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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Japan Black Studies Association

You can read Professor Tsunehiko's essay "About Japan Black Studies Association since 1954" at




Professor Tsunehiko Kato’s eloquent essay on the Japan Black Studies Association (JBSA) provides relief from the glut of always already interpellations of the face (and other body parts) of the Other who occupies an interstitial transnational location in the postcolonial diasporic interrogation which is a simulacrum for academic discourses in conversation with postmodern debris of gendered desires. In Professor Kato’s essay, one hears the voice of a human being speaking to human beings about a subject that is dear to his heart and that he invites us to share.


 JBSA was founded in 1954, the year Richard Wright published Black Power and Savage Holiday. Given the importance of Wright’s works for Japanese scholars prior to their having ocular proof of the fault-lines in America’s practice of democracy (e.g., segregated military bases), any future dialogue and  collaboration between African American scholars and their Japanese colleagues can begin with the importance of empirical history for international exchange.  Professor Kato makes it clear that the early stages of Japanese engagement of Negro literature was mediated by reading experiences which did not have to be filtered by theory.  I use the term “Negro literature” for the sake of historical accuracy. Timing is crucial. By highlighting Professor Kitajima’s response to Black Boy, the essay allows us to understand why Japanese literary scholars may be more in synch with African American scholars than foreign scholars who became interested in black writing after LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka challenged “the myth of Negro literature” in 1962. I surmise, for example, that Japanese intellectuals were better prepared to appreciate the experiential grounding of Wright’s response to George Padmore’s Pan-Africanism or Communism in Black Power and The Color Curtain (1956) than their Chinese peers who might have given greater weight to Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois as politically engaged men of letters.  My ideas about the locations of literary sympathy and interpretation have to be debated in rigorous exchanges which are informed by fact rather than theory.  Professor Kato whets my appetite for such exchanges between JBSA and the Project on the History of Black Writing, because I believe African American can learn much from how JBSA members formulated questions over a period of sixty years. And the third generation of JBSA members can learn from PHBW why contemporary African American literature, culture and criticism appear to create a ball of confusion.


The admirable specificity of Professor Kato’s narrative brings to the foreground, for me and perhaps for others who have taught African American literature in China, how Chinese scholarship is more strongly motivated by and mediated through what can loosely be called Eurocentric theoretical discourses. My impressions are buttressed by reading the three volumes of Critical Zone: A Forum of Chinese and Western Knowledge (2004, 2006, 2008), which are seminal in articulating what a global community of scholarship might be. My concern about barnacles of misunderstanding regarding African American thought is anchored by a recent “reading” of Wright’s Savage Holiday.  In Abandoning the Black Hero: Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2013), John C. Charles interprets Wright’s novel “in the context of his postexpatrIation search for aesthetic and intellectual freedom beyond the reductive labels of mid-twentieth-century American racial and political discourse”(21). From the exchanges I have frequently with Chinese colleagues and students, it is easy for me to imagine their not questioning a distinction between Wright’s privacy and his agency, an agency that is judiciously assessed in Claudia Tate’s Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocol of Race (1998) and Abdul R. JanMohamed’s The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death (2005). Professor Kato’s essay persuades me that JBSA members might question the theoretical implications of John C. Charles’ interpretation with more critical alacrity.

Professor Kato’s reflection on the history of JBSA strengthens my determination to call for establishing an online African American Research forum among African American, Chinese, American and Japanese scholars at the 2nd International Symposium on Ethnic Literature, Central China Normal University, October 25-26, 2014.  Without dismissing the virtues of theory, I am convinced that future international exchanges about African American literature(s) and culture(s) ought to be marked by greater recognition of shared historicity and production of knowledge , the kind of historicity that Professor Kato has most gracefully delineated.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 29, 2014

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ralph Ellison at 100

Ralph Waldo Ellison cleverly narrated his visibility in the air that no one can see.

The 28th Annual MELUS Conference & The Ralph Ellison Centennial Symposium

March 6-9, 2014

Downtown Oklahoma City

Sponsored by Oklahoma City University

Going to the Territory: Cultural Geographies of Ethnic American Literature

In his essay “Going to the Territory” (1980), Ralph Ellison wrote that “[i]n the United States all social barriers are vulnerable to cultural styles.” This was so, Ellison recalled, even in the Oklahoma of his youth, where many arenas of public and private life were racially segregated. Although black Oklahomans lived under conditions of “social and political unfreedom,” they enjoyed more than a little cultural freedom: the freedom to give to, take from, and adapt other U.S. and world cultures.

Please join us as the 28th Annual MELUS Conference brings together scholars and creative writers to answer some of the questions raised by Ellison’s essay. How have “social barriers” shaped culture in the U.S.? In what particular ways have ethnic literary cultures crossed social barriers in particular locales and regions, or in the nation at large? And how have these crossings transformed regional, national, and global cultures?

The deadline for proposals has passed. All presenters, chairs, and moderators must be members of MELUS. Membership information can be found on the MELUS website at

Confirmed Speakers include:

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (off-site event, transportation provided)

Todd Bryant Weeks
Poets Joy Harjo and Joe Nevaquaya
Danielle Allen
Phyllis Bernard
Adam Bradley
Al Brophy
Robert O’Meally
Arnold Rampersad
Amrijit Singh
Eric Sundquist
Steven Tracy
Cheryl Wall
Kenneth Warren

MELUS 2014 / Ralph Ellison Centennial Symposium Conference Site: The Historic Skirvin Hotel
1 Park Avenue, Oklahoma City, OK 73102, Tel: 405-272-3040

Hilton Online Reservation
$149/night [discount rate]

Deadline for conference rate rooms: February 3, 2014
Early conference registration deadline: Feb. 1, 2014
To register, please follow this link:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Poetry and Capitalist Cultural Entrapments

 Poetry and Capitalist Cultural Entrapments



The recent deaths of Wanda Coleman, Alvin Aubert, and Amiri Baraka led me to think about what we lose and what we inherit when writers die in a message


To Those Who Grieve the Death of a Poet


If you dream you are a star

More than a grain of dirt

Declare your poems to be

More than teaspoons of water

Dropped into a raving sea

You are more a fool

Than language has named you.

You worry death to death.

Your encrypted bones

Can, should you let them,

Lead you to bless the body

With the balm of love.


Recall. Spirit speaks

Echoes in the canyons of mind:

Struggle. Nothing has ended

Change. Struggle.  No peace arrived.

Struggle until the end. The end

Qualifies you with death

 To mourn and bury the dead.


January 16, 2014


 The message is a communication to an unknown addressee.  I know that I intended to say we lose a unique voice when a poet dies and inherit an obligation to continue the work of rewriting the world in our own voices.  Who listens?  Who learns?  I don’t know.  Does the message only become a poem as the result of unpredictable engagements?  I don’t know.  If the latter is the case, I prefer that the message prevails, that it inspires a transformation of sorrow into altruism.

I remind myself that human beings are mortal particles of consciousness in our universe, necessary only for other human beings.  We are at once subjects and objects to be loved or hated by human beings by virtue of what we offer in language and action. That is all. Other life forms and inert matter need neither us nor our speech acts, despite our bloated myths of human superiority and arbitrary beliefs about spiritual links with supreme powers that may or may not exist in time. ISMs, especially planetary and cultural capitalisms, have addicted many of us to abject misery and primitive aesthetics.  Flattered to embrace maximum ego and minimal reason, many particles of consciousness believe freedom is interchangeable with enslavement, that form trumps content.

I am meek enough to be tutored by poets who have departed for elsewhere.  Coleman says brutal realities should be weapons.  Aubert cautions that radical outbursts ought to be trimmed and nuanced. And Baraka tells me to disturb the blindness of peace until it can give birth to truth. They mentor me in traditions.  It is to Baraka’s language, Aubert’s language, Coleman’s language ---all of it ---that I can turn to reshape my sorrow for the death of poets into forms of literary and cultural work which do not apologize for being at once political and aesthetic. Some of that work depends greatly on my motions as a particle of consciousness.

The message ultimately is about literature in a world enthralled by capitalist cultural entrapments.  By reinventing Marxism in his own image, Fredric Jameson theorized these entrapments two decades ago.   Indeed, a few of his ideas about the always already changing present in Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) deal appropriately with the malaise of the 21st century: the discovery of beauty in a photograph of a starving child. The surrealism in Jameson’s premises about the status quo inspires genuine disdain for the bad faith of elitist assumptions.  An exquisitely crafted villanelle about a roach is not more important than a less pristine sonnet on rape. Capitalist cultural entrapment argues the opposite is the case.

Jameson’s insights about the cultural pathology of late capitalism fail to convince me that human beings have abandoned primal agency in some fluke of evolving.  His assertions are unfortunate but legitimate examples of the pink mentality at work.  Poets who still have black fire know all too well what pink mentality spawns.  It is in the best interest of amoral global capitalism that the bulk of the world’s population be unable to articulate the horrors of everyday life, so stoned should they be with doses of trivia and technical entertainments. This best interest is the bane of poetry, so cultural entrapment tantalizes the least engaged poets with trinkets of achievement.   This is not Jameson’s argument, but his work does make recognition of perverted motives possible.  And he speaks more honestly than some intellectuals who dress their ideas in post-post-colonial garb and post-racial footwear.  He had the decency to admit that his theorizing was an experiment not a truth.  Jameson is not a poet, but he does inform us about the gravity of the choices poets make.

What engaged poets have the option of rejecting are postmodern suggestions that any iteration of history breaks the chains that bind us to humanity and responsibilities. Jameson spills the beans because his own immersion in capitalism is utterly translucent and rhetorical, remarkably Western. I have lived in the West most of my life and have intimacy with its foibles and motives. Innocence is not an option.

We are responsible for the surplus of evils we manufacture, for the paucity of good we produce, for our penchant to renounce our histories.  We are free to sell our souls for bitcoins; free to author our own damnation; free to deny the burdens of tradition and to lust after the bliss of absolute innovation; free to smirk at the bearing of witness by those who value humility; free to pretend truth-telling efforts are prescriptive instruments of torture. No doubt, prayer in the tradition of George Moses Horton and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper or meditation on the outer limits of inner space “liberates” a small number of poets from slavish cultural entrapments. Blessed are those who pray, for they have epiphanies about the absurdity of being human. They may not be able to prevent "forgetting" from happening, but they do have the agency to retard its happening too rapidly. Poets who know what tradition means pray frequently.


January 23, 2014.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Charlie R. Braxton's Poetry

Introduction for Cinders Rekindled





                Between Charlie Braxton’s first book of poems, Ascension from the Ashes (1990), and  Cinders Rekindled, his second collection, is a lake of incineration, the space wherein the risen phoenix transforms cinders into embers and embers into flames of black fire (circa 1968) in order to burn the anger of redemption into American consciousness grown lazy and blind under the influence of “progress” or supersubtle fictions of social and political change.  Those familiar with his earlier work, including his poems anthologized in In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers (1992), Bum Rush the Page (2001) and Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art (2002) will note a shift from the lyric mode of “Bluesman” and the blues ethos of “We Can’t Afford to Die” to a relentless riffing on the anger of feeling and the feeling of anger.  Indeed, the poems in Cinders Rekindled are eruptive/disruptive proofs for the final lines of Braxton’s poem “The Arts Are Black” ---

the bombs & bullets


from the suffering soul

of a real black artist

What is of special importance is Braxton’s refusal to discard the vocabulary and poetics associated with the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic Movement either for the rhymes, inventions, and rhythms of spoken word or for the delicacies of craft and sensibility that are in stark contrast to the class-marked utterances of the neo-hip hop generation of poets. For he reminds us that we often have game in talking about suffering but we only rarely want to hear the sound of suffering.  His refusal, however, is not a signal of his being enslaved by the past but rather a sign that fidelity to poetry as polemic or political challenge remains a vibrant option.  Given Braxton’s transformations of allusions to old-time black religion into the militant anger of the unfinished revolutions in American human rights and human relations, one may tentatively conclude that he has bravely risked the aesthetics of the abrasive. The cumulative impact of Braxton’s poetry may be an ironic transformation of readers into stalwart witnesses of the chaos that is now as it serves as a foil for continuing efforts to wring the sublime and the beautiful out of the vernacular.

As a poet, Braxton defies the premature comfort that may accompany change; his is the fierce preservation of traditions of the near past, an affirmation that genuine poetry involves tracing of a people’s diverse states of being and thought. Braxton’s work is an affirmation that the prophecy that lends power to the jeremiad burns productively in “the suffering soul/of a real black artist.”  Do not ask what is real.  Feel what is audacious in the flames of anger as redemption.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

April 10, 2011

P. S. (January 20, 2014) Cinders Rekindled can be purchased at    Amiri Baraka wrote in “What’s New: Charlie Braxton” (12/18/88), his introduction for Ascension from the Ashes: “What we artist need to be pulling together is a Cultural Revolution. Charlie’s in tune, like the kids say (and we used to) He know what time it is!” Baraka blessed Braxton, and now is the time to read or reread Braxton’s music.




Thursday, January 16, 2014

To those who grieve the death of a poet

To Those Who Grieve the Death of a Poet


If you dream you are a star

More than a grain of dirt

Declare your poems to be

More than teaspoons of water

Dropped into a raving sea

You are more a fool

Than language has named you.

You worry death to death.

Your encrypted bones

Can, should you let them,

Lead you to bless the body

With the balm of love.


Recall. Spirit speaks

Echoes in the canyons of mind:

Struggle. Nothing has ended

Change. Struggle.  No peace arrived.

Struggle until the end. The end

Qualifies you with death

 To mourn and bury the dead.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                   January 16, 2014

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dream. Hope. Fantasy.



Native speakers of American English in any register or regional variety would understand “Dr. King: A Conversation with Barack Obama?” to be something other than a question about probability.  What seems to be a question is ultimately an invitation to play a game of fantasy history.  The question that is not really a question invites a person to play at being a Time Lord like Dr. Who or a mythological god who is capable of tricking the Fates to reinscribe events that give shape to human histories.  Playing fantasy football is a fairly innocent exercise in skill, passion, and desire. Playing fantasy history belongs to a different, more consequential realm of human experience.  Dream and hope are the common properties of both kinds of fantasy.  The sport fantasy allows one to brag about having uncommon luck or intelligence in athletics and management.  On the other hand, the history fantasy permits the fleeting satisfaction of fiction and then demands that one return to the banality of everyday life.

On the eve of celebrating the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I have no interest in writing fictions about a conversation King might have had with President Obama.  It is sufficient to grapple with those narratives of actuality we name history.  That exercise requires my discriminating between how King addressed power and racial democracy and how Obama uses the power of the Presidency in the wonderland of so-called post-racial conditions.  Memory (or lack of memory) seduces many of us to mythologize Dr. King, to engage in hero-worship or iconography.  Our daily consumption of misinformation encourages many of us to demonize President Obama for failure to live up to the bar set by his pre-2008 concept of the audacity of hope. Passion untempered by thought encourages many of us to enshroud Dr. King with sainthood for his sacrifices and his dream.  We forget the contingent, time-contextualized nature of being human.  In both scenarios, smoke gets in our eyes.

Listen to the music, lyrics, and vocal execution of Curtis Mayfield’s “Underground” from his second studio album “Roots” (1971). Absorb the meaning and the sound.  Some of the emotional smoke evaporates. Some not all.  Dr. King is not God.  President Obama is not Satan.  They will not have a conversation about the rules for testing and torturing Job.  The only critical conversation we need to have is with the political contradictions within our being-in-the-world, our Selves.  Ungame thyself to be free.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 14, 2014

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tribute for Aubert and Baraka

Remembering Alvin Aubert and Amiri Baraka

My introduction to Leroi Jones was reading “The End of Man is His Beauty” and “A Poem for Democrats” in 1963 in Rosey E. Pool’s anthology Beyond the Blues (Hand and Flower Press 1962).  In the head note, Jones asserted that writing “beautiful poems full of mystical sociology and abstract politics” was among his ambitions. Five years later at Fort Knox, I read the anthology Black Fire, a confirmation that focused anger has purpose.  When I began teaching at Tougaloo College in the fall of 1970, Home: Social Essays by LeRoi Jones was one of the textbooks in my freshman composition course. My students had to debate why Negro literature was a myth and what black writing should be. Reading Jones before and after he became Amiri Baraka and using the terrible beauty of his mind as a touchstone for engaged cultural work was simply normal for me. Keeping up with his prodigious output was mission impossible; deciding how to deal with his ideological shifts and transformations of identity was hard work. But he was teaching me constantly that nothing worth having in our tradition of perpetual struggle comes easily, I can’t mark the year in the 1980s when I finally meet Baraka, but I was relieved to discover this intellectual giant was not a man to be feared but a man with whom I could have civil discourses, with whom I could laugh and joke, with whom I could celebrate the complexities of being human. It sufficed that he would lend me his ear as I struggled with the immense range of his creativity. He was the master craftsman  and teacher who taught me invaluable lessons about tradition and commitment. Baraka far exceeded his early ambitions and gave America a matchless body of engaged writing.

I learned much about our literary and cultural traditions from Alvin Aubert too, and our shared Saint James Parish, Louisiana heritage, such mutual friends as Ahmos Zu-Bolton, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Arthenia Bates Millican, Lorenzo Thomas and Tom Dent, and our devotion to teaching and writing made it easy to have a felicitous relationship. I met Aubert in 1972 during one of the annual poetry festivals at Southern University in Baton Rouge.  When he founded OBSIDIAN, he invited me to serve on the editorial board. He took the risk of publishing my short story “David” and gave me generous advice about improving my jazzy poetry.  We did a joint reading for E. Ethelbert Miller’s  “Ascension Series” and maintained humorous correspondence for at least two decades. He arranged for me to be a visiting professor at Wayne State for a few weeks in 1987-88.  Although we had a happy reunion at the 2004 Furious Flower Conference, our perspectives on literature had drifted apart and our relationship chilled. We retreated into silence.  Nevertheless, I still have deep respect for Aubert’s excellence as a poet  and gratitude for his generous support of  emerging writers and of my struggles to find my creative voice and critical voices.

I am saddened that Alvin Aubert ( March 12, 1930-January 7, 2014) and Amiri Baraka ( October 7, 1934-January 9, 2014),  poets  and thinkers who had great influence on my work have died within days of one another. This is a great loss for the United States of America , for world literature, and for me. I am resigned, however, to honor their lives and works by continuing the traditions which they were devoted to enhancing. I listen carefully to their imperatives.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 9, 2014

Monday, January 6, 2014

Advice for a young Chinese scholar

Revising “Self-discovery in Racialized Space: Comparative Study of The Outsider and Invisible Man”

Commentary for a young Chinese scholar


Your comparative study of novels by Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison is a worthwhile project, especially in light of an intertextuality between Invisible Man and The Outsider that is not immediately apparent. Despite his denial of artistic indebtedness to Wright’s novella “The Man Who Lived Underground,” Ellison did elaborate some features of Wright’s story.  Use of the underground or the underworld as a location (or space) for gaining knowledge that is unavailable on the surface of the earth is a very old strategy in world literature.  Ellison made good use of the strategy to create a frame for his nameless narrator’s journey of discoveries and a site for reflection on the episodes that constitute the journey. Although Wright and Ellison both use urban space, the city, for African American male characters to make self-discoveries, it must be noted that Ellison employed a rural space to begin discussion about race and abuse of power in Invisible Man. That choice was necessary, because the consequences of South to North migration are so important in his novel.  Wright, on the other hand, used a less iconic form of migration (Cross Damon’s flight from Chicago to New York) as a background for his main character’s existential quest for “absolute freedom” in shaping his identity and destiny against those imposed upon him by racialized American society.

The vastly different intentions Wright and Ellison had in writing their novels must be accounted  for through close reading of their texts, careful structural analysis, and interpretation that is informed by knowledge about the diverse ways African Americans negotiated their “space-time experiences” in racialized and segregated spaces. I stress the importance of close reading of the text prior to selecting any theory as a guide for interpretation. You have claimed in your abstract that you endeavor “to analyze black people’s self-discovery in racialized space from the perspective of Foucault’s space theory, in an attempt to revel the black writers’ effort of seeking identity and national cultural way for the black through the struggle of power in spatial practices.”  Your claim is based on a dreadful belief that theory can do what it cannot do. African Americans like Chinese peoples  are tremendously diverse; they are not a unified group that can be explained by one theory or another. Provision conclusions about how individuals from an ethnic group arrive at “self-discovery” have to be derived by using reliable methods from the domains of psychology and sociology not from methods employed in literary and cultural studies.  Moreover, literature may engender ideas that people use in making “self-discoveries,” but literature does not give us directives for resolving the entanglements of the human condition.  Your claim is in need of radical surgery.

 Efforts to use identity theories  (the Self and the Other) and space theories as articulated by Michel Foucault and others can produce blindness rather than desirable insights about how Wright, Ellison, and other African American novelists have fictionalized the historical experiences of black people. And when such theories are yoked with DuBois’s now much abused and outdated theory of “double consciousness,” the probability of producing dazzling nonsense is increased. It is crucial to refer to how in his book The Practice of Everyday Life,  Michel de Certeau challenges Foucault’s thinking about space.  It is even more crucial in dealing with Ellison and Wright to know what Valerie Smith “theorized” in Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative (Harvard University Press 1987), what Farah Jasmine Griffin said about navigating the urban landscape in “Who Set You Flowin’?: The African American Migration Narrative  (Oxford University Press 1995) , what Abdul R. JanMohamed explored in The-Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death (Duke University Press 2005) and what Robert O’Meally  revealed about Ellison’s narrative techniques in The Craft of Ralph Ellison (Harvard University Press 1980). Attention to Eurocentric theory without giving notice to what African American scholars have contributed to our understanding of Wright and Ellison is tantamount to asking a chicken to plead for its life in a court in which the judge and the jury are foxes.


In a 1977 interview on truth and power, Foucault himself said something we need to keep in mind as we engage in scholarship and criticism.  Referring to the questions raised by “the political status of science and the ideological functions which it could serve,” Foucault said “…a whole number of interesting questions were provoked.  These can all be summed up in two word: power and knowledge.” He then commented on why dealing with theoretical physics or organic chemistry and “ its relations with the political and economic structures of society” might invite one to pose “an excessively complicated question.”  The question, he proposed is easier to resolve if one focused on “a form of knowledge (savoir) like psychiatry.” (See Foucault,  Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, 1980).  Foucault was talking specifically about science in general and  his planning as he prepared to write Madness and Civilization. There is a noteworthy lesson to be learned from what he says about questions.


 I urge you to concentrate on “self-discovery” in a literary work as a form of knowledge rather than trying to deal the impossibly large problem of “racialized space in America,” which requires empirical investigation and which ought not be reduced to a simple black/white binary.  For several hundred years, indigenous peoples (Native Americans), European Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans have negotiated space both separately and jointly, and space theory is an afterthought about what they were doing historically. Theory has to be corrected by history.  Or, how could one talk about racialized space and ignore that women function in those spaces?  Generalized discussion of “heterotopias” casts dim light on gender issues.   Both Ellison and Wright wrote masculine fictions that, according to feminist thinkers, keep women in the shadows or objectify them.  We can’t talk about Ellison and Wright and ignore gender. Remember that Foucault warned us to avoid the “excessively complicated question.”


Rethinking what you need to say in your abstract


First, if you focus on the use of space in the novels by Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, you must understand that Ellison refers to action in rural space (an imagined Alabama) and urban space (the city --New York) and that Wright deals exclusively with urban space (the cities of Chicago and New York).  It is unfortunate that you do not know enough about African American novels and space to detect that Ellison’s book reminds us of what Paul Laurence Dunbar did with rural and urban spaces and the matter of migration from the South to the North in The Sport of the Gods (1902). The discussion has to focus on how the two authors use real, historical, American racialized spaces as opposed to the theorizing about the abstract concept of space promoted by Foucault and others.  Despite all the shortcomings that have been noted about Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), that book describes American cultural geography (racialized spaces) in terms which were a part of Wright and Ellison’s lived experiences. One of the dangers of theory is its power to seduce thinkers and make them forget history.


 In your abstract, you need to specify very concisely what is your research question. How to frame and refine the research question is handled with precision in The Craft of Research (1995) by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams, the book I use when I offer research seminars at Central China Normal University. The research question usually takes the form



I am studying (X)


because I want to find out (Y)


in order to help my reader understand better  (Z)


If “X” is African American Self-discovery in Racialized Space, you have to be aware that conclusions about self-discovery in The Outsider and Invisible Man apply only to Cross Damon and the nameless narrator. Any conclusions that you reach do not describe the behaviors of real African American males.  What is depicted in novels is merely a refraction of real actions not a reflection of what has occurred in real time to real human beings. An attempt to argue or  suggest otherwise is a confusion of literary representation with vulgar, imprecise sociology. Literature generates questions that have to be answered by non-literary disciplines.  I leave identification of what is Y and Z to you.


 I urge you to attend very carefully what is being said about “heterotopia” in the following commentary, as you analyze the texts of the novels.  It is important that you match the various spaces referred to in the novels with the types of heterotopia they may represent.  Doing so will help you with formulating a new outline for your chapter.



Heterotopia (space)

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This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (January 2010)

Heterotopia is a concept in human geography elaborated by philosopher Michel Foucault to describe places and spaces that function in non-hegemonic conditions. These are spaces of otherness, which are neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental, such as the space of a phone call or the moment when you see yourself in the mirror.
A utopia is an idea or an image that is not real but represents a perfected version of society, such as Thomas More’s book or Le Corbusier’s drawings. Foucault uses the term heterotopia to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible (like a prison).
Foucault uses the idea of a mirror as a metaphor for the duality and contradictions, the reality and the unreality of utopian projects. A mirror is metaphor for utopia because the image that you see in it does not exist, but it is also a heterotopia because the mirror is a real object that shapes the way you relate to your own image.
Foucault articulates several possible types of heterotopia or spaces that exhibit dual meanings:

·         A ‘crisis heterotopia’ is a separate space like a boarding school or a motel room where activities like coming of age or a honeymoon take place out of sight.

·         ‘Heterotopias of deviation’ are institutions where we place individuals whose behavior is outside the norm (hospitals, asylums, prisons, rest homes, cemetery).

·         Heterotopia can be a single real place that juxtaposes several spaces. A garden is a heterotopia because it is a real space meant to be a microcosm of different environments with plants from around the world.

·         'Heterotopias of time' such as museums enclose in one place objects from all times and styles. They exist in time but also exist outside of time because they are built and preserved to be physically insusceptible to time’s ravages.

·         'Heterotopias of ritual or purification' are spaces that are isolated and penetrable yet not freely accessible like a public place. To get in one must have permission and make certain gestures such as in a sauna or a hammin.

·         'Heterotopia has a function in relation to all of the remaining spaces. The two functions are: heterotopia of illusion creates a space of illusion that exposes every real space, and the heterotopia of compensation is to create a real space--a space that is other.


Human geographers often connected to the postmodernist school have been using the term (and the author's propositions) to help understand the contemporary emergence of (cultural, social, political, economic) difference and identity as a central issue in larger multicultural cities. The idea of place (more often related to ethnicity and gender and less often to the social class issue) as a heterotopic entity has been gaining attention in the current context of postmodern, post-structuralist theoretical discussion (and political practice) in Geography and other spatial social sciences. The concept of a heterotopia has also been discussed in relation to the space that learning takes place in (Blair, 2009). There is an extensive debate with theorists, such as David Harvey, that remain focused on the matter of class domination as the central determinant of social heteronomy.

Foucault's elaborations on heterotopias were published in an article entitled Des espaces autres (Of Other Spaces). The philosopher calls for a society with many heterotopias, not only as a space with several places of/for the affirmation of difference, but also as a means of escape from authoritarianism and repression, stating metaphorically that if we take the ship as the utmost heterotopia, a society without ships is inherently a repressive one, in a clear reference to Stalinism.
The geographer Edward Soja has worked with this concept in dialogue with the works of Henri Lefebvre concerning urban space in the book Thirdspace.

In Utopia and The Village in South Asian Literatures, Anupama Mohan extends and reworks Foucault's concept of heterotopia as a way to understand the impulses of 21st century literatures of South Asia that are focused on the village or the rural as a literary trope. Mohan revives the conceptual ambivalence latent in utopia as good-place and no-place in order to theorize key ruptures within Foucault's explanations of heterotopia. For Mohan, heterotopia helps to recuperate as well as distinguish utopia from what she calls homotopia, or visions of social collectivization whose claims to utopia are built on homogenizing features or bases such as a common religion, language, or culture.
Heterotopian Studies is a website launched May 2012 and devoted to exploring Foucault's ideas on heterotopia.

Rethinking your introduction and discussions of the novels

It is no surprise that Foucault does not enable you to define “racialized space.”  You will find a model for creating the definition in Chapter 3 of Griffin’s “Who Set You Flowin’?”: The African American Migration Narrative.

I find that the current organization of your chapter can be much improved by not trying to talk about Other, self-discovery, and resistance as subtopics.  Instead, I recommend that  after presenting an introductory discussion of the focus on cities or urban spaces in African American literature and the challenges one might find in the novels of Wright and Ellison, you should write about each novel separately and then write about your tentative conclusions in a third segment.  The new organization might assume this form----

I.                     Introduction

II.                   Self-discovery and racialized space in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952)

III.                 Self-discovery and racialized space in Richard Wright’s The Outsider (1953)

IV.                Unanswered questions about integration and nihilism generated by Ellison and Wright

V.                  Conclusion


 Your chapter should analyze (1) how Ellison frames his narrative with the underground prologue and epilogue, but situates the unnamed narrator's quest to understand who he is rural and urban spaces and (2) how Wright depicts Cross Damon's existential journey from Chicago (where he has a defined identity in the spaces of home and labor) to New York (where he uses lies and deceptions to fashion a new identity for himself in the arena of radical politics; it is relatively easy to fashion multiple identities in a space where one is virtually unknown ). After the discussions of Invisible Man and The Outsider, the third segment of the chapter must deal with the two novels as catalysts for continuing exploration of race, new forms of segregation in the United States, and space.



January 5, 2014