Ramcat Reads #4
Allen, Jeffery Renard. Song of the Shank: A Novel. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014. Like James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird (2013), Allen’s most recent book signals how innovations in the twenty-first century African American historical novel challenge the American penchant for the ahistorical. Judicious criticism of Allen’s novel depends in part on knowing the real life history of the musical genius Thomas Greene Wiggins (“Blind Tom”) and in part on struggling to know how M. M. Bakhtin’s ideas about the dialogic imagination and speech acts might be joined with Georg Lukacs’s thinking about the role of the historical novel in the production of consciousness. Let it suffice, for the moment, that Allen has offered us an exemplary model of what purposeful black writing can accomplish.
Ali, Shahrazad. The Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman. Philadelphia: Civilized Publications, 1989. Ali’s confessions of a woman’s low valuation of self was sternly critiqued in Confusion By Any Other Name: Essays Exploring the Negative Impact of The Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman (Chicago: Third World Press, 1990), edited by Haki R. Madhubuti. Anyone who wishes to analyze contemporary “reality television” and the progressive pathology of American mass media in general can acquire historical perspectives from reading or rereading these two books.
Boyd, Herb. Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin. New York: Atria Books, 2008. Boyd’s survey of Baldwin’s intellectual engagements with such figures as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Norman Mailer, and Harold Cruse is judiciously provocative.
Brown, Leonard L., ed. John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. This collection of thoughtful essays lends credibility to T. J. Anderson’s assertion that “all creative artists are cultural anthropologists, documenters and interpreters of culture” (vi) and to Coltrane’s informing Don DeMicheal in a letter of June 2, 1962: “We have absolutely no reason to worry about lack of positive and affirmative philosophy. It’s built in us. The phrasing, the sound of the music attest this fact” (17).
Cobb, Charles E., Jr. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. New York: Basic Books, 2014. An important contribution to revisionist history of the Civil Rights Movement.
Greene, Brian. The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Greene provides charming and readable explanations for non-scientists of theories regarding observations of how subatomic particles behave. The aesthetic results of his intellectual adventures, however, must be tempered by consideration of human judgment and its limits, by the corrective arguments necessary for critical thinking about the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Thus, reading David Faust’s The Limits of Scientific Reasoning (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) helps us to remember the “inherent limitations of scientific judgment.”
Jeffers, Trellie James. Up and Down the Greenwood. San Bernardino, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014. In this novella, Jeffers demonstrates that strong ideas derived from late 19th century nationalism can inform 21st century fiction.
Koritz, Amy and George J. Sanchez, eds. Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. Arts-based initiatives can simultaneously fail and succeed as they address issues generated by the processes of urbanization and gentrification.
Lewis, Peirce F. New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape. 2nd ed. Santa Fe, NM: Center for American Places, 2003. This book supplements Lawrence N. Powell’s The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). Read together, these books create a sobering perspective on how histories, the Mississippi River, and the social geography of New Orleans dovetail with racial tensions and encrusted mythologies which make the city a place of blissful abnormalities.
Ludwig, Samuel, ed. On the Aesthetic Legacy of Ishmael Reed. Huntington Beach, CA: Parade Books, 2013. The essays in this collection are provocative assessments of works by one of America’s most provocative intellectuals.
Thomas, Ebony E. and Shanesha R. F. Brooks-Tatum, eds. Reading African American Experiences in the Obama Era. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. These essays are rigorous critiques of metanarratives that shape social thinking and policy.
White, Jane Barber. Lessons Learned from a Poet’s Garden: The Restoration of the Historic Garden of Harlem Renaissance Poet Anne Spencer. Lynchburg, VA: Blackwell Press, 2011. Rich with poems written long after the Harlem Renaissance transitioned into social reality and extensive photographic documentation of Spencer’s family, house, and famous garden, this excellent book is required reading for anyone who wants to know who Anne Spencer (1882-1975) was as poet, civil rights activist, librarian, and gardener.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
July 14, 2014