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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tribute to Alvin Aubert

On March 12, 2015 the Xavier University Library, the Program in African American & Diaspora Studies and the
Louisiana Creole Research Association will sponsor in the Xavier library, third floor, from 6:00-8:00 pm a program
featuring the archival holding of the Alvin Aubert Papers.  In 1997 Professor Aubert donated to Xavier his personal papers,
the papers of Obsidian--the journal which he founded, and 2,500 books in African American & Diaspora Studies
from his private library.  The presenters will be Mr. Irwin Lachoff, Dr. Ronald Dorris and Dr. Jerry Ward.  The
public is invited to attend.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Richard Wright and Margaret Walker

Genius and Daemonic Genius: Crafting a Biography of Richard Wright

Crafting a biography of Richard Wright places special demands on a biographer.  Wright was a genius, a man who embodied profound intelligence and creative vision, but Mississippi in the early twentieth century wasn’t the place for nurturing his kind of genius.  Gertrude Stein seems to have appreciated the irony that blooms when a native daughter and a native son share the status of exile.  There was something surpassing mere hyperbole when, after reading Black Boy, Stein wrote to Wright:  “Dear Richard, It is obvious that you and I are the only two geniuses of this era.” (Constance Webb, Richard Wright 248) Stein’s words constitute a sophisticated joke, because genius manifests itself in many forms which cannot be reduced to comedy (Stein’s maximum playfulness) and tragedy (Wright’s maximum seriousness).  Margaret Walker, the native daughter who did not choose exile, anatomized the facets of genius  in how she wrote about the dreams she and Wright dared to come true.
All of Wright’s major biographers -- Constance Webb, Michel Fabre, Addison Gayle, Margaret Walker, and Hazel Rowley  --have had to deal with his genius, with what his writings published and unpublished suggest can be said about the evolving of his innate brilliance and consciousness.  Herself a genius, Walker brought first-hand experience and knowledge of language, psychology, and environments to the job of crafting Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, A Critical Look at His Work (New York: Warner, 1988). The keywords in the title of the biography are not arbitrary.
There are as many ways of writing biography as there are lives to be written about.  The approach Margaret Walker used in her critical study opened Wright’s life, work, and ideas for reflection and reconsideration.  To the extent that writing is an act of opening and discovering, Walker also opened herself.  Some of Richard Wright’s most orthodox critics are unnerved by Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius.  They are ill-equipped to grasp or decidedly hostile to the symbiosis Walker made of biographical portrait and autobiographical confession.  Even in today’s world where everything and anything is permitted, some people cannot endure the awesome fire of genius that smolders in the biography that Walker built. To play a riff on one of the most enigmatic sentences in Native Son ---“What I killed for I am.”, one might say that what Walker wrote for she was. We shall return to this point shortly in a brief remark about the awesome qualities of daemonic genius.
Walker was aware, as she told us in the biography’s preface, that Wright’s “intellectual development and his Weltanschauung, or worldview, place him in the forefront of twentieth-century life and culture….”  The biography sought to break ground in this area.  Walker was also aware that Wright’s primary conception of the world began in Mississippi.  It is difficult to understand Richard Wright unless one understands the crucial role of his earliest environment in shaping his life and his thinking about the function of writing in the world.  The primal role of the South is implicit in Walker’s assertion that the threefold purpose of the biography is “to define Richard Wright, to analyze and assess his work, and to show the correlation between the man and his work.”  “Wright is too important,” she added, “to be lost in the confusion of race and politics and racist literary history and criticism so evident in the twentieth century.”  Walker subjected herself to the stern discipline of making an innovative critical biography.  Such a book has to be devastatingly honest about the psychology of the subject and all the forces that went into making the subject who he was, including the force of his own creations.  Although historically determined gender differences must be accounted for, what was true about Wright as the subject was true about Walker as the biographer.
Walker blended artistry and relevant data into a very readable book.  The biography is the kind of text in which one genius portrays another genius by using creative scholarship.  When one reads Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius from dedication and epigram all the way through to Walker’s keynote speech for the International Symposium on Richard Wright (University of Mississippi, November 22, 1985), one more deeply appreciates how “the real significance of Richard Wright is in the world of his ideas placed in the context of his times, and his human condition” ( Daemonic Genius 404).
Walker divided Wright’s life span into five phases: the Southern years (1908-1927); the Chicago years (1927-1937); the New York years (1937-1947), the Paris years (1947-1957), and the final years (1957-1960).  In accounting for what Wright thought, felt, suffered, and wrote about during those fifty-two years, Walker provided a quite challenging discussion of the essentials in what Michel Fabre called Wright’s  “unfinished quest.”  The quest was necessitated by Wright’s compulsive intelligence and his anger in the face of the world’s absurd injustices.  As Walker brought her own brand of psychoanalysis to the task of writing, she explored Wright’s psychosexual spectrum and unmasked, in a small degree, her own psychosexuality.  She imitated in biography what a physicist would do in making a spectrographic analysis; she exposed the quality and quantity of parts. If the portrait of Wright that emerges from the biography is not pretty, it is at least a genuine depiction of what Walker saw of Wright’s life in her own mind.
Walker’s study of Wright rests on an elaborate premise about what is to be accounted for in biography. The beginning is Wright’s suffering “the psychic wound of racism, that irrational world of race prejudice and class bigotry, of religious fanaticism and sexual confusion, inversion and revulsion….This neurotic anger and fear grew in Wright from a pit to a peak of rage, but it was part of his unconscious, which he could never understand though he constantly sought to express it.  Out of these two angers a daemonic genius of great creative strength and power was born, his tremendous creative drive to write and to express himself, his daemonic demi-urges, his deepest and most suffering self”(Daemonic Genius 43-44).
Like earlier studies of Wright, Walker’s biography drew attention to his anger, ambivalence, and alienation, to his complex personality. She provided grounds , which are still powerful, for continuing inquiry  about his aesthetics, his relationship to Marxism, Pan-Africanism, and existential philosophy; for continuing inquiry about Wright’s ability to synthesize the great ideas of the twentieth century in his writing and to have an uncanny vision of what human beings are giving birth to in the twenty-first century.  Daemonic Genius is truly a foundational work.
Walker had a special advantage over other Wright scholars.  She was one of his contemporaries and knew him during some of his most formative years.  Second, she grew up in the South and knew from experience the impact of its sociopolitical climate on the sensitive intelligence of the artist.  She wrote about Wright with incontrovertible authority, and her writing was fueled by her own daemonic genius.
Walker did provide a clear blueprint for the crafting of Wright’s biography in her keynote address for the 1985 International Wright Symposium, but in a 1982 interview with Claudia Tate, Walker made some decidedly Margaret Walker statements about genius.  These are exceptionally important, because Tate caught Walker in unguarded moments.
Walker got some ideas about Wright’s anger from Allison Davis in 1971 as he
 “talked about the neurotic anger that Wright could neither understand nor control.  He said nobody can tell what the wellsprings of any man’s creativity are.  You can only guess.  The more I thought about it, being a creative person myself, the more I understood.  That’s why I selected the title, The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright.  There are different kinds of geniuses: demonic, intuitive, brooding, and orphic.  Perhaps Faulkner had all four.  Wright was definitely demonic.  It’s more than an idea of devils. It’s the idea of creativity coming out of anger, madness, out of frustration, rage. Creativity comes out of the madness that borders on lunacy and genius” (Conversations with Margaret Walker 65)
Earlier in this interview, Walker said something that psychoanalysis would allow us to connect with a seven page, single-spaced letter she wrote to Richard Wright on Wednesday, June 7, 1939 (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale, JWJ MSS 3, Box 107, Folder 1667). Walker said to Tate in 1982:
“I felt Wright wanted me to write his biography because nobody is going to be more sympathetic and understanding than I. I was in love with him, and he knew it.  He could not marry me.  I was not what he could marry.  That’s the whole truth of that.  You can’t say he didn’t love me: I know he did.” (Conversations 62).
In 1939, Walker’s love of talking let words fly from her mouth that deeply wounded Wright and led him to terminate their warm and sympathetic friendship.  Walker’s June 7th letter to Wright was a poignant apology as well as an explanatory defense of her integrity.   Walker sang a sorrow song when she wrote that she had to believe in Wright in order to believe in herself. The letter has many clues about just what kind of love compelled Walker to craft a biography which casts much light on Wright’s genius.
If Richard Wright created out of anger, Margaret Walker created out of frustration.  If his genius was daemonic, hers was brooding and orphic.  The four kinds of genius Walker mentioned to Tate and several kinds she didn’t catalogue are embedded in Walker’s crafting of Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius.  The biography is a labor of critical love.  In the book we find an intellectual unification of biography and autobiography.  Walker’s writing of Wright’s biography is an exploration of literary history; Wright’s biography is a discovery moment for reflection on Walker’s unfinished autobiography.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
February 24, 2015

Sunday, February 22, 2015

On Poetry

Literature is no parasitic language game. It is discourse designed to inform, persuade, incite, reassure, and so forth. Many new black poets wrote with just such aims in mind and with the understanding that they and the acts (poems) they performed had consequences. They regarded their use of language as serious, and it was a serious condition of good faith that the author’s “fiction” be commensurate with “fact.” So in theory, and in fact, the new black poetry intensified the normal illocutionary forces.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr., “Illocutionary Dimensions of Poetry: Lee’s ‘A Poem to Complement Other Poems,’” The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, ed. Joanne V. Gabbin (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1999), 138.

•Poetry as a sign and a signified event activates something, even if the something is a consciousness of nothing. As a pre-future writer, reader and critic of poetry, I maintain that poetry is a making and using of languages for purposes of entanglement in the scientific understanding of how particles and motions of life are constantly interrelated. Poetry is a unique paradox, liberating and enslaving the desire for nowness and historicity, our penchant for remembering and forgetting.

Sound is the core of poetry; it is the material state with which we struggle to derive meaning (s) from structures and linguistic units that we agree represent content. The less we talk about poetry, the better. Our greatest profit from poetry is living in and learning from a poem.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Anne Moody

Anne Moody (September 15, 1940-February 5, 2015)

Four years after graduating from Tougaloo College, the young Anne Moody published Coming of Age in Mississippi (Dial 1968).  It is noteworthy that this autobiography has been “in-print” and acclaimed since its initial publication.  Similar life histories of civil rights workers, both autobiography and biography, have come and gone, getting enthusiastic receptions when they first appeared.  After a few years, enthusiasm wears thin. The eagerly received life histories age rapidly and virtually disappear.  Moody’s autobiography escaped this fate.  The title tipped its hat to anthropology, and Moody’s vernacular prose is quite readable.  Moody exploited the dramatic possibilities of first-person voice and perspectives.  She charmed a nation of readers who wanted to know what growing up female and black in Mississippi entailed.  Some of us who had been her classmates were slightly alarmed by her minimal love for our alma mater, but we had to affirm the rightness of how she saw Civil Rights Movement people and events in Mississippi and in New Orleans. Coming of Age in Mississippi had staying power.  It is a keeper of memories that some post-civil rights writers would be happy to have disappear. Certain forms of “truth” may hibernate, but they refuse to disappear and give aid and comfort to fickle tastes.
In Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition (1989), Joanne M. Braxton suggests that Moody’s book belongs to the tradition of Ida B. Wells’ Crusade for Justice and that Moody, like Richard Wright and Maya Angelou, had intimate knowledge of Southern racial horror.  It is also probable that what Zora Neale Hurston theorized about women’s forgetting and remembering in the opening sentences of Their Eyes Were Watching God opens a special window on how Moody speaks from a multi-gendered space that entrapped women (and men) in Mississippi rather than the dream space Hurston constructed in her novel. Women do seem to retain more details about events than do men. Moody provides rich details about the critical turning points in her life up to 1968.  She records the names, particulars, and dates of all that happened to her as the daughter of sharecroppers in a part of Mississippi located around Woodville and Centreville, as a person who began working at a very young age to keep herself and her siblings in school.
Moody’s autobiographical voice often has the exactness of discourses in cultural anthropology; it justifies the echoing title of Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. Moody makes a “thick description” of her life, layering detail upon detail, working out a full description of her Self as vulnerable and subject to be denied opportunities if she did not fight to control her destiny.  Readers must ponder what Moody says in Chapter 11 about the origin of her misanthropic tendencies in 1955. Readers who piece together what is not in the autobiography, what Moody chose not to say in another book about how miserable life can become once a person achieves fame, will note that misanthropy sponsors nightmares, mental imbalance, and death of the spirit as a preparation for death of the body.
Moody’s life story from 1955 to 1964 is the record of how she sought through education at Natchez Junior College and Tougaloo College and through her work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Council of Federated Organizations, and the Congress of Racial Equality to control the resentment, the anxieties, and the self-hatred that was her legacy from Mississippi.  Her descriptions of place are intimately connected with political activity or the people who at various times were comrades in struggles.  When she closes her story from a bus headed to COFO hearings in Washington, D.C., her feelings about Mississippi and what the freedom song “We Shall Overcome” proclaims are ambivalent.   As the autobiographical narrator listens to the heart-gripping words ----“We shall overcome, We shall overcome, We shall overcome someday”---, she whispers skepticism into the charged air: “I wonder. I really WONDER” (348).
The contemporary conditions of life in American and in Mississippi justify the doubts Moody had in 1964.  Much has changed.  Social and political changes have been at once blessings and curses.  It is obvious that the day of overcoming is still waiting for Godot.  As we remember and honor the bravery of Anne Moody and read her partial record of her combat with life, we find ourselves chanting “We wonder; we really wonder.”

Jerry W. Ward, Jr., February 21, 2015    

Friday, February 6, 2015



Thoughtful. Timely.
Unusually original, this
Innovative transferential,
Significant and unique
Complicated route
Is ambitiously imagined.

COOKING NOTE: You can/improve/the plove/just add/ plum clove.

The go-to way articulates,
With depth, with acumen,
Tremendous ground/
Breaking seeds.
Important, too, is nuanced growth.

Distinct, first-rate, theoretically sharp,
Graceful, learned, and light-provoking
The gone-off went off
On interrogation of investigation.

COOKING NOTE #2:  Critique and deploy tropes ---cool antanaclasis,
Sweet apophasis, salted catachresis----when you incense the kitchen
With brilliant, compelling, radical, deep and rich profusions of prodigal economy.

Taste the plove.  Strangle the question:
“God, are we human yet?”

Smoke the joke.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
February 7, 2015

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Shakespeare His Blackwashing


Many years ago, most people who earned a Ph.D. in English had to study the works of William Shakespeare.  That was a good thing.  The requirement ensured that a British-rooted variety of cultural literacy would circulate in the Profession. It could trickle down, through the public schools and Classic Comics, to the American common reader. The wheel of Fortune has turned. 
In 2015, people who are earning Ph.D.s in English can bypass Shakespeare. They may remember something from Hamlet, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, or King Lear ---plays they may have read in middle school and/or high school.  Unless the Ph.D. candidate is specializing in theatre or British literature or desires to become the next great authority on Shakespeare, she or he may not be required to refer to Shakespeare on qualifying examinations. We don’t blame our Ph.D.s for having minimal interest in Shakespeare, because the twenty-first century demands that they give more attention to what the living are saying than to what the dead have said.
Neither the Profession nor the humanities should fear that Shakespeare does not get attention.  He does. The American common television viewer has replaced the American common reader. The viewer profits greatly, as a result of what screenwriters produce, from the resilience of Shakespeare’s legacy.  For example, the ghetto-fabulous Fox network serial “Empire” is an elegant rewriting of Shakespeare’s King Lear, replacing Lear’s dementia with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and his kingdom with a parcel of the crime-infected and enormously lucrative American music industry. The very popular AMC series “Breaking Bad” obviously incorporated Polonius’ advice from Hamlet and Iago’s advice from Othello: Mr. White was most certainly true to himself as he put great amounts of drug money in his purse.  “Empire” and “Breaking Bad” are good examples of how bourgeois realism works in television and film. William Shakespeare, the masterful plagiarist, has achieved immortality in the Western imaginary. We have done an excellent job of blackwashing him more thoroughly than he blackwashed himself.  And he did a damned good job of blackwashing in The Tempest. N.B. –blackwashing stands in diametrical opposition to whitewashing. Go figure.
In the spirit of blackwashing, we should invest time in reading Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s major contribution to the genre of revenge tragedy, and in viewing the clever film adaptations of that play from 1997, 1999, and 2000.
Titus Andronicus is a stunning situation report on the twenty-first century human condition and its meandering passions, including our confusion about virtues, viruses, and vices. It is a consciousness-catching play, an effective emotional trap. It generously answers this question: Who is Shakespeare and what was he, that all your elders commend him?

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            February 3, 2015