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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Drawing Terrance Hayes



Hayes, Terrance.  How To Be Drawn.  New York: Penguin, 2015.


You could be drawn to the work of Terrance Hayes by way of Elizabeth Alexander's advance praise for How To Be Drawn, a statement that draws you to such words as dust, urgency, necessity, by any means necessary (the latter cluster evoking an injunction from Malcolm X); in addition, you could be drawn by noticing poems by Terrance Hayes are anthologized in Angles of Ascent as instances of "Second Wave, Post-1960s" but not in What I Say or The BreakBeat Poets, and the notice is a signal either that you are curious about where the cipher (a good Arabic zero) or that you do have non-trivial questions about inclusion/exclusion and probabilities/possibilities; it is better that you could be drawn by accessing


to find "notes, reference, and inspiration for the poems" in How To Be Drawn.  Maximize your options.



Truth could tell itself by revealing that you are drawn initially by none of the above.  You were drawn to the poems of Terrance Hayes by sustained interest in the innovative poetics of Asili Ya Nadhiri as manifested in his "tonal drawings."  The required proof is located at



The device of ekphrasis may be one motivating link between the poems of Nadhiri and Hayes, because that device draws attention to how American poetry is a process which defies consensus. It motivates a few readers to think beyond the belief that "poetry" exists independent of a historicized reading and to ask whether poetry is actually or really necessary.  Answers vary according to your choice of adverb ---really or actually.   A poem lacks a fixed definition of its identity.  It does have descriptions.  Thus, an imagined conversation between Hayes and Nadhiri is rewarding, because it begins to cast light on why some readers actually fear poetry while other readers so love poetry that they argue for the validity of any and every form that a poem can assume.  The Republic of American Letters is becoming the Democracy of Writing in a slow hurry.


Truth also tells on itself when you access Terrance Hayes's website to acquire the information needed for intelligent reading of the academic poems in How To Be Drawn.  Hayes provides a most welcomed, common sense definition of what an academic poem is.  When he answers the question "If you could be any tree, what would you be and why?" with a rich accident: "I'm trying to think of something clever here?  I like the word magnolia.  I like the smell of pinewood. I like the flowers of dogwoods.  I'd be an apple tree."  The accident, for which Hayes is not responsible, is conjuring the relevance in the context of the question of Michael S. Harper's  remarkable Photographs: Negatives: History As Apple Tree (San Francisco: Scarab Press, 1972).  The last five lines in Section 9 of Harper's long poem are


let it become my skeleton,

become my own myth:

my arm the historical branch,

my name the bruised fruit,

black human photograph: apple tree  (n.p.)


Hayes made a good choice, as good as the choices he made of which poems to include in How To Be Drawn,  which remarks to make in the Spring 2015 "Anything But Invisible"  audio interview with Studio 360, and which forms to give "Black Confederate Ghost Story, "How to Draw an Invisible Man,"" Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report," and "Reconstructed Reconstruction"  ----poems I would recommend that my Chinese colleagues would teach in their American and African American literature courses.  No.  Those are my favorite poems.  Good pedagogy requires that all the poems in How To Be Drawn should be taught, so that poems can themselves teach us something.


Navigating among works by Hayes and Nadhiri and all the poets who are in the most recent anthologies brings a jolt of recognition to people who have taught literature for several decades.  Close reading and re-reading of texts are still worthwhile procedures as we transform dead print/drawings into vibrant literary events.  But close reading now depends greatly, though not exclusively,  on the use of the Internet, digital tools, and audio-visual information.  New ways of "reading" give some credibility to the notion that a poem in the canon is not innately superior to a poem which is not so archived or museumed.  Inclusion or exclusion seems to be a result of a poet's having the "right" connections or a dynamite agent, having more than demitasse spoon of genuine talent, and having the blessings of Fortune in an over-crowded market.  You are indeed drawn in to be lessoned by the closing lines of Hayes's poem "Ars Poetica For The Ones Like Us"------


Do not depend on speech to be felt.

Remember too that the eyes are not flesh,

That crisis is irritated by the absence of witness,


That Orpheus, in time, became nothing

But a lying-ass song

Sung for the woman he failed. (96)



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

June 30, 2015



Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jabari Asim Revisits Realism

Jabari Asim Revisits Realism


While reading the uncorrected page proofs of Jabari Asim's Only the Strong: An American Novel (Chicago: Agate, 2015), I take a break to suggest to a poet who knows St. Louis intimately that he might like this novel.  He might like how the novel minimizes those stereotypes too often taken as givens when some writers depict contemporary life and the city.  Only the Strong avoids parading its characters as if they were ads for a famous brand of American beer; the story doesn't pander to readers who are in a hurry for a fix.  Asim, as I later informed one his fellow first-novelists is not selling the designer drugs of urban literature.

Asim wants his readers to have the equivalent of listening to Jerry Butler's 1969 recording of "Only the Strong Survive" and Butler's 1971 duet with Brenda Lee Eager of "Ain't Understanding Mellow."  Popular music of the 1960s is a crucial element in the novel, and astute readers will take advantage of the aesthetic pleasure that audio memory of the golden oldies provokes.  Asim's take on realism is neither magic nor social in the sense that traditional criticism would use those variants.  His realism is real in the sense that Roberta Flack would force you to compare to what.

People from the inner circles of American publishing want to compare Asim to Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Raymond Chandler and Edward P. Jones.  And there's more than a grain of precision in doing so for the purposes of marketing.  On the other hand, Asim is savvy about levels of publishing and is smart enough not to invite his readers to confuse what is reportedly pathological and correctly stereotyped with what nuanced fiction refracts about what is "normal." He writes with just the choice of diction and careful use of allusions to enable Only the Strong to survive in a vortex of complicated reader responses.  Many a first novel is so busy with its story that it forgets its language.  That is not the case with Asim's work.

For an older generation that lets John A. Williams, Alice Walker, and John Oliver Killens set bars for good fiction,  Asim does not disappoint.  If asked what is good about his work, a few of us elders will reply, without apology, "It is good for the purpose of assaulting your postmodern ears that have been theorized to be deaf."  It is good to remind us that humanity does not willingly inhabit a zoo of correctness.  As a novelist, Asim earned the respect that in an imagined past he would have got from Ralph Waldo (either Emerson or Ellison; take your pick).  Writing about St. Louis as a lifescape named Gateway City, Asim moves the plot along smoothly by using subtle indirect discourse as well as sympathetic authorial control.   His characters are truly characters more than they are social types.  If you can dig what President Obama preached in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, you can dig the amazing grace of Only the Strong.  Do not confuse grace with perfection.  Grace has just those slight flaws that rescue us from "a will to historical forgetfulness" and confirm that our consciousness "is a product of our memory, sustained and constantly reinforced by events, by our watchful waiting, and by our hopeful suspension of final judgment as to the meaning of our grievances" (I just stole the quoted words from Ellison's essay "The World and the Jug.")  If you know Jack, you know what Ellison proclaimed and what Asim delivers is the real thing.

Asim's novel does echo some typical features of how Himes dealt with the urban condition; it has some very tender reminders of how Killens handled the truth of relationships between women and men in 'Sippi.  And something provocative might emerge from using geo-spatial software to text-mine Only the Strong.  The characters, regardless of their moral vices or virtues, do "represent" what went down back in the day across the river from East Boogie.  Asim is very clear that those who survived then and those who continue breathing in the non-fictional  present will have scars.  No one with the probable exception of Reuben Jones' youngest son survives Gateway City without a scratch.  Like music, baseball as played in the Negro League is a crucial structuring device in the novel; every time you think you know what's coming across home plate, Asim throws a curve you did not anticipate.  The ending of the novel skates on some thin ice and threatens to fall into Lake Melodrama, but Asim maintains his cool, his ceremony of poise" throughout the four main segments ---"Leg Breaker," "Tenderness," "Trouble," and "The Storm."  He knows just when to insert motherwit from the laughing barrel and when the text can bear Mozart or the seductiveness of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" monologue.

One of the best novels published so far in 2015, Only the Strong repays a patient reading.  Asim's affection and respect for St. Louis and some of the people who lived there in the 20th century signal that African American literature thrives.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.        June 28, 2015




Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Distress Calls and the Black Arts Movement



Bracey, John H. Jr., Sonia Sanchez, and James Smethurst, eds. SOS --Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader.  Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.



In discussions of literary and cultural periodicity, there is no consensus regarding the beginning and ending points of the Black Arts Movement.  At best, one can say the enterprise occurred between 1960 and 1980.  It persuaded significant numbers of Negroes (colored people) to call themselves Blacks, Afro-Americans, or African Americans. Adopting new terms of identity was not a total erasure of the marker “Negro” or the more imprecise marker “colored people,” because the NAACP didn’t swiftly become the NAAAA or the NAABP. The change was psychological, not a merely cosmetic substitution of racial markers. Some of the positive attitudes and values forged by the BAM can still be found in certain manifestations of hip hop ideologies.


The change was at once political, cultural, and social.   It  strengthened resolve to work more assiduously for the realization of political aims implicit in the long struggle for human rights called the Civil Rights Movement, an actualization that confused desegregation with integration. For some Blacks, the establishment of Black Power was of greater importance than changes in law that adjusted interpretations of the United States Constitution and gave birth to new legal remedies and policies.  It encouraged a stronger embrace, for some but not all Black Americans, of the social science fiction of cultural unity (the Black Community or the Black Nation), and it produced indelible changes in conception of the primal myth of the American Dream and its systemic entrapments; it sponsored recognition of the Amerikkkan Nightmare, a horror  that had (and still has) a racialized impact on the everyday lives of American citizens. 


Thus, the Black Arts Movement warrants comparison with the radical abolitionist and nationalist   activities of the 19th century as well as the “enthralling/charming,” cultural expressions of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance.  Study of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic Movement is too important to be confined to the whims of higher education and to imprisonment in the pedagogy of oppression. The movement did not begin in any classroom discussion of literary theory and culture, although it was defanged by the reconstruction of instruction and ostracized by the politics of new aesthetics.  The editors of SOS do not say that directly. They do not have to repeat what the dedication to Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) and the allusion to his poem “SOS” (1969) articulate for people who have resisted becoming post-whatever robots bereft of historical consciousness. The anthology itself asserts that it belongs to discussions in prisons, in homes, among groups that assist young people to recognize their options in a selectively “democratic” society,  in community centers where immediate local problems and local remedies are debated, and in seminars at non-American universities where scholars and students are not encaged by versions of white hegemony that have apoplexy when Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” (2001) is voiced. In short, SOS merits being used “in the tradition.”



 The anthology has five major sections: 1) theory/criticism; 2) statements of purpose; 3) poetry; 4)drama, and 5) fiction/narrative, and these are framed by the editors' diplomatic introduction and three very challenging “afterword” essays by James G. Spady,  John H. Bracey, Jr., and Audre Lorde.  The mission of the anthology, the editors assure us, is to remedy problems associated with “ideological, aesthetic, and geographical breadth” (10), difficulty in obtaining access to essential documents, and contextualization. The first two aims of the mission are satisfied as well as any collection might, but it is wanting in providing crucial identifications and contextual information. The very good bibliography sends readers to primary BAM texts and Post-BAM scholarship and anthologies, but SOS would have been enhanced by information not contained in the section introductions by A. B. Spellman, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, and Eleanor Traylor. The editors and their publisher must bear the onus for shortcomings.  The book lacks an index. It provides no notes on contributors, as if the juju of the Internet should be invoked to figure out who were or are  Sam Cornish, Ronald Milner, Louise Meriwether, Tom Dent, Ebon Dooley, Joe Goncalves, Carolyn Gerald [Carolyn Fowler], James G. Spady and  Ahmos Zu-Bolton,  The source information for section 2 is spotty ---who formulated the by-laws for the Southern Black Cultural Alliance?---and the acknowledgements (courtesy of specifying indebtedness)  demanded by copyright law are nowhere to be found.  This is surprising.  The University of Massachusetts Press and the editors do know the protocols to be observed in responsible publishing.  Those protocols were faithfully observed in Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005) and in the two-volume African American Mosaic: A Documentary History from the Slave Trade to the Twenty-first Century (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2004), edited by Bracey and Manisha Sinha.  Better s.o.s (standards of scholarship) ought to have been observed in preparing SOS. Picky readers demand assurance that the Black Arts Movement is accorded due symbolic respect.


Aside from these  shortcomings, SOS does, as Arnold Rampersad remarked, “add immeasurably to our ability to understand and teach a crucial aspect of modern African American and American literary history.”  Rampersad’s “our” has exclusionary force when potential readerships for the anthology are imagined.  If "our ability" is most immediately attached to the desires of people who teach in academic institutions, the phrase overlooks a large number of non-academic activists who still believe it is their duty to use products of the Black Arts Movement in addressing the social and cultural conditions of contemporary life.  They are not excluded from the discourse focused on literary history, but their desires will be different in kind and degree, more related to acquiring utilitarian literacy.  One of the great lessons of BAM was how and what words do not mean in non-academic enterprises.  The point must be stridently emphasized, so that the BAM messages will continue to be fresh grapes rather than raisins.


 Readers, especially adolescent readers, may care little for literary history and care a great deal for cultural history which does not apologize for its political dimensions, for the American cultural history anchored in both the liberated and the commodified  funk ontology  of hip hop’s evolution in the vast territory of African Diaspora. Younger readers have excellent reasons for processing the contents of  SOS in contexts described in Robin D. G. Kelley's Yo' Mama's Disfunktional (1997), Tricia Rose's The Hip Hop Wars (2008), and Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (2010) and the special segment of Foreign Affairs (March/April 2015) that is devoted to "The Trouble With Race."   It would be good if social activists really did help young people to read and critique SOS and to make practical connections. Ideas provided by Spellman, Sanchez, Madhubuti, and Traylor should be lifted from the page and used in everyday speech.


If a few subversive teachers  opt to deploy ideas from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed as they work through the 666 pages of SOS, they and their history-challenged students  might discover such assisting and seminal works as Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970),  Joyce A. Ladner’s Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman (1971), Carolyn Fowler’s Black Arts and Black Aesthetics: A Bibliography, 2nd ed (1981), Vincent Harding’s The Other American Revolution (1980), Tony Bolden’s Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture (2004) and his crucial essay “Theorizing the Funk: An Introduction” in The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspectives on Black Popular Culture (2008), and Larry Neal’s Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings (1989).  Readers who are less ambitious can sit on the ground with their friends and discuss the contents of SOS in concert  with the daily saturation from social networking and mass media. What laid-back readers have in common with more ambitious readers is arming themselves with critical consciousness.


LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka spend a lifetime preparing materials for the practices of everyday life by those willing to answer the call to “come in,” and pragmatic use of  SOS is a proper way of honoring his blazing work, his Black Fire!!!. Allowing praxis as it can be guided by Black Arts Movement insights to dominate theory as such in 2015 is still an option in the vortex of implacable, global disorders.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    June 24, 2015



Friday, June 19, 2015

For people who forgive everything

A Juneteenth Observation

Dylann Storm Roof’s
Biological pappy
Dylann Storm Roof’s
Biological mammy

[54 87 70]**

[49 41 26]

[74 45 59]

Did she put
An epiphany
An orgasm
Have been

[59 45 74]

[26 41 49]

[70 87 54]

Did her womb perform
What her brain
Refused to do:
A maculate
Of an evil mistake?

[54 49 74]

[87 41 45]

[70 26 59]

Jeremiah Ramcat  June 19, 2015
*see the Oxford English Dictionary for the definition of “roger”
**Approximate ages of nine murdered ghosts

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

1955: an observation

1955: an observation

It was not the most mind-shattering year of the 20th century, but 1955 was a space/time marker that deserves pondering after sixty years.  The Bandung Conference was a forum for Asian and African nations who would become architects of new world orders.  Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi.  Rev. George W. Lee (Belzoni) and Lamar Smith (Brookhaven) were also lynched. The mustard seed for contemporary, religion-flavored terrorism might have been planted at Bandung, Indonesia. Strong analyses of what happened there must consider such a possibility.  Equally strong analyses of lynching in Mississippi might not move any pretense at “race and reconciliation” an inch from where it Is stuck.  A hot tear resides in your right eye as you read Julius E. Thompson’s Lynchings in Mississippi: A History, 1865-1965 (2007); a question marches in your mind as you read Richard Wright’s The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956): do major planners in the Obama administration recall that Bandung happened?  If you try to sing “We Shall Overcome,” your heart will be stabbed with artificial feelings.  Unless you are a God-blessed idiot, you remember that in 1955 two white males in Mississippi were praised, found not guilty, and paid for murdering an uppity young boy; those who killed Lee and Smith celebrated; and you remember that the echoes of that obscenity grow louder and more lurid in 2015.

Twenty years after 1955, Bernard Grun published The Timetables of History, his translation, revision, and
updating of Werner Stein’s Kulturfahrplan (1946).  According to the entries for 1955, Walter White,
Albert Einstein, Ortega y Gasset, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker and a few other notable people died.
Teilhard de Chardin published Le Phénomene Humain (The Phenomenon of Man), a magnum opus, and
Vladimir Nabokov published Lolita, a curious classic. The U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. announced they would
race to launch satellites. “The Seven Year Itch,” “Marty,” and “The Rose Tattoo” were shown in movie
houses. Artificial diamonds were manufactured at 2,700 degrees C.  Salvador Dali shocked the art world
 with “The Lord’s Supper.” “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” was one of the most popular songs.

Sixty years after 1955, you look back and wonder why Bernard Grun chose to say nothing about Emmett Till and Bandung.  And, of course, the answer was broadcast on the evening news today.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
June 16, 2015

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Louis Edwards's Second Novel

Louis Edwards’s Second Novel

If you like writing that is selective about which second-line parade it will join, you will like the work of Louis Edwards, a native of Lake Charles who probably lives in New Orleans.  If you have not seen or talked to a person for several years in the Crescent City, you do best to be cautious about identifying that person’s place of residence.  Let it suffice that Lewis Edwards lived quietly, at one time or another, in this den of creative temptations without falling into literal or figurative disgrace.  That is an achievement.

Edwards’s first novel Ten Seconds (1991) got better critical praise than many efforts by emerging writers, because he used conceptual imagination and artistry to ensure his story would not be handcuffed by stereotypes.  Carl Schoettler’s review in the August 14, 1991 issue of The Baltimore Sun was fair and sensitive to Edwards’s writing an aesthetically challenging novel about a quite ordinary man.  Like William Melvin Kelley’s Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970) and Clarence Major’s Reflex and Bone Structure (1975), Ten Seconds was a fine piece of linguistic invention, indebted to James Joyce but not overwhelmed by the Irish acrobatics.  If Bernard W. Bell, who wrote with keen insights about Kelley and who devoted an entire book to Major, had chosen to comment on Edwards’s postmodernism in The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches (2004), I suspect Edwards would be more frequently discussed in scholarly circles.  Perhaps people who talk about Ronald Sukenick and Richard Brautigan also talk about Edwards.  If that is the case, his readership is highly specialized.

Common readers, especially those who live in New Orleans, might embrace his second novel N: A Romantic Mystery (1997).  It is rich with street names, place names, food habits, class attitudes ---the cataloging we know well from Arthur Pfister’s My Name is New Orleans: 40 Years of Poetry and Other Jazz.  You can’t be more New Orleans-centric than Edwards, who in a single paragraph on page 13 mentions Norbert Davidson, Kalamu ya Salaam, James Borders, Brenda Marie Osbey, Tom Dent, Quo Vadis Gex, Keith Woods, Beverly McKenna and the Calliope Project; a writer who has his main character go to Community Book Center to purchase a copy of Jean Toomer’s Cane from Jennifer (page 131) is stone cold New Orleans. Something very special will register for readers who lived in the old New Orleans from 1960 to 2005.  The wealth of referentiality might mean little to readers who only know post-Katrina New Orleans, the new city where organic charm has now been commodified for the tourist industry. What will register for all readers, however, is the murder of a young black male.  Such murder, unfortunately, is obscenely “normal” in New Orleans.  That Edwards chose to use devices from film noir and hard-boiled detective fiction gives what could have been a run-of-the-mill urban novel an intriguing difference.  If any real life reporter tried to do what Aimée DuBois does about the crime, she would cooling in a morgue.  The magic in N: A Romantic Mystery is the skill Edwards uses in creating fiction that is historical but not sociological.  It is no accident that he dedicated the novel to “Charles Bourgeois and Albert Murray ---les gourous” or that most of the chapter titles are French: double entendre, les femmes fatales, la descente, objet d’art, le petit déjeuner, Tante Aimée, le fou, chez Strip, le cinema, la nature morte, Doppelgänger (a German slip), l’entracte, le livre, la vie en rose, sang-froid, chef d’oeuvre, la niece, les morts ne parlent pas, le pasteur, un coup de telephone, la resurrection de l’amour, vive la difference, la letter d’or, and dénouement (this final chapter rounds off the sections LES PROLOGUES, ACTE I: Mise en Scène, L’ENTRACTE, ACTE II: À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.  Edwards’s second novel is sufficiently Louisiana African/American French to distinguish itself from the genre of street literature.  It is not ti negre; it is simply Black.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.         June 11, 2015

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

innovative poetry


It is noteworthy that

Nielsen, Aldon Lynn and Lauri Ramey, eds. What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America.
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015.


Coval, Kevin, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall,eds. The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop.  Chicago: Haymarket, 2015.

should be published just before a long, hot summer swings in.

It is noteworthy that

The cover art for one anthology comes from Untitled…Negro Mythos Series by Hebru Brantley; the cover art for the other, from Anna Everett’s early 1970s mural on a “wall of Lafayette High School in Buffalo, New York.”

It is noteworthy that

These anthologies may relegate

Rowell, Charles Henry, ed. Angle of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013.

to a status of discrepant engagement that is yearning for …….oh, well, read Amiri Baraka’s review “A Post-Racial Anthology?” at

It is noteworthy that

These anthologies send us on a mission of tackling difficult w(hole)s, namely, making comparisons with

Powell, Kevin and Ras Baraka,eds. In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers. New York: Harlem River Press, 1992.


Medina, Tony, Samiya A. Bashir, and Quraysh Ali Lansana, eds. Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art. Chicago: Third World Press, 2002.

It is noteworthy that

Douglas Kearney has work on pages 86-92 of What I Say and pages 117-126 of The BreakBeat Poets; if you want to read the innovative poetry of Kalamu ya Salaam, Asili Ya Nadhiri, or Lenard D. Moore, turn to

Jahannes, Ja A., ed. Black Gold: An Anthology of Black Poetry. Savannah: Turner Mayfield Publishing, 2014.

It is noteworthy that

All of these anthologies want me to answer a singular (c.i.a.n.s.a.) question: WHAT CRITERIA MUST A POEM SATISFY TO BE CALLED INNOVATIVE?

It is noteworthy that

I shall eventually provide an answer.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

June 10, 2015

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

C. P. Snow and Three Cultures

C. P. Snow and Three Cultures

Several weeks ago, I sent questions to a few friends.

 Why do we know so much about African American writers and so little about African American scientists?  Who talks about Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ruth Ella Moore, Mae Jemison, Euphemia Lofton Haynes, and Sylvester James Gates, Jr.?

Some of the responses were illuminating.  One friend who is a librarian knew Tyson, Moore, and Jemison.  Another, who is a medical doctor, proposed that people fear mathematics and think science is too hard. A rather surprising answer came from a poet who holds that scientists don’t know as much about literature as writers know about science.  The most intriguing response came from a highly acclaimed literary scholar and cultural theorist.  He said that I was playing a Sunday morning game as if I were moderating an Oxford Union debate and that Tyson’s popularizing of scientific ideas compromised his trustworthiness as a scientist. Damn. If asking a question is now the equivalent of being on a television show, so be it.

  These responses inspired me to revisit C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959).  Less than a day after rereading Snow, Lee McIntyre’s article “The Attack on Truth” appeared in the online Chronicle Review, June 8, 2015.
(  Two friends with whom I shared the article slammed McIntyre for publishing bullshit, for being ignorant about the history of literary theory, and for being tendentious in claiming some conservatives have borrowed postmodern rhetoric for the sake of disputing “inconvenient” scientific facts.  They are right, of course, but I am still amused that McIntyre imitates Snow without specifying Snow’s political and ideological motives for writing about easily observable habits attributed to disciplines.

McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, will publish his book Respecting Truth: Willful ignorance in the Internet Age this month with Routledge. If “The Attack on Truth” is a synecdoche, it is probable that some reviews of his book will be less than kind.  Had he used Peter Dear’s The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) or Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) as templates for examination of ignorance and wisdom, McIntyre might have secured more credibility.

Like some of his intellectual peers, Sir Charles Snow was very much a man of the West, the British-inflected West, and his fears about minimal communication between “the men of science and the rest of us” were genuine in the late 1950s.  He feared that the Russian Communists had the edge on Britain and the United States in training scientists and engineers, people whom he deemed less racist and paternalistic than most Europeans and Americans who intervened in the affairs of Asia and Africa. The rest of us might at that time have included George Padmore, Richard Wright, and participants in the 1955 Bandung Conference who were thinking beyond science and literature toward a third culture, a culture of actions which is neither Western nor Communist in the purest sense. Snow was not prophetic enough, cosmopolitan enough, to behold the future which he hoped to influence.  Few human beings are capable of triple consciousness.

To his credit, Snow did recognize the treachery of unmitigated binary thinking, for he wrote:

The number 2 is a very dangerous number: that is why the dialectic is a dangerous process.  Attempts to divide anything into two ought to be regarded with much suspicion. I have thought a long time about going in for further refinements: but in the end I have decided against.  I was searching for something a little more than a dashing metaphor, a good deal less than a cultural map: and for those purposes the two cultures is about right, and subtilising any more would  bring more disadvantages than it’s worth. (10)

Snow should have proposed that the number 3 is less dangerous than 2.  Dialectic does involve three basic gestures, does it not?  If dialectic is tempered by ethics, particularly in social and political discussions, its results do not always reduce us to disadvantages. Snow did have the modesty to know that his idea of two cultures had “to be regarded with much suspicion.”

My own binary question about African American writers and scientists demands a mea culpa, because I did set it in a context that would have made my nationalist motives transparent.   I am not like that jesting dude made infamous by Sir Francis Bacon, the shrewd dude who asked “What is truth?” and promptly washed his Roman fingers. I know that the only “truth” to be trusted is a perpetual state of inquiry and uncertainty, although I do wash my African American hands frequently and try to put distance between myself and utter stupidity.  I do not believe Neil deGrasse Tyson has committed a grave error in making some scientific mysteries and partial explanations of them “popular” or attractive for non-scientists. I do believe that I have profited as a writer from having known a little bit about the thinking of such scientists as St. Elmo Brady (who was tutored by George Washington Carver) and Slayton Evans (who was much beloved for his work in chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and from my efforts to grasp what quantum theory, fractals, and dark matter might help me to understand about writing, art, and language.  I do not believe it is a cardinal sin to encourage people, especially young learners, to study both Ernest Everett Just and Langston Hughes; to tell them they might gain something of value from reading Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters and doing research on African American folk medicine in the American South.

I may be forced to say mea culpa for a cargo ship of flaws, but I’ll be damned if I will say mea culpa for asking whether we can be more curious than we seem to be in our use of interdisciplinary thinking, more curious in looking for practical symbiosis of imaginative expression and hard science.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
June 9, 2015

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Ramcat Reads 4

Ramcat Reads #4

Allen, Jeffery Renard. Song of the Shank: A Novel. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014. Like James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird (2013), Allen’s most recent book signals how innovations in the twenty-first century African American historical novel challenge the American penchant for the ahistorical. Judicious criticism of Allen’s novel depends in part on knowing the real life history of the musical genius Thomas Greene Wiggins (“Blind Tom”) and in part on struggling to know how M. M. Bakhtin’s ideas about the dialogic imagination and speech acts might be joined with Georg Lukacs’s thinking about the role of the historical novel in the production of consciousness. Let it suffice, for the moment, that Allen has offered us an exemplary model of what purposeful black writing can accomplish.

Ali, Shahrazad. The Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman. Philadelphia: Civilized Publications, 1989. Ali’s confessions of a woman’s low valuation of self was sternly critiqued in Confusion By Any Other Name: Essays Exploring the Negative Impact of The Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman (Chicago: Third World Press, 1990), edited by Haki R. Madhubuti. Anyone who wishes to analyze contemporary “reality television” and the progressive pathology of American mass media in general can acquire historical perspectives from reading or rereading these two books.
Baraka, Amiri. S O S: Poems 1961-2013. Selected by Paul Vangelisti. New York: Grove, 2014.  This book is a prelude to a “definitive collection” of Baraka’s poetry, one which the newly founded Amiri Baraka Society (May 2015) might desire to begin planning.  Of course, it is unlikely that we can have truly definitive collections of work by twentieth-century writers, but making some attempt to gather all of Baraka’s works and to present them with the quality of scholarship Arnold Rampersad has brought to works by Richard Wright and Langston Hughes and John Edgar Tidwell as applied in presenting the poetry and prose of Frank Marshall Davis would be a fitting tribute to Baraka’s importance for now and a future.  In the “Foreword” for Eulogies (New York: Marsilio, 1996), Baraka wrote of the people he honored:
In describing these lives, I was trying to provide a record of their contributions, their sensibilities, their artistic intentions or their ideals, but also the world they lived in.  In offering this collection, I want to help pass on what needs to live on not just in the archive but on the sidewalk of Afro-America itself.

Robust, rigorous scholarship and criticism can ensure that Baraka will “live on.”

Boyd, Herb. Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin.  New York: Atria Books, 2008. Boyd’s survey of Baldwin’s intellectual engagements with such figures as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Norman Mailer, and Harold Cruse is judiciously provocative.

Brown, Leonard L., ed. John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.  This collection of thoughtful essays lends credibility to T. J. Anderson’s assertion that “all creative artists are cultural anthropologists, documenters and interpreters of culture” (vi) and to Coltrane’s informing Don DeMicheal in a letter of June 2, 1962: “We have absolutely no reason to worry about lack of positive and affirmative philosophy. It’s built in us. The phrasing, the sound of the music attest this fact” (17).

Bryant, Earle V., ed. Byline Richard Wright: Articles from The Daily Worker and New Masses. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2015.
Such recent dedicated scholarship  as Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s and William J. Maxwell’s F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature serves as a warrant for thinking of contemporary literary and cultural studies as components of a mega-surveillance machine. Readers and critics cooperate, often unwittingly, with publishing conglomerates and official agencies of detection in panoptical activities that exceed the scrutiny imagined by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish or by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism.  Technological progress encourages us to abandon dreams of a liberated future and to accept dystopia as self-evidently “normal.” For Richard Wright scholars, the publication of Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright, Modern Indonesia, and the Bandung Conference (Duke University Press, Spring 2016) by Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher will create an opportunity for more speculation about the function of journalism in Wright’s imagination as well as raising devastating questions about how the journalism of Ida B. Wells and Ishmael Reed assist us to understand what was and is African  American literature. We do need to explore Black print cultures more thoroughly in relation to the production of Black literatures.  In this sense, Earle V. Bryant’s long-awaited Byline Richard Wright has a significant mediating function.
Perhaps financial exigencies are responsible for the University of Missouri Press’s delayed printing of Bryant’s editing and commentary on a number of Wright’s Daily Worker articles from 1937 and the essays “Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite” (1935) and “High Tide in Harlem: Joe Louis as a Symbol of Freedom” (1938) from New Masses.  Bryant, a Professor of English at the University of New Orleans, had been working on this project, very quietly, for more than a decade. The delayed publication does not compromise his effort to map underexplored territory in Wright Studies.  It does, unfortunately, increase the likelihood that his work will get less attention than it deserves.
Giving notice to time and space, as Thadious M. Davis does in Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature (2011), reifies the value of chronology in examining Wright’s growth.  Her methodological choices ensure that we link Wright’s emergence as a journalist with his assignments in subdivisions of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), especially the Illinois Writers Project, without diminishing notice of his simultaneous participation in Chicago’s South Side Writers group and brief membership (1934-35) in the John Reed Club. On the other hand, Bryant chose to arrange the Daily Worker articles by theme ---urban conditions in New York, war in Spain and China, heroism, Marxist interest in the Scottsboro case, and art in the service of life. By avoiding strict chronology, Bryant is able to foreground his insightful analyses of political implications and aesthetic qualities in Wright’s journalism, to tell us many things about the strengths and weaknesses of Wright’s accomplishments. Byline is Bryant’s effort “to bring Wright’s early newspaper work out of obscurity and into the light where it can be read and appreciated” (10).
There is a mixed blessing in Bryant’s book being in our hands after the works by Washington, Maxwell, and Davis, because the rigor of their scholarship sets the bar for critical attention to Wright very high.  Bryant’s work provides an opportunity to think about how African American and left-leaning journalism has been necessarily subversive and critical of efforts to sell the American Dream.  To be sure, Byline encourages more thinking about how subversion operates under surveillance. The minor failure in Bryant’s scholarship, however, is his not supplying a full listing of all the Daily Worker articles Wright wrote and glosses or explanatory footnotes for the articles selected from the full range of what is available.  Yes, students and scholars who might use Bryant’s book can surf the Internet to get information about topical references in the articles, but Bryant would have enhanced the value of his book by supplying them in the text.  It is odd that Bryant chose to say nothing about what Wright might have learned from Frank Marshall Davis about the art of journalism.  It is even odder that H. L. Mencken is not mentioned in Byline, because Wright made a special point of acknowledging his discovery of Mencken in a Memphis newspaper and his indebtedness to the work of Mencken as one of America’s most influential journalists, prose stylists, and social critics. It is baffling why Bryant seems to attribute the claim “All art is propaganda” to Wright on page 215, when it is a widely known that W. E. B. DuBois used that wording in his essay “Criteria of Negro Art” in the October 1926 issue of Crisis. Shortcomings notwithstanding, Byline Richard Wright: Articles from The Daily Worker and New Masses can quicken interest in exploring more profoundly the journalistic aspects of Black Power, The Color Curtain, and Pagan Spain and Richard Wright’s bracing subversiveness. Wright deserves more credit for his prophetic panopticism.

Cobb, Charles E., Jr. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.  New York: Basic Books, 2014. An important contribution to revisionist history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Feynman, Richard. The Character of Physical Law. 1965. New York: Modern Library, 1994.  Feynman’s lectures on gravitation, time, mathematics and physics, symmetry, conservation, probability and uncertainty are quite reader-friendly.  They are especially valuable for what they tell us about the impossibility of having conclusive explanations of anything.
Greene, Brian. The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Greene provides charming and readable explanations for non-scientists of theories regarding observations of how subatomic particles behave. The aesthetic results of his intellectual adventures, however, must be tempered by consideration of human judgment and its limits, by the corrective arguments necessary for critical thinking about the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Thus, reading David Faust’s The Limits of Scientific Reasoning (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) helps us to remember the “inherent limitations of scientific judgment.”
Jeffers, Trellie JamesUp and Down the Greenwood.  San Bernardino, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.  In this novella, Jeffers demonstrates that strong ideas derived from late 19th century nationalism can inform 21st century fiction.
Koritz, Amy and George J. Sanchez, eds.  Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. Arts-based initiatives can simultaneously fail and succeed as they address issues generated by the processes of urbanization and gentrification.
Lewis, Peirce F. New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape. 2nd ed. Santa Fe, NM: Center for American Places, 2003.  This book supplements Lawrence N. Powell’s The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).  Read together, these books create a sobering perspective on how histories, the Mississippi River, and the social geography of New Orleans dovetail with racial tensions and encrusted mythologies which make the city a place of blissful abnormalities.
Plumpp, Sterling D. Home/Bass.  Plumpp is our best living blues/jazz poet.  Home/Bass, his 12th collection of poems, does not disappoint.  In poems that are tributes to the Mississippi/Chicago blues musician Willie Kent (1936-2006), he maximizes the fracturing of words and recombination of particles in short lines in order to  surprise readers into consciousness of the pain-shot courage  always behind and under the blues.
Rampersad, Arnold and David Roessel, eds. Selected Letters of Langston Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.  Beginning with Hughes’s September 5, 1921 letter to his father and ending with his letter of April 22, 1967 to Arna Bontemps, this collection provides a sweeping view of why Hughes is one of the most cosmopolitan and beloved writers of the twentieth century.  If one is of a certain age, one reads these letters with pangs of nostalgia and some regret that the art of writing letters is so rarely cultivated in the twenty-first century.  Hughes’s letters are as captivating as his poems and stories, and they reveal a great amount of information about American and international literary and cultural histories.
Thomas, Ebony E. and Shanesha R. F. Brooks-Tatum, eds. Reading African American Experiences in the Obama Era.  New York: Peter Lang, 2012. These essays are rigorous critiques of metanarratives that shape social thinking and policy.

White, Jane Barber. Lessons Learned from a Poet’s Garden: The Restoration of the Historic Garden of Harlem Renaissance Poet Anne Spencer. Lynchburg, VA: Blackwell Press, 2011.  Rich with poems written long after the Harlem Renaissance transitioned into social reality and extensive photographic documentation of Spencer’s family, house, and famous garden, this excellent book is required reading for anyone who wants to know who Anne Spencer (1882-1975) was as poet, civil rights activist, librarian, and gardener.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.        

June 7, 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Venus Flytrap of Literature Past


By tacit but deliberate accident, the American imagination of dubious color has been attracted to James Baldwin and Richard Wright in 2015.  On March 1, 2015, Ayana Mathis and Pankaj Mishra published “James Baldwin Denounced Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son” as a ‘Protest Novel.’ Was He Right?” in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.  More recently, one finds Benjamin Anastas reporting in The New Republic, May 25, 2015, on his teaching of a course on Wright and Baldwin at Bennington College.  His title “James Baldwin and Richard Wright in the Ferguson Era” is a smokescreen.  There is no Ferguson Era any more than there is a Waco Era.  We just have domestic terrorism and violence that dates back to 1619.  Anastas planned his course “as a chance to revisit the work of two writers who loomed large in African American literature of the twentieth century but who had fallen, in recent years, out of favor and off of syllabi.”  In my circles of inquiry, Baldwin and Wright have never been out of favor, and we think people who make such a claim inhabit a monstrous fib, an item of Vermont fakelore.

Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, believes that Wright’s Native Son “is limited by a circumscribed vision that fails to extend much beyond the novel’s moment in 1940.  Certainly the racism that made Bigger Thomas still exists, but, thank God, Bigger Thomas does not ---he never did.”  She is wrong.  She is right.  Native Son has extended indirectly into the lives of twenty-first century males who are potential targets of selective profiling.  It is true, of course, that the character Bigger Thomas is a construction of words.  The words do not breathe; they have just “lived in” the thinking of many males. Mathis has no obligation to be much concerned with nuances of male matters.

Mishra, on the other hand, does have so gendered an obligation.  Yet, he fails in his reluctance to admit that the protest novel in American English is not some unique property of African Americans but a legacy that extends from James Fennimore Cooper to John Grisham.  It is curious that Mishra embraces Baldwin for unmasking “treacherous clichés in ostensibly noble programs of protest and emancipation” even as he reifies the treacherous cliché of putting Baldwin and Wright into Ralph Ellison’s battle royal.

Anastas admits to being a Baldwinite, but he does recognize Wright’s comments on “police-induced terror” do bear a nightmare relationship to “the United States of Trayvon Martin and ‘Stand Your Ground’.”  What he does not recognize is how complicit he is in what Baldwin identified as the crime of innocence, the state of neither knowing nor wanting to know how one may be an author of human devastation.  Perhaps two or three of his Bennington students were not caught by the Venus flytrap of literature past and were able to detect what lurks in the heart of whiteness.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

June 6, 2015

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Footnote 666

Footnote 666

Law-ordained, ordered arrogance forms
The halos around uniforms, batons, guns,
 Badges, handcuffs, and stuff inform
Novenas for freshly minted killers.
Injustice is all.
This is the way the resolute signs morph
Into rabid symbols after the oaths in blue
Confirm this fraternity shall ruthlessly signify
Innocents are predestined to die.
Injustice is all.
Feral blue uniforms furiously pray
Their prey shall be young, female/male, and black,
Head bowed, silent, hands empty, arms outstretched ---
In truth, a crucifix without a cross.
Injustice is all.
This is America, after all, and air is a snarky, bleached privilege.
 Breath of color whose crime is breathing warrants social death.
This is America, the new post-Eden, and all bluebloody uniforms know
Justice is a brazen nuisance, a dangerous God-fearing whore.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

June 2 situation report

Situation Report from a Culture of Reading, Part 2

To the slave, revolution is an imperative, a love-inspired, conscious act of desperation.  It’s aggressive. It isn’t “cool” or cautious.  It’s bold, audacious, violent, an expression of icy, disdainful hatred!  It can hardly be any other way without raising a fundamental contradiction.
George Jackson, Blood in My Eye (1972)

Serendipity allows you to happen upon humorous insights.  Ralph Ellison was one of the most elegant prose writers of the twentieth-century.  You find aesthetic pleasure in his writing as well as less than obvious evidence of self-contradiction.  From time to time, Ellison was out to brunch.  In his essay “Stephen Crane and the Mainstream of American Fiction” (1960), Ellison justly praised Crane for looking “steadily at the wholeness of American life” and for discovering “far-reaching symbolic equivalents for its unceasing state of civil war.” Fifty-five years later, you find the symbolic equivalents have escaped from the page and refashioned themselves as dedicated efforts to target and murder Black American males (and a lesser number of females), particularly those who are young and unarmed. Patriotic yearnings demand this holocaust.  Ellison nailed the metaphor of war.  When Ellison reviewed Blues People by LeRoi Jones in 1964, he thought Jones erred in giving “little attention to the blues as lyric, as a form of poetry.”  Moreover, Jones placed “the tremendous burden of sociology…upon this body of music” and that error was “enough to give even the blues the blues.”  It may be the case that in this instance Jones was more intelligent than Ellison in bringing historical consciousness to bear upon music and ethos in America’s “state of civil war.”  History not sociology.  It may also be the case that multicultural writing that is worthy of notice in 2015 struggles in the bloody combat zones of Jones/Baraka as a prelude to rest and recuperation in Ellison’s palace of wisdom.  “Writing” values “literature” by signifying on the battlefront.  Like the young Frederick Douglass, Ellison was in a circle that prevented his hearing what he was seeing.
The explanatory narrative of Blues People illuminates certain grounds of existence that have informed and will continue to inform “writing” (nonfiction and fiction) that refuses to tell brazen lies about its parents and kinfolks.  Much to his credit, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka did not compromise with imitations of life.  On the poetic side of the coin, you find such ruthlessness wonderfully crafted witnessing of lived experiences in the blues/jazz poetry of Sterling D. Plumpp, poetry that some blues musicians judge worthy to be transformed for their audiences [listen to Plumpp’s “911” as recorded by Willie Kent on the CD Too Hurt to Cry (Delmark DE 667)]. Flip the coin.  On its fiction/nonfiction/autobiographical side appears The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood (New York: Atria Books, 2015), a memoir that merits pre-future applause and critique.  The book will be available in November.  I take the liberty of quoting some of the pre-publication material:
In the spirit of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, and Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, this powerful memoir by writer and activist Kevin Powell vividly recounts the horrific poverty of his youth, his struggles to overcome a legacy of anger, violence, and self-hatred, and his journey to be a man and a voice for others.

Driven by his single mother’s dreams for his survival and success, Powell became the first in his family to attend a university, where he became a student leader keenly aware of widespread social injustice. But the struggle to define himself and break out of poverty continued into adulthood, with traumatic periods of homelessness and despair. As a young star journalist with Vibe magazine, Powell interviewed luminaries such as Tupac Shakur, writing influential chronicles of the evolution of hiphop from his eyewitness view. Now, with searing honesty, Powell examines his troubled relationships, his appearance on MTV’s first season of “The Real World,” his battles with alcohol and depression, his two campaigns for Congress, and the uplifting trip to Africa that renewed his sense of personal mission. Finally, Powell embarks on a search for the father he never really knew in a redemptive passage from abandonment to self-discovery.

A striking memoir by a child of post-Civil Rights America, The Education of Kevin Powell gives eloquent testimony to the power of the soul to heal.


“Poignant and powerful. This story of Black male life in our patriarchal culture, from boyhood to manhood, is raw and passionate. It offers a true and honest portrait of all that Black males endure to survive and, more importantly, to cope with trauma, and to heal and thrive. It should be read by everyone who claims to care about the fate of Black males in America."
—bell hooks
In my culture of reading, Powell’s book will be juxtaposed with one that appeared seventy years ago, namely Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945).  To recycle words from bell hooks’s blurb, you can say Powell’s book and Wright’s classic autobiography “should be read by everyone who claims to care about the fate of Black males in America.”  The pronoun everyone should include President Obama, all the Republican candidates for 2016, and most certainly Hillary Clinton. And Black Boy serves as the touchstone for measuring Powell’s achievement.  Perhaps we shall be able to say of Powell what Wright said of George Lamming and In the Castle of My Skin (1953): to paraphrase and quote ---“…as an artist,” Powell has “stubborn courage; and in him a new writer takes his place in the literary world.”
Powell, of course, already has a place in the literary world, but that place must be secured again and again by way of transnational commentary and vernacular conversation in the barbershop.  I suspect The Education of Kevin Powell is about something more than the permanent “civil/civic war “in the urban spaces of the United States.  I suspect the book will, if serendipity works, move us to ponder the dynamics of international wretchedness. Our narrative is global not local, although our first order of action must be in our neighborhoods.

Attending to the global sprawl of our concerns is imperative, because international cultural economies do impact what we produce and how we live and/or die.  When we engage contemporary “writing” in fiction, we are obligated to say that street literature has a germinal, historic role in literary politics. Reading Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2014), edited by Keenan Norris, clears away academic tear gas and reveals the challenging diversity of “writing” as it complements the heliocentric desires of “literature.” 
All “writing” is not street literature, and the proof would be such novels as Keenan Norris’s Brother and the Dancer (2013), James E. Cherry’s Shadow of Light (2007), Olympia Vernon’s A Killing in This Town (2006) and Jabari Asim’s forthcoming Only the Strong: An American Novel (Chicago: Bolden, 2015). To be sure, it can be argued, as Norris does, that the “literary” ancestors for street literature include Paul Laurence Dunbar, Raymond Chandler, Ann Petry, Chester Himes, and Dashiell Hammett.  I would add Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell.  Ultimately, whether we “improve” our mindscapes with literature or with writing depends on individual tastes and the suspect ideologies of literary commerce. 
To circle back to the beginning like a novel by James Joyce, I believe that Blues People is as important as Invisible Man or William Melvin Kelley’s Dunsfords Travels Everywheres for grasping how we give meaning to our experiences of temporality, limitations, vices and virtues, and personal actions by constructing episodes.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
June 2, 2015

Monday, June 1, 2015

June 1 situation report

Situation Report from a Culture of Reading, Part 1

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Richard III

Unlike Richard, contemporary readers need not be “subtle, false and treacherous” unto themselves and the worlds they inhabit.  They need not pretend those worlds are either peaceful or private spaces, immune to terrors made with alacrity by other, literate human beings.  The hyperbole of Reginald Martin’s title Everybody Knows What Time It Is becomes a truism in the process of daily reading, especially if what you are reading is not a political document, an analysis of skills, prowess,  and trash talk in one sport or another,  a scientific treatise, or an essay informed by valid evidence.  That is to say, if you are reading what proclaims itself to be “literature,” you are counting privileged nanoseconds of duration.  People who read “writing” count plain minutes of time.  I value writing more than literature, because writing is a more accurate representation (gesture) of how historical consciousness marks off trails. Writing that empowers is often excluded from lists of bestsellers.  So be it.
The writing that is important for my culture of reading does not fit into any single canon, because it follows the Drinking Gourd and quits the merely fashionable, post-whatever plantations of the Western academy and looks for sanctuary elsewhere. Fortunately, a considerable amount of writing in 2015 has abandoned slave space for regions where inevitable “enslavement” is minimal. Anticipate more flight in 2016.  There is no known human space can where writing can locate absolute freedom, but that fact does not preclude noble efforts to discover ideal places of more than four dimensions.  Necessary writing is very comfortable with the advancing theories of physics.
To begin with poetry.  Honorée Fannone Jeffers’s fourth collection The Glory Gets (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015) is valuable blues and womanist testimony regarding the endurance of the abused peoples of the Earth.  As the elders would say, we must be still to carry and absorb the weight of Jeffers’s craft, which doesn’t err in being craft-for-craft’s sake.  We can expect a similar dropping of knowledge in Treasure Shields Redmond’s “Chop: 30 Kwansabas for Fannie Lou Hamer,” which won the Winged City Chapbook Contest; it will be published by Argus House Press in Fall 2015. From LSU Press in November comes All Souls: Essential Poems by Brenda Marie Osbey, a much-needed record of her consistent excellence in a tradition of African American poetry that wants attention. The work that Osbey, Redmond, and Jeffers do to anchor us in remembering is complemented by Philip Kolin’s Emmett Till in Different States (forthcoming from Third World Press).  His book takes us into the Mississippi territory of abrasive recall mapped by Redmond’s tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer.  It can be said that writing by Kolin, Osbey, Redmond, and Jeffers takes us to the spaces where language gives birth to images of iconic moments in America’s violent past.  These images morph into the bullet and blood photographs of the terrible present. And these visuals for the mind’s eye take us to the certain dread of existential futures. As writing, the poetry of now forces us to abandon excuses and assume the onus of reckoning and payback actions.  We do not have to dismiss the recent angles and topologies of ascent claimed by poetry as literature, the motions that flee from or seek to trivialize the fires of the Black Arts Movement legacy.  Such literature can travel to the post-Elizabethan bosom of some ocean of opportunity.  Can it stay there forever is a question without an answer.
Two recent anthologies are devoted to poetry that is more akin to” writing” than to “literature.” What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey and The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), edited by Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall.  From quite different angles, the books deconstruct and reconstruct the once simple idea of “writing” (acting or performing in print). The heavy question that applies to both is: WHAT IS INNOVATIVE POETRY?  The word “innovative” is not an easy substitute for the word “experimental.”  Even if it were, we are required to ask INNOVATIVE FOR WHOM AND ON WHAT GROUNDS? The word must be contextualized so as to expose the motives for using it. C. S. Giscombe’s introduction for What I Say has its own integrity as a statement on aesthetic experimentation; it is rightly addressed to an audience that values “the difficult.” And we get another question: FOR WHOM IS WHAT DIFFICULT?  On the other hand, Kevin Coval’s introduction for The BreakBeat Poets reminds one of the pioneering explanations in Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry. Coval is very clear in saying his anthology is by and for the hip hop generation, a generation that constantly seeks alternative spaces for expression, and that the anthology has an unfinished mission. The debate about the innovative must go forth, and I hope the two anthologies will exist in parahistorical harmony. By the way, “parahistory” is a concept that I attribute to the historian Lerone Bennett.
Part 2 of this situation report will deal with some special narratives.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

June 1, 2015