony, and when peace and righteousness shall prevail for a thousand years.  God speed the day, and let not the shining thread of hope become so enmeshed in the web of circumstance that we lose sight of it; but give us here and there, and now and then, some little foretaste of this golden age, that we may the more patiently and hopefully await its coming!

Given the web of 2014 circumstances, the final paragraph of Charles Chesnutt’s “The Web of Circumstance” has just been quoted.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Poetry Research

AARN Message
November 30, 2014

A Note on Howard Rambsy’s Poetry Research

Research on African American literature and the study of African American culture(s) are contiguous.  Nevertheless, rigorous scholarship requires that we separate cultural research questions from those we ask in our formal analyses and interpretation of works of literature.  It is appropriate to integrate cultural and literary findings in our articles and books, but we ought to be conscious of subtle differences in asking What are the topics or themes a poet addresses in creating a poem? and asking What are the uses or purposes of a completed poem?  We should be discriminating in dealing with form, content, and contexts. 

Such discrimination is illustrated by Howard Rambsy’s documentation of a recent activity involving African American poetry and “social networking.” His work is a model of conducting African American cultural research. Following many ideas proposed in Antony Easthope’s Literary Into Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1991), Rambsy begins to explore this research question:
How have some African American poets “spoken out” regarding a tragic event in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014 and the spectacular aftermath of that event?

In his email of November 30, 2014, Rambsy wrote

A couple of days ago, a group of poets organized a show of solidarity with these recent movements against police brutality. The poets decided to present poems on YouTube and Facebook and open with a common statement "I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry." They used the hashtag #BlackPoetsSpeakOut.

Applying some basic bibliographic approaches to the project, I decided to do a roundup of all the contributions. You can check it out here. You're probably familiar with a few of the poets, including Treasure Redmond, Jericho Brown, and Reginald Harris. But many more might be unfamiliar to you. Most of the 100 poets I've listed are somewhat "new" in their careers. 
Here's the list:  
A roundup of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut Selections  

I offered some commentary here:  
A few notes on #BlackPoetsSpeakOut  

It's good to see groups of poets organizing like this. 

Rambsy is exploring a meaningful contemporary phenomenon in the social and political uses of black poetry. The embedded links give us access to his academic website “Cultural Front: A Notebook on literary art, digital humanities, and emerging ideas” and to the actual material he is collecting and examining. He is using digital means to record information about a digital phenomenon.  His methods are cutting-edge. They might influence methodological choices and thinking about future research projects.  For example, during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, much politically engaged poetry was disseminated by way of phonograph records and tape recordings [see the Discography and Tape Index, pages 448-454, in Eugene B. Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976)]. Now, engaged poetry is transmitted by video recordings in a social network.  To what extent is the current phenomenon indebted to the Black Arts Movement?  How are the cognitive and aesthetic effects of what is occurring now different from those that obtained fifty years ago?

It is obvious that Rambsy’s work is more germane to cultural and literacy studies than to traditional literary studies (if one uses a strict definition of “literary”), because the research results in the creation of data to mark the occurrence of a trend which may or may not become a lasting feature of African American cultural practices.  Implicit questions multiply and give us new directions to explore.

Rambsy’s research at the moment is a logical development of the work that informed his book The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011) as well as the critical attention to poetry and  Afrofuturism  in the special issue of Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Issue 4 (2014), which he guest-edited.

His research on poets “speaking out “ about the tragedy of  Ferguson  and his website are valuable resources for inquiry about  the impact technology (digital humanities) can have on literary production, on  recycling and new uses of poetry texts from the near past , on symbolic rhetoric  in the United States, and on reader/viewer reception and response.   African American Research members can profit from how Rambsy has used his website to produce new ideas and models for research in African American literature and culture.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Redemption of Cornel West


At the end of Black Prophetic Fire (Boston: Beacon, 2014), Cornel West plants a troubling seed. “The Black prophetic tradition,” he suggests, “has tried to redeem the soul of our fragile democratic experiment.  Is it redeemable” (165)?  Should you  be persuaded by the visceral wit of Charles Simic’s November 26 New York Review of Books blog “ A Thieves’(sic) Thanksgiving,” you hasten to say “No.” With tongue in cheek, Simic, a Serbian American and our fifteenth Poet Laureate, intimates that Wall Street crooks are admired by their peers, by politicians and presidents on the take, and by students in elite universities. 
These thieves are admired because they have transcended the rule of law.  Simic believes such mega-criminality might lead America to ruin or into becoming “a genuine police state…as the end result of that insatiable greed for profit that has already affected every aspect of American life.”  Simic misses the target, or maybe he never aimed for it.  It is not greed for profit but greed for power and hegemony that is enshrined in the founding documents of the United States that is killing America. The criminality is systemic.  When that recognition is juxtaposed with the question posed by Cornel West, it is clear that America has never had a soul to be redeemed. Puritan lies notwithstanding, God did not create the nation .  People who dared to think they were created in God’s image created the nation. A prophetic tradition will not redeem America, but the tradition can redeem Cornel West and a few other people.

Having had a fling with fame, West seems prepared in Black Prophetic Fire to journey home like a sensible prodigal son and to receive the blessings of his intellectual fathers ----David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and W. E. B. DuBois.  West seems to have renounced the antics of a populist and returned to speaking like the radical bourgeois thinker  he has been since the publication of The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989), which may be his most brilliant work.  Black Prophetic Fire is a provocative dialogue with Christa Buschendorf, who also edited the exchange. 
Unlike a traditional Socratic dialogue, this one is artfully innovative in its use of shared authority.  Buschendorf’s portions of conversation are as bracing as West’s masterful remarks.  The conversation is orchestrated to display West’s radical intelligence at its very best as he expounds with specificity about the minds and deeds of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells.  The flaw that merits trenchant critique, however, is his embracing the mythology that such an entity as Black America exists.  You, echoing the words of Cross Damon in The Outsider, must remind him that like the wind the myth men have gone; the real men, the last men envisioned by Margaret Walker in “For My People” have arrived.
 West, of course, has the last words about the prophetic tradition in the Age of Obama.  Despite his dwelling a bit too long in the garden of defunct Black American myth, he succeeds in redeeming himself. What he proclaims bravely will not sit well with the majority of his fellow Americans.  He shall be castigated, if not crucified, for breathing a truth. West preaches like a Baptist minister who is without sin to an Anglican congregation.  If you think of his language as poetry, you find he speaks more like Melvin B. Tolson than like Langston Hughes.  Indeed, you could devise a series of seminars by jotting down the names of theorists and artists who have shaped West’s intellect and then reading what these figures have written.  It would be especially important to read Anton Chekhov, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, DuBois, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Prophecy, as West clearly reminds us, is not about foretelling a future.  Its job is detecting the effective motions of cosmic evil and how those motions operate to destroy the moral elements of humanity. As has long been the case with Black prophetic tradition, what burns in Black Prophetic Fire “has a universal message for all human beings concerned about justice and freedom” (164).

West has the integrity to avoid selling impossible dreams.  He is fairly honest about how his beliefs and prejudices are grounded in religion and multiple ideologies.  In the context of the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 and the more dreadful tragedies that will be birthed in 2015 and thereafter, West’s prophecies regarding the Age of Obama are as chilling as Alpha Phi Alpha ice.  It would spoil your reading of the book to say more than that West has weighed the feathers and found the Obama presidency to be wanting.  And all of us in varying degrees can be redeemed by a very critical but very compassionate reading of Black Prophetic Fire.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

November 29, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Some Ends of an Endless Quest

Some Ends of an Endless Quest

Richard Wright (1908-1960), whom I have long championed as one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century, is to be valued more for the surgical qualities of his mind than for the lapidary qualities of his imagination.  My argument pivots on a belief that Wright asked better questions of the world he knew for fifty-two years than did many of his contemporaries and that the questions were better in the sense that they possessed, to use Wright’s phrasing from “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” a complex simplicity. The paradoxical wording alerts us to mankind’s endless quest to make sense of the absurdity which assumes palpable forms in our experiences of living. Wright was not always right in his analyses of literature, cultures, and political history.  Nevertheless, he was defiant, relentless in his critical judgments regarding systems of explanation and determined to be an independent thinker to the extent that use of language permits relative independence.  His quest was an epic quarrel with the limits of his world.  Examined closely, his unfinished questioning, quest to secure meaning or a facsimile of meaning, and quarrels with dystopian time and space serve as a model for how a few of us who work as scholars and teachers might justify what we do with language.  He is a mentor for those who give more than casual attention to their lives and the lives of others. Recognition of his intellectual value for his time and the present is a determining factor in my research projects, the choices I have made in writing against the academic grain, and the risks I have taken during more than four decades of teaching.
Unlike some of his better-known modernist contemporaries ---William Faulkner, Zora Neal Hurston, Eudora Welty, Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright overtly rejected some aspects of Western aesthetics while he covertly used other aspects to accomplish his didactic purposes.  It might be argued that some of his contemporaries used artful strategies to accommodate the dominant trends of modernism as they explored the imaginary geographies of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. That aesthetic trinity did not satisfy Wright’s penchant for exploring traces of nationalism in African American expressive cultures and locating himself in the dread-marked territories of pre-and post World War II global realignments. If the aesthetic trinity was yin, Wright invested his creative energies in the yang constituted by the Evil, the False, and the Ugly. By fashioning himself as one representative voice for all the peoples of the world who were the objects of injustice and inevitable wretchedness, Wright established a strong claim on living and writing as a world citizen who interrogated both the process and the narratives of human history and influenced thinking among diverse audiences. How Wright taught non-academic audiences to think with fierce independence is not alien in discourses focused on scholarship and transmitting knowledge. The Academy has no monopoly on the questions he encouraged people to ponder.   There may be some gradual recognition of that fact in the ongoing shifting of literary studies to cultural studies, a shifting that is sped up and altered by the emergence of new technologies as tools for investigating, discovering, and packaging information as knowledge. As we move toward possible futures, it is obvious that the good and the evil, the true and the false, and the beautiful and the ugly as aesthetic abstractions are not mutually exclusive but complementary. Wright’s works continue to be excellent guides for questing and questioning.
I.                    Region and Race
II.                Urban spaces –from lecture two
III.             International Concerns
The ends or purposes of my continuing quest to understand Wright’s life, the surgical qualities of his mind, and his works do to a great extent define and give meaning to my efforts to be a productive citizen of the world and of the United States of America. I send forth words. If people, especially students, listen to them and empower themselves through their own forms of resistance, that is good. Whatever the outcomes ultimately are, no one can honestly say that I did not try to be clear and open about my motives. The genuine pleasure I find in my work is asking questions of a world that replies with its own open-ended answers.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
October 30, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

black women writers and a chinese dissertation

Black Women Writers and a Chinese Dissertation

One of my Chinese students, a Ph.D. candidate, recently wrote a very good essay on the whip in Frederick Douglass’s  1845 narrative as an instrument of punishment.  She derived her ideas about punishment from Michel Foucault.  Over coffee at Starbucks, I suggest that her essay would have been “superior” rather than “very good” if she had, to use the cant of our profession, put Foucault in conversation with Douglass.  She might have considered whether Douglass’s specificity was better than Foucault’s generalizations about discipline and punishment.  Theory must be tamed by history.
The suggestion is an entry for our longer conversation about the dissertation she wishes to write on Dessa Rose, The Women of Brewster Place, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I ask why she chose those three books, why she chose Sherley Anne Williams, Gloria Naylor, and Maya Angelou.  What connects the texts beyond the fact that the authors are twentieth-century women writers?  What is her rationale for the selection?  Would texts by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston be equally acceptable?  She says the books have personal meaning for her.  That is not good enough.
She will have to write a strong dissertation proposal for a skeptical senior scholar.  African American literature is an emerging area of study in China. Many senior Chinese scholars harbor doubts about the academic merit of black writing.  They think writings by Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf are better than literature by Toni Cade Bambara and Alice Walker. Her proposal must have a solid theoretical basis.  It must include an argument about the value of her research, a thorough review of previous scholarship, a reference list, a research plan, a statement of her objectives, a listing of questions to be answered, a statement of methodology, a description of the contents of research, a feasibility analysis, and a statement regarding the unique features of the projected research. In short, the proposal must be a microcosm of the dissertation.  In China, the demands are stringent.  My student will have to climb a mountain.
“Find what links a powerful fiction about enslavement with fiction that concerns urban geography and the witnessing properties of autobiography,” I tell her.  I think she understands. To discover the links she must absorb many facts and features of African American women’s history.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.          November 15, 2014    Wuhan, China

Ishmael Reed and the Idea of Multiculturalism

Ishmael Reed and the Idea of Multiculturalism

We may agree that the concept of multiculturalism is concerned with one of several ways we have chosen to talk about how human beings live together.  The most basic meaning of “multiculturalism” refers to conditions of existence in a defined space (nation or territory) that is inhabited by people who have, and identify with, different cultural assumptions, beliefs and practices.  Our literary discussions of multiculturalism often borrow ideas from the discipline of anthropology, just as our literary theories borrow freely from the domain of philosophy. If we have been trained to study literature rather than the subject matter of various social sciences, we need to be cautious.  For American scholars, good critical thinking demands that we first examine de facto (actual, operative) conditions of the multicultural in tandem with de jure (abstract, legal) conditions. For all scholars, I believe it is prudent to identify the multicultural behaviors that obtain in our own countries before we produce ideas about the multicultural in “cross-cultural contexts.” We need to know the nature of local borders (both in the geographical and metaphorical sense) prior to embracing transcendent global perspectives.
The wording “cross-cultural” implies, for me at least, that the foreignness of culture A has been distinguished from the foreignness or strangeness of culture B.  If we are not in possession of such distinctions, we fail to notice that we can be foreign (strange, dissimilar, marginal) in our “home” cultures.  Recognition of that possibility is crucial.
We can easily fall into the trap of believing that our culture and its artifacts are superior to the culture and artifacts of the “other,” especially when “we” and “the other” share the same citizenship. Recognition of a problem that is at once cross-cultural and multicultural led to the publication in 1990 of Redefining American Literary History by the prestigious Modern Language Association. Those of us who produced that book found a theoretical model in the groundbreaking work of Ishmael Reed, even if we did not say as much at that time. I hasten to note that “theory,” as the word applies to Reed, does not refer to the kind of work done by Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, or Jacques Derrida.  It refers to the explanatory suppositions Reed as a non-academic writer uses in telling us what is multicultural and why we should absorb the idea of multiculturalism in our everyday lives. Our work was based on that kind of theory.  We did say that our redefining project eschewed “traditional, patriarchal thought about culture and literature” and sought “instead explanatory models that account for the multiple voices and experiences that constitute the literature and literary history of the United States”(4).
 Failure to minimize disciplinary prejudices tends to defeat our objective of acquiring new knowledge.  It would be a mistake, for example, to ignore the hidden dimensions of differences that have obtained historically in the evolving of American literature before making a dash to find the significant differences among a range of literatures written in some variety of English, in some variety of other languages.  In the case of American literature, we can gain insights about multiculturalism as a combative process from a brief review of what Ishmael Reed has been working at for almost half a century.
Among contemporary American writers, Ishmael Reed is the major “informal” or “non-academic” theorist and “pragmatic” proponent of late 20th –century and early 21st-century “literary” multiculturalism in the United States of America.  Since the early nineteenth century, America has embraced political myths of “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” to minimize recognition of its multiethnic and multicultural identity.  Reed has effectively challenged the validity of those myths by action that goes beyond “deconstructing.”  He has consistently “constructed,” by way of his provocative essays, anthologies, and fiction, a rationale to maximize acknowledgement of the interactive presence of multiculturalism in the literary and social evolution of America. 

My comments quite briefly address what might be designated Reed’s “combative conversation” with his nation.   Reed’s anthologies ---- 19 Necromancers From Now: An Anthology of Original American Writing For the 1970s (1970), Calafia: The California Poetry (1979), MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (1997), From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002 (2003), and Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience –Short Fiction from Then to Now (2009) -----provide subject matter as well as evidence for open-ended debate regarding theory and praxis of  “literary” multiculturalism in American and  global contexts. Reed’s introductions contain the theory; the works he selected for each anthology illustrate the praxis.

Reed opens a recent collection of writing, Going Too Far: Essays about America’s Nervous Breakdown, with two sentences that fundamentally establish his place in the history of black writing since the 1960s:
When they tell me “don’t go there” that’s my signal to navigate the forbidden topics of American life.  Just as the ex-slaves were able to challenge the prevailing attitudes about race in the United States after arriving in Canada, I am able to argue from Quebec against ordained opinion that paints the United States as a place where the old sins of racism have been vanquished and that those who insist that much work remains to be done are involved in “Old Fights,” as one of my young critics, John McWhorter, claims in articles in Commentary and The New Republic, where I am dismissed as an out of touch “fading anachronism.” (11)
Reed is not an anachronism.  He is a writer who provokes us into seeing what multiculturalism might be in the United States and why it is so often attacked
Reed’s evolving theory began with his assaults on restrictive monoculturalism associated with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. In his December 1969 introduction for 19 Necromancers From Now, Reed proclaimed
Perhaps at the roots of American art is a rivalry between the oppressor and the oppressed, with a secret understanding that the oppressor shall always prevail and make off with the prizes, no matter how inferior his art to that of his victims.  Art in America may even be related to sexual competition.  In the beginning was The Word and The Word is the domain of White patriarchy.  Beware.  Women and natives are not to tamper with The Word. (xix)
After much autobiographical testimony about America, Reed admitted that he “omitted White writers.” Having examined “the many exclusionary American anthologies that flood the market, I somehow feel that they will get by” (xxiii). With a slip of contradiction, he wrote “Indian People, Black People, White People, Chinese People, and Blue People unravel their experiences through its [the anthology’s] pages” (xxiv).  At this stage of theory-making, Reed was himself exclusionary.
He was feeling his way into multiculturalism.  By January 22, 1978, the date of his preface to Calafia: The California Poetry, he had arrived at a more mature idea of multiculturalism and how to represent it.  He provides a quite “breezy” historical account of California as “the home of the multi-cultures,” the physically and linguistically different indigenous peoples, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the blacks and, since the 1840s, Asian immigrants. To reflect all this mixing, tense state of difference, and cross-fertilization in poetry, Reed brought “together the poetry of different California cultures under one roof” without segregating “those cultures according to ‘race,’ ‘nation,’ or chronology. The erasing of categories makes it appear that poetry, in the words of Simon Ortiz, is “an all-inclusive singular event and idea throughout time” (xlii).  I suspect Ishmael Reed was imitating the nineteenth-century practice of authenticating slave narratives with letters and testimonials.  Thus, Calafia has “authenticating” introductions by Bob Callahan, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Simon Ortiz, Shawn Hsu Wong, Wakako Yamauchi, and Al Young.  Their words give multiethnic credibility to the multicultural enterprise.

Reed’s speculations about multiculturalism take an instructive turn in his introduction to MultiAmerica. He was dealing in this anthology with the essay, a genre that contrasts with either poetry or fiction. For Reed, collecting essays facilitated a turn from multicultural expression as “proofs” to multicultural expression as an array of “weapons” to deploy in battle with American mass media’s efforts to promote monocultural thought, even as it gave lukewarm recognition to cultural diversity or cultural difference. Reed was fighting the persistence of the binary (the black and white characterization of American society) and highlighting essays by writers of many ethnicities to put “race” in its place and offer the American public alternative articulations, newer diverging and converging perspectives on the drama of being American. Reed recognized multiculturalism is “safe” between the covers of a book but often dangerous and threatening outside the book. That is to say, literary representation does not force us to deal with the palpable elements of the multicultural.  The anthology was to some degree, Reed assured us, “an intellectual anti-trust action against the tyranny that communications oligopolies hold over public discussion”, an action conducted by writers “concerned about the future of the United State in which one ‘race’ or ethnic group is no longer dominant and where the pressures to assimilate are not as demanding as they were in a former time “(xxvii). Such multicultural battle still continues. It sponsors optimism and pessimism, or the branching of multicultural speculations that we find in Reed’s introductions for From Totems to Hip-Hop and Pow Wow.

The introductions to these recent multicultural experiments are less combative in tone, less devoted to speculation than to application. Their nuances call for very close reading. The shift is a warning about limits, about how radical discourses may get transformed over time into persuasive gestures and lose a bit of strident provocation.  From Totems to Hip Hop is constructed as a textbook of multicultural poetry. Reed gives much more attention in this anthology to consequences of teaching multicultural literature and to the status of universal themes in his October 23, 2002 introduction.  At the core of his Cinco de Mayo 2008 introduction to Pow Wow is a concession germane to thinking about cross-cultural contexts, because Reed asserts that
Deprived of or excluded from the normal channels of communication by media increasingly monopolized by a few companies, people from diverse background and from different time periods may have no other means but writing to engage in a cross-cultural or a cross-time dialogue with one another.  No other means to comment on the important issues both historical and current: war, slavery, race, anti-Semitism, gender, class, dysfunctional family life, and the like (xi).
A few pages later, he reiterates:
Excluded from media power, American Indian, Hispanic, Asian American, and African American writers often use fiction to tell their side of the American story and to explore the fault lines that separate groups from one another. In the media it is left to outsiders to define members of ethnic groups, often with disastrous results like Birth of a Nation and the television series The Wire (xiii).
I sense that Reed has given us an important lesson about power in his introductions, that he warns us to exercise caution in how we go about engaging “multiculturalism” as conditions of existence in a defined space (nation or territory) that is inhabited by people who have, and identify with, different cultural assumptions, beliefs and practices.  Scholars are neither exactly “outside” that space nor immune to its unpredictable conditions.


Reed, Ishmael, ed. Calafia: The California Poetry. Berkeley, CA: Y’Bird Books, 1979. Print.
____________. From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003. Print.
___________., Going Too Far: Essays about America’s Nervous Breakdown Montreal: Baraka Books 2012. Print.
___________. MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace. New York: Viking Penguin, 1997. Print.

___________. 19 Necromancers From Now: An Anthology of Original American Writing For the 1970s. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1970. Print.

___________, ed. with Carla Blank.  Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience ---Short Fiction from Then to Now. Philadelphia: DaCapo Press, 2009. Print.
Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., eds. Redefining American Literary History. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990. Print.