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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tribute for Amiri Baraka

Third World Press is sending this “Call for Submissions” on behalf of
the editors of the forthcoming anthology celebrating the life and
legacy of Amiri Baraka.
Brilliant Fire! Amiri Baraka
Poems, Plays, Politics for the People
Haki R. Madhubuti, Michael Simanga, Sonia Sanchez, Woodie King Jr.
We welcome your submission by April 30, 2014. If you would like to
make this Call available to your colleagues, please share this
information with them and forward their contact information to us at:
The submissions office for Brilliant Fire! Amiri Baraka.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ethnic Diagreements

Richard Wright and Jews: Brief Notes for Full Disclosure             


                Although the topic of Richard Wright and Jews has rarely been rigorously addressed in studies of the man and his works, Wright scholars do think about it.  Their silence is, in part, a result of not wanting to engage in time-consuming, emotion-draining disputes with those American Jews who seem to believe themselves beyond reproach, who in responding to the death of Amiri Baraka immediately highlighted that he was anti-Semitic, and who miss no occasion to play the anti-Semite card with or without provocation. And Wright himself, with the notable exception of responding to David Cohn’s review of Native Son, was careful not to draw overmuch attention to his personal and “literary” relations with Jewish people as Jewish people.

 It may cause those Jews who wish to be more American “white” than Jewish American great emotional pain to think that Wright’s first and second wives (Dhima Rose Meadman and Ellen Poplar) were Jewish women and that the two daughters (Julia and Rachel) he and Ellen Wright had are Jewish women under the color of Hebrew law, with the possibility of getting contradictory answers depending on who is answering the question mihu jehu di. That same vexed law of descent identifies LeRoi Jones’/Amiri Baraka’s two daughters (Lisa and Kellie Jones) with Hettie Cohen as Jewish women.  By the same token, Black Americans who hold fast to Afrocentric beliefs suffer emotional pain that Wright and Baraka married Jewish women, who are more usually described as “white women” in American sociopolitical discourses. Contemplating those facts too much requires admission that it is hard to be Jewish and “white” and devoid of racism, or that it is just as hard to be African American and “black” and anti-white supremacist but not anti-Semitic. American English does not contain the words that would afford us semantic clarity. We are trapped in the cleverness of our languages, double-trapped in connotations when we speak of Wright and Jews, and trapped ultimately by a long, uneven history of contacts and social contracts between African Americans and Jewish Americans.

Thus, it is acceptable to speak of Wright’s friendship with Nelson Algren (Nelson Ahlgren Abraham), whose Swedish grandfather converted to Judaism and with the French Jewish philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre; of Wright’s being awarded in 1939 the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, which was founded in 1914 by the Jewish educator and literary critic Joel Elias Spingarn; of Wright’s public testimonial of his indebtedness to Three Lives by Gertrude Stein. One will not likely hear the shrill scream ANTI-SEMITIC. But do not say too much, however, about Wright’s being entwined with Jewish radicals during the period when he tried to be a Communist, and do not inspect too carefully the Jewish motives of Irving Howe’s famous essay “Black Boys and Native Sons” (Dissent, Autumn 1963), which provoked Ralph Ellison to write a signifying retort to Howe’s “Olympian authority.”

Silence and fear of offending Jews can lead to reprehensible dishonesty, and if the nuanced investigations Wright scholars will make in the 21st century as they discover more “facts” about Wright and Jews give offense, they will give offense. The new rule regarding discussion of Wright and Jews in literary and cultural criticism  will eventually be do unto others as they have done unto you.

David L. Cohn’s stinging review “The Negro Novel: Richard Wright” appeared in the May 1940 issue of Atlantic Monthly, and Wright’s stinging reply “I Bite the Hand That Feeds Me” was printed in the June 1940 issue of the same magazine. The call and response are published together in Richard Wright Reader (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), pages 57-67. This sliver of American literary history is a paragon of major tensions which have obtained individually and collectively between African Americans and Jewish Americans. We profit more from direct reading of the rhetorical battle than from a secondary report of the clashing, gain more from trying to re-enact the ritual in which Cohn and Wright were engaged as a prelude to full disclosure and the destruction of silence. The existential state of being simultaneously enemies and comrades is the most severe test for Gentiles and Jews.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

March 10, 2014


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Jesmyn Ward's Memoir

Jesmyn Ward’s Mississippi Memoir

Had Jesmyn Ward been raised elsewhere than DeLisle, Mississippi, she might still have written a memoir infused with dread.  A writer’s temperament, contrary to popularized beliefs, is only partially shaped by environment, and much of what she deems crucial or he decides is stylistically purposeful lies hidden in genetic histories.  But Ward was raised on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in a family whose genetic profile is New World ---African, European, and indigenous.  In twentieth-century Mississippi (and rest of the South), such a profile can only be Black or White, because Southerners pretend to be ignorant of nuances of mental color and world authorities on skin colour.  Thus, in Men We Reap (2013), Ward writes a story capable of inducing pre-future catharsis.  Her bite-the-bullet prose and brutally honest presentation of self precludes any consolation of tears.  Neither complicit guilt nor deceptive hope results from reading Men We Reap. What one does gain is a cold, sub-zero perspective on what life offers a certain class of African Americans in the South and what it withholds from them. Ward writes well.  Her gift is the agony of dread, the best anodyne for the contemporary human condition.

Ward’s memoir brings a crucial difference to the writing of Mississippi life history and the writing about the deaths of young Black males, because it seems her sensibility is more at home in the superhighway of rap than on the dusty roads of the blues.  In Men We Reap one does not find the defiance of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, the womanist testimonials of Anne Moody’s classic Coming of Age in Mississippi and Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s From the Mississippi Delta, the sweetness and light of Clifton Taulbert’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, or the photograph-inspired quest for resolution in Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  Ward does incorporate some recognizable blues strategies in her writing, but they are a far cry from the negotiations with reality to be heard in the voice of Koko Taylor or in the blues poems of Sterling D. Plumpp. Ward is brave enough to endow her writing with the amorality of Nature itself.

Ward prepares her readers well for a season in dread in the “Prologue.” She is very clear about her objective:

My hope is that learning something about our lives and the lives of the people in my community will mean that when I get to the heart, when my marches forward through the past and backward from the present meet in the middle with my brother’s death, I’ll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here.  Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten fucking story” (8).

Readers learn what she has learned, and they are stronger for this education in writing.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

March 4, 2014

Good work and long suffering merit rewards

Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave. SE
Washington DC 20540
March 4, 2014
Press contact: Donna Urschel (202) 707-1639,<>
Public contact: Robert Casper (202) 707-5394,<>
Request ADA accommodations five business days in advance at (202) 707-6382
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Poet Laureate Selects 2014 Witter Bynner Fellows,
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers and Jake Adam York
The 19th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, Natasha
Trethewey, has selected poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers as the recipient of a
Witter Bynner Fellowship and has named poet Jake Adam York posthumously as a
Trethewey will introduce a program celebrating the fellows at 6:30 p.m. on
Wednesday, March 26, in the Montpelier Room on the sixth floor of the James
Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave., S.E., Washington, D.C. 20540. The
event is free and open to the public. No tickets are needed.
Jeffers will read her poetry, and Trethewey will read the work of York, who died
in December 2012.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, “These fellowships—to poets
whose distinctive talents and craftsmanship merit wider recognition—provide a
wonderful way for the Laureate, the Library and the [Witter Bynner] Foundation
to encourage poets and poetry.”
Commenting on her selections, Trethewey said Jeffers and York “are two American
poets whose work deserves a wider audience.”
Jeffers will receive a $10,000 fellowship. This is the 17th year that the
fellowship has been awarded.
Jeffers is the author of three books of poems, including “Red Clay Suite”
(2007), “Outlandish Blues” (2003) and “The Gospel of Barbecue”(2000). Her
other honors include the 1999 Stan and Tom Wick Prize for Poetry for her first
book and the 2002 Julia Peterkin Award for Poetry, as well as awards from the
Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Rona Jaffe Foundation and fellowships from
the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Antiquarian Society, the
MacDowell Colony and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. A founding member of
Cave Canem, the writer’s colony for African-American poets, Jeffers teaches at
the University of Oklahoma, where she is associate professor of English and
creative-writing coordinator.
York was the author of four books of poems, including his forthcoming book
“Abide” (2014), as well as “Persons Unknown” (2010), “A Murmuration of
Starlings” (2008) and “Murder Ballads” (2005). He also published a book of
literary history, “The Architecture of Address: The Monument and Public Speech
in American Poetry” (2005). A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts
Creative Writing Fellowship in poetry, York also received the 2005 Elixir Prize
in Poetry for his first book, the 2008 Colorado Book Award in Poetry for his
second book, and the 2010 Third Coast Poetry Prize for his poem“Before Knowing
Remembers.” Founder of the online literary journal storySouth, as well as the
online journal Thicket, York was a contributing editor for the literary journal
The Witter Bynner fellowships support the writing of poetry. Only two things
are asked of the fellows: that they organize a reading in their hometowns and
participate in reading and recording sessions at the Library of Congress.
Applications are not taken for the fellowships; the Poet Laureate makes the
The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry was incorporated in 1972 in New Mexico
to provide grant support for programs through non-profit organizations. Witter
Bynner was an influential early-20th century poet and translator of the Chinese
Classic “Tao Te Ching,” which he named “The Way of Life According to Laotzu.” He
travelled with D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence and proposed to Edna St.
Vincent Millay (she accepted, but then they changed their minds). He worked at
McClure’s Magazine, where he published A.E. Housman for the first time in the
United States, and was one of O. Henry’s early fans.
Previous Witter Bynner fellows include Carol Muske-Dukes and Carl Phillips
(1998), David Gewanter, Heather McHugh and Campbell McGrath (1999), and Naomi
Shihab Nye and Joshua Weiner (2000), all appointed by Robert Pinsky; the late
Tory Dent and Nick Flynn (2001), appointed by Stanley Kunitz; George Bilgere and
Katia Kapovich (2002), and Major Jackson and Rebecca Wee (2003), appointed by
Billy Collins; Dana Levin and Spencer Reece (2004), appointed by Louise Gluck;
Claudia Emerson and Martin Walls (2005), and Joseph Stroud and Connie Wanek
(2006), appointed by Ted Kooser; Laurie Lamon and David Tucker (2007), appointed
by Donald Hall; Matthew Thorburn and Monica Youn (2008), appointed by Charles
Simic; and Christina Davis and Mary Szybist (2009) and Jill McDonough and Atsuro
Riley (2010), appointed by Kay Ryan; Forrest Gander and Robert Bringhurst
(2011), appointed by W.S. Merwin; L. S. Asekoff and Sheila Black (2012)
appointed by Philip Levine; and Sharon Dolin and Shara McCallum (2013) appointed
by Natasha Trethewey during her first term.
The Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress fosters and enhances
the public’s appreciation of literature. The center administers the endowed
poetry chair (the U.S. Poet Laureate), and coordinates an annual literary season
of poetry, fiction and drama readings, performances, lectures and symposia,
sponsored by the Library’s Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund
and the Huntington Fund. For more information, visit<!OHL%3d8%2b62&RE=MC&RI=4441818&Preview=False&DistributionActionID=33335&Action=Follow+Link>.
The Library of Congress, the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and
the largest library in the world, holds more than 158 million items in various
languages, disciplines and formats. The Library serves the U.S. Congress and
the nation both on-site in its reading rooms on Capitol Hill and through its
award-winning website at<!OHL%3d8%2b62&RE=MC&RI=4441818&Preview=False&DistributionActionID=33334&Action=Follow+Link>.