When We Endorse, the Devil Finds Work
If the term agent provocateur can be transformed to yield a positive meaning, it is to be noted that Howard Rambsy II is an American cultural scholar who succeeds in doing so. Since 2013, he has consistently provoked readers of his "Cultural Front" blogspot to think about what is debilitating, what is neutral, and what is wholesome in American cultural commerce. His July 30, 2015 entry "From Baldwin to Morrison & Coats: a brief history of endorsements" is typical.
Rambsy invites us to reread the letter "Black Writers in Praise of Toni Morrison" (New York Times, January 24, 1988), a tribute signed by 48 scholars, writers, and artists who proclaimed: "Your gifts to us have changed and made more gentle our real time together. And so we write, here, hoping not to delay, not to arrive, in any way, late with this, our simple tribute to the seismic character and beauty of your writing. And furthermore, in grateful wonder at the advent of "Beloved" you most recent gift to our community, our country, our conscience, our courage flourishing as it grows, we here record our pride, our respect and our appreciation for the treasury of your findings and invention." The prose was purple; the sentiment, genuine. The urgency of the letter was prompted by recognizing that James Baldwin "never received the honor of these keystones to the canon of American literature: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize: never." When Baldwin's funeral was held on December 8, 1987, Morrison did not have these keystones in her hands.
The letter is an intra-ethnic endorsement of Morrison's achievements. It is crucial for interpretation of American cultural history to notice it was published in the New York Times rather than in the Baltimore Afro-American or the Philadelphia Defender.
Rambsy provokes me to wonder to what extent the letter reiterates the yearnings of James Weldon Johnson's 1921 and 1931 prefaces for The Book of American Negro Poetry. I wonder how the act gives substance to the shadow of contradiction. Why after being accorded respect by some Americans did Morrison need to be "canonized" by other Americans associated with the so-called mainstream literary establishment or thought-and taste-control mafia? One easy answer: canonization brings a few dollars as well as placement in the fluid list that complements a redefined American literary history. Fate or luck or accident ultimately ordained that Morrison would receive a global keystone. It is reasonable to surmise that the letter assisted Fate.
When Rambsy draws attention to what has occurred in 2015, skepticism dawns. He quotes only a portion of Toni Morrison's blurb for Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. The blurb in full reads:
"I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates's journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading."
I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Morrison's expression, for I recognize that what plagued her did not plague everyone between 1987 and 2015. Reading W. E. B. DuBois, Margaret Walker, Cornel West, Kalamu ya Salaam, Michelle Alexander, Arnold Rampersad, Amiri Baraka, Lorenzo Thomas, bell hooks, Tom Dent, Houston Baker, Angela Davis, Trudier Harris, Richard Wright and others did not allow me to have a sense that an intellectual void existed. I chose to seek critical insights rather than redemption and undelivered moral comfort
What I'll want to determine, once I read Coates's book, is something about the tension which results from his directing readers to Wright in the title and using the epistolary form in the contents which evokes Baldwin. I suspect most reviewers are comfortable with the moral distance or "transcendent freedom" that can be had from reading someone's letter to a nephew or a son. That kind of reading is less painful than dealing with a kind of direct association with horror that Wright demands. That is the key. The more Coates is characterized as a new embodiment of Baldwin, the less one has to suffer what Wright demanded that women and men must suffer to render life meaningful. My embrace of Wright obviously sets me apart from Coates's reviewers who seek to minimize the sharing of pain by attributing its force mainly to the victims (black people) and less so to those who perpetuate reasons (thug-terrorists domestic and global) for the body to be in pain. Should I discover that Coates does not examine the hazards and hopes of male, female and other-gendered life, I shall be assured that he is not a clone of James Baldwin but a thinker who stands on the shoulders of giants and projects a vision that is not naively transcendent.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. August 3, 2015