Follow by Email

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Redemption of Cornel West


At the end of Black Prophetic Fire (Boston: Beacon, 2014), Cornel West plants a troubling seed. “The Black prophetic tradition,” he suggests, “has tried to redeem the soul of our fragile democratic experiment.  Is it redeemable” (165)?  Should you  be persuaded by the visceral wit of Charles Simic’s November 26 New York Review of Books blog “ A Thieves’(sic) Thanksgiving,” you hasten to say “No.” With tongue in cheek, Simic, a Serbian American and our fifteenth Poet Laureate, intimates that Wall Street crooks are admired by their peers, by politicians and presidents on the take, and by students in elite universities. 
These thieves are admired because they have transcended the rule of law.  Simic believes such mega-criminality might lead America to ruin or into becoming “a genuine police state…as the end result of that insatiable greed for profit that has already affected every aspect of American life.”  Simic misses the target, or maybe he never aimed for it.  It is not greed for profit but greed for power and hegemony that is enshrined in the founding documents of the United States that is killing America. The criminality is systemic.  When that recognition is juxtaposed with the question posed by Cornel West, it is clear that America has never had a soul to be redeemed. Puritan lies notwithstanding, God did not create the nation .  People who dared to think they were created in God’s image created the nation. A prophetic tradition will not redeem America, but the tradition can redeem Cornel West and a few other people.

Having had a fling with fame, West seems prepared in Black Prophetic Fire to journey home like a sensible prodigal son and to receive the blessings of his intellectual fathers ----David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and W. E. B. DuBois.  West seems to have renounced the antics of a populist and returned to speaking like the radical bourgeois thinker  he has been since the publication of The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989), which may be his most brilliant work.  Black Prophetic Fire is a provocative dialogue with Christa Buschendorf, who also edited the exchange. 
Unlike a traditional Socratic dialogue, this one is artfully innovative in its use of shared authority.  Buschendorf’s portions of conversation are as bracing as West’s masterful remarks.  The conversation is orchestrated to display West’s radical intelligence at its very best as he expounds with specificity about the minds and deeds of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells.  The flaw that merits trenchant critique, however, is his embracing the mythology that such an entity as Black America exists.  You, echoing the words of Cross Damon in The Outsider, must remind him that like the wind the myth men have gone; the real men, the last men envisioned by Margaret Walker in “For My People” have arrived.
 West, of course, has the last words about the prophetic tradition in the Age of Obama.  Despite his dwelling a bit too long in the garden of defunct Black American myth, he succeeds in redeeming himself. What he proclaims bravely will not sit well with the majority of his fellow Americans.  He shall be castigated, if not crucified, for breathing a truth. West preaches like a Baptist minister who is without sin to an Anglican congregation.  If you think of his language as poetry, you find he speaks more like Melvin B. Tolson than like Langston Hughes.  Indeed, you could devise a series of seminars by jotting down the names of theorists and artists who have shaped West’s intellect and then reading what these figures have written.  It would be especially important to read Anton Chekhov, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, DuBois, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Prophecy, as West clearly reminds us, is not about foretelling a future.  Its job is detecting the effective motions of cosmic evil and how those motions operate to destroy the moral elements of humanity. As has long been the case with Black prophetic tradition, what burns in Black Prophetic Fire “has a universal message for all human beings concerned about justice and freedom” (164).

West has the integrity to avoid selling impossible dreams.  He is fairly honest about how his beliefs and prejudices are grounded in religion and multiple ideologies.  In the context of the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 and the more dreadful tragedies that will be birthed in 2015 and thereafter, West’s prophecies regarding the Age of Obama are as chilling as Alpha Phi Alpha ice.  It would spoil your reading of the book to say more than that West has weighed the feathers and found the Obama presidency to be wanting.  And all of us in varying degrees can be redeemed by a very critical but very compassionate reading of Black Prophetic Fire.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

November 29, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Some Ends of an Endless Quest

Some Ends of an Endless Quest

Richard Wright (1908-1960), whom I have long championed as one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century, is to be valued more for the surgical qualities of his mind than for the lapidary qualities of his imagination.  My argument pivots on a belief that Wright asked better questions of the world he knew for fifty-two years than did many of his contemporaries and that the questions were better in the sense that they possessed, to use Wright’s phrasing from “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” a complex simplicity. The paradoxical wording alerts us to mankind’s endless quest to make sense of the absurdity which assumes palpable forms in our experiences of living. Wright was not always right in his analyses of literature, cultures, and political history.  Nevertheless, he was defiant, relentless in his critical judgments regarding systems of explanation and determined to be an independent thinker to the extent that use of language permits relative independence.  His quest was an epic quarrel with the limits of his world.  Examined closely, his unfinished questioning, quest to secure meaning or a facsimile of meaning, and quarrels with dystopian time and space serve as a model for how a few of us who work as scholars and teachers might justify what we do with language.  He is a mentor for those who give more than casual attention to their lives and the lives of others. Recognition of his intellectual value for his time and the present is a determining factor in my research projects, the choices I have made in writing against the academic grain, and the risks I have taken during more than four decades of teaching.
Unlike some of his better-known modernist contemporaries ---William Faulkner, Zora Neal Hurston, Eudora Welty, Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright overtly rejected some aspects of Western aesthetics while he covertly used other aspects to accomplish his didactic purposes.  It might be argued that some of his contemporaries used artful strategies to accommodate the dominant trends of modernism as they explored the imaginary geographies of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. That aesthetic trinity did not satisfy Wright’s penchant for exploring traces of nationalism in African American expressive cultures and locating himself in the dread-marked territories of pre-and post World War II global realignments. If the aesthetic trinity was yin, Wright invested his creative energies in the yang constituted by the Evil, the False, and the Ugly. By fashioning himself as one representative voice for all the peoples of the world who were the objects of injustice and inevitable wretchedness, Wright established a strong claim on living and writing as a world citizen who interrogated both the process and the narratives of human history and influenced thinking among diverse audiences. How Wright taught non-academic audiences to think with fierce independence is not alien in discourses focused on scholarship and transmitting knowledge. The Academy has no monopoly on the questions he encouraged people to ponder.   There may be some gradual recognition of that fact in the ongoing shifting of literary studies to cultural studies, a shifting that is sped up and altered by the emergence of new technologies as tools for investigating, discovering, and packaging information as knowledge. As we move toward possible futures, it is obvious that the good and the evil, the true and the false, and the beautiful and the ugly as aesthetic abstractions are not mutually exclusive but complementary. Wright’s works continue to be excellent guides for questing and questioning.
I.                    Region and Race
II.                Urban spaces –from lecture two
III.             International Concerns
The ends or purposes of my continuing quest to understand Wright’s life, the surgical qualities of his mind, and his works do to a great extent define and give meaning to my efforts to be a productive citizen of the world and of the United States of America. I send forth words. If people, especially students, listen to them and empower themselves through their own forms of resistance, that is good. Whatever the outcomes ultimately are, no one can honestly say that I did not try to be clear and open about my motives. The genuine pleasure I find in my work is asking questions of a world that replies with its own open-ended answers.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
October 30, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

black women writers and a chinese dissertation

Black Women Writers and a Chinese Dissertation

One of my Chinese students, a Ph.D. candidate, recently wrote a very good essay on the whip in Frederick Douglass’s  1845 narrative as an instrument of punishment.  She derived her ideas about punishment from Michel Foucault.  Over coffee at Starbucks, I suggest that her essay would have been “superior” rather than “very good” if she had, to use the cant of our profession, put Foucault in conversation with Douglass.  She might have considered whether Douglass’s specificity was better than Foucault’s generalizations about discipline and punishment.  Theory must be tamed by history.
The suggestion is an entry for our longer conversation about the dissertation she wishes to write on Dessa Rose, The Women of Brewster Place, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I ask why she chose those three books, why she chose Sherley Anne Williams, Gloria Naylor, and Maya Angelou.  What connects the texts beyond the fact that the authors are twentieth-century women writers?  What is her rationale for the selection?  Would texts by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston be equally acceptable?  She says the books have personal meaning for her.  That is not good enough.
She will have to write a strong dissertation proposal for a skeptical senior scholar.  African American literature is an emerging area of study in China. Many senior Chinese scholars harbor doubts about the academic merit of black writing.  They think writings by Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf are better than literature by Toni Cade Bambara and Alice Walker. Her proposal must have a solid theoretical basis.  It must include an argument about the value of her research, a thorough review of previous scholarship, a reference list, a research plan, a statement of her objectives, a listing of questions to be answered, a statement of methodology, a description of the contents of research, a feasibility analysis, and a statement regarding the unique features of the projected research. In short, the proposal must be a microcosm of the dissertation.  In China, the demands are stringent.  My student will have to climb a mountain.
“Find what links a powerful fiction about enslavement with fiction that concerns urban geography and the witnessing properties of autobiography,” I tell her.  I think she understands. To discover the links she must absorb many facts and features of African American women’s history.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.          November 15, 2014    Wuhan, China

Ishmael Reed and the Idea of Multiculturalism

Ishmael Reed and the Idea of Multiculturalism

We may agree that the concept of multiculturalism is concerned with one of several ways we have chosen to talk about how human beings live together.  The most basic meaning of “multiculturalism” refers to conditions of existence in a defined space (nation or territory) that is inhabited by people who have, and identify with, different cultural assumptions, beliefs and practices.  Our literary discussions of multiculturalism often borrow ideas from the discipline of anthropology, just as our literary theories borrow freely from the domain of philosophy. If we have been trained to study literature rather than the subject matter of various social sciences, we need to be cautious.  For American scholars, good critical thinking demands that we first examine de facto (actual, operative) conditions of the multicultural in tandem with de jure (abstract, legal) conditions. For all scholars, I believe it is prudent to identify the multicultural behaviors that obtain in our own countries before we produce ideas about the multicultural in “cross-cultural contexts.” We need to know the nature of local borders (both in the geographical and metaphorical sense) prior to embracing transcendent global perspectives.
The wording “cross-cultural” implies, for me at least, that the foreignness of culture A has been distinguished from the foreignness or strangeness of culture B.  If we are not in possession of such distinctions, we fail to notice that we can be foreign (strange, dissimilar, marginal) in our “home” cultures.  Recognition of that possibility is crucial.
We can easily fall into the trap of believing that our culture and its artifacts are superior to the culture and artifacts of the “other,” especially when “we” and “the other” share the same citizenship. Recognition of a problem that is at once cross-cultural and multicultural led to the publication in 1990 of Redefining American Literary History by the prestigious Modern Language Association. Those of us who produced that book found a theoretical model in the groundbreaking work of Ishmael Reed, even if we did not say as much at that time. I hasten to note that “theory,” as the word applies to Reed, does not refer to the kind of work done by Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, or Jacques Derrida.  It refers to the explanatory suppositions Reed as a non-academic writer uses in telling us what is multicultural and why we should absorb the idea of multiculturalism in our everyday lives. Our work was based on that kind of theory.  We did say that our redefining project eschewed “traditional, patriarchal thought about culture and literature” and sought “instead explanatory models that account for the multiple voices and experiences that constitute the literature and literary history of the United States”(4).
 Failure to minimize disciplinary prejudices tends to defeat our objective of acquiring new knowledge.  It would be a mistake, for example, to ignore the hidden dimensions of differences that have obtained historically in the evolving of American literature before making a dash to find the significant differences among a range of literatures written in some variety of English, in some variety of other languages.  In the case of American literature, we can gain insights about multiculturalism as a combative process from a brief review of what Ishmael Reed has been working at for almost half a century.
Among contemporary American writers, Ishmael Reed is the major “informal” or “non-academic” theorist and “pragmatic” proponent of late 20th –century and early 21st-century “literary” multiculturalism in the United States of America.  Since the early nineteenth century, America has embraced political myths of “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” to minimize recognition of its multiethnic and multicultural identity.  Reed has effectively challenged the validity of those myths by action that goes beyond “deconstructing.”  He has consistently “constructed,” by way of his provocative essays, anthologies, and fiction, a rationale to maximize acknowledgement of the interactive presence of multiculturalism in the literary and social evolution of America. 

My comments quite briefly address what might be designated Reed’s “combative conversation” with his nation.   Reed’s anthologies ---- 19 Necromancers From Now: An Anthology of Original American Writing For the 1970s (1970), Calafia: The California Poetry (1979), MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (1997), From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002 (2003), and Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience –Short Fiction from Then to Now (2009) -----provide subject matter as well as evidence for open-ended debate regarding theory and praxis of  “literary” multiculturalism in American and  global contexts. Reed’s introductions contain the theory; the works he selected for each anthology illustrate the praxis.

Reed opens a recent collection of writing, Going Too Far: Essays about America’s Nervous Breakdown, with two sentences that fundamentally establish his place in the history of black writing since the 1960s:
When they tell me “don’t go there” that’s my signal to navigate the forbidden topics of American life.  Just as the ex-slaves were able to challenge the prevailing attitudes about race in the United States after arriving in Canada, I am able to argue from Quebec against ordained opinion that paints the United States as a place where the old sins of racism have been vanquished and that those who insist that much work remains to be done are involved in “Old Fights,” as one of my young critics, John McWhorter, claims in articles in Commentary and The New Republic, where I am dismissed as an out of touch “fading anachronism.” (11)
Reed is not an anachronism.  He is a writer who provokes us into seeing what multiculturalism might be in the United States and why it is so often attacked
Reed’s evolving theory began with his assaults on restrictive monoculturalism associated with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. In his December 1969 introduction for 19 Necromancers From Now, Reed proclaimed
Perhaps at the roots of American art is a rivalry between the oppressor and the oppressed, with a secret understanding that the oppressor shall always prevail and make off with the prizes, no matter how inferior his art to that of his victims.  Art in America may even be related to sexual competition.  In the beginning was The Word and The Word is the domain of White patriarchy.  Beware.  Women and natives are not to tamper with The Word. (xix)
After much autobiographical testimony about America, Reed admitted that he “omitted White writers.” Having examined “the many exclusionary American anthologies that flood the market, I somehow feel that they will get by” (xxiii). With a slip of contradiction, he wrote “Indian People, Black People, White People, Chinese People, and Blue People unravel their experiences through its [the anthology’s] pages” (xxiv).  At this stage of theory-making, Reed was himself exclusionary.
He was feeling his way into multiculturalism.  By January 22, 1978, the date of his preface to Calafia: The California Poetry, he had arrived at a more mature idea of multiculturalism and how to represent it.  He provides a quite “breezy” historical account of California as “the home of the multi-cultures,” the physically and linguistically different indigenous peoples, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the blacks and, since the 1840s, Asian immigrants. To reflect all this mixing, tense state of difference, and cross-fertilization in poetry, Reed brought “together the poetry of different California cultures under one roof” without segregating “those cultures according to ‘race,’ ‘nation,’ or chronology. The erasing of categories makes it appear that poetry, in the words of Simon Ortiz, is “an all-inclusive singular event and idea throughout time” (xlii).  I suspect Ishmael Reed was imitating the nineteenth-century practice of authenticating slave narratives with letters and testimonials.  Thus, Calafia has “authenticating” introductions by Bob Callahan, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Simon Ortiz, Shawn Hsu Wong, Wakako Yamauchi, and Al Young.  Their words give multiethnic credibility to the multicultural enterprise.

Reed’s speculations about multiculturalism take an instructive turn in his introduction to MultiAmerica. He was dealing in this anthology with the essay, a genre that contrasts with either poetry or fiction. For Reed, collecting essays facilitated a turn from multicultural expression as “proofs” to multicultural expression as an array of “weapons” to deploy in battle with American mass media’s efforts to promote monocultural thought, even as it gave lukewarm recognition to cultural diversity or cultural difference. Reed was fighting the persistence of the binary (the black and white characterization of American society) and highlighting essays by writers of many ethnicities to put “race” in its place and offer the American public alternative articulations, newer diverging and converging perspectives on the drama of being American. Reed recognized multiculturalism is “safe” between the covers of a book but often dangerous and threatening outside the book. That is to say, literary representation does not force us to deal with the palpable elements of the multicultural.  The anthology was to some degree, Reed assured us, “an intellectual anti-trust action against the tyranny that communications oligopolies hold over public discussion”, an action conducted by writers “concerned about the future of the United State in which one ‘race’ or ethnic group is no longer dominant and where the pressures to assimilate are not as demanding as they were in a former time “(xxvii). Such multicultural battle still continues. It sponsors optimism and pessimism, or the branching of multicultural speculations that we find in Reed’s introductions for From Totems to Hip-Hop and Pow Wow.

The introductions to these recent multicultural experiments are less combative in tone, less devoted to speculation than to application. Their nuances call for very close reading. The shift is a warning about limits, about how radical discourses may get transformed over time into persuasive gestures and lose a bit of strident provocation.  From Totems to Hip Hop is constructed as a textbook of multicultural poetry. Reed gives much more attention in this anthology to consequences of teaching multicultural literature and to the status of universal themes in his October 23, 2002 introduction.  At the core of his Cinco de Mayo 2008 introduction to Pow Wow is a concession germane to thinking about cross-cultural contexts, because Reed asserts that
Deprived of or excluded from the normal channels of communication by media increasingly monopolized by a few companies, people from diverse background and from different time periods may have no other means but writing to engage in a cross-cultural or a cross-time dialogue with one another.  No other means to comment on the important issues both historical and current: war, slavery, race, anti-Semitism, gender, class, dysfunctional family life, and the like (xi).
A few pages later, he reiterates:
Excluded from media power, American Indian, Hispanic, Asian American, and African American writers often use fiction to tell their side of the American story and to explore the fault lines that separate groups from one another. In the media it is left to outsiders to define members of ethnic groups, often with disastrous results like Birth of a Nation and the television series The Wire (xiii).
I sense that Reed has given us an important lesson about power in his introductions, that he warns us to exercise caution in how we go about engaging “multiculturalism” as conditions of existence in a defined space (nation or territory) that is inhabited by people who have, and identify with, different cultural assumptions, beliefs and practices.  Scholars are neither exactly “outside” that space nor immune to its unpredictable conditions.


Reed, Ishmael, ed. Calafia: The California Poetry. Berkeley, CA: Y’Bird Books, 1979. Print.
____________. From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003. Print.
___________., Going Too Far: Essays about America’s Nervous Breakdown Montreal: Baraka Books 2012. Print.
___________. MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace. New York: Viking Penguin, 1997. Print.

___________. 19 Necromancers From Now: An Anthology of Original American Writing For the 1970s. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1970. Print.

___________, ed. with Carla Blank.  Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience ---Short Fiction from Then to Now. Philadelphia: DaCapo Press, 2009. Print.
Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., eds. Redefining American Literary History. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990. Print.