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Saturday, December 26, 2015

George Yancy's Letter to White America


Yancy's Letter to White America

 

Professor George Yancy's Christmas gift to our nation is a letter addressed to Dear White America.  The document is at once a plea and a preachment.  It is a contemporary instance of what African American thinkers have been doing since the eighteenth century, namely asking that a social science fiction called White America  will bring honesty to a global conversation  regarding its social construction, its flawed narratives and brazen lies,  and confirmative/affirmative  actions.  If evidence provided by herstory and history is at all credible, it is most probable Yancy's letter will be welcomed with howls of execration.  Most of the inhabitants of the fiction will harden their hearts and curse with alacrity. Had Yancy addressed his letter to Yellow America, Red America, Black America, Brown America, or Rainbow America, there's no reason to believe the probable response would be more favorable. In the United States of 2015, pleas and preachments focused on the need for love devoid of infantile lust or on the kind of love James Baldwin advocated  are fossils of a national culture that is swiftly dying.

It  is fascinating that Yancy chose to publish his letter during Yuletide.  The timing draws attention to the vexed nature of the holiday period from Hanukah through Christmas and Kwanzaa to New Year's Day. It draws peculiar attention to our heritage of having faith in the power of love.

Some of our nineteenth-century  ancestors believed in the Sea of Faith, even if the body of water that informed the metaphor was the one over which their ancestors had made the infamous Middle Passage. As heirs of kidnapped immigrants, they volunteered to believe in the mercy of God and the goodness of Man.  Each December they participated in rituals to remember the birth of Baby Jesus, the god-man who became Jesus the Christ, the crucified Jew, and died to compensate for the sins we had not yet become guilty of and to offer us eternal salvation.  If we repented, performed good works, and loved one another unconditionally, we could regain the earthly Paradise Lost or eventually  live in the more upscale gated community called Heaven. In our tepid religiosity during December, we  displace Christ and faith with Santa Claus, the dream merchant, and make shopping  an act of worship.  Unlike our ancestors who managed to balance the spiritual and the secular, a significant number of us prefer the sexy comfort of waltzing with evil.

During Kwanzaa, we would do well to read some passages from Cornel West's Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (1993).  They will help us to decide whether Yancy's gift is a powerful weapon or a sinister distraction.  All that has happened in the United States during 2015 persuades me to respect Yancy's stunning insights about systemic American  enslavement,  the guilt of our being complicit with it, and the implications for a future.  All that has happened, however, convinces me that White, Yellow, Red, Black and Brown America and other social science fictions are too insane to know what love is or isn't or how to use it properly.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    December 25, 2015

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ramcat Reads #7


RAMCAT READS #7

Bell, Bernard W., ed. Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African American Postmodernist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. This examination of an underappreciated writer and visual artist should be read along with Keith Byerman's The Art and Life of Clarence Major . Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

Chang, Jeff.  Who We Be: The Colorization of America .New York: St. Martin's Press, 2014.  Chang's lively blending of nonfiction narratives and multicultural visuals, a brief history of writing performance, lends some credibility to the belief that "the tragedy of life is that you never know all the things you're supposed to know when you're supposed to know them"( 345).

Franklin, John Hope.  George Washington Williams: A Biography.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.  Franklin's book is a fine example of cultural memory at work.  Williams (1849-1891) was the author of  A History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880; Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens (1882) and A History of Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion (1887).  In a remarkable gesture of putting Williams in conversation with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Mark Twain's King Leopold's Soliloquy, Franklin appended Williams's open letter to King Leopold II of Belgium (1890), a most "eloquent indictment," and  "A Report on the Proposed Congo Railway" (1890).  Williams set the bar for later generations of scholar activists.  When Williams died on August 2, 1891, "he had achieved the full stature of a real nineteenth century American" (240), and Franklin concludes he "was one of the small heroes of this world; but it is well that one should not try to make more of him then what he was ---a flawed but brilliant human being" (241).  In this book we find a perfect matching of subject and object, for Franklin himself was  a consummate American historian and a brilliant, responsible human being.

Izzo, David Garrett, ed. Movies in the Age of Obama: The Era of Post-Racial and Neo-Racist Cinema. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.  These essays address how Obama's presidency "spurred a cultural shift, notably in music, television, and film" and their arguments should be compared with those made by essays in Black Hollywood Unchained: Commentary on the State of Black Hollywood. Chicago: Third World Press, 2015.  Both collections are contemporary supplements for  essays collected in Black American Cinema (New York: Routledge, 1993), edited by Manthia Diawara.  These three collections tempt us to think we might be much enlightened by  a collection of essays on how African and Asian films challenge the adequacy of films produced in Australia, Europe and the Americas.

Smith, Patricia.  Blood Dazzler: Poems.  Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2008.  Smith's accomplished explorations of aesthetic gestures occasioned by Hurricane Katrina should be read in the company of Hurricane Blues: Poems about Katrina and Rita (Cape Girardeau, MO: Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2006), edited by Philip C. Kolin and Susan Swartwout and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), edited by Camille T. Dungy.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            December 23, 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

Ramcat Reads 6.5


RAMCAT READS #6.5: STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

 

2016 will be a hard year.  We can't avoid, in the words of the novelist Keenan Norris, being "compelled to perform complex narrative gymnastics" or being glued to metaphors which govern actions. What or who controls the compelling  machinery?

Is breathing a performance?  What motions are not performances  in the world we are limited to know ? Is chewing a slice of toast or consulting a friend or squeezing the trigger of a gun a performance?  Is a performance itself a performance?

In the time and space and consciousness of being, every motion is not a performance.  If in this century, human beings are incapable of distinguishing a performance from its logical opposite, they confront the damnation of being absurdity personified.

The purpose of reading is to beget narratives that liven up daily conversations and assist us in making choices.  Narratives bike through our minds and recycle thought.  Reading as such does not make us more stupid or wiser.  It does not ensure that we shall be good or bad or liberated from deep confusion about our morality and mortality.  Reading just increases the probability that we can recognize a nude platitude or  cliché when it parades before us and immunize ourselves against the cancer of spinformations.  Remember that many people who are not print literate employ other forms of literacy to make their way through life, and we ought to value them as much as we value those who blind us with verbal brilliance.

One purpose of the "Ramcat Reads" series is to provide a finite spectrum of choices and to minimize the notion that any single esteemed writer or any single necessary discipline in the universe donates THE TRUTH to anyone.

In 2016, we may want to retreat a few hours  from the paralyzing utterances of our presidential candidates and the thought-murdering entertainment our public intellectuals and enslaved mass media gleefully provide.  We may want a recess from obscene but inevitable disinformation. We may want to sample such  books as Narrative Sequence in Contemporary Narratology, edited by Raphaël Baroni and Françoise Revaz and Narrating Space/Spatializing Narrative: Where Narrative Theory and Geography Meet by Marie-Laure Ryan, Kenneth Foote, and Maoz Azaryahu.  We may want to have spirit-shaking arguments with the Qur'an, the Dao de jing, and the Bible (both the Roman Catholic and Protestant versions thereof).  We may want to do battle with scientific treatises, legal documents and economic spreadsheets,  and poetry. We may want to spend a cosmic nanosecond or two in renewing our minds.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            December 21, 2015

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Ja A. Jahannes/THE UNFINISHED


THE UNFINISHED (a special document for the African American Research Network,

December 12, 2015)

 

Last year at Central China Normal University, I proposed we should establish the African American Research Network (AARN) to promote critical projects involving international scholars and writers who had a serious interest in black (United States) literatures and cultures.  Sharing links to information crucial for our research would be the network's primary aim.  AARN made progress during 2015, and I hope we will be able to do more in 2016 as the amount of information for exchange continues to expand.

AARN members Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey published the anthology What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), which, in the words of Nathaniel Mackey,  "makes an original and important contribution to the fields of American and African American arts and letters and to the more general field of poetry and poetics."  To expand our sense of tension between representing  what can be designated "innovative" in poetry  and representing poetry  as creative, historicized ethnic thought,  we ought to examine a less visible contribution from the previous year, namely Black Gold: An Anthology of Black Poetry (Savannah, GA: Turner Mayfield Publishing, 2014) edited by Ja A. Jahannes.  Black Gold enabled  Jahannes (1942-2015) to achieve his greatest desire before his death ----"to have the generations of poets of the African Diaspora living in America, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean represented in a single volume."  The anthology is a counter-hegemonic contribution to poetry and poetics. and, as Tony Medina states plainly "[t]hat these poets spoke (speak) truth to power is nothing any other group of poets living under oppressive conditions would do ---speaking to a history of enslavement, Jim Crow and rampant discrimination, injustice and inequality."**  When we juxtapose the two anthologies, the challenge for research locates itself in the contested heart of difference: what kind of truth is spoken to what form of power?

It is not sufficient to do comparative work with the two anthologies without considering Jahannes's desire as pretext and context.  Thus, I am sharing the unfinished and unedited interview I conducted with him in December 2014.  Jahannes made many contributions to African American literature and culture, and those contributions deserve to be remembered.  He is on the always growing list of people about whom I intend to write, but my intentions are often delayed or waylaid.  That shall not be the case with the document I offer for your inspection.

 

 

**There are some printer's errors in Black Gold, and Tony Medina will have to tell us whether his sentence is rendered accurately.

 

 

  Interview with Ja A. Jahannes

 

This interview with Dr. Ja A. Jahannes was conducted by e-mail between December 7, 2014 and December  18, 2014.

Interviewer: Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Honorary Professor, School of Foreign Languages, Central China Normal University

 

WARD:   You are a writer who has made deep investments in African American literature and culture.  Please tell us a bit about your origins, your family history, and why you decided to do your undergraduate work at Lincoln University (PA)?

JAHANNES:

I was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia on August 25th 1942. I was raised by my grandmother Calle Jeter on a farm in Caroline County across from the city across the Rappahannock River. When I was seven I went to live with my mother Frances Williams Johnson. Then my father James Arthur Johnson and mother moved to Baltimore in Dundalk Maryland in a neighborhood called Turner Station. Turner Station is a peninsular which is a black neighborhood. My father’s mother Calle Jeter was part black, white and Cherokee. My Mother’s family was black and Cherokee and Creek. My grandmother was the sister of the father of Derek Jeter. When I was young I was often taken by my grandmother to the Jeter homestead. At 5 years old I told my grandmother I didn’t want to go there anymore because the Jeter boys passed me around like I was a toy.

 I went to Lincoln University because a friend of my mother’s named Adams said if I went to Lincoln he would give my mother $100 for my scholarship. In those days $100 was a lot of money. At Lincoln I had the best professors. They were dedicated teachers and brilliant, caring me. I learned to write poetry in classes with Lou Putnam. I also learned everything I know about theater from Lou Putnam. Of course I had done lots of theater in high school at Sollers Point High school in Turner Station.

WARD:  In remarks about WordSong Poets, your memoir anthology, you mentioned  a certain kind of literacy as well as critical thought as important aspects of your undergraduate years.  Our political visions are often shaped by our undergraduate experiences. How did Lincoln University shape your perspectives on life in the United States, on international affairs? 

JAHANNES:

WARD:  What inspired you to become a creative writer and a scholar?

JAHANNES: I read a lot as a child. I was also encouraged to read by my mother. I wrote poetry in high School and I was published in the Lincoln University Lincolnian and “The Voice Of The Rabble.” “The Voice Of The Rabble” was the same student newspaper that Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall wrote for in their student days. I learned the methods of scientific analysis in classes at Lincoln University with Dr. Henry Cornwell and Professor Tom Jones.

WARD:  As a scholar in the social sciences, you are obligated to make inquiries about themes which have a certain historical roles within disciplines.  On the other hand, creative writing provides greater freedom to select themes and genres.  How do you make choices in the domain of creative writing?

 

JAHANNES: 

The scientific and creative process have similarities. Each endeavors to explore some vistas of reality. A a Behavioral Scientist, I am trained not to stop at the simple regurgitation of facts and dates which so often is the case with the social sciences, but to search for meaning and causality. Likewise in my creative writing I attempt to explore causal relationships. My choices in creative writing are guided by my interests. Whatever excites me to ponder it becomes fodder for my creative exploration in my writing.

WARD; When and where did you first begin to publish your creative work?  How has it been received over the years?

JAHANNES: My first published works were poems in the Hampton newspaper, “The Hampton Daily News” in Hampton Virginia when I was a professor at Hampton Institute, which is now Hampton University. The newspaper published several poems. One was “On Train Comes Through Hampton.” Later I had essays, articles, reviews, plays, spoken word cds, psychological essays and research and social criticism essays. My work has appeared in such diverse publications as the Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vital Speeches, the Journal of the National Medical Association, Ebony, the Black Scholar, Encore, Class, Black Issues in Higher Education and the Saturday Review. I lectured in Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East. I received many honors and awards including the United States Air Force Commendation Medal, The Langston Hughes Award, The Joseph J. Malone Fellowship, and The Danny Glover Award. I received grants from the U. S. Office of Education, the U. S. Department of State, the Longwood Foundation, the Mott Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Georgia Council for the Humanities and other institutions. My work also appears in a number of anthologies including Black Poetry of the Deep South (Beans Brown Rice Publishers), African American Poetry (Globe Press: Simon and Schuster, 1993), African American Literature (Globe Fearon Press: Simon and Schuster, 1993), and Literary Savannah (Hill Street Press, 1998). I wrote and produced eight plays, most notably the musicals "Yes, Lord;" "One More Sunday;" and "Nealey's Playing Ground." My  published books include, most popularly ,Truthfeasting, (Africa World Press, ISBN: 0865431914) BIG MAN, Turner Mayfield Publishing 2012 SABBATH RUN, The Prayer Stone, Turner Mayfield Publishing 2012 as well as over two hundred articles, reviews, poems, and plays. I also have written a collection of essays, an oratorio, two symphony librettos, one jazz opera, RIVER OF HEAVEN, Turner Mayfield Publishing 2012, two opera librettos, a song cycle, and lyrics for over 100 songs. I  frequently serve as an art critic. Some of his religious music has been published by Roger Dean Publishing Company, a division of the Lorenz Corporation, and JTM Publishing Company. I directed many theatre and performance productions, touring in the U. S. and abroad. He is a BMI Publisher and Writer.

My work has been well received. One critic, Melinda Bargreen wrote a wonderful review of my oratorio “Montage For Martin .” She was the Seattle Times critic. She wrote, “A joyous, crowd-pleasing tribute to King in "Montage For Martin." She said Oratorio by Stephen Newby and Ja Jahannes; presented by Antioch Bible Church, with choir, orchestra, the Rev. Ken Hutcherson (M.C.), Northeast Chamber Ensemble, five soloists and narrator/singer George Shirley, with Newby conducting; Benaroya Hall, Monday (two performances).  A large, diverse and mostly joyous crowd found a good place to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday: Benaroya Hall, where the two-hour oratorio, "Montage for Martin," brought the listeners repeatedly to their feet in appreciation of a remarkable performance.

With a libretto by poet/composer Ja Jahannes (who also contributed musical themes) and a score by local composer Stephen Newby, "Montage" gave a musical biography of King as diverse as the country King served. The quality of the vocal soloists was so consistently high that the music and words shone to the strongest possible effect. One of the production's greatest assets was narrator and tenor soloist George Shirley, the first African-American tenor to sing leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, where he was a mainstay for 11 seasons. Shirley, who still has plenty of firepower, brought immense authority and dignity to the narration, which tells of King's rise, his struggle and the impact of his death. Each of the soloists created powerful vignettes. Soprano Brenda Wimberly galvanized the foot-stomping, clapping audience with her irresistible "I Can't Sit By," and with the deeply affecting "I Get Tired Sometimes." Linda Mattos, another soprano, was highly effective in "Woman in the Crowd," and tenor Gregory Broughton gave a powerful account of "I Bear the Marks." The mellow-voiced James Caddell sang the compassionate "When You Have Done the Best," as a screen descended, displaying video images of King's life. And mezzo-soprano Sylvia Twine contributed some of the score's most moving moments in her solos. The Northeast Chamber Ensemble, an excellent woodwind quintet from Rhode Island, made the most of its opportunities in "Fanfare for Struggle." The diversity of the score (which fused classical, gospel, jazz, hip-hop, ethnic and country-Western influences) made it a challenge to produce. It's part acoustic, part electronic, a formula that sometimes led to balance difficulties. The spare, Copland-like opening sounded tentative in the afternoon performance — but there was nothing tentative about the rest of the music, especially the gospel-based sections that featured the soloists and the responsive United Voices of Antioch Choir. They made a biblical "joyful noise" indeed, lifting up the crowd and providing the heart of this celebration of King's life.

 

WARD:  In a brief comment on your novel The Prayer Stone, I suggested that your fiction fits well with the writing  Sheree R. Thomas anthologized in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (Warner Books, 2000).  Has your sense of creative exploration led you away from the narrative  forms and content  of African American social realism we identify with Richard Wright, Ann Petry, and John Oliver Killens?  Have your insights about African American post-modernity and

 metaphysical interests urged you to explore the territory of things unknown?  Are you experimenting with what Donal E. Polkinghorne describes as a relationship between the narrative format and experimental designs?

 

JAHANNES:

 

WARD:  Do you plan to publish your book of essays in the future?  Do your essays deal with literature and other forms of art or with social and political issues or with a mixture that is always “outside the box” in terms of subject matter?

 

JAHANNES:

 

 

 

WARD:  In addition to poetry and essays, you have written plays and composed music.  Some of your plays have been produced in interesting venues; some of your music has been recorded.  How do you assess the meaningfulness of these works in your career as a writer?  Have you had to grapple with creative tensions between your career as a scholar and your work as an artist?

 

JAHANNES: My plays are the product of sharing my creative intuitive ventures and my historical research

in tandem. The only issues I have had to grapple with is too little time and too little money to do the kind of work that I wanted. My recordings have been a true labor of love and freedom. I learned the use of voice early in my life to transform words into life and mesmerize audiences. I have done that rather well, in my preaching, teaching and public performance. I learned these skills from the likes of Ruby Dee, Toni  Cade Bambara, Sonia Sanchez, Martin Luther King and the great preacher, Gardner Taylor. Taylor is the role model for Martin Luther King. I also learned must from my friend, John Henrik Clarke, who served as vice chair of the Pan African Movement of The U. S. A. (PAMUSA) when I served as the National Chair in the early 90’s.

WARD:  You have identified the companies that have published your music. On which CDs might we find and listen to your music?  And did you establish Turner Mayfield Publishing so that you might have greater creative control regarding your writing and the works of writers you might decide to publish?

 

JAHANNES:

 

WARD: How have the experiences you had as a teacher and those you gained from extensive travel had formative importance in your life’s work?

JAHANNES: I always wanted to travel. My plan after I graduated from Lincoln University was to get a law degree and a Ph. D. before I was twenty five and then travel to world exploring the cultures of other lands knowing that with my credentials I’d be able to find a job when I returned to the states. When I lived and taught in Ethiopia I had the opportunity to meet Haile Selassie, the Emperor. I wrote about those experiences  in “Africa Online Magazine, a digital international publication where I was contributing editor. I wrote: “The long white dresses of the women glistened in the sun as they made gestures in unison bringing their hands up to their breasts. The procession was just below the balcony of my house, the old Haitian Embassy, and the only two-story building on Addis Abba’s Fikre Miriam Road, where the residences of diplomats were intermingled with small local hovels.

Haile-Selassie-I-of-Ethiopia

H.I.M Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia

 The specter of the women’s movements, some fat and some small, did block out all sound to me. In retrospect, there must have been the high pitched drums of the Horn of Africa and tambourines in the processional. Before I could ask myself “What are they doing?” the answer came to me: they are beating their breasts. It was the beginning of a funeral cortege, led by women in the traditional white dress with thin embellishments of bright colors on the bottom of the skirts and white shawls that lay across their shoulders.

I had never seen women beating their breasts before, though I had read about it in the Bible. I think I had thought beating their breasts was literal, but these women made symbolic gestures and never actually touched their breasts. It would no doubt have been painful for them to have actually struck themselves for ten miles or so in the midday sun, but in this land steeped in Christian orthodoxy and ancient mysteries, everyday was a revelation.

One evening, I was visited by a Muslim friend. We were seated in the upper reception room of my house. He lowered his voice and confided that the Emperor, the enigmatic Haile Selassie, reputed descendant of the House of David, and keeper of the remnant of the cross on which Jesus died, had gone into the mountains for several days, supposedly to pray. I said nothing, as my usual inclination in foreign countries is never to make statements about religion or politics; but, also, never to condemn what is said in my company. I was thinking how to change the particular direction my friend’s conversation had taken. My friend said that the Emperor was a sorcerer and that he had gone into the mountains to cast spells and work magic. As he spoke, the sky outside turned dark and there was a sudden flash of sunshine filled with a thin stabbing rain. Then the sky cleared, the rain stopped, quiet reigned, the sun came out, and two birds flew in a death frenzy into the large cathedral windows overlooking the staircase up to the room where my friend and I sat. He put down his coffee, excused himself and left precipitously.

There was only one other day as dramatic as that during my two year stay in the resplendent capital of Ethiopia. That day, again at midday, the bright sunny sky suddenly turned black. There was a roaring noise of the people outside the compound of my house on the street. I saw my driver roll up the windows of my Ford Taunus and scurry inside his room in the servants’ quarters. Suddenly, a locust swarm as black as midnight began to cover everything. The servants closed the doors to the house and stuffed cloths under the very small spaces beneath the doors that I had never noticed before. But they kept on coming and kept on getting in. I was afraid they would drown us. My wife and I were panicky; the children, except for the baby, were off at school and that was even more frightening. I thought we are going to die, the world is coming to an end. We were doomed in the land of borrowed Eucalyptus trees (a gift of Australia that now is the national tree of Ethiopia) seven thousand feet above sea level, far away from my beloved United States. The sky cleared as quickly as it darkened; the locusts died as quickly as they seeped through every crack and crevice in the house. The plague was ended. I had only read about such occurrences in the Bible, though somewhere in the back of my mind, I seemed to recall hordes of locust filling the sky over my great-uncle’s farm in Sparta, Virginia when I was a boy. But this incident prepared me to be mentally ready for anything that was to follow in Ethiopia.

I was under contract to the Canadian government to teach in the education and psychology programs at Haile Selassie University. My wife was head of the Science and Technology Library at the university and she had an ancillary job dealing with antiquities as well. Her job was very prestigious. My first chance to meet the Emperor came through her. She told me that the Emperor was coming to the university on an inspection that included her work and that I could come if I wanted to be in the visitation. There was no way I would have passed up the opportunity.

We were all in a line awaiting the Emperor to pass each of us. Out of the corner of my left eye I could see the movement of people in my direction. Suddenly, Emperor Haile Selassie stood before me. I was surprised that he was short, but I only registered his height after he had passed. Before me, looking me in both eyes was a man of immense personal psychic power; his eyes looked into my soul, knowing me like no one has ever known me, in an instance. He said nothing but in that silence was more power than I have ever confronted. I still wonder today, did the power of this extraordinary man come from being an absolute monarch for over forty years, from his enormous system of spies throughout the country that kept him so informed that generals quaked in his presence, from his claimed descendancy from Solomon and Sheba, his proffered lineage to Jesus Christ, or from some divine power in the man himself? Later, I reflected that the Rastafarians had proclaimed him “God” and taken their name from his name when he was Crown Prince of Ethiopia under the wily Queen Zewditu; Ras, which means Lord and his birth name Tafari Makonnen.

Few remember now that Haile Selassie was for a long time the world’s longest reigning monarch, that he led the defeat of the mechanized, gun toting Italians’ invasion in his country with men who only had spears and dressed in leopard skins. The Italians proclaimed the Ethiopians “white” because it was unthinkable that they had been defeated by Africans. Few remember that he stood sovereign in the League of Nations in 1936 and asked the nations of the earth to come to the rescue of his people again later from fascist Italians in one of the most moving and eloquent speeches ever made by a head of state. And the nations sadly ignored him.

My days in Ethiopia were filled with less grandiose affairs than the historic events that captured Haile Selassie in history. They were filled with family and servants and mundane affairs. We paid our household servants better than the American embassy and taught them skills that made them marketable. Some American families were always trying to steal my cook, Astede, because I had taught her how to fry chicken to perfection like it is fried in the deep American South. Astede was originally hired as a “mamite,” nanny for the children, but I soon learned that anything that I taught her, she replicated it exactly. One day I showed her how to cook fried chicken, and she never departed from that recipe. I quickly changed her job to cook. She learned to cook Ostrich egg omelets, black eye peas (that really had white eyes in Ethiopia), collard greens and all kinds of American and European dishes copying my recipes exactly. Astede drew the line when I tried to teach her how to cook rabbit; she had never seen this strange animal before and summarily left the kitchen. I never tried that again.

Language situations often arose. I once discovered that our housekeeper, who dress like the aristocracy and had her coffee religiously before she did any work had been calling my children, who were dark-skinned “baria” or slave while smiling at us. She was dismissed. And, once in my faulting Amharic I asked Woyneshet, a cleaning woman, could I have her for fifty cent. She left the room in hysterical laughter. Ethiopians would come to blows over small insults like saying “your father worked as a garbage man.”

One young friend of mine, Asseged Dejene, was a lesson unto himself. At that time we had a membership in the swimming pool in the Hilton Hotel, owned by the Ethiopian government. Asseged asked if he could go swimming with us and we took him. The staff at the swimming pool looked at him with disdain when we got to the pool. Asseged overlooked them, took off his pants and shirt, and went to the edge of the pool and jumped in. He splashed his way across the pool as I held my breath realizing he did not know how to swim. When I asked him about it, he said he just thought he would do it like he saw it in the movies. And he had. I never again underestimated what people will attempt with no previous experience.

My children learned some lessons, too. The boy in the small shabby, one room house next door often left home to go to school barefooted. My son asked me to buy him some shoes. He was really taken aback when I explained to him that the boy had shoes but walked to school barefooted to save his shoes and put them on only near the school.

Ethiopia gave birth to Egypt. Ethiopia gave the world the first civilization, before Greece and Rome. Civilization spread out from the Rift Valley Region of which Ethiopia is the headstone. It, then, is no wonder that the country can produce a man like Haile Selassie. His legacy began early. When he was regent and there was an effort to have him removed from power by jealous relatives and power hungry generals who were trying to convince, Queen Zewditu, that he was dangerous, he outmaneuvered them. Ras Tafari, as he was known then, received word of his impending overthrow while he was out leading a group of his soldiers. His enemies expected he and his men would engage them in a fight at the palace. He dismissed his men a long way from the palace and walked the distance alone and entered the palace, going directly to the queen. His move was so unexpected, so simple in its execution, that no one moved against him. He persuaded the queen that he was her best ally in a humble conversation, and she guarded his ascension to the throne as Emperor.

Addis Ababa was a thriving, sophisticated city when I lived there with my family. It had a hospital with some of the best doctors in the world, an opera any country would be proud of and traditions that made the heritage of the country incomparable. The only thing I had in common with the Emperor, besides the same skin tone, which often got me labeled an uppity Amhara (the ruling class, of which the Emperor was a part) who was trying to act like an American, was the fact that my family owned the only grand piano outside of the palace. I always believed that it once was one of the two that was in the palace. It escapes me how we got it but I had it painted white to distinguish it from “the other one.”

Ethiopia was full of diversity, being the oldest organized Christian country, where the head of state was automatically the head of the church, it still had its predominate Muslim population as well as other religions. Its many tribes had distinctively different traditions. Once it was the entire Horn of Africa but the Europeans carved it up into their own spheres and set up rivalries and ethnic wars, much like they have done in Europe in recent decades, which continue to be perpetuated today.

Haile Selassie is credited with modernizing the country, despite its poverty, and planning to do more towards bringing it into the 20th Century while keeping its historic traditions. The face of Ethiopia in the world today is the emaciated bodies of famine starved youth. We forget that we had a dust bowl in the U. S. that left many Americans emaciated, starving, and at wits end. It has happened throughout the world and it shall happen again.

The last time I saw Emperor Haile Selassie it was at Maskal, an ancient seasonal rite. It is a feast commemorating the Finding of the True Cross and an integral part of the Ethiopian Christian Calendar. It is a national holiday and celebrated annually in late September throughout Ethiopia for centuries and the streets and rooftops are filled with tens of thousands of people on the eve of Maskal. It was in a large open area near the entrance to the city of Addis Ababa on the airport road. The priests of the Coptic Christian Church were everywhere in their fine ceremony dress, embroidered in gold, bright blues, greens and reds, and the Patriarch, or head of the Ethiopian church, was leading the processional to the open field where an elegant throne had been placed for the Emperor. Determined that my children not miss out on this occasion that we were not likely to see again, with two of them in tow, I pushed forward through the crowd. Thankfully, my parents had taught me never to be afraid to push through the crowd. We ended up, my wife following suit with the baby in her arms, at the feet of Emperor Haile Selassie. We sat on the ground before the throne. He did not look at us. His gaze was far off into the distance as though reading time itself. The next I heard of the Emperor, a year later, was that he and his family had been deposed, he had been treated very badly, and he had been ingloriously killed.

The women of Ethiopia still beat their breasts. The world changes; there is still sunshine and rain, dark clouds, mysteries, and occasionally the rise and fall of an exceptional man.

 

 

WARD:   What is the legacy that you wish to leave for humanity and a future?

My children and my students will be my legacy. I took teaching to be a priesthood. My students have used all the concepts I taught them to have productive, useful lives. They are in constant communication with me. Most of them have graduate degrees because I always insisted that they go as far as they could go in getting and education. In my writing I have dealt with concepts of individual freedom and responsibility. I hope those who read my work will be inspired to make a difference in their communities and in the world. Perhaps my legacy will be the championing of individual freedom in all aspects of life by my protégés and those I have touched in word or deed. I believe my poetry will be a major part of my legacy. The best of art is poetry the best of poetry is art. Can we really see without the poet or can the dreamer really know reality without the science of poetry. I believe my poetry for children might endure.

 

THIS REFERS TO A BOOK IN WHICH YOU HAVE POETRY.  WHAT IS THE EXACT TITLE? WHO IS THE PUBLISHER? WHAT WAS THE DATE OF PUBLICATION? I WILL HAVE TO CREATE A QUESTION THAT FITS THE COMMENTS AND MOVE IT TO ANOTHER SECTION OF THE INTERVIEW.  Jww  12/18/14

This anthology consists of 51 different poems that all relate to children.  The title sums it up beautifully - a celebration of poetry with a beat.  This book is packed with wonderful diverse African-American artists like Kanye West, Queen Latifah, and Tupac Shakur, spanning American History from the Harlem Renaissance to modern-day hip hop.  An added benefit is the audio cd that has performances from the book by the original authors and artists.  These poems will definitely appeal to children of all ages. Students, even the most reluctant, will be pleasantly surprised that hip hop is poetry.  For example, the poem, "Hip Hop Rules the World" by Jacqueline Woodson, explains how one boy's discovery of rap is one of the most creative forms of poetry; this leads him to end his own poem with "Hey Dog! Guess who else is a poet now".

These poems stimulate a variety of thoughts and emotions.  For example, "Aloneness" by
Gwendolyn Brooks gives a wonderful perspective of the differences of aloneness and loneliness. "Loneliness does not have a lovely sound. It has an under buzz. Or it does not have a sound.  When it does not have a sound I like it least of all.  But aloneness is delicious"(Aloneness).

Each illustration has bright expressive colors but is different on each page.  There were several illustrators that shared their talent.  Some illustrations were cartoon like, collages, paintings, and sketches, but all captured each poem with detail and interest.  For example, "If We Forget" by Ja Jahannes shows a boy in the middle of the page surrounded with shadows of ancient portraits of men that made a mark in history. I would also use this poem as an opening for poetry month and definitely use during Black History Month since my class follows a famous African-American each week. My spotlight poem would be "If We Forget" by Ja Jahannes.

     If we forget
     Who will keep the dream?
     Who will celebrate?

     Ancient portraits in black
     reaching back
     Reaching forward to today
     Timbuctu, Zimbabwe

     If we forget
     Who will keep the dream?
     Who will celebrate?

     If we forget
     Who will care?
     Who will share our pyramids,
     store our past,
     See our glory?
     Share our story.
     Who will celebrate
     Malcolm and Martin
     Whitney, and Washington
     Lincoln and Hampton
     Tuskegee
     Destinations, destiny?
     Who will remember?
     Who will remember?
     Who will remember?
     Who will remember me?
     If we forget
     Who will remember
     Shades of black
     Reaching forward, reaching back
     Ebony echoes growing strong
     Singing songs
     In the night
     Richard Wright
     Slavery's sorrow
     Slavery's pain
     Freedom struggle
     Freedom's gain
     Tubman's train
     Bethune and Brooke
     Gwendolyn's book
     W.E.B and Owen's too
     Billie's blues and Hughes's blues
     If we forget
     Who will keep the dream?
     Who will celebrate?
     Who will remember
     Robeson
     Muhammad won
     Burt's fun and Anderson
     Marshall's Law
     Pushkin and Dumas?
     How far?
     Can we go
     If we forget?
     If we forget
     Who will remember?
     Who will celebrate?

What a fabulous way to end this book than by adding "I have a Dream" By Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  This poem is shared in many classrooms on his birthday.

 

JAHANNES:

 

 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Chi-Raq


CHI-RAQ

 

If Spike Lee were truly as infused with hubris as he might wish American consumers of film to believe he is, he would have asked two Chicago ministers, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, to pray to their God  for the success of Chi-Raq the film and for the end of urban violence in the city of Chicago, code name ShyRack.  He did not hesitate to ask Reverend Jackson to pray for the success of  School Daze.  See the caption and ocular proof  in The Films of Spike Lee: Five for Five (New York:  Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1991). 58.. And the film would have been endowed with the blessings  of  liberation theology and spiritual credibility had he also persuaded Reverend Wright to portray Father Corridan in the film. Wright and Jackson would have given historicized Chicago authenticity to his enterprise, but their involvement also would have prevented Lee from creating Chi-Raq as stereotype-reifying, slapstick pornography. The ministers would have forced him and his actors to burn in flames of tragic rather than comic "truth." Spike Lee is infused with chutzpah.

 Lee has been in the cinema game too long to waste his juice or to send Hollywood an ISIS message.  He is not a fool.  Despite his obvious possession of some political consciousness, he is not a radical or an heir of Malcolm X.  Like Aristophanes, he is a trickster of the first water. And like the ancient Greek playwright from whose Lysistrata he borrows theme and surface features, Spike Lee has good entrepreneurial skills.  Satirizing the  amoral depths of society and pious belief in the sanctity of human life (# All Lives Matter) has commercial value in the world of cinema.  Money talks.  It sponsors the confusion of shared values in the United States of  America.  Money  reinforces the documented reluctance of many citizens who inhabit ShyRackish territory to enforce communal values, to break silence.  To be sure, those citizens are not silent about the debilitating effects of entrenched systemic racism, the mental illness which thugs and police people cultivate,  and the production of genocide in the heart of whiteness. They are quite vocal.  On the other hand, those who are most vocal about social injustice are most frequently silenced and disappeared by money, mass media, and such films as Chi-Raq.

 

 A comedy or comic  film in the United States  that smells of morality or  serious  interrogation of political and social issues is damned from the start.  It is destined to turn no profit, because (1) the conventions of comedy demand exaggeration and (2) Americans are gluttons for trivia, the bling of nonsense.   Abnormality has to be normalized. The comic valorizes  a certain degree of vulgarity.  Comic satire, as Bamboozled  demonstrated, must embody dread, the quality of  conjoined repulsiveness and attraction that can provoke laughter. Should abnormality and dread be the actual norm (the unfortunate case in sectors of American society where ShyRackish   communities exist), satire tends to succeed as entertainment.  It does not move significant numbers of people to adopt progressive, life-valuing behaviors.  Thus, Lee's attempt to transform Greek satiric comedy into American comic satire  delivers  a gender-laden  mess of sexist, death-oriented, racist affirmation.

As a filmmaker, Lee is at the top of his game in terms of understanding his audiences as well as the ideological  apparatus of the music, entertainment,  and film industries.   Some of the awkwardness of  films involves the effort to serve competing desires.  Artists who possess more than the intelligence of a prenatal fetus generally desire to do the right thing.  The industries , on the other hand, desire to maintain power and what Charles W. Mills aptly named the American racial contract.  The ethical dilemma can be addressed, but it can't be resolved.  It is a Forty Acres and Zora Neale Hurston mule no-brainer  to be outraged by the sexism of Chi-Raq, its selling the slogan "No peace. No pussy," it moral treason.

 Some viewers of the film might be able to cut through all the audiovisual, hip hop anointed shit and hear Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) utter the name Leymah Gbowee and advise Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) to discover why, at least once in African and world history, sisterhood, prayer, and sex did matter and did make a difference.  Out of the chaos of murdering cultural memory in Chicago, of minimizing Iraq's erectile dysfunction,  and of selling the  booty call crack of America's puritanical  Founding Mothers, Spike Lee and company drop on viewers the challenge represented by Leymah Gbowee, Liberia's president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Tawakkul Karman, the winners of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Peace. Chi-Raq is not about peace and dead children.  It is not about pussy and guns  and what D. H. Lawrence wrote or did not write about Lady Chatterley's cunt.   It is not about globally abused females and pathetic , demonic males, and innocent dead children and the manifest destiny of ethnic self-hatred to perpetuate genocide. Chi-Raq is about the world's orchestrated  failure to learn what needs to be done from Aristophanes's Lysistrata , from the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, or from Gbowee's book Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War (2011).  It would surprise no one should it ever be revealed that Pope Francis prayed for Chi-Raq on December 8,  2015 when he opened the doors of St. Peter's Basilica to mark the advent of a Year of Mercy during which the world can celebrate a Supreme Being's love for those who thrive in sin and are need of  unconditional mercy.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

December 14, 2015

 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Reading into 2016


Reading into 2016

 

"Gentlemen, I know a cigar is a phallic symbol," Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said, "but it is also a cigar."  Likewise, the public intellectual David Walker addressed commonsensical words "to the coloured citizens of the world, but in particular, and very expressly, to those of the United States of America." Freud's words are beyond verification; Walker's words yet hammer nails into consciousness.  Thus, citizens of the world, but very expressly American citizens, deserve to be warned that 2016 will be an amoral year of hostile humor.  We should take up our barrels and laugh into them.

January 1, 2016 marks the beginning of the sunset of the Age of Obama, and the ignoble luxury of blaming our first Kenyan American President for all the illich of the world shall begin to evaporate.  As we prepare to indict ourselves in the November 8, 2016 election of a new President, we should clearly understand that our voting will be neither a symbolic affirmation of democracy, a taking back of our country, nor a reason rather than an excuse for partisan jubilation.  The election will be such a Mammon-tainted performance that we shall have to admit that Democrats and Republicans have snookered and bamboozled us into donating our sovereignty to a death-bound new world order.

Readers trained in the natural and social sciences may have a slight advantage over those trained in the  human sciences ( classical humanities) in 2016, for they will be more disposed to read deeply and interestedly than closely and disinterestedly.  Deep and close may live in the same neighborhood, but they have divergent intellectual class identities.

American readers who are deep will be less likely to "pig out" on literature as such and more disposed to do work hard at trying to understand  the legacy of Leo Strauss (1899-1973) with help from the Leo Strauss Center (http://leostrausscenter.uchicago.edu).  They will be deeply interested in how our government has adapted  ideas Strauss proposed about political philosophy, Jewish studies, and Islamic studies.  They will be even more deeply interested in understanding how those ideas have been translated into domestic and foreign policies which are related to the phenomena of fear, terrorism, and abject disregard for anything close to the sanctity of human life on Earth. They will note in passing that the Strauss Center gets major support from the Winiarski Family Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

These readers will give passionate attention to Pierre Teilhard De Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man (1955; New York: Harper Torchbook, 1961), and the date of the original French edition of Le Phénomene Humain ---1955 ---will wave like a bloody white flag before their eyes.  1955? 1955?  Ah, in the summer of 1955, the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi began the writing of what Charles Blow calls "a vital American story" (see his op-ed in the August 31, 2015 edition of The New York Times). But a few months earlier, April 18-24, 1955, twenty-nine  African and Asian nations met in Bandung, Indonesia.  So, the deep readers will examine the final communiqué (April 24) of that conference and give special notice to the claim in section B (Cultural co-operation).1 that "the cultures of Asia and Africa are based in spiritual and universal foundations." EPIPHANY. In 1955, our nation, the U.S.S.R, and selected European nations were busily hatching the eggs of Cold War neo-colonialism, and close reading of the Bandung communiqué may yet prove these imperial powers attended too cavalierly to the profound implication of what the emerging Third World countries agreed upon in Bandung and did not say specifically. 

As the chickens of rainbow  colors have come home to roost with violent and deliberate speed throughout the world in 2015, we may be persuaded to add to our list of required reading for 2016

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  New York: Viking, 2005.

Faust, David. The Limits of Scientific Reasoning. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Lorenz, Edward N. The Essence of Chaos.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993.

Power, Samantha. "A Problem from Hell:" America and the Age of Genocide.  New York: Perennial, 2003.

Reich, Walter, ed. Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind. Washington, DC:  Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998.

Roberts, Brian Russell and Keith Foulcher, eds. Indonesia Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright, Modern Indonesia, and the Bandung Conference.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Wright, Richard. The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. New York: World Publishing Company, 1956.

Reading will not resolve existing problems or those as yet unborn.  Nevertheless, reading can assist us in not being wimpy and weepy on November 9, 2016.  No matter what a cowrie shell is forced to symbolize in the collective American mind, it is still a shell of a marine gastropod mollusk.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

December 7, 2015

Friday, December 4, 2015

Note on Satire

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A Note on Satire

 

The so-called Age of Obama may be a time when satire refuses to be distinguished from ordinary communication.  There's a hint of this possibility in a commentary on Mat Johnson's recent novel Loving Day.  In his urbane assessment of the book  "Forward Passes" (The New York Review of Books, December 17, 2015, pages 68-70), Darryl Pinckney invites us to think with some care about how satire may work as a description of fact. Johnson's title refers to the case of  Loving v. Virginia 388 U.S. 1 (1967).  That fact invites us to consult Legal Fictions: Constituting Race, Composing Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014) by Karla FC Holloway.  The subject matter of the novel, however, invites a study of the premises articulated in Emine Lale Demirturk's How Black Writers Deal With Whiteness: Characterization Through Deconstructing Color (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008).

Addressed to readers who may know absolutely nothing or very little about African American fiction, "Forward Passes" incorporates a mini- literary history, one necessary for understanding how it is that Mat Johnson "is able to interrogate black history."  In one paragraph Pinckney suggests

You could think of Mat Johnson alongside Wesley Brown, Paul Beatty, Colson Whitehead, John Keene, or Percival Everett.  To call them black satirists or humorists wouldn't quite cover it.  In their ease with genre and their consciousness that the language they're after is literary, they descend through the allegory of Ralph Ellison, not the realism of Richard Wright.  But they have inherited Wright's social vision, not Ellison's . "I know you're beige, but stay black," a friend says to Warren Duffy (70).

 Duffy is the mix-raced protagonist, and by James Joyce's "commodius vicus of recirculation" we may travel into the heart of interpretation.  Pinckney's playing the familiar Wright/Ellison binary is deliciously problematic.  If Ellison owns allegory and Wright possesses realism, can one read allegory without being haunted by its rootedness in realism?  Does disjunctive juxtaposition of allegory as narrative device or metaphor with realism as a mode of representation take us out to lunch on a date with satire?  And does Pinckney insinuate there is treason afoot in Ralph Ellison's social vision and a redeeming clarity in the one Richard Wright willed to us?

Perhaps in the Age of Obama, satire consigns writers and critics to a system of hell so that they may have an epiphany of race.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.