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 James. Up 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