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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

River Poem



A luminous conversation

Without an alphabet


Pregnant with snowflakes

A billion years


Coded visions

The blind see


Icy serpentine curves

On highway oblivion


Cast broadly ironic condolences

For the quick, the quaking awakening

The living for the double-dared absolute


We must be still until our bodies accept

 The emotion of water.  Only then can our minds

 Grant water permission to speak.


Gates, dams, locks, spilling ways

Shadows to be ignored


Darkness of darkness

So logical it shines


Water enters before a man enters water,

Rides an ark of bones in a space which never heard of time.







Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Conversation with W. E. B. DuBois

Drinking Hemlock with DuBois


A few hours ago, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois and I had a fatal conversation.


The only reason he condescended to talk with me was our being members of the same fraternity.  We sipped hemlock and talked about higher education.  I had an interest in revisiting an old critique, namely “The Future and Function of the Private Negro College.” Crisis 53 (1946): 234-46, 253-54. Portions of the article are apt descriptions of 2014.


“You were merely three years old,” Dr. DuBois said, “when I published that article.”  Removing his glasses, he scanned my face. “I am much disappointed that your contemporaries are so dense in your understanding of double consciousness, for you confuse a rhetorical gesture with a statement of reality. I am disappointed that you are incapable of distinguishing a spatial description from a temporal one.  The same poverty of reason colors your unscientific apologizing for the twenty-first-century HBCU, as you call it.  You need instruction.”  Like a buck startled by the headlights of an automobile, I felt paralyzed. Dr. DuBois carefully turned pages in The Education of Black People, 2nd edition, 2001.


“It is reasonable that you should think my sentence


Today the private institutions are facing the fact that unless they receive increased contributions, not now in sight, and these funds reach large figures, they must either close or become fully state schools (182).


refers to 2014.”  He commenced to quoting his bullet points:


·         “,,,endowments are not eternal and can only be depended upon for relatively short periods”(184)

·         “…are these institutions worth saving?” (185)

·         “…is their fate either to become state schools or disappear?” (185)

·         “There would certainly seem to be a distinct place in the educational world for some private institutions whose support is such that they would be free to teach what they thought ought  to be taught, particularly in the critical and developing field of social investigations” (186).

·         “In their haste to become Americans, their desire not be peculiar or segregated in mind or body, they try to escape their cultural heritage and the body of experience why they themselves have built up” (187).


Before I could ask whether he was alluding to Langston Hughes, he said with great emphasis, “I am convinced that there is a place and a continuing function for the small Negro college” (187).


I swallowed two sips of hemlock. “But, Dr. DuBois…”  Ignoring my effort to speak, he read in a loud voice “They would not be subservient to the dominant wealth of the country; they would not be under the control of politics in a state now directed for the most part by prejudiced persons guide by a definite ideal of racial discrimination” (188).


“But, Dr. DuBois, the small HBCUs and small institutions in general are enslaved by global economy and special interests, and so too are large, handsomely endowed, research institutions.”


“You do not listen critically,” his words of genteel anger descending like a veil over my eyes. “I am convinced there is a continuing function for the five small HBCUs that shall survive the twenty-first century.” Stoned by the hemlock, I saw he was saying something of great importance but could not hear what he was saying.  Such is the effect of talented treason.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

February 25, 2014

Friday, February 14, 2014

An unholy trinity

An Unholy Trinity


Writing,   literature, “literature.”  Everyone who has print literacy skills can produce writing.  The more creative try their hands at crafting literature.  The most ambitious and creative agonize to create “literature,” a prime candidate for disdain or praise. At any given time, these acts of representing may diverge, intersect, or overlap.

Many of us are conditioned to worship “literature,” to sneer at literature, to treat writing as a tool beneath the dignity of careful attention.  The conditioning is necessary for us to have civilization, a relatively successful repression of the choices and free will we would have to endure in a state of amoral nature.  The citizens in the United States who truly worship “literature” are few in number, because worship is a dreadful luxury indivisible from aesthetic constipation, and we tend to be a practical, pragmatic, and anti-intellectual people. The majority of us opt for a more democratic use of writing. Writing serves the ends of “progressive” science and technology and commerce.  It gets things done. It produces less stress than either “literature” or literature. It demands less use of cognition and critical thought. As manufacturers of propaganda know only too well, writing or its oral equivalent is a most powerful tool for achieving motives of all kinds. Few of us have the courage to acknowledge that writing, literature, and “literature” have hastened our transforming ourselves into post-whatever critters in the fist of an absent god.  Seldom is what you read what you get.

American literature serves as a buffer zone between the strident operations of “literature” and writing.  Literature is not innocent, because it possesses a full range of motives that can be as transparent, muddled, or hidden as those of “literature” and writing.  It should be obvious that I am not addressing American literature as a body of work that gets canonized and studied with lip-service within academic institutions.  I am speaking of an ever expanding body of work that is actually used in our society ---advertising, throwaway fictions and enthralling non-fictions, mass media, scribbling in social networks, schemes to fleece the unthinking and weak-minded of hard-earned money, discourses that satisfy prurient desires and assure us that hope and faith, however invisible, do spring eternal. I should amuse us that the cultural mobility involved in American literature’s becoming American “literature” is fickle. Why are Stephen King’s passionate explorations in the bloody heartland of the America mind not works of “literature?”


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

February 15, 2014

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Brenda Marie Osbey in Her Own Words

The following interview from The Brown Daily Herald confirms my belief that Osbey's "poetic mastery of time, space, and narrative" confirms "her authority to guide us in the process of becoming enlightened by the profound structures of existence."

Brenda Marie Osbey: ‘At the root of the human tongue’

Visiting professor Brenda Marie Osbey operates at the intersection between poetry and history

Senior Staff Writer
Brenda Marie Osbey, distinguished visiting professor of Africana studies, has penned multiple volumes of poetry and prose, including “History and Other Poems” and “All Saints: New and Selected Poems.” In addition to receiving numerous awards and honors, Osbey was selected as poet laureate of Louisiana in 2005. Her work explores the cultural forces that shaped precolonial and colonial history in the Americas, especially in her native city of New Orleans. Osbey spoke with The Herald about the importance of confronting history and poetry’s power to illuminate the voices of the past.

Herald: You grew up in New Orleans, a city with a history of deep cultural pride and resilience, and I was wondering how this might have informed the vibrancy and sense of identity in your own works.
Osbey: Well, my family actually goes back to slavery and freedom here. We’ve been here since 1719, so this is the deepest history that I know. It’s everything I know, everything I have, and it’s the root of all things for me.

Herald: I’m sure you’re well aware that Brown’s founders and early benefactors were very much entwined with the slave trade. Conversely, Rhode Island prides itself on its history of religious freedom. How do you approach this unsettling contradiction, including its present-day implications?
Osbey: It isn’t that different from the rest of this nation’s history with slavery. The primary difference seems to be that in recent years at least, Brown has taken a very strong interest in the history of the slave trade in Rhode Island. That, I think, is somewhat unique. Other institutions have begun to do that, but it seems to me that Brown was among the first to look at the history of its own institution in the making and framing of slavery and the American slave trade.
Brown has a network of libraries that is absolutely fantastic. If you don’t avail yourself of the library resources that Brown University has, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. And in fact, if you’re particularly interested in poetry, Brown has one of the best poetry collections in the nation. I first used Brown’s American poetry collection back in the 1980s.

Herald: Your poems create a sort of running dialogue with the past by using snippets of voices and songs, which seem to traverse the gaps of time and space that often alienate history from modernity. Do you feel your readers need to already know the historical background of your poetry to fully appreciate it?
Osbey: I don’t know that you need that background, but frankly, we’re living in a society where there is not so great an appreciation of history. For instance, the extent to which people in my grandparents’ generation knew and understood history — we don’t have that kind of broad, general, overreaching public concept of history anymore. But that’s why every poem in my book “All Saints,” except for the first one, has a glossary. The glossary includes not just terminology, but historical information — dates, times, places — in addition to perhaps obscure allusions to strange myths, to literature, to geography and so forth.
I think that people who read poetry on a regular basis have a particular kind of sense of language to begin with. People who don’t traditionally read poetry frequently bring to it a fresher, cleaner perspective. At the beginning of classes, I always ask where my history and political science majors are. Because they understand work in the context of time and history and social development, those students are very good at keeping everybody else grounded. English majors, literary arts majors, people who are interested in literary criticism and so forth, frequently ignore those shaping forces, the forces of time and social movements. They jump straight into language with a certain sense that each work is a discrete item in and of itself — which is true, of course, but it’s also true that each work is related to other works and each author is related to other authors and no one’s really right in seclusion and total solitude.

Herald: I agree that a lot of people can be intimidated by history. One example that immediately comes to mind is the summer reading for the class of 2016, which was a history book by Charles Rappleye.
Osbey: Oh, “Sons of Providence”?

Herald: Yes. And apparently almost no one read the whole thing. It was dry. But one thing about your poetry is that it is heavily researched, but it also has a sense of humanity and an almost Wordsworthian emotional urgency. The factual element is obviously important for context, but what role do you feel the intensity of poetry plays in molding research into something that feels more real than, say, “Sons of Providence”?
Osbey: That’s a very big one for me. I count myself among a number of poets in the African-American narrative tradition that looks at history and posits itself — that is, the work — as having what I like to call a “problem with history.” This history is the thing that drives the work that I do and any poem for me usually begins with a kind of problem with history.
But I think that just as we often think that history is dry, cold, hard facts that are unrelated to us, we often have a tendency to think that poetry is meaningless language that has nothing to do with real life. The work that I’m doing, and the work that many Africana poets are doing, is at that juncture of lived experience. And so sometimes when I’m researching and going through these original archival documents, the documents themselves have a kind of power of language in their own right.
In the poetry of the late, great Robert Hayden, for instance, in the famous poem “Middle Passage” — it’s because of that poem, by the way, that we use the term “middle passage” to mean all the things we use it to mean. It referred to a specific point in the transatlantic slave trade. It was a geographical and navigational and maritime term and nothing more. We use it now to mean all of the experiences of those captured Africans because of Robert Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage.” In that poem, what Robert Hayden does is he quotes the ship’s log of actual slave ships. So in that poem, we never hear the voices of the captured Africans. We only hear the voices of the white ship’s crew, the captains, the slavers. And when we hear the quoted passages from the ship’s log, from the captain’s diary, the rhetoric, the court testimonies in the Amistad case, for instance — what he does in that poem is he allows the slavers and traders and dealers to condemn themselves in their own words, in their own language. And all of the passages he uses are in fact from the historical documents themselves.
For lack of a better term, we like to talk about the magic of language, and I think it helps to create a certain kind of rhythm, a certain kind of harmony. One of the issues that’s important to keep in mind about poetry is that there must always be that musicality, and one of the best ways I think to achieve that is to look at the harmonics of poetry, not to focus simply on the lyricism. The long narrative poem allows the poet to address the harmonics of poetry and of language — all of that juicy stuff at the root of the human tongue.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Warrant for Doubt

Another Warrant for Profound Doubt


It is irrational to think the first-degree murder trial of Michael Dunn is merely another episode in a “STAND YOUR GROUND” reality series.  The subject matter of the trial is too painfully vile to be dismissed as just an accidental probability in what we shall be obligated eventually to call “global death-planning.”  Once the trial is concluded, regardless of the verdict, we shall have to locate it in relation to violence (especially male on male violence) as a primal American virtue.  American virtues, of course, are universal.  Ultimately, we shall find ourselves locating or mapping the negative fourth-dimensionality of the twenty-first century.  Despite the juridical necessity to avoid contempt for Florida law, the distorting filters of mass media and social networks sharpen our intuitions about Dunn’s intent from angles of critical race theory.  The trial of Michael Dunn serves as yet another warrant for profound doubt about the efficacy of American justice.  Like the trial and exoneration of George Zimmerman, the Dunn trial tempts us to inscribe permanent disdain for theories of justice as they manifest themselves in the worlds we inhabit.

Our ground for such disdain is predicated on a “reasonable inference rule” and on unambiguous historical evidence of white male recuperation of a bogus entitlement to murder non-white males.  It is on this ground that I stand and remark that we have a capital insult to intelligence in the fact that Mark O’Mara, George Zimmerman’s defense attorney, should provide expert analysis of the Dunn trial.  If the construct of justice were more than a figment of legal theory, O’Mara would have the professional decency to recuse himself. But decency is rare in the public sphere.

From an unchartered sector of consciousness, I hear the ghost screams of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and twenty plus victims of the Atlanta Child Murders which occurred between 1979 and 1981. It is the bane of long memory that a few of us are condemned to hear in the unfinished song of crime and punishment in the United States, in the unfinished ancient opera of global violence. I have begun to think that the blatant acts of Michael Dunn, George Zimmerman, and other males who perform under the color of standing ground belong to the devil’s cut in the Book of Job.

It seems to be something other than a coincidence that Dunn’s trial unfolds during Black History Month. From the vantage of legal narrative, it seems to be a kind of anthropological reality-testing and rejection of myths of American progress authored by the State of Florida.  Common African American sense bids me to leave conclusions to a future where truth might be verified without prejudice.  But my male humanity tempts me to imagine that a few good men might join Nathaniel Turner and his comrades in sending a message to give eyesight to the color- and otherwise-blind citizens of our troubled and troubling nation. I hasten to assure the National Security Agency that my dream of revenge is an act of fiction.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.       February 10, 2014

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

We have not struggled for the right to be stupid

S.C.A.A.S.I. Conference

February 7, 2014
J. W. Ward, Jr.









Time.  Time or awareness of duration imposes a dreadful question for us.  Are we better off than we were fifty or sixty years ago, better off than we were fifty or sixty seconds ago?  Part of the dreadfulness of the question is its lack of Sankofa properties which compel us to ask: Can we be better off fifty or sixty years from now?   Unless our critical thinking looks at the past with the future in its mouth, we occupy an interesting but unproductive space. Both questions are subversive, because they challenge our clich├ęs regarding “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as well as our definitions of life and liberty and happiness.

The agonizing questions are collective, because they pivot on the idea that the plural pronoun “we” has different meanings in time.  At the location marked by May 17, 1954, “we” did not have a common meaning for the indigenous person in California, the Negro person in Mississippi, and the white person in Utah.  Any talk about the aftermath of an American Supreme Court decision in 1954 regarding Brown v. Board of Topeka, Kansas must take that fact into account.  Please notice that palaver about civil rights in America very casually relegates the topic of human rights to the margins of consciousness.

The answers or responses to the Sankofa-marked questions are arbitrary, governed or determined by the individual who tries to formulate responses.  In this sense, the answers are individual rather than collective.  “I” stands in opposition to “we.”  The answers have a strong existential flavor, especially in relation to a need for clarity about what the phrase “better off” might mean.  Better off for whom? The potential for infinite refining of that question is brought to a halt by saying “Compared to what?” with Roberta Flack or “So What?” with Miles Davis. Time.

When Dr. Howard Jones, Executive Secretary of the Southern Conference on African American Studies, Inc., asked that I say something about “The Aftermath of the Brown Decision: 60 Years Later,” he also said “just give us some of your ‘literary master-wisdom’.”   I doubt that I have master-wisdom, but I am certain that our ancestors did.  Thus, I turn to David Walker for the wisdom of his Appeal, In Four Articles; Together with A Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to those of The United States of America (1829).

Were the world of 2014 blessed with a happy state of affairs, I might entertain you with a short story about how Walker’s appeal inspired Frantz Fanon to write The Wretched of the Earth (1961).  The contemporary wretchedness of our global state of affairs forbids such indulgence.  It is quite noble of our Kenyan American leader, President Barack Obama, to propagate the audacity of hope against palpable odds.  After all, one of his many responsibilities is to prevent our nation from having a shock of recognition from which it might not recover.  I do not bear that onus.  I have another cross to carry.  Our ancestors, yours and mine, coming from many sectors of Planet Earth, have imposed the burden of memory upon me.

David Walker bids me to transform four states of wretchedness -----1) in consequence of slavery; 2) in consequence of ignorance; 3) in consequence of the preachers of the religion of Jesus Christ; 4) in consequence of the colonizing scheme ---into 21st century items of concern.  Although it is possible to find evidence of physical slavery in certain parts of the world according to United Nations reports, the issue that ought to beget anxiety is cultivated enslavement in the Age of Information.  Ignorance, which Walker described as “the mother of treachery and deceit” (Walker 21) still nurtures humanity, and trains human beings to love self-delusions.   An overwhelming number of American preachers and self-ordained ministers dispense drugs of forgetting , in the names of Supreme Being, God, Allah, Jesus, Yahweh, Adoni (if vocalization of the tetragrammaton YHWH is forbidden),  with greater efficiency than international cartels.  Colonizing schemes may now seem to be the dream stuff of speculative fiction or science fiction, but the motives and structural features of such schemes of population control have morphed into neo-colonial enterprises and neo-segregation gestures to which many of us attend far less than we should. Sixty years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board decision, the citizens of the United States of America thrive in the wretchedness of global warming, internal and external terrorism, the global collapse of decency and common sense in the dynamics of growing inequality and imitation “progress. “  The rigorous and principled study of benign genocide ought to be a required course in American public education.  But what ought to be vehemently resists materialization.

We have not struggled for the right to be stupid.  In this instance, in using “we,” I refer to people who have not fallen victim to cultural amnesia;  who have not lost the ability to remember; who have not been ravished by the seductions  of “progress” in the aftermath of the Brown decision, by unfreedom that wears the mask of freedom, by the quaint notion that human beings “perform” life but do not live it,  or by the queer, more dangerous idea that the realities of narratives we call history need not correspond with the actualities of lived experiences.  We still believe “history shows,” as Carter G. Woodson said in 1933, “that it does not matter who is in power or what revolutionary forces take over a government, those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning” (186-187).

From hindsight, we recognize the myth of solidarity (unity in pursuit of goals) among black Americans was powerful and purposeful from the advent of slavery in the Americas through the declining years of the Civil Rights Movement.  Traces of that myth are still with us, but we no longer speak with any confidence about a unity of interests among African Americans.  We have to negotiate diverse communities of interests among black folk, because the idea of the black community is embodied in the mind but rarely does it breathe, speak, move or act in the everyday conduct of life.  In the aftermath of Brown, we harvest the strange fruit about which Billie Holiday so poignantly sang.

 Our lamenting how poorly current public education serves the complex needs of black and non-black  children in our thoroughly racialized nation notifies us that Papa Jim Crow is not dead; he has a brand new bag.  The desegregation of public education did not produce exceptionally wonderful results. And the resegregation of the American body politic we witness in 2014 does not make things better.  Michelle Alexander says it better than I can in The New Jim Crow:

What is completely missed in the rare public debates today about the plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all.  It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty.  They are barred by law from doing so.  And the major institutions with which they come into contact are designed to prevent their mobility.  To put the matter starkly: The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy.  The system operates through our criminal justice institutions, but it function more like a caste system than a system of criminal control. ….Although this new system of racialized social control purports to be colorblind, it creates and maintains racial hierarchy much as earlier systems of control did.  Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race. (13)

Michelle Alexander speaks to me and for me. So too did David Walker and Carter G. Woodson.

I recognize, of course, that how Brown v. Board of Topeka, Kansas permanently altered the American body politic was, all things considered, a good thing, a wise re-orientation of destiny and the course of American history.  Nevertheless, pure reason instructs me that social gains can become social losses.  Under natural law, we do have the right to be stupid. Natural law has an endless supply of Trojan horses and drones.  Being stupid is a right that I reject and flush into the sewer.


 David Walker, Carter G. Woodson, and Michelle Alexander are the true sources of “literary master-wisdom.”  It is their language that enables me to answer the questions “Are we better off than we were sixty years ago?” and “Can we be better off sixty years from now?” in two words:  HELL NO!





Alexander, Michelle.  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Walker, David.  Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. 1829. Ed. Charles M. Wiltse. New York: Hill and Wang, 1965.
Woodson, Carter G. The Miseducation of the Negro. 1933. Washington,

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Blue Jazz


October Poem for Amiri Baraka



When the Word is                                                                           Nommo

No more                                                                                              Then the Word is

Amiri b                                                                                                 Amiri b

Whole man, visible man                                                                   His people’s manifesto

Unbroken                                                                                            Unbroken


Wave and particle

Healing, reeling the real, and feeling through,

He is moved to be magic/medicinal

To boptize the Word, hear

Scratch wise/dom in the mind’s ear”


Language as found

Flips and founders and flaps

Till the fire next time




The Music to bloom



Defined and Definer

Our poet, heir to leaves of grass,

Subverts Genesis,

For that time of year

We middle through death for life,

Updowns  a tree to sustain us.


If he contradicts himself, he contradicts himself.

He is blessed by the blue jazz

As Miles eternal sings

“So  What?”

Funky chickens always

Volunteer for the blue row of censure.


So what if Judas Caliban should don a whiteface

Mask and betray our poet’s brilliant autumn?

We still behold in him mastery,

Graceful grieving grief,

The sanctity of bleeding sorrow songs

On a cross of love.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                       October 2005