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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A protest novel by Joyce Carol Oates


“There is in Southern white man, distributed almost as thickly as the dialect,” James Agee wrote in 1936, “an epidemic capability of sadism which you would have to go as far to match and whose chief basis is possibly, but only possibly, and only one among many, a fear of the Negro, deeper and more terrible than any brief accounting can suggest or explain.  The flaw of sadism can turn its victims loose into extremities which the gaudiest reports have only begun to suggest” (223-224).  These surgical words come from the conclusion of “Cotton Tenants: Three Families,” a report Fortune magazine would not publish. Cotton Tenants did not see print until 2013. Agee indicted his race in a way his race dared not acknowledge, for to have done so would have been tantamount to staring into Medusa’s eyes.  Agee’s people understood that “Southern white man” was identical with “American man” and that “fear of the Negro” was a sly allusion to a Yankee idea represented through a Spanish character in Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno.”
Agee knew his race well.  So too did F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lillian Smith, Erskine Caldwell, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor, tattling about the foibles and flaws of the race.  Faulkner and O’Connor outdid their contemporaries in creating secular and religious mythopoeia, moving Agee’s hurtful truth into a zone of protective aesthetics.  If Agee’s classic Now Let Us Praise Famous Men (1941) stands as nonfiction protest against Southern wretchedness and American economic injustice, Cotton Tenants helps us to identify its rightful heirs in the lines of protest fiction.  One of them is The Sacrifice (New York: HarperCollins, 2015) by Joyce Carol Oates. In her 41st novel, Oates deserves respect for protesting “the flaw of sadism” in her race. She is to be applauded for writing a great American protest novel.
As chilling as the 1958 film “Touch of Evil,” directed by Orson Welles, The Sacrifice is set in 1987, the year we witnessed the tragedy of Tawana Brawley.  Or, maybe the profound tragedy of Brawley was watching us.  In post-whatever time and space, it is difficult to say who is gazing at whom.  In this sure uncertainty, it is amusing to think that Oates may have reread Friedrich Nietzsche’s proposition #183 from The Will to Power before writing The Sacrifice:
“The symbolism of Christianity is based upon that of Judaism, which had already transfigured all reality (history, Nature) into a holy and artificial unreality ---- which refused to recognize real history, and which showed no more interest in a natural course of things.”
Oates seems to have intimate knowledge both of the banality of evil and of its consummate absurdity, of its power to rip apart the delicate ironies and nuances which give her most recent novel its significance. In the “Afterword,” Oates emancipates the cat from the bag, asserting that The Special New York State Grand Jury Report in the Tawana Brawley Case (October 7, 1988) was of special interest to her.  And with emancipation comes a fine turn of the screw.  The record of progress in the American Dream from reports on the lynching of Emmett Till to the latest story on which racial bullet murdered which unarmed, non-white American male is the foundation for The Sacrifice.  Oates’s characters are truly the extremities spawned by the flaw of sadism.  A shock of recognition comes from considering, after giving passionate attention to the novel, that all Americans are infected by one version or another of the flaw.  Joyce Carol Oates has succeeded in writing a remarkable instance of the American protest novel.  I recommend The Sacrifice to readers who are brave enough to make peace with the agony and the honesty.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

May 12, 2015

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Dyson, West, and Massive (Mis)communication

BKNation Blog

A HOUSE DIVIDED DOES NOT ALWAYS FALL:  Dyson, West, and Massive (Mis) communication

                The pleasure I have taken in reading Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry (New York: Random House, 2015) is distant from the anger I have now tamed after reading Michael Eric Dyson’s “The Ghost of Cornel West” in The New Republic, April 19, 2015    Lines from Angelou’s poem “Savior”  make a bridge for me  between her poetry and Dyson’s rant:
Your children burdened with / disbelief, blinded by a patina / of wisdom, / carom down this vale of / fear.
Angelou’s carefully chosen words enable me to connect Dyson’s “streaking” across the pages of The New Republic with Erika Badu’s almost forgotten nude walk at the site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 2010. There is some evidence that Dyson and Badu lack what my African American elders used to call “home training.”  Their performances burden the American public with belief that the actors are intimate with the patina of poor taste. We will not stoop to play the “dozens” with them, because they and their non –biological mothers inspire us to play the “thirteens.”  The “thirteens” is to the “dozens” what astrophysics is to arithmetic. The non-biological mothers, of course, are abstractions reduced to materiality in print and video.  It is right to call such mothers dysfunctional. 
The hidden metaphors in mass media are like serpents in Eden, and they are quite effective in distracting American citizens from critical thinking with the trinkets of our retarded journalism which renders service to the State (i.e. to the trinity of the American Presidency, the American Congress, and the American Supreme Court) and to unnamed international powers that accord the United States all the respect that a puppet deserves.  It is reprehensible that contemporary mass media, with the exception of alternative or outlaw forms of media, operates in a fairytale where the American people are docile and stupid.  Were such  fantasy not operative in much the way “race” is, it unlikely that Dyson would have succeeded in offending people who understand Cornel West is to be critiqued with rigorous grace not with a style that assumes African Americans lack consciousness of a very long history of so-called White Folks dividing and conquering so-called Non-white Folks-----for example, Frederick Douglass against Martin Delaney,  W. E. B. DuBois vs. Booker T. Washington,  Marcus Garvey vs. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr. vs. Malcolm X ---for the sake of making dubious Whiteness much, much whiter.
“Working on the Race Beat: The Future of Racial Coverage at the New York Times and Elsewhere” (The New Republic, March 1, 2015), written by Jamil Smith, a TNR senior editor, is a skeleton key.  It unlocks the open secret that The New Republic is a part of elsewhere.  It is fair to guess that Mr. Smith used his previous experience as a segment producer at MSNBC for “Melissa Harris-Perry” and “The Rachel Maddow Show” to inform us that journalism has thrown standards of ethics and moral prudence into the sewer.  In that sense, Mr. Smith should be applauded for unblinding some American readers and assisting them to analyze hidden dimensions of Dr. Dyson’s essay.
It is the patina of poor taste or no taste at all which informs contemporary, ego-invested spectacles of the kind broadcast by Dr. Dyson.  American mass media has systemic reasons for commissioning these speech acts which pretend to illuminate something. Such pieces do not delight and instruct.  They intensify the burden of disbelief. They injure. They mystify.  They give aid and comfort to malice.  Ishmael Reed has spent several decades in providing genuine critiques of this phenomenon, in casting light on this egregious structure in American public discourses.  It is unfortunate that American minds, plunged into ambivalence by trash talk regarding liberty, theories of justice and democracy and God-ordained human inequality, suffer so much from arresting development.  Otherwise, the American people would be able to recognize the present and future ideological dangers represented by “The Ghost of Cornel West.” They would more quickly recognize that Dyson’s writing deflects attention from the most pervasive and urgent problem of 2015, namely, the life-threatening triumph of the will to be racist in the post-human United States of America.  Power may divide the house, but it fails to ensure that the house collapses into a tarn like the one dreamed up by Edgar Allen Poe.  Power can only increase our sense that the house is one of ill-repute.

Dr. Dyson, you have committed insult,” said the old gods.”  Your soul has been weighed in a pyramid with a feather and found wanting. You have announced to the planet that Dr. West’s ‘greatest opponent….is the ghost of a self that spits at him from his own mirror.  Confess what the ghost of your Self regurgitates in your own mirror.”
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

May 3, 2015