Tacit Knowing/Explicit Knowledge
Tom Dent's one-act Ritual Murder (1967), first performed in 1976, is a classic of Black South drama . Dent minimized plot and depended on the Narrator's investigation and the individual testimonials of type-cast characters (the wife, the public school teacher, the boss, the anti-poverty program administrator, the mother and father, the chief of police, a black psychiatrist, the victim and the murderer) to sketch a communal story. His verbal economy is effective. The only action is focused speech. Spectators can experience the play as an investigative tool, a device for analyzing a familiar event in modern life: African American men killing African American men. As we move from the particular to the general, especially in 2015, we recognize that what demands investigation is why in the United States officers of the law take pathological pleasure in killing unarmed civilians inside and outside of prisons (literal and figurative) and why our nation's primary story (myth) is one of death, dying and despairing rather than one of life, living and loving.
Thanks to the unrelenting immediacy of visual and verbal evidence, we have no escape route from a most disturbing question: in which place of human habitation will the next accidental or intended "ritual murder" occur and necessitate our speaking the words "lives matter"? In 2015, we are condemned to knowing that our beloved democracy is a cuckoo's nest. Just as Ken Kesey could not predict that his 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest would become emblematic of American history, Tom Dent could not be certain that his play would universal applicability in the United States and beyond.
What Dent did know, however, was that Ritual Murder figuratively incorporates its audience. Written in the early years of what we now call the Black Arts Movement, the play provokes those who witness it to speak at the end of the performance. Even spectators who refuse to speak become characters in a theatrical ritual. Ultimately, Ritual Murder is metadrama, i.e., a play that explains how a play may have a socially engaged purpose. Thus, it is at once a local (New Orleans) and a transcendent example of art for life, or in the more familiar wording of the Black Arts Movement, the indivisibility of art and politics.
It is noteworthy that Dent remixed elements of tragedy as described in Aristotle's Poetics with some of the dark, biting humor Bertolt Brecht used in writing the libretto for The Threepenny Opera (1928). The aesthetic effect of Ritual Murder is cool and unsettling. It does not provoke fear and pity; its performance does not lead spectators to have any feeling of catharsis, of being purged and cleansed. On the contrary, because one witnesses the collection and broadcasting of opinions about the crime rather than specific visual details about Joe Brown's knifing his friend James Roberts on a Saturday night, one feels moved to have compassionate disinterest. One experiences the frustration of the need to clarify a recurring social problem that defies resolution.
For some of its readers,
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.
will produce renewed interest in problems that we can't resolve. The book is an invitation to think about how a moment in American cultural history still compels us to deal with the implications of human knowledge. Such thinking can benefit from a possibility set forth by Michael Polanyi in The Study of Man (1959). Polanyi proposed that written knowledge is "only one kind of knowledge; while unformulated knowledge, such as we have of something we are in the act of doing, is another form of knowledge. If we call the first kind explicit knowledge, and the second, tacit knowledge, we may say that we always know tacitly that we are holding our explicit knowledge to be true. If, therefore, we are satisfied to hold a part of our knowledge tacitly, the vain pursuit of reflecting ever again on our own reflections no longer arises" (12). Such anthologies as SO--Calling All Black People suggest our ability to forget is stronger than our capability to remember. They serve as forms of explicit knowledge to help us with the job of tacit knowing, because reflecting on what we have failed to remember is not a vain pursuit. Common sense instructs us that we need to remember and use works created by the artists and thinkers of the Black Arts Movement.
Weighing in at 666+ pages, SOS---Calling All Black People might be one of the primary texts in community or academic seminar, an investment in remembering that might include Black Fire (1968), edited by LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry (1976) by Eugene B. Redmond, The Black Aesthetic (1971), edited by Addison Gayle, Jr., The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (2011) by Howard Rambsy II, and The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005) by James Edward Smethurst. Arnold Rampersad's recommending that the anthology can "add immeasurably to our ability to understand and teach a crucial aspect of modern African American and American literary history" is wonderful as far as colleges and university might be concerned, but out-of-school people deserve to share its wealth. They are the troubled citizens who can benefit most from the renewal of tacit knowing, from considering how an anthology assassinates time and freezes particular "documents" for everyday use.
The book has five major sections ----1) theory/criticism, 2) statements of purpose, 3) poetry, 4) drama, and 5) fiction/narrative---and concludes with commentary by James G. Spady , John H. Bracey, and Audre Lorde. In the introduction, the editors inform us the anthology is intended to provide access to "the ideological, aesthetic, and geographical scope of the movement"(10). The editors went a step beyond on September 17, 2015 in modeling how to contextualize this access in a panel "First Fires & the Black Arts Movement in the South" at the Sonja Haynes Center, University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill.
The book provides a great amount of material for study, but it falls short in matters of identification and internal contextualizing. This failure may be a result of haste in making editorial decisions. For example, the book does not have an index, the apparatus needed for quick comparison with other indexed compilations or for highlighting areas of emphasis. The book does not provide notes on contributors. Younger readers may be familiar with the names Amiri Baraka, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks, but they may need to visit the Internet to discover who were Carolyn Gerald [Carolyn Fowler], Ebon Dooley, Ahmos Zu-Bolton, Joe Goncalves, A. B. Spellman, and Henry Dumas. People of a certain age who belong to special communities of reading need no special assistance in knowing why Ronald Milner, Louise Meriwether, Tom Dent, James G. Spady, and Sam Cornish are important, but it is wrongheaded to assume general readers will possess such knowledge.
Those readers do need the apparatus or metadata commonly used in the best contemporary anthologies. Moreover, serious scholarship is obligated, for example, to provide more than a single descriptive paragraph to cast light on such documents as "NKOMBO, Food for Thought," "Southern Black Cultural Alliance, By-Laws," and "Umbra, Foreword to Issue 1.1." Indeed, scholarship demands some annotation regarding Tom Dent's formative role in the intellectual process of bringing Umbra, Southern Black Cultural Alliance , and NKOMBO into being. Yes, we can turn to books by James Smethurst and Howard Rambsy; to The Cambridge History of African American Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); to New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006), edited by Lisa Gail Collins and Margo Natalie Crawford; to Tony Bolden's Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), and to many journal articles for supplemental information. But the habits taken for granted within academic settings may not obtain when SOS--Calling All Black People circulates in more public communities of reading and discussing and agonizing over the recurrent issues and problems of African American life (and indeed all lives) in the United States of America. The editors might have used their tacit knowing to anticipate such a possibility.
This editorial shortcoming does not undermine the invaluable contribution of the anthology as a resource for dealing with seismic and paradigm shifts in American culture. And it is probable that like Tom Dent's Ritual Murder, SOS---Calling All Black People will be welcomed as an investigative tool for examining contemporary American pathologies which unite politics and art.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
October 20, 2015