Alvin Aubert: Literature, History, Ethnicity II
March 12, 2015
Alvin Aubert would have been 85 years old today, and we gather to give a breathing dimension to words he wrote on June 21, 1978:
I will be in language when I am gone in the flesh. (AAP, Box 41, Journal November 30, 1977-April 20, 1978)
I quote Aubert’s words from the end of Professor Ronald Dorris’ article “Alvin Aubert: Framing South Louisiana.” La Créole 7.1 (2014):16-21 to illustrate one pathway of scholarship -----the transmission of Aubert’s words from a journal to Dorris’ article and my repeating them (confident in the accuracy of what Dorris transferred from the source) in my typescript and then uttering them (oral repetition) a few seconds ago. The trope of immortality only functions if someone remembers particular words that were written or typed by someone else in the vast duration we call time.
My remarks are titled “Alvin Aubert: Literature, History, Ethnicity II” as a reminder that we are dealing with another transmission of words, namely my interview with Aubert that was published in Xavier Review 7.2(1987): 1-12. Part of that interview was conducted through correspondence in March 1986 (typed) and part by way of my taping Aubert’s words at Wayne State University on March 4, 1988. The correspondence is most likely in my papers at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History; the tape with Aubert’s voice and my own has long since disappeared. Hurricane Katrina borrowed the tape and failed to return it.
I am suggesting the centrality of archives and archival work in assisting us to remember things about people, the body of writing we call literature, the narratives of time that we call history which are actually narratives of a process, and the prevailing importance of ethnicity as identification and classification. Being in language when one is gone in the flesh is not as simple as the words that transmit such an idea.
It is wonderful that the Alvin Aubert Papers are a part of the archives of Xavier University of Louisiana, that a major portion of his legacy to American and African American literature and literary history is preserved here. It is equally wonderful that the Tom Dent Papers are preserved at the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, and the Marcus B. Christian Papers are in the Special Collections at the University of New Orleans and the Richard Wright Papers are deposited in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. But wonderfulness is of little meaning if students, teachers, and scholars do not use the sources of wonderfulness (the archives) to do critical thinking and then make choices regarding the flesh (our living and breathing).
In 2015, a most troubled and troubling year, and in a future, it is productive use of the Alvin Aubert Papers that can transform mere wonderfulness into meaningful education, into understanding of Aubert’s lasting contributions to the Black Arts Movement by way of his writing and his publishing of OBSIDIAN magazine, and into some grasping of how ethnicity is a permanent, vexed feature of social and cultural existence in the United States of America. I make a special note that Aubert is not mentioned in what to date is the leading study of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic phenomenon, James Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005); that he is mentioned only once (page 16) in the important reference book The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011); that his name appears only on pages 34 and 35 of Howard Rambsy’s The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (2011). Only those who are as blind as the proverbial bat fail to understand that Aubert contributed as much to enterprise and production of Black writing as Mari Evans, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Hoyt Fuller, or Naomi Long Madgett. He worked assiduously without desire for fanfare. Use of the Alvin Aubert Papers is crucial if we are to fill the informational gaps and atone for our sins of omissions. As co-editor of the CHAAL, I must say “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
We can take for granted that Aubert is worthy of attention with regard to the history of black/American poetry and black/American publishing (print culture). That is a basic fact. What we cannot take for granted is that people who can profit from remembering Alvin Aubert will do so. Thus, Irwin Lachoff, the Associate Archivist at Xavier University, Ronald Dorris, Alumni Class of ’58 Professor of Liberal Arts, African American and Diaspora Studies and English, and I agreed to begin a public conversation and direct attention to Aubert’s papers.
I shall refer to three comments Aubert made in the interview about literature, history, and ethnicity and reserve my own comments for the conversation with Mr. Lachoff, Dr. Dorris and the audience.
W. In your 1986 interview you said, “Art, for me, is not the absence of social and political consciousness; rather, it is the presence of an aesthetic quality, and that aesthetic quality can come from one’s social and political consciousness.” Would you clarify what you mean by “aesthetic quality?”
A. I thought you’d ask me about the “absence” –“presence” bit. I’m glad you didn’t. As an Afro-American poet I would have to say that the aesthetics of a work of art, of a poem or a story, say, derives from the writer’s milieu, his cultural matrix. This has to do with whatever in the poem the reader finds appealing. Appealing in an entertaining, instructive and informing way as well as in a structural sense --- realizing that as operational categories these are not necessarily exclusive in a given literary discourse. What I’m talking about here touches on Stephen Henderson’s concept of “saturation.” In reading works of black American poets you discover a great deal of affective material -- material that moves you in various ways because you recognize it as coming from the culture you belong to, as having to do with your life in some way, whether it refers to the kind of music you enjoy – blues, spirituals, jazz, gospel, and so forth --- or jokes you have heard told or the way people talk or tell stories or move about or dance or the kind of food that’s eaten or a peculiar way of suffering and endurance and so forth. You recognize such things, cultural counters, as they are, and your spirit responds “That’s good” and you enjoy the poem, smiling to yourself a long time after reading it, entertaining good thoughts about yourself and your people. That is the basis of the Black aesthetic, a basically humanistic, celebratory standard of literary appreciation that comes out of Black life. From the poet’s point of view, you recognize in all of this a commitment.
HISTORY --- pages 9 and 10
W. We entertain the notion that the past is completed.
A. Well, the Euro-American sense of history encourages that, not the African, in which past, present and future are coterminous, humanistically so: the ancestors who are always with us, as are the living and the yet to be born. The ideal is of continuity rather than completion, and of satisfaction in living with people in the present rather than a fretting about the past or a yearning for the future. But I’m not African, I’m African-American and must live and write out of that complexity.
W. Denial of ethnicity is a strategy for self-murder. In a larger sense, genocide.
A. Those who would undo you begin by chipping away at your ethnicity. What we need in the U.S. is more mutual respect, ethnically, among people of different ethnic backgrounds. If I’m African-American and you are Italian-American, we relate to one another in terms of our differences, first, then in terms of our common humanity. Ultimately it is the common humanity that prevails, hopefully. I know this is all very, very complex, involving politics and economics – especially economics – as it does. Differences among people are not incidental, as some would have it, but essential. Essential incidental, if that’s philosophically tenable.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.