Ramcat Reads #2
Ake, David. Jazz Matters: Sound, Place, and Time Since Bebop. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. Ake makes a useful contribution to cultural studies by showing “how the actions, interactions, and interests of a wide range of participants ---musicians, naturally, but also journalists, scholars, listeners, teachers, record company executives, politicians, recording engineers, and others ---result in an ongoing process of reclaiming and reshaping the practices and values of the art form call jazz”(2). Ake’s discussion of the history of post-World War II jazz within a larger history of humanity provides evidence that efforts to divorce art from its social functions are wrongheaded.
Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York University Press, 2011. Bernstein makes a noteworthy contribution to the “invisible history” of American racial ideologies by using literary and visual analyses to document the extreme efforts to exclude African American and other non-white children from the orbit of “childhood innocence” during the long journey from slavery to the triumph of the civil rights movement in the twentieth century. The book is a model of how archival research can be used to expose dimensions of racial formation that are too often overshadowed by preoccupation with the hegemony of the vocal in considerations of social discord in the United States. Another seminal text for examining racial formations is Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’s Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008). Both books pose crucial questions about deep structures in the evolving of social imaginations in America.
Duffy, Susan. The Political Plays of Langston Hughes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000. Duffy’s contextualized analyses of Scottsboro Limited, Harvest, Angelo Herndon Jones, and De Organizer cast a fresh light on Hughes’s socially responsible creativity.
Ferris, William. The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. This companion volume to his folkloric study Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (2009), The Storied South is an engaging compilation of his photographs of Southern writers, painters, scholars, photographers, and musicians along with transcripts of their speeches or brief conversations with Ferris. As we look forward to celebrating the 2015 Margaret Walker Centennial, it is useful to have in this book a conversation “drawn from a presentation Walker gave at Yale University in 1978 and an interview [ Ferris ] did at her home in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1982”(94). A slightly different version of the conversation was published as “Margaret Walker Alexander: ‘My Idol Was Langston Hughes’: The Poet, the Renaissance, and Their Enduring Influence.” Southern Cultures (Summer 2010): 53-71.
Harper, Hill. Letters to an Incarcerated Brother. New York: Gotham Books, 2013. The powerful theme of brotherly obligation that is central in A Lesson Before Dying (1993) by Ernest J. Gaines moves from mimetic representation to the actual use of literacy in Harper’s riveting, unapologically masculine chronicle of letters between a young inmate and himself. The book poses very tough questions about intervening in the life of an incarcerated stranger and confirms that intervention, however well-intentioned, is not the equivalent of “saving” anyone from the implacable viciousness of the American criminal justice system.
Hersch, Charles. Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Hersch’s good scholarship would have been even better if Freddi Williams Evans’s masterpiece Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans (Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2011) had been available when he was doing his research.
Hord, Fred Lee. Reconstructing Memory: Black Literary Criticism. Chicago: Third World Press, 1991.As a Lenten exercise, it is valuable to abstain from the excesses of post-whatever criticism and to minimize cultural amnesia by reading Hord’s grounded and penetrating essays that attempt to de-colonize the mind. Houston A. Baker, Jr. hits the target dead center in his foreword for Hord’s essays when he asserts: “Hord’s pedagogical model could not have arrived at a more auspicious moment. In an era of transnational, multi-media colonization of the Other’s mind, we desperately require voices such as Hord’s. His book comes to us now as a timely and necessary gift in a dangerous hour of forgetting (ii).”
Kiuchi, Toru and Yoshinobu Hakutani. Richard Wright: A Documented Chronology, 1908-1960. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. By providing an elaborate record of Richard Wright’s daily activities, this reference book supplements the information one can gather from several Wright biographies and from The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008). It is a fine resource for teachers and students who desire to be more than superficial in their examinations of Wright’s poetry, fiction and nonfiction. On the other hand, it provides a stimulating challenge for Wright scholars, Biographical studies and a large body of critical commentary have secured Richard Wright's status as a major twentieth-century American writer, but the documented chronology painstakingly compiled by Kiuchi and Hakutani challenges us to admit that much remains to be discovered about the growth and development of Wright's mind, about how his friendships and engagement of political concerns, and about the special relevance of his imagination as a catalyst for dealing with the unfolding of global histories.. For scholars who are dedicated to ongoing assessments of Wright, the book bids us to undertake refined investigations of his life and his published and unpublished works, seeking to match the sustained work that Eugene E. Miller did in Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright (1990). In short, fresh inquiry about Wright's day to day life promises to reveal a richer portrait of the man and his works. Kiuchi and Hakutani succeed in exposing the methodological difficulties of discovering the narrative arc constituted by a chronological arrangement of facts. As is the case with all writers, the facts of daily life as temporal items demand to be located in spatial contexts and literary, aesthetic, and ideological contexts. The book is an essential resource for generating questions that may reward us with a more holistic vision of why Wright's legacy is priceless.
McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird. New York: Riverhead Books, 2013. Swimming with expertly tuned humor and supersubltle racial critiques, McBride’s novel is an invitation to read serious historical narratives about John Brown and radical abolitionist efforts. After savoring the wittiness of The Good Lord Bird, it is redeeming to discover that Frederick Douglass believed “John Brown was therefore the logical result of slaveholding persecutions” and verified in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892) what McBride transformed into the fictional eyewitnessing of Henry Shackleford. Levity is one pathway into remembering the gravity of what must not be forgot.
Meredith, James with William Doyle. A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America. New York: Atria Books, 2012. With William Doyle serving as the help, Meredith has written an example of apocalyptic literature that rivals the strident jeremiahs of Old Testament prophets. One is reminded of the ancient proverb that those the gods would bless they first make mad. To better understand part of the life history that informs A Mission from God, read Aram Goudsouzian’s Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and The Meredith March Against Fear (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).
Norris, Keenan. Brother and the Dancer. Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2013. This first novel by a very talented scholar and writer introduces us to a fresh mindscape wherein two young African Americans who do not share the same class origins struggle to affirm the validity of their dreams. It is reassuring as we think about a future for black fiction that Norris seamlessly connects some of the gritty features of street literature with an informed understanding of hip hop psychology and the aesthetic dimensions which have distinguished African American narratives of being-in-this-world. Like Olympia Vernon, Jeffrey Renard Allen, Dedra Johnson, Attica Locke, James Cherry, and T. Geronimo Johnson, Norris provides proof that Kenneth Warren’s speculations about the death of African American fiction are prevarications of the first water.
Plumpp, Sterling D. Home/Bass. Chicago: Third World Press, 2013. Plumpp’s most recent collection of poems confirms that he is the best living blues poet in the United States, a master poet who continues to teach us why it is essential that we weld ethos (African American lore from the crying barrel) and craft in efforts to hear and understand what the sign/sounds of the world are trying to say to us..
Taulbert, Clifton L. The Invitation. Montgomery, AL; New South Books, 2014. Best known for his first book Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored (1989), Taulbert continues his serial autobiography in The Invitation. His story is dramatically atypical of the narratives we might expect African American males from Mississippi to tell. By challenging our expectations, Taulbert forces us to think about why some writers elect to spin tales regarding what ought to be while others decide to build spirit houses of what, to echo Etheridge Knight, “damn sure is.”
Vincent, Charles. Black Legislators in Louisiana During Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1976; Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011. It is good to have Vincent’s book back in print, because we do need to know the roles black women and men played in designing the post-bellum South.
Ward, Jesmyn. Men We Reaped: A Memoir. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. This book is brutally honest treatment of how systemic racism breeds a refusal to resist nihilism among young males and females in one section of the State of Mississippi. Placed against the overblown optimism of Clifton Taulbert’s The Invitation (2014) and the James Meredith’s dreadful jeremiad in A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America (2012), Ward’s memoir suggests that life histories in the State of Mississippi swing between the poles of dream-infused fairytale and abject tragedy. Given that Ward’s title is culled from a statement by Harriet Tubman that ends “and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped,” readers might become more attentive to how contemporary life is rooted in a history that repeatedly negates the value of the audacity of hope. 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, to give us a book that is exceptionally relevant for young adults in our contemporary State of Mississippi.
Wilderson, Frank B., III. Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile & Apartheid. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2008. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was on target in identifying Incognegro as “a gripping story of racial politics and a biography of his [Wilderson’s ] soul.” The book is a touchstone for deracinated autobiography.
Young, Kevin. Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Young’s seventh collection of poetry is a noteworthy experiment with American abolitionist history and African American memory. It reminds one of the opening words of Mississippi: The View from Tougaloo (1979) by Clarice Campbell and Oscar A. Rogers, Jr.: “In good biblical style one might say the Amistad begat the American Missionary Association, and the American Missionary Association begat Tougaloo College, and her five sister institutions: LeMoyne, Talladega, Straight, and Tillotson colleges and Fisk University.” It reminds one also that Hale Woodruff painted “The Amistad Murals” for Talladega’s Savery Library in 1939 and that the Amistad Research Center moved from Fisk University to Dillard University to Tulane University. Ardency places an accomplished revolt into the current need for resistance and positions us to ask what is accomplished in the revisionist historiography of Marcus Rediker’s The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (New York: Viking, 2012). The literary aspects of Ardency intersect with the structure of Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama and the collage features of Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage.” What works best in this collection are such individual persona poems as “Lawd’s Prayer,” an irony-drenched rewriting of Christian hypocrisy. Perhaps the key for unlocking Young’s poetics is The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Minneapolis: Greywolf, 2012), his reinvention of himself and other poets who interest him.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.