Black Writing in Print/Digital/Sound Cultures
The Fall 2015 issue of MELUS, co-edited by Joycelyn Moody and Howard Rambsy II, directs attention to the special topic "African American Print Cultures." All of the articles in this issue are noteworthy contributions to the open-ended projects of literary history, for they open vistas on "discovery," "recovery," and "necessity." The last of these three categories of work is the most vexed. While discovery and recovery are standard practices in the sprawling field of black writing, necessity is an ideological jawbone of profound contention. The most cosmopolitan cultural worker may be tempted to abandon her mask of civility and show his true colors when greeted with the question "Is your work necessary?" [ Embedded endnote: The pronominal gender-shift in the previous sentence is capricious and deliberate. It is intended to mark a grave site for where self-inflicted crises in literary discourse has delivered us. ]
All of the articles dealing with "African American Print Cultures" are necessary. Kinohi Nishikawa's "The Archive on Its Own: Black Politics, Independent Publishing, and The Negotiations," however, seems to infuse "necessity" with a subtle discrimination between using print histories to reify "safe" cultural literacy and using them to illuminate the "threatening" social literacy which is often silent or "silenced" in academically approved discussions of black writing and American culture. Nishikawa makes a persuasive case by using principled historical investigation in the Path Press Archive, interpretive sophistication, and common sense "to generate a concrete account of a transitory yet intensely felt social reading practice" (196).
The phrase "social reading practice" reminds one of territory Elizabeth McHenry explored in Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (2002) and of her comment that "Oprah's Book Club and the local book clubs it has inspired can be seen as implicitly participating in contemporary debates about broadening the canon of American literature and expanding ideas about who reads, what is read, and how and where it is discussed" (314). Contemporary reading practices are obviously promoted and influenced by reviews ( or the absence of them) on Amazon.com and comments "friends" share on their Facebook timelines. Commerce in the public social spheres orients notice about what to read to digital domains which include various e-forms , blogs and open-access sites. In the 21st century, social reading practices have a bit more freedom to ignore the sanctity of cloistered canons even as they benefit, often unwittingly, from traditional enterprises of print cultures, from serious and very necessary archival work. Increasingly, the digital spaces invite readers to supplement the processing of literature by listening to reggae, blues, jazz, funk, pop, hip hop, and dozens of other musical/sound manifestations. One might guess that black writing (printed or digitized) as well as sanctified canons of African American literature will continue to flourish. One might also guess that future scholars of black writing will be thoroughly conversant with the print, the digital, and the oral/aural. They shall discover, recover, and affirm the necessity of non-academic social reading practices
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. September 21, 2015 PHBW blog