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Friday, May 30, 2014

Wright's THE LONG DREAM (play)


 




 

Sent: Monday, May 26, 2014 12:02 PM

Subject: The Long Dream (play)
Dear Colleagues,

Sitting at Cafe Tournon in 1995, I stared across the street at two fire-red gates. They may have been doors, but they looked like gates to me. "Aha," I thought as I sipped ordinary wine,"even in Paris, Wright could not escape hell."

Lack of income, intestinal problems, and surveillance by international agencies ensured that Wright's final two years would be hellish. Critics who proclaimed Wright was out of touch with racial progress in the United States added psychological hot pepper. Even at the remove of fifty plus years, one can empathize. Wright was not out of touch. He was too much in touch with what was diabolic in the Cold War. InThe Color Curtain he had sensed the world was in for a season of terrorism.

Having recently read Ketti Frings' adaptation of The Long Dream, I am beginning to understand nuances of Wright's plight. The 1964 revised script ofThe Long Dream: A New Play (D-207 135:9 in Special Collections, University of California, Davis) is a transmogrification of the novel, akin to the HBO castration of "Long Black Song." Why did Frings butcher what I assume to have been Wright's intentions by killing off the son Rex "Fishbelly" Tucker rather than the father Tyree Tucker as Wright had done? And why, as we can discover from Wright's correspondence with Frings, did Wright "like" her adaptation? Did he "like" her focus on the Gothic nature of interracial business arrangements in Mississippi? Why did Frings, who won a Pulitzer and the New York Drama Critics Award for her adaptation of Thomas Wolfe'sLook Homeward, Angel, transform Wright's novel into so dull a play that it lasted for only six performances? How out of touch was Frings with white language usage in black culture that the Chief of Police should refer to Fishbelly as an "uppity dinge"? "Dinge" is a contemptuous term for a black person from the 1850s not the 1950s. What was Frings' unwitting or knowing participation in the Cold War "torturing" of Wright?

Answering these questions requries work in the Wright papers at Yale, the Michel Fabre papers at Emory, and the Ketti Frings holdings at UC, Davis. It will be some time before I can do research in these archives. If any of you get to these places before I do, please let me know what you discover about the adaptation (and/or performance) of The Long Dream.

Best wishes for the summer,

Jerry

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

On Edward Snowden


Edward Snowden and Actuality Television

Fifteen minutes after the broadcast of the long-awaited “Inside the Mind of Edward Snowden,” the nicely photographed NBC interview with Brian Williams, we know little more about this brilliant man than we knew fifteen minutes before the program aired.  He speaks very good Standard American English. His presentation of self is disarmingly innocent.  In fact, he is so pristinely innocent that were he to be “disappeared” by aliens, the Roman Catholic Church would be obligated to give him sainthood immediately.  Edward Snowden is not one of us.

The bit of truth that Snowden communicated to Williams has to do with how the United States of American as a security state has held the United States Constitution hostage since 9/11 and how very powerful technology has destroyed belief that privacy can again become operative. Once destroyed, privacy is possible only in theory and fantasy. All world governments know that.  It is unpleasant to think about what world governments knew about our President and our military and our intelligence agencies prior to the advent of Snowden.  It is more disconcerting to think about what Snowden has enabled them to know as “fact,” because one is free to believe he only leaked an immense amount of encrypted NSA disinformation.  If that be true, our world has entered an advanced state of “science faction.” Damage is damage is damage.

 Snowden revealed little about his grandfather who allegedly worked for the FBI.  Given that the NBC program allowed us to guess whatever we wanted to guess, one might guess that the grandfather never told Snowden that the FBI and other surveillance agencies had a quite long history of spying on United States citizens at home and abroad. Thus, he had to discover the obscenity of reality by working not as a systems analyst but as a bona fide spy. It is easy to believe that Snowden does not have a family and the he would have great difficulty in producing a birth certificate. I believe Snowden did indeed lie about having destroyed information before he left Hong Kong for Russia.  One does not destroy information that is worth a trillion dollars in the blue market.

 In a very smart rhetorical gesture, Snowden asserted that he is still working for the United States, the country he loves passionately. I believe he did tell the truth about his current employment, although he failed to provide a job description. Had he been less “in love” with his country, Snowden would probably not have done the right thing wrongly or the wrong thing rightly.  He is as transparent as that marvelous novella by Henry James, “The Turn of the Screw.” And the television-viewing public has been royally corkscrewed. Do not blame Obama for that.  Blame the hidden and sinister powers that really control NBC and other forms of mass media.

It is not surprising that Snowden does not know whether he is guilty or blameless.  Were he merely an actor on reality TV, he would be able to explain his moral state, his ethics without engaging sophisticated trash talk.  But like Brian Williams, Snowden is trapped in actuality television, a research area that within less than a decade will become our most vital and viable non-academic discipline.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou


From Gravity Comes the Grief

 

There is a language in silence you must use in communing with the living, the dying, and the dead.  Time ordains that you deal with the gravity and brevity of manifest being.  Humility demands that you accept legacies from word spirits with grace and respect. Time appropriates words from Amiri Baraka’s 1987 eulogy for James Baldwin, forcing out of your mouth “the intelligence of our transcendence” and forbidding you to traffic with bad faith in “retelling old lies or making up new ones, or shaping yet another black life to fit the great white stomach which yet rules and tries to digest the world.” Time and Baraka ignore your reluctance to speak and the dread in your saying the world is not white but pale brown pink. You have no choice but to close your eyes, open your mind, and let your fingers play respect for Marguerite Annie Johnson (April 4, 1928 –May 28, 2014).  Baraka smiles at you wisely and says “I know your parents reared you to stay more in the tradition than that!”

Your mind back flips to an iconic photograph of two people dancing on a marker for Langston Hughes at the Schomburg Research Center.  That is your clue. Speak of Maya Angelou.  Toni Cade Bambara, Alvin Aubert, Lorenzo Thomas, Audre Lorde, Tom Dent, John Oliver and Grace Killens, Margaret Walker, Wanda Coleman, Albert Murray, Louis Reyes Rivera and others and others nod approval. They give you the gravity of words from which comes the grief and its resolution. The heart that does not belong to your body pumps words.

You walk in the rivers of glass from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy.”  You feel with Maya Angelou why the caged bird sings, why inevitably the bird flings its spirit into the limitless cosmos. You regret the myopia of the New York Times headline that begins “Lyrical Witness of the Jim Crow South…” Balderdash. There is a Jim Crow North, West, and East, a Jim Crow Earth.  Maya Angelou was the phenomenal woman she said she was.  Birth in St. Louis, Missouri and death in Winston-Salem, North Carolina did secure her temporal being, along with Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells, a woman of the South.  But Maya Angelou’s fluent command of languages and her extensive work as dancer, poet, actress, writer, filmmaker and director, civil and human rights activist, singer, conscience of the grace that ought to obtain in earthly life ---all of this made her more than a mere witness to universal lynchings and human wantonness. She had a more powerful vision. She was the authority and author what all of us are existentially obligated to witness, existentially destined to do.  As her friend and “brother” Eugene B. Redmond might put it, we must excavate a heavy lode and lesson ourselves in the lore she created.

At this moment, it is sufficient that you know Maya Angelou touched the world with her brave and radiant spirit.  Documentation of her life in biographies, bibliographies, critiques, memorials, and writings seasoned with womanist theorizing is matter for a later moment. At this moment, ours is the work of spiritual renewal and creativity.  Maya Angelou has gone, her “blood breath beating/ through the dark green places (Audre Lorde, “To Marie, in Flight”). Return to the language of silence and find peace in its embrace.

Jerry W Ward, Jr.     May 28, 2014                                 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Returning to Narrative


Returning to Narrative

 

Hidden neatly in the hyperbole of Thomas Sayers Ellis’ “All Their Stanzas Look Alike” (The Maverick Room. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2005. 114-115.) is a truth of sorts. There is a boring “sameness” in a substantial amount of contemporary “canonized” American poetry.  Perhaps the alleged excellence of how MFA programs teach the making of poetry is partially to blame. MFA is an acronym for an unprintable phrase.  In my scandalizing opinion, MFA programs promote craft as technical excellence and ego-interiority, minimizing the option of craft to speak with engaged boldness of the painful messiness of life and world affairs.  To be sure, aesthetics can evoke bright moments of pleasure or eargasms, even a bit of knowledge.  But the best poetry uses aesthetic properties to intensify the pragmatic, the always present need to deal with how people manufacture horrors for themselves and others. Jazz counts as some of our best poetry, and certainly John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor and other jazz people direct our minds to the “sound” science and physics of existing. Metaphysics for real. How refreshing it is to read John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) edited by Leonard L. Brown.  Abstain for a time from the sameness of poetry and look for practical and critical stimulation in the differentness of fictional and non-fictional narrative. Find alternative spaces where furious flowers bloom. We do not need to construct and deconstruct a bogus war between poetry and non-poetry, because in certain remarkable instances it is poetry and poetic equations that cut a pathway to narrative. Consider the importance of how poets Brenda Marie Osbey and HonoreĆ© Fanonne Jeffers excavate histories, of how Rudolph Lewis employs the poetics of orality to craft fiction.

Yes, we have many lines to straighten and many “lost” narratives to read. And now is the time for the Project on the History of Black Writing (PHBW) to resume its leadership in recovery work by way of the 2015 Margaret Walker Centennial; PHBW can increase awareness of a humanistic tradition implicit in how the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival (1973) was conceptualized and executed, in why Walker’s novel Jubilee initiated a call for rigorous examinations of histories. In one sector of American letters, Joyce Carol Oates has responded to Walker’s call in The Accursed (2013) and Larry McMurtry has done so in The Last Kind Words Saloon (2014). In another sector, Kiini Ibura Salaam,   James Cherry, Jesmyn Ward, Keenan Norris, and Anthony Grooms make answers in the tradition.  I am noticing a need, however,  to use the treasury represented by the PHBW novel database to say more about orality/orature and fiction from the Civil War/post-bellum period to the present. PHBW’s planned GEMS retrospective on John A. Williams can open up many issues about who gets taught in the academic world against who gets read by the non-academic public. Credit must be given to Ishmael Reed for suggesting some years ago that we pay tribute to John A. Williams by reinvesting effort in trying to understand the present relevance of Williams’ noteworthy but under-examined body of work. Let us not forget the importance of revisiting Reed’s own anthologies, novels and essays, his thoroughly multicultural conversation with America.

The reception of genres at any given period is central, of course, in recovery work, but so too is the matter of how themes can encourage or discourage discussion and examination in the public sphere. Kenton Rambsy’s work with short fiction for his dissertation is bringing some aspects of what I see as a major discursive problem in how we deal with literature to the foreground/ Mary Helen Washington’s  The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) and Keith Clark’s The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2013) ask us from very different angles to reexamine "social realism" or socially/politically engaged fiction in light of what happens in American life beyond "literature."

I find myself generating questions in my writing about how Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring might connect us with the preoccupation in mass media with the antics of Jay-Z and Beyonce, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Or how his The Blacker the Berry obligates us to deal with the color-blindness of people of no-color who have 20/20 vision of racial colors as they project their unacknowledged pathologies on the screen of the American mind. Narratives by Waters Edward Turpin, Sutton E. Griggs, Oscar Micheaux, Lorenzo Dow Blackson, and Albert Evander Coleman may occasion a fresh vision of what the world is or wants to be in 2014.

 As I see things, PHBW has maximized attention to poetry and some twentieth-century fiction writers through its NEH-sponsored institutes and larger projects. Now is the time for PHBW to do more with non-canonized fiction and non-fiction. It is only fitting that more be done with the holistic, politically astute vision Margaret Walker Alexander had in nurturing African American humanism.

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

May 24, 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Requiem for Credibility


Requiem for Credibility

 

Forgetting and remembering the fifty years between 1964 and 2014 is intimidating.  You listen to Eddie Harris’s “Cold Duck Time” (played with Les McCann) and doubt you can remember the day you took your first sip of Cold Duck and compared it to what. Now you remember you inhaled marijuana for the first time during your senior year in college, freaked out the night at Fort Knox when the combination of scotch, Valium, and pot enabled jazz to travel like a spider from one side of your brain to the other, and experienced the bliss of smoking grass in Viet Nam.

At your reunion with Tougaloo College Class of 1964, you remember the voices of your now dead fraternity brothers. You note how changed are the speech patterns and vocabularies of the women and men with whom you acquired an education in the ways of the world and in the necessity of civil rights struggles.  You remember the hypocrisy of hope in the United States of America, the profound pain of segregation, the assassination of a dream on April 4, 1968, and the rich hues of cynicism that have enhanced your career for forty-six years. Change is the quintessence of moiety.  Time obligates you to sing a requiem for credibility.

What credibility is there in your having forgot the murder of Kitty Genovese and the alleged thirty-eight witnesses who did not want to “get involved” or in acidic remembering that George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin? Winston Moseley, the damned killer of Genovese, is prisoner 64A0102 in New York. George Zimmerman, the damned killer of Martin, swims as freely as a twisted Florida shrimp in a thick Louisiana gumbo.  Credibility is quite defunct.  It orbits eternally in the astrophysics of misinformation, universal terrorism, and social networking.  Are your own words any longer credible? The pseudo-Islamic obscenity in Nigeria and the pseudo-Christian insanity everywhere else on a planet enthralled by capitalism makes language impotent. We are forever enslaved by something. What a cruel joke is the audacity of hope.

In 2014, your mind suffering in the iron maiden of remembering and forgetting, you cast your fate to the wind. You believe in the sanctity of the uncertain. You believe in the rightness of death, in the edgy promise of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Ellington’s “Come Sunday” in nine dimensions you have never known or will never know.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

May 21, 2014

Monday, May 19, 2014

Tougaloo College Class of 1964


Class of 1964 Statement

 

They enrolled as freshmen in 1960 at Tougaloo Southern Christian College.  In 1964, They graduated from Tougaloo College, slightly older and much wiser.  The Eagle Queen roused the eaglets from the nest, confident they could pass various tests in a hostile world.  She was right.  They could, and they did.  They were, after all, the Class of 1964.  In their innocent fantasies, they were the best Tougaloo students the College had ever had or would ever have.  It is fair to suspect that a half century later, a few of them still hold fast to the fantasy or the possible dream. And to paraphrase Charlene Smith Cole, Class of 1954    , wherever they went, whatever they did, they did not forget dear old Tougaloo.

From 1964 to 2014, we fulfilled the expectations Tougaloo College had for us.  We became productive citizens of the United State of America.  Some of us became famous in accordance with the world’s measure of fame.  Some of us became famous by accidents of history. All of us worked, because not one of us had inherited wealth worthy of mention.  We became doctors, writers, lawyers and judges, teachers, military officers, parents and grandparents,  valuable members of the various communities wherein we lived; we became administrators in commercial, industrial, and educational enterprises, and advocates for civil and human rights, demanding the justice that change never permits to become permanent in our society.  In short, all of us became the valuable adults Tougaloo College wanted us to be.

I am notorious for remembering all the wrong things at the right time.  Therefore, I yield the floor to my friend and fraternity brother John Sheridan Page, Jr.  Far better than I can, John remembers all the right things with just the right flavoring of humor.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Timely Intelligence Walks Into View


TIMELY INTELLIGENCE WALKS INTO VIEW

 

Washington, Mary Helen. The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Cloth.  347 pp.  ISBN 978-0-231-15270-9.

 

When you reach a certain age, you can tell a truth without fear.   It is a truth that I think highly of Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist in much the same way I think highly of Lawrence P. Jackson’s The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011). They complement one another. Both books address literary and cultural issues with scholarly and critical grace.  They are readable and enhanced by conversational style.  They minimize pretense. Were I teaching a graduate seminar on research, these books would be two of the printed texts.  They are that good. While both books are touchstones of effective writing and rhetorical eloquence, Washington’s book is especially good in its specificity about the aims, procedures, and probable outcomes of seeking a balance of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. It is a truth that I am prejudiced in favor of empiricism and common sense in literary and cultural studies; I have severe reservations about the excesses of the speculative and think intellectual fireworks are ultimately reductive.

Washington’s book has been many years in the making, but our waiting for its publication has not been in vain. By virtue of exacting documentation, she explores key issues in historiography and a researcher’s historicity.  This is a trait we find in the most useful examples of work in cultural studies.  She does not disguise her ideology with the Latinate illocutions best used in canonizing saints literary and otherwise. Clean prose satisfies her needs and ours. In the intellectual climate begot, in part, by fear of increased Federal domestic surveillance, revelations about the sacred secrets of Cold War politics, and confusion about the purposes of discourses in the Age of Information ---in that climate, what Washington has done is justifiable. She is forthright in announcing her research question in the Introduction: “ What happens if you put the black literary and cultural Left at the center of African American studies of the Cold War?” (13).

The most immediate answer is that you write The Other Blacklist.  You conduct interviews. You spend many hours doing archival work and reading empowering secondary works by Sterling Stuckey, Harold Cruse, Michael Denning, Trudier Harris, James Smethurst, Robin D. G. Kelley, Frances Stonor Saunders, and others. You abstain from the seductive pleasures of theory and endeavor to make persuasive connections and interpretations among life histories, hardcore pre- and post-Cold War politics, and the functions of criticism, aesthetics, and writing that desires to have the status of what counts as “literature” in the United States and other parts of the world. You agonize over the multitude of other questions your research question spawns. You avoid being tendentious.  As you explore the Cold War tropics of discourse, you succeed in writing a book that will appeal to your peers as well as to general readers who wish to know what is still being withheld from us about labor, literary inclusion and exclusion, practices of literacy and the endless quest for justice and freedom. Or, better yet, why many of us can feel that maximized national security policies have made us hostages without sanctuary.

 

One of the peculiar features of The Other Blacklist is how frequently Washington uses such phrases as “what I want to do,” “what I have tried to do,” “I trace,” “I chart,” “my intention is to show.”  These simple declarations of intention and desire have the cumulative effect of exposing Washington’s awareness that research findings are provisional not definitive.  From my vantage, her rhetorical strategies do not betray trepidation about her authority or depth of knowledge.  Rather they inspire greater confidence that she knows what she is discussing and why she is seeking to discover what many scholars, anthologists, and critics have chosen to ignore or denigrate. Respecting the limits of critical thought as one triumphs over those limits is the mark of the seasoned scholar. Washington seems to be determined that we understand concerns about labor and race, about work, led some African American writers and artists to embrace leftist ideologies or the Communist Party and that their choices of remaining in the leftist orbit or departing from it were complex not simple. One must turn to Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) and Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) for fuller explanations of those choices. In this matter of political choices they were not unlike their non-black comrades; they were very much unlike those comrades, however, in what they brought to the Left from their vernacular heritage of folklore, oral traditions and literature, and other forms of cultural expressiveness. In what she discusses about aesthetics and the Left, Washington is very clear in noting this fact.

 

Reading Bernard Bell’s comments in Chapter 6: “Myth, Legend, and Ritual in the Novel of the Fifties” of The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987) against those which Washington makes about Alice Childress,  Lloyd Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Frank London Brown directs attention to the making of knowledge.  Bell speaks of parallel movements in the novel: “a movement away from naturalism and nonracial themes, and a movement toward the rediscovery and revitalization of myth, legend, and ritual as appropriate sign systems for expressing the double-consciousness, socialized ambivalence, and double vision of the modern black experience” (189).  The deductive motion of Bell’s assertion takes us into the region of metahistory. Washington is inductive.  She works case by case, trusting particulars more than organic generalities, as she takes us into the heart of less traveled territories. Bell and Washington provide divergent insights about how traditional naturalism and realism got transformed into modernism.

In the chapters on Lloyd L. Brown and Frank London Brown, Washington makes the fullest display of her analytic and interpretive powers.  Her discussion of Lloyd Brown’s Iron City (1950) as a challenge to Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) is capital.  Her use of autobiographical details derived from F.O.I.A. materials on Frank London Brown to explicate his first novel Trumbull Park (1959) and to reconsider why its leftist aesthetics render it something greater that merely a civil rights novel is a model for understanding how “reality” is transformed into “fiction.”  The chapters on Gwendolyn Brooks and Alice Childress encourage our having more sustained engagement with their contributions to womanist literary discourse, just as the chapter on “spycraft” urges us to attend to role of surveillance in American literary politics. In short, The Other Blacklist makes a powerful case for our need to understand the Left and the 1950s as a prelude to the now emerging revisionist research on the Black Arts Movement and its aftermath.

 

 

 

Only after we have read the book in its totality –introduction, six chapters, epilogue, notes (which frequently prove as exciting as the main text), and works cited [where a few of us will note the absence of Freedomways 20.3 (Fourth Quarter 1980), a special issue on Charles White]—do we appreciate fully its didactic logic and how timely intelligence walks into view.  Washington has written a nuanced guide for future research and responsible scholarship.  The epilogue firmly expresses one contribution revisionist American literary history can make to clarify muddled thought about what it means to be an American who reads by choice or default.  Washington uses Julian Mayfield’s seldom read novel The Grand Parade (1961) and its final scene of the young girl Mildred in a newly “integrated” school to make a stringent critique of the left and suspect, racialized liberalism: “the black girl , studying and singing for legitimacy, has been assigned her role as the newly racialized and restigmatized integrated subject, now retooled for the modern integrationist narrative”(272). The integrationist narrative and its bastard post-racial narrative grandchild are defunct.  Lloyd L. Brown, Charles White, Alice Childress, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Frank London Brown, as Washington aptly concludes “critiqued the Left even as they believed in many of its goals.  In the end they were  artists on the Left on their own terms, experimenters and protestors in both their activism and their art” (273).  Future American literary histories of all colors ought to inform the public that little is to be gained from critiques of the always shifting Right, Center, and Left unless the dominant power of surveillance is recognized.  Washington has identified the possibility that all American writers are protest writers.  Indeed, those writers who might stridently protest that the case is otherwise, that only the marginalized protest, are the best protestors we shall ever know.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

May 11, 2014

Friday, May 9, 2014

Curiosity


CURIOSITY

 

Having inspected the gold-plated darts Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray threw at Richard Wright in their letters to one another, I let curiosity win the night when I picked up

Bennard, Emily, ed. Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten. New York: Random House, 2001.

Hughes is charming and tactful as he tutors the author and lover of Nigger Heaven about the dignity of black folk. Hughes is sensitive to the need to treat adults who suffer hyperactive curiosity with compassion.  Hughes sends them “two pale emerald frogs with onyx eyes” (186).

On June 15, 1938, Hughes informed Van Vechten that Wright was “in seclusion in Brooklyn and is hard to get at.  Working on a new novel….” (142)  A year later, Van Vechten photographed Wright on June 23, 1939.  In fall 1939, Hughes thanks Van Vechten “….for the picture.  Also the card of Dick Wright, which I think is excellent….” (150). On December 9, 1939, Hughes is asking Van Vechten “Did you hear that Richard Wright’s book is to be the Book-Of-The-Month for January?  I hope it is true. ( 161)  Bennard notes (162) that Arna Bontemps’s November 24, 1939 letter to Hughes indicated Native Son had been chosen. Van Vechten’s reply after December 9, 1939 reveals what it conceals: “I hadn’t heard about Wright’s book, but it is probably true as publication has been postponed” (163).

 Hughes had no reason to feel threatened by Wright’s success or to envy it.  Bennard notes that in his February 29, 1940 letter to Wright, Hughes proclaimed that Native Son “is a tremendous performance!” Still, Hughes did not wish for performance to be confused with reality. Speaking at the Chicago Public Library, April 28, 1940, he suggested the audience should know that “Bigger was not “representative of all blacks.  Five days earlier, he had signified to Van Vechten that “The South Side is a solid sender.  I keep looking for Bigger running over the roof tops.  See plenty of his brothers in the streets” (172).  Seventy years later, the real Biggers in America are a lighter shade of pale.

Hughes had a sharp eye for paradox, and Van Vechten had a sharp intuition for what might be destined. He wrote to Hughes on August 25, 1944 that Wright’s two-part article “I Tried to be a Communist” (August and September issues of Atlantic Monthly) was “obviously a part of the autobiography he is writing and if it is all like this it will be interesting to read” (230) Van Vechten also was capable of sending Hughes two onyx frogs with emerald eyes and pink mouths.  When the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) harassed Hughes and other artists, Van Vechten offered him cold comfort: March 9, 1948 –“Dear Langston, To mix metaphors the wages of writing controversially about politics is that you have to face the music.  It will be worse, you know, before it is better, and if there is a war I dare say they’ll pop you in a nice clean jail…Poor Langston!” (253). If the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) was actually free to provide information, we might know more than we do about what Van Vechten knew that Hughes did not know. More than Addison Gayle was able to tell us in Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son (1980). More than Arnold Rampersad disclosed in The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. II: 1941-1967.

Hughes was in California when the play Native Son opened in New York.  He wrote on April 5, 1941 “Wish I could see NATIVE SON and PAL JOEY.” to Van Vechten. Hughes did see Ketti Frings’s dramatic adaptation of Wright’s The Long Dream and wrote in his Chicago Defender column of March 3, 1960 that the adaptation could alarm. “Dear Lord! How long is the list of plays in which the Negro is defeated in the end! (308). What a fine implied question. What a solid reason to satisfy curiosity by “interrogating” The Long Dream: A New Play by Ketti Frings (Special Collections, University of California, Davis, D-207 135:9).

Like many of us, Hughes was not immune to gossip; his correspondence with Van Vechten is full of it.  Should curiosity limit itself to what Hughes wrote to Van Vechten, to how Van Vechten replied, we begin to commend Hughes for integrity.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

May 8, 2014

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Sherman Alexie


Sherman Alexie: Wicked Goodness of the Blues

 

If American rappers were disposed to deliver critical humor to the ears of the world, they would appropriate (steal) as much from Sherman Alexie as they do from James Brown.  They would give a reciprocal salute to Alexie’s “borrowing” of Robert Johnson, “Cross Roads Blues” and “Preaching Blues” to specify Africanist presence in our vernacular imaginations. In the novel Reservation Blues (1995), Alexie voiced the nexus of the gifts of black folk with Spokane/Coeur d’Alene lore, thereby teaching priceless lessons about multicultural humor. The Japanese manga artist Akira Hiramoto was equally multicultural in Me and the Devil Blues 1: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson (2008), and his book was soul-disturbingly successful if one puts actual history under erasure.  The transnational aesthetics of his gesture do not fit as nicely within the parameters of American experiences as do Alexie’s transcultural articulations.  Hiramoto’s textuality falls a bit short in negotiating the wicked goodness of the blues that is a touchstone in Alexie’s writing.

 Alexie recognizes that in contemporary American life dancing with the Devil is the first step toward eternal salvation.  He is not crippled by double or triple consciousness. He freely engages the African, the European, and the Asian. He maximizes certain possibilities of blues critique that emerges when the ethos behind the music is touched by indigenous common sense.  He redirects the streams that flow in the blues/jazz poetry of Sterling D. Plumpp.

We can laugh outside the barrel with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Flight, and Indian Killer, but we ought to attend as well to his short stories. In the collection War Dances (2009), for example, “Breaking and Entering” and “The Senator’s Son” demonstrate Alexie’s mastery of conceptualizing and rendering “story,” an art that surpasses the writing of competent fiction. His quest for precise language in “Breaking and Entering” makes for rewarding reading; in “The Senator’s Son,” he plays the racial “dozens” by defamiliarizing “motherf___” as “fatherf_____.” Thus, he translates a peculiar Africanist ritual into a political instrument. It might be argued that Alexis re (w) raps certain aspects of the vernacular and injects them into the literary body of the multicultural biotext. By laughing with skeletons, Alexie uses the wicked goodness of the blues to enhance moral dimensions of tragicomic discourses.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

May 6, 2014

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ramcat Reads #3


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