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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

evasion and digital humanities


Evasion and Digital Humanities

 

                The 2015 Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities forum "Peripheries, barriers, hierarchies: rethinking access, inclusivity, and infrastructure in global DH practice," September 24-26, generated productive, open-ended questions about the future of DH.  It also broadcast warnings we ought not ignore.  As a field, DH has expanded beyond easy definition;  the only consensus is that scholars and other cultural workers are using new technologies and methodologies to do academic and non-academic work.  It should be noted, however, that some  fear of the "political" seems to be widespread within the field, although I'd point out that DH is an integral part of polis or the body politic. It generates its own version of "politics" by accident and design.  In this sense, the word "inclusivity" in the thematic description of the forum embodies a crucial code.  People who are making inquiries about African American literature and culture ought to deal with the code as a fair warning.  It is a good reason to step back, slow down, and rethink what is progressive and regressive (i.e., neo-colonial) in an operative sense, a reason highlighted by the University of Kansas.

Amy Earhart's presentation "Take Back the Narrative: Rethinking the History of Diverse Digital Humanities" was directly relevant to the mission and vision of the Project on the History of Black Writing.  and her reference to the developing  Charles Chesnutt Archive directed us to a model of what should be done at various institutions for individual writers.  From a different angle, Amardeep Singh's discussion "The Archive Gap: the Digital Humanities and the Western Canon" mapped another path to be taken.  His blog on race, the canon, and digital humanities provides quite useful commentary on how barriers and hierarchies must be navigated in serious examination of black writing texts and contexts. These two presentations highlighted why performative frames do matter.

Jacqueline Wernimont's "Performing archives: sensitive data, social justice, and the performative frame. " was an excellent example of how caution must be exercised in using digital means to document "histories" that require us to face  the horrors and shame of the past.  Her use of digital technology to give us sonic and haptic representations of data suggested that good intentions can slip into forms of evasion. Decontextualized  sound and  touch can preclude confronting  what horrors were attached to eugenics and the forced modification of a person's reproductive organs. Had she not provided ample context about her project on documenting sterilization in California, we would have thought her use of sound and a string one could touch was an effort to create postmodern art rather than an effort to show maximum respect for the victims of sterilization. Consider how counter-productive it would be to allow digital paintings based on photographs of lynching to replace the photographic evidence of how a 1919 Ellisville, Mississippi lynching was advertised .  We should not condone evasions in DH that wear the mask of respect for victims or that aestheticize our visceral and rational analyses of what happened.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    September 29, 2015

PHBW BLOG

 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Racial Recognition


A Frisson of Racial Recognition

 

November 21, 2015 marks the fifth anniversary of my outlining the structure of READING RACE READING AMERICA, a project that began long ago under the title "Responsible Iconoclasms."  The book will have four parts:  I. Autobiofragments, II. Evidence of Things Once Seen, III. Exploding Language and Beautiful Minds, and IV. Pre-future Beginnings and a total of twenty-two essays.  Twelve of the essays have been completed, and eight of those have been published.  The book is still in-progress for many reasons.  My nation is so preoccupied with "race," the legacy of European irrationality, that writing about a subject I have lived with for seventy-two years is downright draining and dreadful.  How should daemonic arguments be segregated from emotive platitudes?  Writing about race is the great staple of American publishing.  Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask whether the world needs one more book on the subject.  Where is the redeeming value of the terrible subject  located?

As I revisit the outline, the paradoxical  answer is nowhere and everywhere.  Perhaps I should continue the project once I have finished co-authoring WORDS AND BEING with Reginald Martin. A frisson of racial recognition encourages me to continue, because so-called white Americans know as much about their being people of color as a horse knows the date of its birth.  Like Oedipus, they have blinded themselves to see better, and the cruelest joke is that the majority of them  see nothing that evolved human beings would deem worth seeing.  READING RACE READING AMERICA should eventually be in print to remind them that blindness is a blessing from their God.  They are not the Chosen; they are the Yet-To-Be-Created,  promises from Walt Whitman, William James, Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and James Baldwin notwithstanding. And my thankless task is to create the features of their faces.

The book requires no raison d'être, because the histories of lynching and systemic domestic terrorisms,  election and re-election of Barack Obama, a Kenyan American,  as our President, American government's repeated  authorizations of capitalist criminality, and the current spectacle of Donald Trump are necessary and sufficient contextual  justifications. The progressive decay of American democratic values deserves nothing less than the absurdity of existential laughter. READING RACE READING AMERICA will provide generous measures of such laughter.  The essays will cover the benign genocide implicit in America's racial contract, William Faulkner's protest fictions, the deceptive ends of American educations, the prototypical status of Hurricane Katrina narratives, the failure of American satire, and the sublime paradox of race.  It would be unpatriotic for me to deny my nation the feast it has labored since 1619 to purchase at a cosmic restaurant.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.     September 29, 2015

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Innovations


Innovations

 

Three anthologies

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

Nielsen, Aldon Lynn and Lauri Ramey, eds.  Every Goodbye Ain't Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry.  Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.

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

send us on a mission of tackling difficult w(hole)s by way of revisiting the frames established by Stephen Henderson ( Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, 1972) and  Eugene B.  Redmond (Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History, 1976).

Forty years ago, Henderson could assume that African Americans shared something in common regarding how they did something in language and listened to music, the language and the music being shaped by profound shared experiences of life in the United States of America ; Redmond could assume, quite legitimately, that a folk spirit hovered "over the whole of Afro-American literary and cultural life ---sometimes calling it to its tasks, other times providing it with just the needed lift and magic (16). Forty years later, the frames  ---mission, speech, music ---remain valid as abstractions. It is our use of the frames that has changed dramatically over time; our uses of these frames will always specify our allegiances both ideological and aesthetic.  How we deal with the concrete totality of poetry, or with the slippery labels we attach to its manifest fragments, throws violent light on what human beings do not assume  in common.  If poetry matters in 2015, it matters in concert with "@#life matters."

In the interim between 1976 and 2001, the first year of a new century, the positioning of new black poetry was admirably represented by

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

a Sankofa book, acknowledging fidelity to mission as well as inevitable change in speech and music. To be sure, one could find innovation in this anthology, but innovation was not its primal feature.  Historicized unity within diversity was the major concern.  A decade later, increased attention to the experimental as a mark of diversity and personal freedom  exploded.  More overt  attention to the individual talent and less to tradition seasoned  poetry in the performance spaces of page and stage.  New assumptions, quite unlike those of Henderson and Redmond, came into play.  Innovation assumed urgency in gestures to promote inclusion in the making of American poetry.

The question "What is innovation?" is not trivial, even if it is asked in our Age of Implacable Terrorisms, but the better question under such conditions is a forking one:  "How and why  does innovation occur?" Considered as parts of ongoing projects to discover what is "representative," Every Goodbye Ain't Gone and What I Say (two units of a whole)  complement The BreakBeat Poets.  At the same time, the three anthologies prompt our asking why the profound innovation of Asili Ya Nadhiri's "tonal drawings written in poetic form" is such an interesting absence.  Literature, especially poetry, is like light; it is at once wave and particles, artifact (what a poet creates)  and event (an unpredictable process involving materiality and sensation for a poet's audiences).  In order to be innovative, it is essential  that a work effect conceptual or epistemological difference rather than superficial visual or/and auditory difference. This is how innovation occurs.  Why do they occur?  Innovations happen because human beings abhor stasis, the boredom of aural or visual static. 

The absence of Nadhiri's  tonal drawings, and work by a few other poets who refuse to be properly unorthodox,   allows one to suspect that the counter-establishment also has tacit  rules of exclusion.  Even if that is not the case, the absence does serve to emphasize, yet once again,  that any anthology is a limited representation, a sampling that creates grounds for broader explorations.

 In the instance of What I Say, the  subtitle "  Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America" places the contributors in a national matrix, whereas  the subtitle "An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans" assigned to Every Goodbye Ain't Gone associates poets with genre, special interest groups among American poets,  and technique.  Thus, in 2006, Nielsen and Ramey justified their enterprise as "a break from the established disciplinary modes, a break from regnant pecking orders, and a breakthrough"( xxi)  for the period 1945 to approximately 1977. What is emphasized is both inter- and intra- dynamics of ignoring and excluding.  The justification for What I Say as a continuation of the original project  in 2015 is of quite a different order. "One of the crucial contributions of this volume, then," according to Nielsen and Ramey, "will be to provide a much broader context for understanding the poetic innovations  of the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, permitting readers to map the independent routes by which various poets reached their particular modes of aesthetic experimentation "(xiv).  It is most strategic that they did not write the introduction about independent routes but gave that task to C. S. Giscombe, who fulfilled it with "Making Book: Winners, Losers, Poetry, Anthologies, and the Color Line," his 2007 MLA presentation for a panel on "Poetry, Race, Aesthetics."  I urge readers to scrutinize  Giscombe's introduction to discover what is currently the price of inclusion.

It is noteworthy that The BreakBeat Poets anthology represents a bolder taking of risks than does What I Say, primarily because it seems to return with maximum energy to the mapping of cultural utterances made in the Powell and Baraka anthology; one might have  discovered  follow-though mappings  in

Medina, Tony and Louis Reyes Rivera, eds. Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam.  New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.

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.

Rivera, Louis Reyes and Bruce George, eds. The Bandana Republic: A Literary Anthology by Gang Members and Their Affiliates.  Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2008.

Given that Douglas Kearney has work on pages 86-92 of What I Say and pages 117-126 of The BreakBeat Poets, it seems apparent that innovation as innovation simply ignores the artificial boundaries that literary discourses have not completely abandoned and re-valorizes William Melvin Kelley's message that Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970).  One expects nothing more and nothing less from a book which represents "New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop."  Although neo-capitalism has co-opted and reductively "objectified"  many aspects of hip-hop, it has failed to eradicate the ancient collective spirit Eugene B. Redmond alluded to in Drumvoices or the referential power of speech and music Henderson evoked in Understanding the New Black Poetry.  The work collected in this anthology is nothing short of mind-blasting; it is an arsenal of aesthetic weaponry for the creation of new verbal and visual orders in this world.  It does not disappoint in effecting Kevin Coval's hope that the book is "a piece of the growing discourse on how art can be used to create a fresher world, a useful tool to further and extend and generate conversations in classrooms and ciphers, on the corner, in living rooms, in institutions, and in the renegade spaces young people carve out for themselves despite state control....This is a prayer book and a shank, concrete realism and abstracted futurism" (xxii).

Through the conduit of innovations, ashé complements amen!  If poetry matters in 2015, it matters in concert with "@#life matters."

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

September 22, 2015

Monday, September 21, 2015

On a novel by Lance Jeffers


 

Racialized Morality in Lance Jeffers’ Witherspoon

 

                One main idea in my commentaries on African American literature pertains to how the traffic in race (or if you prefer, racial discourses in the United States) stands in defiance of the caution that scientific research would impose on discussions of human endeavors. [1] Obviously, the word “race” refers to a concept in classification schemes that lacks strong empirical backing; evidence from DNA tests, for example, challenges the legitimacy of casual talk about the concept.  From the perspective of modern science, “race” is a concept that has limited value. On the other hand, in the United States of America, “race” is a devastatingly powerful tool for achieving a virtual reality of unity, for maintaining various ideologies of power, and for keeping a nation bemused about how it is constituted.  Americans persist in speaking reductively of race in binary terms of black and white, especially in forms of mass communication that are blatantly political and in works of literature that critics argue are aesthetic.  In this sense, the concept of race has profound consequences for how we read what purports to be non-fiction and for how we read novels that are forthright in revealing their origins in a racialized matrix.  The most famous novel is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885); an example that is closer to our own time but virtually unknown is Lance Jeffers’ novel Witherspoon (1983).[2]

                Literary analysis, the thinking which obtains in our reading of literature, should ultimately see race as a social fiction that has metaphysical properties.  Race is imprinted in the consciousness of Americans.  It complicates our grasping of many things that are not overtly announced in American literature, particularly its moral dimensions.   The color coding of race is refracted in American literature through the ineluctable presence of the Other, the person who is different.  Toni Morrison used a most creative critical rhetoric to secure that point in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. The color coding can most effectively delude readers who protest that they are colorblind.  It is not an accident that if such readers seek to describe major American poetry, they tend to focus on examples marked by whiteness.  And I doubt it is an accident that Eric Sundquist’s study To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature does not have the term “morality” in its index. Nevertheless, it is impossible to have a serious discussion of American literature as a vast body of works without attending to the intersection of race and morality, even when “race” wears the mask of “ethnicity” or “multiculturalism.”

                It is conceivable that we might find instances of American literature that are devoid of race, but those instances would be the purest forms of science fiction. They would not be realistic.  Our guilt and our race-driven impulses dispose many American readers to prefer works that roll over them like water on Teflon rather than works that pinch human consciousness.  But non-trivial, realistic works from any culture do seem to bite moral consciousness.  Within the field of twentieth-century African American literature, it might be argued few writers have agonized more thoroughly about the nexus of morality and race, about racialized morality than Lance Jeffers (1919-1985).  Like Toni Morrison’s well-known Beloved, his novel Witherspoon makes us uncomfortable with our complacency.

                Best known as a poet and for his achievements in the collections My Blackness is the Beauty of This Land (1970), When I Know the Power of My Black Hand (1974), O Africa, Where I Baked My Bread (1977) and Grandsire (1979), his accomplishment as a fiction writer is not be slighted.  He did, after all, have his short story “The Dawn Swings In” published in The Best American Short Stories 1948.  In 1983, he published Witherspoon, a novel that keeps good company with ‘Sippi by John Oliver Killens and Meridian by Alice Walker.[3]  Jeffers’ novel, which focuses on the protracted struggle of Reverend Lucius Witherspoon in deciding what is the right thing to do, stands up well among other realistic works set in the Civil Rights period.  It deals relentlessly with the human fragility and doubt that are so often effectively veiled by heroic public action.

                In broad outline, Witherspoon resembles an amplification of the plot sketched in Richard Wright’ s short story “Fire and Cloud, ” devoid of the specific  Marxist implications.  Like Wright’s Reverend Taylor, Jeffers’ Reverend Witherspoon has to face how moral considerations are positioned and repositioned in the American South by the inevitable presence of race. The major question in both works is “What is the right thing to do?”  Wright and Jeffers historicize the moral dilemmas by showing that they cannot be resolved outside the circle of American racial dynamics.  Both authors complicate matters by suggesting Christianity can render black male characters impotent, unable to commit necessary acts,  unless the characters radically and racially reinterpret  Christian belief and its moral imperatives. Taylor and Witherspoon are ministers, but the narrative constructions of their personalities, their psychologies, are remarkably different.  All African American preachers are not alike.  Jeffers and Wright defamiliarize the stereotype of the black preacher by portraying Taylor and Witherspoon as tormented individuals.  Jeffers focuses more strongly than Wright on complex depiction of the preacher’s conscience in the making of moral choices.  Witherspoon is a dramatic instance of how the writer’s poetic and aesthetic choices can triumph over the clichéd response readers are likely to give any novel that on the surface seems to be about civil rights and race relations.  Wright feared many readers of his story got off the hook by way of pity and tears.  Jeffers, on the other hand, throws readers into the pitiless depths of internally and externally determined morality, i.e., morality racialized.  Jeffers’ fictional strategies ensure that we grasp why the usual black/white dichotomy undermines claims for the universal and transcendent workings of virtue.

In our most simplistic readings of the drama of twentieth-century civil rights struggles, we may mistakenly conclude that it was moral superiority  (the non-violent resistance strategies Martin Luther King, Jr. and others adapted from the praxis of Gandhi) that won the fight. This is but one part of a complicated history of struggle.  For Lance Jeffers, however, it was right action chosen by individuals rather than right action chosen by groups that was crucial.  It is  because Lucius Witherspoon is not portrayed as a melodramatic hero that our engagement with the particulars of racialized morality can be so intense in reading the novel.  The novel’s deepest  unsettling question is: How is a black man to behave?  By Witherspoon’s own measure, the daring men and the defiant men (Willie Armstrong, Corwul and others) are models of black manhood. These men are, like the God of the Old Testament, men of war; they do not imitate the meek Christ of the New Testament.  Witherspoon’s  own moral growth results in accepting the dangers of obligation, in burying the dead with dignity (in the face of threatened white mob action) and in assisting a rebel marked for certain death to escape and find relative safety in Atlanta, Georgia.  Witherspoon’s growth depends very much on recognizing the essential impotence of conventional “wisdom in the South in the time of temper and temperament and terror”(78).  He has to recognize the immorality of pragmatic compromise and how Reason, abstracted from the concreteness of a situation, does not necessarily underwrite or validate morality.  Witherspoon would be untrue to himself if he were  to assume moral decisions can be made outside the parameters of the concrete.

In partial support of this assertion, I offer two observations that Lance Jeffers made about the function of literature and David Theo Goldberg’s description of how race and morality are symbiotic in American society, a description made ten years after Witherspoon was published.  In the essay “The Death of the Defensive Posture: Toward Grandeur in Afro-American Letters” (1970), Jeffers proposed:

The black writer of the seventies, battling to free his people, will continue the noble tradition of his predecessors: to face down hell and see through it and beyond it in the name of man.  But the black writer of the seventies will go even further.  He will explore the unexplored continent of himself and his people, will seek out the hidden caves and springs of beauty and hell, will seek out the hell and the complexity within his bones and with the viscera of his people.  He has had the courage to stand fast  before the American hell; now he will further explore, without flinching, his own nature and the nature of his people, unafraid of what he will find, disregarding the negative response of any man.  Self-discovery is painful; the black writer will not shrink from the pain of self-discovery”(259-260).

                In “To Sharpen the Sword of Our Struggle” (1983), the keynote address for the fifth and last National Conference of Afro-American Writers at Howard University, Jeffers contented that this hell-facing literature would be moral.

Good literature is moral.  And immoral or amoral literature is wretched and failed literature, however fluent, however polished, however it attracts the praise of the white literary establishment, which is essentially racist, whose perceptions and principle and goals are quite different from ours.  For good literature is moral, and the morality of good literature is not degeneracy, however cloaked in polish, however dramatic; the morality of good literature is the cause of human evolution, external and internal; and, to Blackfolk, the cause is also political power which effectively seizes respect (7).

                Against Jeffers’ poetic and idealist formulations about morality, exploration, and the work of fiction, one should place David T. Goldberg’s cool and rational description in Racist Culture of how the modern moral order seems to function:

As Hobbes noted, a moral order permits those expressions it does not explicitly prohibit.  In the case of discriminatory exclusions it can be conclude more strongly that what the moral order fails explicitly to exclude it implicitly authorizes.  The moral formalism of modernity establishes itself as the practical application of rationality, as the rational language and the language of rationality in its practical application.  Modernist moralism is concerned principally with a complete, rationally derived system of self-justifying moral reasons logically constructed from a single basic principle.  But in ignoring the social fabric and concrete identities in virtue of which moral judgment and reason are individually effective, in terms of which the very content of the moral categories acquires its sense and force, moral modernity fails to recognize the series of exclusions upon which the state of modernity is constituted.

Thus, Goldberg can insist persuasively that “the colonizing of the moral reason of modernity by racialized categories has been effected for the most part by constituting racial others outside the scope of morality” (39).  In short, the Other conjured in the European imagination after the Enlightenment is banished from the realm of morality and has no entitlement to make moral decisions, except in some unspeakable realm of existence.

                I link Jeffers’ poetic vision of what good fiction should do with Goldberg’s vexed description of European moral hegemony in order to re-establish the grounds on which Frantz Fanon discussed “racism and culture” in 1956.  From the angles of psychology and cultural anthropology, Fanon was so accurate about the systemic nature of race and racism as permanently linked theory and practice. I will try to make my point in language less convoluted than that used by Jeffers and Goldberg.

                Witherspoon as a novel articulates the title character’s moral agon externally in just the frame of impossibility that Goldberg sketches.  The frame of impossibility also has psychological consequences that have to be dealt with in a writer’s construction of character. The geography of the American South is the site for Witherspoon’s making of moral choices, but Witherspoon’ s agency is not constrained by that geography.  The ultimate site wherein his moral agency is operative is his mind as that is represented in the novel.  His mind and his will are not imprisoned by the terms of exclusion implicit in what Goldberg describes as the modern moral order.  His agency operates in a frame of African American moral values that have long struggled to be more than verbal assertions or confirmations of a flawed Western moral order of things.  Close attention to how decisions about good and evil have been depicted in African American novels that fit into the modes of realism in fiction does invite us to consider what racialized morality ordains.

 

 What Jeffers makes his readers face, rather brutally, is that African American morality, historically understood, sometimes supplements and sometimes opposes the announced values of Western morality.  African American morality is often stronger because it is constituted more in action than in language.  Within the African American frame it is the doing rather than the saying that counts.  The testing of accountability, which I take to be one of the objectives Jeffers had in mind as he thought about good literature, is remarkably conducted in the person of the black preacher Witherspoon. The novel exploits the African American  tradition of Christian critique that was powerful in fiction and non-fiction until the last two decades of the twentieth century.  Why and how it has now diminished is a topic for a different lecture.

                I have deliberately not made a plot summary of Witherspoon or mentioned the special moral anxiety Witherspoon must deal with regarding adultery.  I do not want to spoil the reading of Witherspoon, the thrill of discovering exactly what Jeffers meant when he used the wording “facing down hell.”  My remarks are an invitation to test through one’s own reading how this virtually ignored novel gets at the matter of racialized morality. One clue for discovery, I will say, is in Witherspoon’s recognition of his double in the man he is helping to escape certain death at the hands of a lynch mob and in his reconciliation of his outer and inner selves.

                In Witherspoon, Jeffers was trying to deal with why race and racial problems are positioning agents in the making of moral judgments.  He succeeds very well in tantalizing readers to ask why many characters in our racially complex American literature might be called ethical criminals.[4] Witherspoon is indeed a novel that should be reprinted and made available for critical reading.

WORKS CITED

Goldberg, David Theo.  Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993.

Jeffers, Lance.  “The Death of the Defensive Posture: Toward Grandeur in Afro-American Letters.” The Black Seventies. Ed. Floyd B. Barbour. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1970. 253-263.

____________. “To Sharpen the Sword of Our Struggle.” SAGALA No.4 (1984): 4-11.

____________. Witherspoon.  Atlanta: George A. Flippin Press, 1983.

 

 



[1] Even within the hard sciences, “race” can be a minor issue. Irresponsible use of the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) database by people who do work in genetics can  produce ethical arguments regarding “racial profiling” or use of genetics in the service of racial predictability.  See Newsome, Melba. “The Inconvenient  Science of Racial DNA Profiling.” Wired, October 5, 2007. http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/207/10
 
[2] Twain made the racialized matrix quite explicit in describing Huckleberry Finn’s crisis of conscience regarding his agency in assisting the fugitive slave Jim. The crisis is brought to a clear focus in Chapter XVI when Huck feels extreme guilt for doing the wrong thing in helping Jim to escape slavery and equal guilt for doing the right thing in lying about Jim’s racial identity to save him from being captured by slave catchers. Thus, Twain exposed the hypocrisy of Christianity and the institution of slavery.
[3] It is noteworthy that Witherspoon is not mentioned in Bernard W. Bell’s The Contemporary African American Novel  (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), in The Cambridge History of African American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) or in Thadious M. Davis’ Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011)
[4] For a provocative discussion of this subject, see Hayes, Floyd W.”The Paradox of the Ethical Criminal in Richard Wright’s Novel  The Outsider: A Philosophical Investigation.” APA Newsletter 11.1 (Fall 2011): 16-22.

 

Racialized Morality in Lance Jeffers’ Witherspoon

 

                One main idea in my commentaries on African American literature pertains to how the traffic in race (or if you prefer, racial discourses in the United States) stands in defiance of the caution that scientific research would impose on discussions of human endeavors. [1] Obviously, the word “race” refers to a concept in classification schemes that lacks strong empirical backing; evidence from DNA tests, for example, challenges the legitimacy of casual talk about the concept.  From the perspective of modern science, “race” is a concept that has limited value. On the other hand, in the United States of America, “race” is a devastatingly powerful tool for achieving a virtual reality of unity, for maintaining various ideologies of power, and for keeping a nation bemused about how it is constituted.  Americans persist in speaking reductively of race in binary terms of black and white, especially in forms of mass communication that are blatantly political and in works of literature that critics argue are aesthetic.  In this sense, the concept of race has profound consequences for how we read what purports to be non-fiction and for how we read novels that are forthright in revealing their origins in a racialized matrix.  The most famous novel is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885); an example that is closer to our own time but virtually unknown is Lance Jeffers’ novel Witherspoon (1983).[2]

                Literary analysis, the thinking which obtains in our reading of literature, should ultimately see race as a social fiction that has metaphysical properties.  Race is imprinted in the consciousness of Americans.  It complicates our grasping of many things that are not overtly announced in American literature, particularly its moral dimensions.   The color coding of race is refracted in American literature through the ineluctable presence of the Other, the person who is different.  Toni Morrison used a most creative critical rhetoric to secure that point in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. The color coding can most effectively delude readers who protest that they are colorblind.  It is not an accident that if such readers seek to describe major American poetry, they tend to focus on examples marked by whiteness.  And I doubt it is an accident that Eric Sundquist’s study To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature does not have the term “morality” in its index. Nevertheless, it is impossible to have a serious discussion of American literature as a vast body of works without attending to the intersection of race and morality, even when “race” wears the mask of “ethnicity” or “multiculturalism.”

                It is conceivable that we might find instances of American literature that are devoid of race, but those instances would be the purest forms of science fiction. They would not be realistic.  Our guilt and our race-driven impulses dispose many American readers to prefer works that roll over them like water on Teflon rather than works that pinch human consciousness.  But non-trivial, realistic works from any culture do seem to bite moral consciousness.  Within the field of twentieth-century African American literature, it might be argued few writers have agonized more thoroughly about the nexus of morality and race, about racialized morality than Lance Jeffers (1919-1985).  Like Toni Morrison’s well-known Beloved, his novel Witherspoon makes us uncomfortable with our complacency.

                Best known as a poet and for his achievements in the collections My Blackness is the Beauty of This Land (1970), When I Know the Power of My Black Hand (1974), O Africa, Where I Baked My Bread (1977) and Grandsire (1979), his accomplishment as a fiction writer is not be slighted.  He did, after all, have his short story “The Dawn Swings In” published in The Best American Short Stories 1948.  In 1983, he published Witherspoon, a novel that keeps good company with ‘Sippi by John Oliver Killens and Meridian by Alice Walker.[3]  Jeffers’ novel, which focuses on the protracted struggle of Reverend Lucius Witherspoon in deciding what is the right thing to do, stands up well among other realistic works set in the Civil Rights period.  It deals relentlessly with the human fragility and doubt that are so often effectively veiled by heroic public action.

                In broad outline, Witherspoon resembles an amplification of the plot sketched in Richard Wright’ s short story “Fire and Cloud, ” devoid of the specific  Marxist implications.  Like Wright’s Reverend Taylor, Jeffers’ Reverend Witherspoon has to face how moral considerations are positioned and repositioned in the American South by the inevitable presence of race. The major question in both works is “What is the right thing to do?”  Wright and Jeffers historicize the moral dilemmas by showing that they cannot be resolved outside the circle of American racial dynamics.  Both authors complicate matters by suggesting Christianity can render black male characters impotent, unable to commit necessary acts,  unless the characters radically and racially reinterpret  Christian belief and its moral imperatives. Taylor and Witherspoon are ministers, but the narrative constructions of their personalities, their psychologies, are remarkably different.  All African American preachers are not alike.  Jeffers and Wright defamiliarize the stereotype of the black preacher by portraying Taylor and Witherspoon as tormented individuals.  Jeffers focuses more strongly than Wright on complex depiction of the preacher’s conscience in the making of moral choices.  Witherspoon is a dramatic instance of how the writer’s poetic and aesthetic choices can triumph over the clichéd response readers are likely to give any novel that on the surface seems to be about civil rights and race relations.  Wright feared many readers of his story got off the hook by way of pity and tears.  Jeffers, on the other hand, throws readers into the pitiless depths of internally and externally determined morality, i.e., morality racialized.  Jeffers’ fictional strategies ensure that we grasp why the usual black/white dichotomy undermines claims for the universal and transcendent workings of virtue.

In our most simplistic readings of the drama of twentieth-century civil rights struggles, we may mistakenly conclude that it was moral superiority  (the non-violent resistance strategies Martin Luther King, Jr. and others adapted from the praxis of Gandhi) that won the fight. This is but one part of a complicated history of struggle.  For Lance Jeffers, however, it was right action chosen by individuals rather than right action chosen by groups that was crucial.  It is  because Lucius Witherspoon is not portrayed as a melodramatic hero that our engagement with the particulars of racialized morality can be so intense in reading the novel.  The novel’s deepest  unsettling question is: How is a black man to behave?  By Witherspoon’s own measure, the daring men and the defiant men (Willie Armstrong, Corwul and others) are models of black manhood. These men are, like the God of the Old Testament, men of war; they do not imitate the meek Christ of the New Testament.  Witherspoon’s  own moral growth results in accepting the dangers of obligation, in burying the dead with dignity (in the face of threatened white mob action) and in assisting a rebel marked for certain death to escape and find relative safety in Atlanta, Georgia.  Witherspoon’s growth depends very much on recognizing the essential impotence of conventional “wisdom in the South in the time of temper and temperament and terror”(78).  He has to recognize the immorality of pragmatic compromise and how Reason, abstracted from the concreteness of a situation, does not necessarily underwrite or validate morality.  Witherspoon would be untrue to himself if he were  to assume moral decisions can be made outside the parameters of the concrete.

In partial support of this assertion, I offer two observations that Lance Jeffers made about the function of literature and David Theo Goldberg’s description of how race and morality are symbiotic in American society, a description made ten years after Witherspoon was published.  In the essay “The Death of the Defensive Posture: Toward Grandeur in Afro-American Letters” (1970), Jeffers proposed:

The black writer of the seventies, battling to free his people, will continue the noble tradition of his predecessors: to face down hell and see through it and beyond it in the name of man.  But the black writer of the seventies will go even further.  He will explore the unexplored continent of himself and his people, will seek out the hidden caves and springs of beauty and hell, will seek out the hell and the complexity within his bones and with the viscera of his people.  He has had the courage to stand fast  before the American hell; now he will further explore, without flinching, his own nature and the nature of his people, unafraid of what he will find, disregarding the negative response of any man.  Self-discovery is painful; the black writer will not shrink from the pain of self-discovery”(259-260).

                In “To Sharpen the Sword of Our Struggle” (1983), the keynote address for the fifth and last National Conference of Afro-American Writers at Howard University, Jeffers contented that this hell-facing literature would be moral.

Good literature is moral.  And immoral or amoral literature is wretched and failed literature, however fluent, however polished, however it attracts the praise of the white literary establishment, which is essentially racist, whose perceptions and principle and goals are quite different from ours.  For good literature is moral, and the morality of good literature is not degeneracy, however cloaked in polish, however dramatic; the morality of good literature is the cause of human evolution, external and internal; and, to Blackfolk, the cause is also political power which effectively seizes respect (7).

                Against Jeffers’ poetic and idealist formulations about morality, exploration, and the work of fiction, one should place David T. Goldberg’s cool and rational description in Racist Culture of how the modern moral order seems to function:

As Hobbes noted, a moral order permits those expressions it does not explicitly prohibit.  In the case of discriminatory exclusions it can be conclude more strongly that what the moral order fails explicitly to exclude it implicitly authorizes.  The moral formalism of modernity establishes itself as the practical application of rationality, as the rational language and the language of rationality in its practical application.  Modernist moralism is concerned principally with a complete, rationally derived system of self-justifying moral reasons logically constructed from a single basic principle.  But in ignoring the social fabric and concrete identities in virtue of which moral judgment and reason are individually effective, in terms of which the very content of the moral categories acquires its sense and force, moral modernity fails to recognize the series of exclusions upon which the state of modernity is constituted.

Thus, Goldberg can insist persuasively that “the colonizing of the moral reason of modernity by racialized categories has been effected for the most part by constituting racial others outside the scope of morality” (39).  In short, the Other conjured in the European imagination after the Enlightenment is banished from the realm of morality and has no entitlement to make moral decisions, except in some unspeakable realm of existence.

                I link Jeffers’ poetic vision of what good fiction should do with Goldberg’s vexed description of European moral hegemony in order to re-establish the grounds on which Frantz Fanon discussed “racism and culture” in 1956.  From the angles of psychology and cultural anthropology, Fanon was so accurate about the systemic nature of race and racism as permanently linked theory and practice. I will try to make my point in language less convoluted than that used by Jeffers and Goldberg.

                Witherspoon as a novel articulates the title character’s moral agon externally in just the frame of impossibility that Goldberg sketches.  The frame of impossibility also has psychological consequences that have to be dealt with in a writer’s construction of character. The geography of the American South is the site for Witherspoon’s making of moral choices, but Witherspoon’ s agency is not constrained by that geography.  The ultimate site wherein his moral agency is operative is his mind as that is represented in the novel.  His mind and his will are not imprisoned by the terms of exclusion implicit in what Goldberg describes as the modern moral order.  His agency operates in a frame of African American moral values that have long struggled to be more than verbal assertions or confirmations of a flawed Western moral order of things.  Close attention to how decisions about good and evil have been depicted in African American novels that fit into the modes of realism in fiction does invite us to consider what racialized morality ordains.

 

 What Jeffers makes his readers face, rather brutally, is that African American morality, historically understood, sometimes supplements and sometimes opposes the announced values of Western morality.  African American morality is often stronger because it is constituted more in action than in language.  Within the African American frame it is the doing rather than the saying that counts.  The testing of accountability, which I take to be one of the objectives Jeffers had in mind as he thought about good literature, is remarkably conducted in the person of the black preacher Witherspoon. The novel exploits the African American  tradition of Christian critique that was powerful in fiction and non-fiction until the last two decades of the twentieth century.  Why and how it has now diminished is a topic for a different lecture.

                I have deliberately not made a plot summary of Witherspoon or mentioned the special moral anxiety Witherspoon must deal with regarding adultery.  I do not want to spoil the reading of Witherspoon, the thrill of discovering exactly what Jeffers meant when he used the wording “facing down hell.”  My remarks are an invitation to test through one’s own reading how this virtually ignored novel gets at the matter of racialized morality. One clue for discovery, I will say, is in Witherspoon’s recognition of his double in the man he is helping to escape certain death at the hands of a lynch mob and in his reconciliation of his outer and inner selves.

                In Witherspoon, Jeffers was trying to deal with why race and racial problems are positioning agents in the making of moral judgments.  He succeeds very well in tantalizing readers to ask why many characters in our racially complex American literature might be called ethical criminals.[4] Witherspoon is indeed a novel that should be reprinted and made available for critical reading.

WORKS CITED

Goldberg, David Theo.  Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993.

Jeffers, Lance.  “The Death of the Defensive Posture: Toward Grandeur in Afro-American Letters.” The Black Seventies. Ed. Floyd B. Barbour. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1970. 253-263.

____________. “To Sharpen the Sword of Our Struggle.” SAGALA No.4 (1984): 4-11.

____________. Witherspoon.  Atlanta: George A. Flippin Press, 1983.

 

 



[1] Even within the hard sciences, “race” can be a minor issue. Irresponsible use of the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) database by people who do work in genetics can  produce ethical arguments regarding “racial profiling” or use of genetics in the service of racial predictability.  See Newsome, Melba. “The Inconvenient  Science of Racial DNA Profiling.” Wired, October 5, 2007. http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/207/10
 
[2] Twain made the racialized matrix quite explicit in describing Huckleberry Finn’s crisis of conscience regarding his agency in assisting the fugitive slave Jim. The crisis is brought to a clear focus in Chapter XVI when Huck feels extreme guilt for doing the wrong thing in helping Jim to escape slavery and equal guilt for doing the right thing in lying about Jim’s racial identity to save him from being captured by slave catchers. Thus, Twain exposed the hypocrisy of Christianity and the institution of slavery.
[3] It is noteworthy that Witherspoon is not mentioned in Bernard W. Bell’s The Contemporary African American Novel  (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), in The Cambridge History of African American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) or in Thadious M. Davis’ Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011)
[4] For a provocative discussion of this subject, see Hayes, Floyd W.”The Paradox of the Ethical Criminal in Richard Wright’s Novel  The Outsider: A Philosophical Investigation.” APA Newsletter 11.1 (Fall 2011): 16-22.

black writing in print/digital/sound cutures


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