Ramcat Reads #3
Baldwin, James. Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems. Boston: Beacon, 2014. Graced by Nikky Finny’s poignant introduction, this reissue of Jimmy’s Blues (1983) along with six previously hard to find poems may bring overdue attention to the genuine poetry that informed the total body of his writing.
Bell, Bernard W. Bearing Witness to African American Literature: Validating and Valorizing Its Authority, Authenticity, and Agency. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012. By compiling twenty-three of his lectures and essays from 1968 to 2008, Bell gives us a record of his contributions to scholarship and criticism. This book is reminiscent of Blyden Jackson’s The Waiting Years: Essays on American Negro Literature (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1976). Special notice should be given to Bell’s introduction wherein he “seeks to offer a useful personal model of rites of passage …for assessing the authenticity, authority, and agency of a revisionist African Americentric critic and text” (20). Other models of rites of passage might be found in the multiple critical contributions of Amiri Baraka, Trudier Harris, Houston A. Baker, Jr., Joyce Ann Joyce, Hortense Spillers, bell hooks, Ron Baxter Miller, and Thadious Davis. Like these important thinkers, Bell is quite conscious of being in a tradition of radical affirmation regarding the uses of literacy and literature in the United States.
Clark, Keith. The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2013.Clark is widely respected as an expert on matters of masculinity, sexuality, and gender. His sensitive study of Ann Petry’s poetics is an expansion of his critical imagination, and it supplements the pioneering work of Hazel Arnett Ervin in Ann Petry: A Bio-Bibliography (1993). Clark makes an on-time and very readable intervention in the study of American social realism.
Cole, Teju. Open City. New York: Random House, 2011. Cole’s first novel is an example of the growing interest in destroying the thin line between pure fiction and autobiographical witnessing. Less emotionally challenging than Carl Hancock Rux’s Asphalt and less wickedly funny than the novels of Colson Whitehead, Open City is an attractive experiment in how an ego can walk in global urban spaces in an effort to make sense of African, American and European structures of experience. The novel invites us to rethink the nature of continuity and change in African American writing. Ultimately, we must answer a quite dreadful question: Does literature as literature lead us into a tunnel of no return?
Derricotte, Toi and Cornelius Eady, eds. Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006. Without doubt, Cave Canem has nurtured many very good poets and has modified discourses about modern and contemporary poetics. The claim, however, that Gathering Ground “assembles in one place the most innovative voices in contemporary African American poetry” is hyperbolic. Many of the most innovative African American poets do not have their works represented in this collection.
Dungy, Camille T., ed. Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Dungy’s anthology makes a very strong case for the powerful centrality of ecological poetics in the long tradition of black poetry.
Jahannes, Ja A. The Prayer Stone. Savannah, GA: TMP Publishing, 2014. From Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Margaret Walker until the present, it is not uncommon for our poets to write novels which are informed by the uncanny insights of poetry. Ja A. Jahannes has joined that distinguished company with The Prayer Stone. Like some of Octavia Butler’s fictions, this novel explores the seldom used power of the mind to negotiate between the material and the spiritual. Jahannes emancipates the mythos of Southern fiction in order to enthrall and tantalize readers with multicultural permutations. As a twenty-first century novel, The Prayer Stone challenges us to meditate on the hidden dimensions of our being-in-this-world. Reading this novel is a transformative experience.
In TruthFeasting (Savannah, GA: TMP Publishing, 2012), Jahannes collected some of his best culture-bound, truth-telling poems, but his most remarkable contribution to the study of black writing is WordSong Poets: A Memoir Anthology (Savannah, GA: TMP Publishing, 2011). The anthology creates a space for considering fortuity in the unfolding of diasporic poetry. Combining a sensitive, creatively-angled memoir with illustrative poems, Jahannes pays a special tribute to his fellow-poets, who were all alumni of historically black Lincoln University (PA), as a source for acquiring and using literacy to affirm humanity and triumph over the negativity of our always hostile world. Reminiscent of Eugene B. Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry (1976), WordSong Poets bids us to meditate with Jahannes on an oral/print/aural lineage extending from the cultural articulations of Langston Hughes to the cultural recuperations of Gil Scott-Herron. Thus, Jahannes make a noteworthy contribution to our ongoing study of the efferent, aesthetic, and social aspects of poetry as an act of human necessity. He directs attention to the poetic kinship of Hughes, Larry Neal, Keorapetse William Kgositsile, Everett Hoagland, himself, Ron Welburn, and Scott-Heron. His specialized work in literary history reminds us that we should have an anthology of writers who are alumni of Howard University.
Johnson, Nicholas. Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2014. The entitlement of African Americans to defend their lives and property must be weighed against the radical extremes of the National Rifle Association which threaten to transform the United States, under misinterpretation of the Second Amendment, into a right-to-kill-without-penalty society. Johnson’s book urges us to remember the heroic assertion of Robert Williams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP chapter, in exercising the right to self-defense in the late 1950s and the equally heroic posture of Mississippi’s Hartman Turnbow in bearing arms during the deadly years of the Civil Rights Movement. This timely review of the long tradition of black folks’ bearing arms, however, must be read against our contemporary history of irresponsible use of guns in America, especially in light of increased assaults on unarmed African American citizens.
Leak, Jeffrey B. Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014.
He was brilliant. He was troubled. He was dead at the age of 34. Like many males of his class and generation, he was a death-bound-subject, a player in the game regulated by the racial contract of the United States of America. “While he certainly should be understood in the context of the cultural and political movements of the 1960s –Black Arts, Black Power, and Civil Rights---,” according to the in-house promotional statement from the University of Georgia Press,” his writing, and ultimately his life, were filled with ambiguities and contradictions” (University of Georgia Press Spring/Summer 2014 catalogue, 6). The 1960s, a transformative decade in our history, was also pregnant with other movements not begat by black Americans, and that fact is unavoidable in constructing a biography of Henry Dumas (1934-1968).
In “Confessions of a Burned-Out Biographer” (The Seductions of Biography. Ed. Mary Rhiel and David Suchoff. New York: Routledge, 1996), Phyllis Rose reminds us that “the school of literary biography, whether or not the subject is a literary figure, tends to see all facts as artifacts and to see context and argument as co-partners of fact” (131). The public, Rose claims, prefers “objective biography” to the artistry of literary biography. Jeffrey B. Leak seems to have embraced the alleged preferences of the public sphere in writing Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas.
Leak’s signifying on the title of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece in his own title is a signal, a red flag: subject the biography of Henry Dumas to very critical “close reading.” Doing so yields a discovery. When a literary figure is encased in “object biography,” the subject becomes overwhelmingly visible, but the sterling values of the subject’s contributions to the republic of American letters become muted or downright invisible.
My response to Leak’s Visible Man is ambivalent. I am sensitive to Leak’s frustration that many crucial documents of fact are beyond recovery at present or were destroyed. I respect his fidelity to academic rigor and constraints of objectivity. I am critical of an effort he did not make in writing the biography. Unlike Margaret Walker who dared to take risks in her biography of Richard Wright, Leak hesitates to explore the genuinely literary expression of Dumas’s daemonic genius. The creative torment which manifested itself in his “giving the Black Experience a core and a basic set of symbols/myths that connect it to the original labyrinth of African thought,” as Eugene B. Redmond, Dumas’s literary executive, argued in introductory remarks for Rope of Wind and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 1979) is the location of Dumas’s primal value for contemporary readers. If one substitutes “black experiences” for “the Black Experience,” the value rises. So too does the necessity of enfolding substantive literary analysis with quantitative contextual analysis of life history. Leak does use references to literary works to buttress and illustrate key points about the life journey. He does not bring into full view the aesthetic features of Dumas’s poetry and prose that could validate our claiming (or seeing why) Dumas was one of America’s most extraordinarily gifted writers and thinkers, a fit companion for such troubled geniuses as John Coltrane, Bob Kaufman, Amiri Baraka, and Cecil Taylor.
How can one bid a new generation of readers to rediscover Henry Dumas without weaving literary analysis of his works, of his uncanny innovations and imagination, with the chronological threads of his life? Especially if one likens Dumas to Countee Cullen and frames his life and art in the ambience of mystery. Despite the praise in blurbs from Keith Gilyard and Yusef Komunyakaa, Visible Man is troubling in this regard. Leak’s treatment of Dumas’s marriage and extra-marital adventures ----artifacts begging for integration with the facts of art ----is problematic. What leaks from the book is a subjective correlative with the portrayal of Cross Damon and Eva Blount in The Outsider. This draws attention to one of the qualified witnesses for Dumas, namely the equally gifted poet Jay Wright. Wright’s 1969 introduction for Poetry for My People (retitled Play Ebony, Play Ivory for the Random House edition) is evidence of his unique insights about Dumas’s poetics. Wright exercised ethical prudence in not giving Leak an extensive interview about Dumas. His silence in 2014 must be accounted an act of integrity and love, one that is rare in a time that has zero tolerance for privacy.
To be sure, we must respect Leak’s scholarship in reaching into an ark of bones and bringing forth a skeleton upon which one can paste fragments of skin. It would be ungenerous to minimize Leak’s achievement. Nevertheless, literary history demands a supplemental study of Dumas’s art. Leak concludes that “in a sense, the mainstream literary world is finally catching up with this most visible man” (166). The statement is premature. Imprisoned by its habits of benign neglect, the so-called American mainstream will only botch the job of catching up. On the contrary, it is a critical consciousness of world literature that must reclaim Henry Dumas and pay appropriate tribute.
Ludwig, Samuel, ed. On the Aesthetic Legacy of Ishmael Reed: Contemporary Reassessments. Huntington Beach, CA: World Parade Books, 2013. The fourteen critical essays in this work demonstrate why, according to Ludwig, some young European and American literary scholars esteem Reed as “a very special kind of grey-haired sage.” This is reassuring. In the past decade, few critics have been brave enough to confess that they have respect for Reed’s controversial views on contemporary life. Reed is a major dissenting voice in the republic of American letters, a stalwart champion of unfettered multiculturalism, an intellectual who is appropriately combative in the negative Eden where mass media bombards the public with bogus and dangerously deceptive “multiculturalisms.”
O’Dell, Jack. Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O’Dell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. In the frantic rush to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of events within the frame of the Civil Rights Movement (especially Mississippi’s Freedom Summer 1964), it is easy to refuse to remember Jack O’Dell’s roles in civil and human rights struggles on the larger stage of international actions against racism and multiple forms of oppression and exploitation. It is easy to forget what he understood about labor. Reading O’Dell’s pointed writings can help to revitalize the authentic functions of African American remembering. O’Dell helps us to remember that the capitalism we tend to embrace without question is indeed “a parasitic variety that lacks social substance, operationally thrives on satisfying short-term greed, and has no public conscience” (292). O’Dell reminds us that if our celebration of change minimizes trenchant critiques, we have only ourselves to blame for the continuing and overwhelming success of benign genocide.
Peterson, Carla L. Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Some African Americans are reluctant to talk about the facts of intraracial class divisions, but Peterson’s exacting research on the history of her family challenges the ideological posture of silence for all the right reasons. The black elite of the nineteenth century shared with blues people the unconstitutional denial of full citizenship in the United States that was perpetuated by American law and social custom, and their primary mode of fighting for inclusion was predicated on “emphasis on education, a Protestant ethic of hard work, and strict adherence to a code of respectability”(7). Despite the fact that law and social practices changed in the 20th and 21st centuries, the systemic features of exclusion prevail, Obama’s two elections notwithstanding. Peterson’s detective work and use of private and public documents is a praiseworthy instance of what might be termed “autobiographical collective biography,” and as such, Black Gotham establishes warrants for black non-elites and elites alike to assume responsibility for telling their divergent, class-marked histories inside the fishbowl of discriminating American history.
Pfister, Arthur. My Name Is New Orleans: 40 Years of Poetry and Other Jazz. Donaldsonville, LA: Margaret Media, Inc., 2009. When Broadside Press issued Pfister’s first collection Beer Cans Bullets Things & Pieces (1972), Imamu Amiri Baraka wrote the introduction. He noted that “Pfister is better heard than read, tho to read him is to get turned on by the surface of the live rhythms leaving” (5). Pfister elaborates Baraka’s cryptic praise by re-inventing Marcus B. Christian’s I Am New Orleans & Other Poems (New Orleans: Xavier Review Press, 1994) and publishing a second collection that must be heard first in order to begin grasping how frenetic poetic energy finds its text in exceptionally challenging typography. As one of our earliest spoken word jazz poets, Pfister demands that we listen to his work with the attentiveness we accord the music of Cecil Taylor and read it by using procedures the critic Tony Bolden suggests ought to be used in dealing with orature that is predicated “on communal and egalitarian precepts always already inscribed in the ritualistic template of Afrocentric funk” (The Funk Era and Beyond 229). Pfister’s work has the swagger which establishes remarkable distance from assumptions of modernist decorum explicit in Christian’s poetry, although both he and Christian evoke aesthetic transactions that are firmly rooted in the cultural historicity of New Orleans.
Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974; revised edition 1981. Rodney’s groundbreaking study of how colonialism and neo-colonialism have produced extremes of turmoil and inequality on the continent of Africa enables a rigorous critique of Thomas Piketty’s widely acclaimed Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century (2014).
Rodriguez, Richard. Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. New York: Viking, 2013.
As a writerly act of defiance and discovery, Rodriguez published Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez in 1982. In the contexts of stereotyped machismo and socially imagined American desire, the book was a triumph of ethnic spirit. It exploited the seductiveness of American literary history. The main title was a slantwise echo of Richard Wright’s American Hunger; his subtitle, an appropriation of The Education of Henry Adams. It reiterated the indeterminate properties of autobiography as a genre as well as the articulation of ethnicity. One could read the book as a post-modern signifying on Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, if one deemed both autobiographies to be success stories. An uncommon reader might contrast Hunger of Memory with Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings (1984) to ponder gender, ethnic and class differences in American writing. One imagines Rodriguez took a tip from Wright in meditating on alienation, especially in distancing himself from the assumptions of Mexican American Catholic decorum and from parents who were “always mindful of the line separating public from private life.” Rodriguez wanted a consumed cake to remain intact. There was daring in his belief that he could “scorn those who attempt to create an experience of intimacy in public” while he willed himself “to think there is a place for the deeply personal in public life.” Such ambivalence comes with a price tag. It puts its thumb on the psychological sundering associated with fictions of double or triple consciousness. Like a brutal collection agency, it demands a reckoning from the autobiographer ----“Pay up or else….”Thirty-one years after his noteworthy success with Hunger, Rodriguez pays up with accumulated interest in Darling. He commits unclad intimacy in public. His scorn boomerangs, knocking him into a pool with Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Not having read Brown and Days of Obligation, the books he wrote after his secular autobiography, I only guess that Rodriguez experienced a crisis of Catholicism. Darling suggests that he found himself standing on sand, attempting to learn desert religion and getting no response from Allah, Yahweh, and God. The Semitic trinity mocks him by abandoning him. Such justice is the reward for those who are not acquainted with Egyptian monotheism or the “Great Hymn to the One God Aten Unfortunately, Rodriguez’s concept of the spiritual is too manipulative and commercial, too camp and crass, and too theatrical to inspire conversion and enlightenment. In that sense, Darling is a brilliant exposition of how, with the singular exception of James Baldwin, Americans understand little about spirit and soul.
Saloy, Mona Lisa. Second Line Home. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2014. Saloy’s collection Red Beans and Ricely Yours was chosen by Ishmael Reed to receive the 2005 T. S. Eliot Prize. Evoking a New Orleans ritual of loss and reconciliation, the poems in Second Line Home are decidedly rhythmic utterances about knowing what it means to be in the Crescent City. It is worthwhile to contrast Saloy’s poetry with that of Sybil Kein in Gumbo People (New Orleans: Margaret Media, Inc., 1999) to grasp the diverging paths of Creole cultures in Louisiana.
Scott, Nathan A., Jr. Visions of Presence in Modern American Poetry. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. One of the most brilliant thinkers of his generation, Scott devoted much of his work to studies of the moral dimensions of existentialism, American Establishment and European writers, and problems of theological signification in poetry and fiction. Perhaps at some point in this century, critics will again recognize the enduring value of Scott’s thinking and use it to produce fresh discussions of African American literature.
Washington, Mary Helen. The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. An excellent model of necessary scholarship, this book offers stimulating perspectives on the works of Julian Mayfield, Charles White, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lloyd L. Brown, Alice Childress, and Frank London Brown. A superb and principled scholar, Washington provides a reassuring alternative to excessive genuflections before the altars of the canonized, the critical rituals that hinder genuine progress in the construction of literary and cultural histories. Washington has made a noteworthy contribution to the profession and the growth of knowledge.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. May 4, 2014