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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Ramcat Reads 5


Ramcat Reads #5

 

Capshaw, Katharine. Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.  Emphasizes the photographs and writings of children.  Gives special attention to what is seldom examined regarding children in studies of the Black Arts Movement.  Mentions the importance of Today (1965), a photobook created largely by Doris Derby for the Child Development Group of Mississippi.  Today is available in the McCain Library, University of Southern Mississippi.

 

Cooley, Peter. The Van Gogh Notebooks.  Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2004. Cooley's sustained meditations on Van Gogh's creativity and paintings are sketches of a poet's mind at work, and they remind one of Ralph Ellison's writing about Romare Bearden's artistry.  Cooley, of course, limits his introspection to the personal, the immediacy of his aesthetic experience divorced from explicit social implications.

 

Ellis, Thomas Sayers.   The Maverick Room. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2005.

________________. Skin, Inc. : Identity Repair Poems.  Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2010.

Ellis stands out from Sharon Strange and other poets associated with the Dark Room Collective much as Lorenzo Thomas does from members of the legendary Society of Umbra:  Ellis and Thomas are fiercely independent, following their divergent  interests in the visual and sonic manifestations of the constantly changing NOW. Both bring a maverick spirit of exploration to the task of naming the unpredictable.

 

 

Frank, Edwin, ed. Unknown Masterpieces: Writers Rediscover Literature's Hidden Masterpieces. New York: New York Review Books, 2003. "Masterpieces are showpieces," according to Frank, "designed to establish a public reputation; classics...constitute the public face of knowledge, the books that everyone should know" (xi).  Unknown Masterpieces is an example of ideological formation, and its singular charm exists in testing whether Elizabeth Hardwick, Toni Morrison, and James Wood can persuade readers that Tess Slesinger, Camara Laye, and Shchedrin [M. E. Saltykov] indeed wrote works that everyone should know.  Everyone may refer only  to a small community of readers predisposed to share the tastes and values of the thirteen writers who are "rediscovering" works that a larger community of readers, the more authentic everyone, has chosen not to remember. The special conditions of "rediscovering" ought to be taken into consideration in discussions of the recovery work that has been influential in the expansion of African American canons.

 

Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2009.  First published in 1978, Gardner's  book should be read by  every person who believes she or he must be a writer;  it should be required reading for people who so easily confuse the possession of a degree in creative writing with knowledge that does not demand earning a degree. Gardner was shockingly honest in asserting "it is the universality of woundedness in the human condition which makes the work of art significant as medicine or distraction" (167). Few people who call themselves writers have the capacity to embrace woundedness or the will power to reject fashioning what is genuinely universal in their own images.

 

 

 

 

Howard, Ravi. Driving the King.  New York: HarperCollins, 2015.  Howard is the author Like Trees, Walking (2008) and winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence (2008).  The novel may one day receive a bit of notice in critical discourses on how Nat King Cole as a musical icon can be appropriated for discussion of civil rights issues.

 

 

Rose, Tricia. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop --- and Why It Matters.  New York: Basic Books, 2008.  Rose describes certain arguments regarding causes of violence, the reflection of dysfunctional ghetto cultures, symbolic injury of African Americans, devaluation of women, and the ongoing destruction of American values.  She juxtaposes the defensive arguments used to justify rather negative forms of representation ----the clich├ęd notion "keeping it real," denial of responsibility for sexism, the vexed possibility that bitches and hoes (whores) exist outside of symbolic representation, the denial that artists have any obligation to be role models for anyone, and loud complaints that large numbers of people do not talk about positive aspects of hip hop.  Rose struggles to construct guiding principles for progressive creativity, consumption, and community in and beyond the phenomenon of hip hop.

 

Despite her dedicated scholarship, Rose does not get very far in exposing the amorality of the music industry in the American economy.  The mechanisms of that  economy are not controlled by African American businesspeople, and they batten on the absence of ethics and moral struggle in the unfolding of the United States of America as a nation.  Rose fails to deal with the possibility that will power does need to be talked about, even if the talk is itself theoretical and philosophical.  She doesn't take into account that home education (what back in the day was called "home training") and public schooling (what is now too frequently miseducation of everyone) ought to be held accountable for encouraging a destructive sense of freedom and entitlement (e.g. the mirroring of  the violence applied in the name of combating terrorism).  Almost echoing James Baldwin, Rose recommends the use of affirmative love and argues that "transformational love is necessary and crucial"(272).  To add salt to wounds in a hostile American environment, Rose is content to reify the deadly black/white binary as if Hispanic drug suppliers, Islamic thugs, and Asian criminals do not participate in maintaining destructive features of hip hop.  The hip hop wars are overwhelmingly economic in nature, although they are disguised as innate manifestations of biocultural evolution.

 

Neither Rose nor any cultural critic who is not prepared to commit to plunge into boiling water will suggest the draconian remedies needed to minimize the hip hop wars, because those methods  only promise to beget other forms of corruption and inequality in the manufacturing of wealth. Such is the moral poverty of our nation.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

October 29, 2015

 

Monday, October 26, 2015

writers and politicians


Writers and Politicians

Among the Presidents who have occupied the White House since my birth, President Barack Obama is one of the most literate. Historians who write about the American presidency after 2017 will be obligated to note that Obama tried to "write an honest account of a particular province" of his life in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995; New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004), and that he called for a new kind of politics in The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming The American Dream (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006).  As they condemn or commend his policies and speeches, the wisest historians will not ignore that fact that he invited Elizabeth Alexander to bless his 2009 inauguration with a woman's vision.  Nor will they simply mention in passing that Richard Blanco gave some credibility to Obama's virtue of tolerance in the 2013 inaugural poem.  The most scholarly historians will dwell for more than a nanosecond on Tara T. Green's conclusion in A Fatherless Child: Autobiographical Perspectives of African American Men (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009)that "Obama, then, shows the possibilities of escaping the pressures of social pitfalls as much as he proves the importance of black communities in the late twentieth century providing homes for those wandering black sons in need of understanding, healing and love" (132).  All of the historians will direct attention to Obama's September 14, 2015 conversation with Marilynne Robinson.

It may be the case that writers and politicians rarely have meaningful conversations, because such talks might draw undue attention to national insecurities. Robinson's exchange of ideas with the President pivots on the topic of fear, the subject of her startling essay "Fear" in the September 24, 2015 issue of the New York Review of Books.  Robinson apologizes to no one for her Calvinist-flavored Christianity, for her conviction that "[w]hen Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy"(30).  Yet, Robinson warns us in disarmingly plain English that " the making of Christianity in effect the official religion, is the first thing its [Christian "establishment"] supernumeraries would try for, and the last thing its faithful should condone"(30).  Robinson's essay provides an extended footnote for Ira Katznelson's Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: Liveright, 2013), and her breezy recycling of Katznelson's neoliberal analyses seems to have swept Obama into  a remarkable instance of the indivisible unity of the literary and the political.  Obama knows what kind of supernumeraries Donald Trump and Ben Carson are as they riff on the epistles of St. Paul and inundate us with exegeses of the Book of Revelation.  He knows also why he needs to deflect attention from the impeccable satire of Paul Martinez Pompa's "I Have a Drone"  (see The BreakBeat Poets, pages 165-167) and to direct our gaze, with patriotic help from Robinson, to the sublime beauty of the Russian-manufactured Kalashnikov.  As the elected Defender of American faith, he must wash us in the blood of the Second Amendment and satisfy our yearnings for violence and fear as the seven angels "pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth."  Marilynne Robinson and President Obama have given us a conversation to remember.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    October 27, 2015

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

SOS---Tacit Knowing


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

Saturday, October 17, 2015

learning from undergraduates


Learning from Undergraduates

                Occasionally, teaching undergraduates involves  moments which provoke you to curse.  On the other hand, learning from undergraduates can be a blessing which demands your gratitude.  The young women and men who sat in my classrooms from 1970 to 2012 were powerful instructors.  They were unpredictable.  Some of them were brilliant, challenging me to challenge them.  The so-called average students inspired me to invent puzzling questions for which we struggled together to find responses, for the questions defied our best efforts to find answers.  The slower students used their lack of preparation to teach me why compassion and patience must be used with caution, why sympathy must not be confused with empathy.  In one way or another, all of my students contributed to my worldly salvation.  None of them are to be blamed for my spiritual flaws, for the faults that require me to negotiate and renegotiate endlessly with the cosmic powers.  For a period of forty-two years, undergraduates taught me the limits of being human.

                They also taught me why the quest for clarity can be dreadful.  Clarity in speech and writing that is (or can be)  free in day to day life  is costly inside the boundaries of institutionalized learning.  As teachers  try to build knowledge and  share insights about what they are constructing, profound investments in a discipline can encourage blindness. Some of us who deal with literary theory, critical possibilities, and interpretation, for example,  often mistake our errors for "truth."  We can easily forget  what now appears to us to be simple was at some point in our life histories daunting and complex.  Our acquired expertise in language and literature and writing can be diabolic. Our praxis or pedagogy can be identical with the Devil's work, particularly in instances when we believe we have to be a god in the eyes of our students and our peers.  Abandoning common sense, many of us clothe ignorance in awkward prose and parade it as evidence of superior achievement.  Is it ironic that obstreperous  representation of thought earns great praise?

                Retired, liberated from the immediate need to learn from undergraduates or to teach them, I have not forgot what they taught me. The quest for clarity is still a dreadful journey toward eternity, and I thank undergraduates for implanting such knowledge in my mind.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

October 17, 2015

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Letter to a young philosopher


 LETTER TO A YOUNG PHILOSOPHER 

 

Dear James,

After reading your proposal for a book on black aesthetics, I raise four common sense questions:

WHAT IS NECESSARY?

WHAT IS GOOD?

WHAT IS TRUE?

WHAT IS BEAUTIFUL?

If you paste these questions on your wall as you investigate "black aesthetics," you might write a mind-opening book.  That is the only worthwhile kind of book any of us ought to try to write.  Good thinkers use the gravity of simple questions to ground themselves.

Standard American English invites us to be careless as we pretend to be rigorous.  Take a clue from the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who merits applause for publishing The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century ( New York: Viking, 2014). No sentence in his book refers to Black American English.  That is a damned fine thing.  By ignoring an ethnic use of English that flavors styles of contemporary American thought, Pinker alerts us to exclusion as an option.  In academic commerce, we opt to exclude or ignore as we shape reality in an image that we deem pleasing and proper.  For example, he tells us "the graybeard sensibilities of the style mavens come not just from an underappreciation of the fact of language change but from a lack of reflection on their own psychology"(4).  Should you opt to ignore the ethnic history of the word "aesthetic," and what that history reveals about use and abuse in doing things with words, you will make common cause with Pinker in mavenship. Be at once more cautious and more radical than he, and reflect on your own psychology.

The English language can be treacherous.  To write about aesthetics in a meaningful and necessary way, you have to weed the garden of Western thought.  As far as I know, aesthetics was not a worshipful category prior to the 18th century.  And since you up the ante by using  the slippery adjective black to modify aesthetics, remember that African peoples did not think of themselves as "black" prior to their sundry contacts with color-deficient peoples.  They thought of themselves as people who used their minds and bodies as instruments to sense what was external.  In this regard, they were no different than people unlike themselves in expressing how body and mind could deal with material objects and environments and flashings of the spirit.  Western thought is predisposed to fix what is not broken and to let weeds choke roots.

As a philosopher, you may have studied how etymology  is related to epistemology and use of words. From the Oxford English Dictionary, a source of some authority, we learn that aesthetic comes from Greek.  It originally meant "of or pertaining to...things perceptible by the senses, things material (as opposed to...things thinkable or immaterial."  In 1735, the German thinker Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, being pro-Aristotle and anti-Plato in sensibility, used episteme aistetike to mean a science of what is sensed and imagined, a nice violation of the original meaning. According to some reports, Immanuel Kant was not pleased with such philosophical violation.  He was a purist. But when the word " aesthetic"  gained currency in English usage after 1830, thinkers  maximized the sense of taste (minimizing other senses) and designated it to mean "philosophical inquiry, the object of which is philosophical theory of the beautiful."  The word's  journey from the Greek to the German to the English is ethnic and also coloured by the paint of race. The word is now used most exclusively in  discussions of art.

It pleases me that you are taking up an unfinished project of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), namely exploration of diverse changes in how  African American make aesthetic choices as they respond to life and to art.  It became fashionable in the 1980s to demonize the "political" features of  BAM, to dismiss the phenomenon as a cultural temper tantrum or a suspect reification of African and African American mythologies.

 BAM did have flaws and contradictions, of course, but they were not so irrational that discussions of the Black Aesthetic and aesthetics in the anthology The Black Aesthetic  (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), edited by Addison Gayle, Jr., had to be murdered  in a rush toward a reconstruction of instruction and the salvation of theory. Many  anti-BAM critics, energized by the vernacular signifying of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,  deemed it a virtue to be "theoretical"  in the way Jacques Lacan,  Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were always already postmodern and deconstructionist in the theatre of philosophy. Their opposition was a sign of how rational they were.  A smaller number of them embraced the blues-informed ideology of Houston A. Baker, Jr.'s history-bound  brand of theorizing.  Few of them, I suspect, read Derrida's characterization of metaphysics  in The Margins of Philosophy (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1982) as "the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason" (231). Had they engaged Reason from this angle, they might have been more sympathetic to BAM's efforts to say that perceptions have a racialized historicity. They might have been less anxious to foreclose the unfinished  metaphysical project BAM initiated regarding aesthetics.

On the other hand,  it might  have mattered very little  if they had read Derrida, for they were determined to give  credibility to an assertion John Dewey made in Art as Experience (1934; New York: Paragon, 1979): "Usually there is a hostile reaction to a conception of art that connects it with the activities of a live creature in its environment. The hostility to association of fine art with normal processes of living is a pathetic, even a tragic commentary on life as it is ordinarily lived" (27). Dewey understood that aesthetic experiences were first of all about living (sensing of materiality) and only secondarily about "correct" contemplation of objects in the visual and plastic arts and motion in ballet;  eargasms and rapture  in the presence of "classical music" or opera; or in the case of literature, formal and deceptive  ahistorical inspection of  verbal icons.  James, I urge you to read Dewey as well as Cornel West's enlightened commentary on Dewey in The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).  Dewey knew how to weed a garden.  You may also want to read Barnor Hesse, "Racialized Modernity: An Analytics of White Mythologies." Ethnic and Racial Studies 30.4 (2007): 643-663.  Hesse pulls up weeds nicely as he discusses the racial metaphysics of presence.

Above all, I strongly recommend that you read Carolyn Fowler's brilliant introduction to Black Arts and Black Aesthetics. 2nd Edition (Atlanta: First World Foundation, 1981).  Better than any other thinker associated with the Black Arts Movement, Fowler understood that the term "black aesthetics" is historical and non-exclusive.  Like the terms "Chinese aesthetics" or "Persian aesthetics," it belongs to a history of philosophical discourses.  The idea of aesthetics is fluid not fixed. And our talk about aesthetics should not lead to the belief that we can have a total accounting of how people perceive and think about things material.  We are limited to approximate accounting for the human sensorium in time and space.  Emphasize in your book that you are making an inquiry about history (narratives regarding the endless process of change and continuity) and that philosophical propositions are not omniscient.  It is necessary and good to make  acknowledgements with grace.  I believe you are trying to articulate "a truth" rather than "the Truth."  Ultimately, I am suggesting that you use common sense to write in uncommon ways about the flowing ontology of black aesthetics, the river where consciousness connects with the beautiful.

With very best wishes,

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

October 8, 2015

 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Let disorder ramify


LET DISORDER RAMIFY:  A Note for October 12, 2015

 

O.K.  If it makes you happy, we can do it. We can spend a few moments remembering something on October 12, 2015 and then quickly return to business as usual.  In Mexico, it is Dia de la Raza, a national holiday for remembering how the Taino and Arawak  peoples discovered a lost sailor named Christopher and how his salvation was a sign of destruction.  In the United States of America, it is Indigenous Peoples' Day.  Should we celebrate or weep that warfare, disease,  massacre, and uninvited assimilation have made millions of indigenous people quite literally invisible?   In Canada, it is Thanksgiving and time to eat pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and Brussels sprouts.  Why can't Canadians be normal and wait until November to give thanks?  O.K.  We have remembered.  Let us return to football games and thirty-one days of Halloween and agonizing over what to buy for Christmas.  And  no, we don't need to remember that October 24, 2015 is United Nations Day.  In Louisiana, that is Election Day. We have to cast ballots for a Governor and proposed constitutional amendments.  Isn't it disgusting when people ask you to show a bit of intelligence about world affairs?

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

October 6, 2015

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Education of Kevin Powell


Reading Kevin Powell's Education 

 

Powell, Kevin. The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy's Journey into Manhood.  New York: Atria Books, 2015

 

Autobiography is one of the more intriguing mixed genres of American writing.  Elizabeth Bruss' Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre (1976) may lead us to believe that the "rules" governing autobiography are stricter than those which pertain to drama, poetry, and fiction; awareness that generic  "rules"  are based on abstractions from histories of reading, however, invite us to amend them in our acts of interpretation, in the acts we commit in order to grasp the meaning of texts. We  are willing to break them.  We allow the writer of autobiography great latitude in arranging language and rhetorical devices in her or his effort to bear witness to "a truth, " because we  associate the truth of what happened  with the  individual's confessional, psychological ego-investments. Adjustments, exaggerations, forgetting and remembering, and selective  displacements are in motion as part of the shared authority of the writer and the reader.  Our own egos and needs are implicated in judgments about what is true or false.  So too are our ideas about  collective features of  life histories. What social and cultural conditions are the powerful motives in the act of writing?  What counts most in our reading and interpretation of autobiography, perhaps,  is the sense that the narrator as well as the persona who stands in for a  Self are reliable.  We demand, in most cases,  assurances that the autobiography is more than an absurd, commercial gimmick or a game of linguistic wilding. If the assurances fail, we are not devastated.  We all understand how American citizens "play" one another. These considerations allow us to have a rich transaction with The Education of Kevin Powell.

Even before we begin to read Powell's autobiography, we may be given pause by his strategic choice of a title. The Education of Kevin Powell echoes the title of an older, privileged, and seldom read autobiography, namely The Education of Henry Adams. Perhaps the choice was not merely accidental.  Perhaps the twenty-first century Kevin Powell actually wanted to expose the vast and crucial differences between his journey and the one taken by the elitist nineteenth-century descendent of two American presidents. To imitate a well-known metaphor from Booker T. Washington's autobiography, we can say that as writers Powell and Adams are connected in a literary enterprise;  as American citizens, they as separate from one another as the little finger is from the thumb. The exact circumstances of Powell's choice are, and should remain, a tantalizing mystery.  It suffices that The Education of Kevin Powell is a magnificent deconstruction of the fiction named the  "American Dream."  Powell's autobiography or memoir is a trenchant disrupting of the enabling grounds that inform The Education of Henry Adams.  Thus, Powell secures his niche in the tradition of American autobiography by maximizing the oppositional potency of the African American autobiographical tradition, the  telling a free story about what is universally recognized as unfreedom. And we ought not minimize the fact that Powell gives us both subjective and objective evidence of his character and courage through writing as an act of brutal honesty.

It may be apparent to discerning readers that The Education of Kevin Powell is a gendered, medium-crossing,  asymmetrical companion to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse Records CK69035), a musical witness that conjures Carter G. Woodson's The Miseducation of the Negro (1934). Other readers may think of The Education of Sonny Carson (1972) and the 1974 film of the same title, of the education that is actually  located in the mean streets of our nation rather than in its "celebrated "institutions of public schooling and higher learning.  The value of such associations is to highlight  what an American  education outside the questionable  "safe" zones of formal institutions really is.

Focusing on American education prevents  an automatic reading of Powell's book as yet another African American saga of abject disadvantage and noble struggle to transcend.  His writing pertains more to flight into than flight from something.  By way of learning-oriented approaches to his text, we might discover  what that something might be and why we need to be better informed about it than most of us are.  Giving priority to our education as readers  frustrates the banal tendency to stereotype American and  African American autobiographies as stories of radicalization and identity politics and racialization. An unorthodox reading of The Education of Kevin Powell  can expose how phony is  a  tearful and self-serving reception of the book.  Reading against the grain reduces  indulgence in the delusion and bad faith of pity.  It liberates us to grasp how raw will power enables an American male  to prevail in the endless, uneven, traumatic attempt to reach the telos of being  human, of being a good citizen in a chaotic universe.

 Powell's autobiography makes a strong case for the power of the will. He reinforces the idea of responsible agency which is central in the essays he collected and edited in The Black Male Handbook (2008) and in his own essays in Who's Gonna Take the Weight?: Manhood, Race and Power in America (2003) and Someday We'll All Be Free (2006).  Indeed, we can learn from this autobiography what the American entertainment/ disinformation industry wants us not to know about the essence of  being hip-hop or the transformational  complexity of oppositional stances.  Powell exposes the education America imposes upon it male citizens.

This autobiography has two parts.  Part 1 "trapped in a concrete box" contains seventeen chapters which deal with the spatial origins of Powell's long, unfinished journey; the thirteen chapters of Part 2 "living on the other side of midnight" give specificity to the temporal, to the events and people in the unique trajectory of Powell's life to the present.  The introduction establishes the dominant image of violence and being beaten, the image that haunts us frequently in the autobiography and in our everyday lives.  Powell's words "the beating as punishment for my life" operate in unsettling concert with the line "trapped in a concrete box" from his poem "Mental Terrorism"  in Recognize (1995) and his plain assertion that "writing is perhaps the most courageous thing I've ever done."  Through writing Powell instructs us time and again that "there is something grotesquely wrong with a society where millions of people face daily political, cultural, spiritual,  psychological, and economic oppression by virtue of their skin complexion." His recognition of what is at once explicit and implicit in an American education justifies his desire to have writing "open up minds, feed souls, bridge gaps, provoke heated exchanges" and authorizes a yearning, present throughout world history, to have writing "breathe and live forever."  Without saying so directly,  Powell challenges Allan Bloom's  famous lamentations  in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), and subverts Bloom's complaint by writing to open the imagined mind of the United States of America.

Critics who cohabitate with aesthetics have no reason to fear that Kevin Powell minimizes craft in contributing to the production of knowledge, because he is appropriately literary in shaping autobiography.  The title of his book is a very literary gesture, a discriminating invitation to use uncommon cultural literacy about the nature of American autobiography.  He is even more recognizably literary in using the device of the catalog of discoveries (as Richard Wright used it in Black Boy) to hammer ideas about the journey from boyhood to manhood -----"like the rupture...like the longing...like the bewilderment...like the hostile paranoia...like the cryptic sense of great expectations." And the latter allusion is one result of Powell's having read both Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens in his youth.  Powell's anaphoric use of "I remember...I remember...I remember" attests to how he inserts his poetic sensibility to serve the rhetorical ends of creative non-fiction. And it is remarkable that he rewrites a passage from Black Boy about how adults use alcohol and words to "corrupt" a child for their careless amusement  to dramatize an educational moment.

 Like Wright, Powell uses what purports to be remembered dialogue to intensify our sense of the affective properties of historiography and to suggest historical process always comes back to us as narrative not as objective reporting that is in denial of its inherent subjectivity.  Powell is crafty and exceptionally skilled in creating literature that does not hesitate to critique the limits of moral imagination.  Or, for that matter, the innate immorality of twenty-first century societies, and those wretched  circumstances, so permanent in our heritage of social and racial contracts,  which cast light on the moral dimensions of  his profound struggles with his own sexism and his anger, his male American identity.

 The Education of Kevin Powell and Ta-nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me are indebted to Wright and to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a fact that legitimizes comparison.  But the comparison ought to be tough-minded and should make a special note that Coates and Powell are writing from different but convergent class positions.  Interpretive association of Coates with Benjamin Franklin and of Powell with Henry Adams enables us to have fresh perspectives on representing  privilege, race, and power without falling into  merely  tendentious  literary and cultural criticism or drowning in lakes of fickle public  opinions.  But we must remember that an understanding of these autobiographical writings also imposes upon us the need to assess what we know or do not know about  our own existential choices which pertain to leadership and activism.  The books complement each other as we try to make sense of individual plasticity in human response to Nature and multiple environments.  Reading both compelled me to make a choice.  I admit that the vernacular qualities of The Education of Kevin Powell instruct me more thoroughly about the genre of autobiography.  His writing  encourages me to learn more about aligning the building of knowledge for everyday use with critical aesthetic response.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

October 4, 2015

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Old New Conceptual Space


The Old New Conceptual Space

 

Read

Benfey, Christopher. "The Wonder-Wounded Harold Bloom." The New York Review of Books (October 8, 2015):36-37 ----review of Bloom's The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime

Pound, Scott.  "Kenneth Goldsmith and the Poetics of Information." PMLA 130.2 (2015): 315-330. Scott argues that "Goldsmith's indifference to literary culture yields a method for generating texts that is as instructive as it is shocking because it requires us to face the strange prospect of a literature that chooses information culture over literary culture as its ground" (Abstracts 528)

 

Probable Outcome

You might become post-intelligently  sublime and indifferent.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

October 2, 2015