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Friday, December 30, 2016

Kwanzaa 2016 Note: Imani


READING INTO 2017



The rapid economic and political changes we have to anticipate for 2017 ensure that outlining  a plan for reading  will be an arduous chore.

A pleasant accident would be discovering a useful narrative link between  Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" and J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, an accident that justifies one's refusal to become overmuch excited about the latest offerings in fiction.  In the Age of Trump, the presence of  subaltern voices is ultimately of greater weight than the vapid tweets that assault us inside and outside of fiction.  Pleasant accidents shall be rare, and more energy must be given to making smart, practical choices.

As was the case in 2016, a considerable amount of reading will be influenced by the legacy of Leo Strauss (1899-1973), the ideas he proposed regarding political philosophy, Jewish studies, and Islamic studies.  We must read how those ideas were translated into domestic and foreign polices during the two terms President Obama served in office and how they may be further twisted, with Machiavellian zeal, as the Trump administration struggles with the phenomena of fear, terrorism, the fallacy of greatness, climate change, the increase of mental health problems,  the irreversible widening of the gap between wealth and poverty in our nation, and our sudden invitations to toss faith, hope and charity into a black hole and to cultivate abject disregard for what was once called the sanctity of human life in some dangerous gaming with post-human promises.

After January 20, 2017, I will have a more reasonable notion of what should be listed as required reading.  If my intuition is not a delusion,

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

Katznelson, Ira. Fear Itself :The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. New York: Liveright, 2013.

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

Reich, Walter, ed. Origins of Terrorism.  Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998.

will remain high on the list.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            December 30, 2016

Kwanzaa 2016: Kuumba

The Optimism of S.Z.

How charming.  He confesses,
world prize in frigid hands,
the absurdity of his position,
dispensing reimagined gospels to his father's kin.
In Berlin.  How charming.  In Berlin.
The dearth of irony, the crosshatched aesthetic
imprisoned in his blood.  The pathos of platitudes
and commodified betrayals.
How charming the smoldering kitchen
where his mother counts for nobody.
Only his father's class and color and contentment,
only his father's law and reason can count.
Only his father's fatal finger
can trace the religion of his face.
How charming to rebless ignorance.
Middle-passaged flesh,
lampshades of skin,
whip-branded backs
never existed
though they can. How charming.
Denial informs his flaring nostrils, his tattooed lips
How charming now the banal melodies.
Forget. Forgive. Justify oblivion.
Oblivion.  How charming. Oblivion.
Canonize blinding optimism
for swine who swill pearls.
How charming to abstain from charm.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
15 December 2016
Wuhan, China

Kwanzaa 2016 Note: Nia


POWELL , COATES, WIDEMAN  AND THE IMPLICATIONS OF TITLES



ABSTRACT:  The titles which Kevin Powell and Ta'Nehisi Coates chose for their 2015  memoirs do matter as clues for interpretation, because they invite, and perhaps compel,  us to assume particular postures in the making of meaning. Is Powell's titular echoing of The Education of Henry Adams, a classic example of American autobiography, really a calculated gesture to emphasize the historical gap between privilege and disadvantage in American life?  By deliberately borrowing Between the World and Me, the title of Richard Wright's stunning poem, does Coates affirm lynching as a death-bound American ritual?  Do the titles enlarge or limit the force of indeterminacy in our construction of meaning? How we answer these questions reveal deeper, more vexing questions about rhetorical options in the writing of what William Andrews identified as the "relativistic truth value of all autobiography" (3) in his influential study To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988). Do the rhetorical options John Edgar Wideman chose to use in Writing to Save a Life encourage critique of how black male autobiographical writing might evade death-bound entrapment?



Coates, Ta'Nehisi. Between the World and Me.  New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015.



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



Wideman, John Edgar. Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File. New York: Scribner, 2016.



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; that is to say demonstrating competence in dealing with autobiography as genre may involve a more faithful observation of conventions  (traditional expectations) and a greater belief in referentiality.  Yet, the possibility of referentiality may immerse us in a cycle of interpretive problems that resist clear resolution.



 The awareness that generic  "rules"  are based on abstractions from histories of reading (traditional habits), however, invite us to amend them in our acts of interpretation, in the cognitive acts we use in order to grasp the meaning of texts. We  are willing to break them, because we recognize that autobiography is not a static, unchanging form, but an effort to leave evidence (social, moral, aesthetic) of life experiences in this world.  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 in verifiable reality or actuality with the  individual's subjective  confessional, psychological ego-investments.  In this sense, the autobiographical writings of Kevin Powell and Ta'Nehisi Coates appear to be relatively "traditional" when they are read against  the "avant-garde "  features of Wideman's autobiographical detective work on the "lynching" of Emmett Till's father. Wideman frustrates conventional expectations by dwelling in the deep space of his own creativity.



For example, the pervasive discussion in the United States  of why "Black Lives Matter"  may seem to have a tremendous impact on how and why African American autobiographies are written from multiple "black life" angles in the first quarter of this century, because the simple sentence appears to be self-evident.  It has been floating about in one language or another since antiquity.   Nevertheless,  the fact that contemporary  variations of the sentence are circulating in arenas of social networking and mass media can tempt us to be skeptical , can tempt us to ask what precisely is the sentence designed to have us think. The terms "police brutality," "racism," and "tyranny of law and order" do not have to be spelled out in post-Civil Rights black autobiographies.  Many American readers will assume these terms inform the texts.  The terms  are assumed to be unspoken elements in the special  attention we give to the lives of African American males.  And the assumptions have become especially relevant in discussing the lives of Americans who are not visually "white" (Caucasian) or self-identified as "white."   But such terms as "inferior," "mental and physical abuse," and "exploitation" apply as well to autobiographies by African American  women.  Black men don't have a monopoly on being targets,  because the gendered aspects of life do cross freely back and forth across borders.  We do not forget (or should not forget) these possibilities as we read what Kevin Powell , John Edgar Wideman, and Ta' Nehisi Coates offer us as examples of   autobiography.



 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 as readers 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 affect 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 witnesses.  We demand, in most cases,  assurances that the autobiography is more than an absurd, commercial gimmick or a game of linguistic whim.  If the assurances fail, we are not devastated.  We all understand how American citizens "play" (manipulate) 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 life journey and the one taken by Henry Adams,  the elitist nineteenth-century descendent of two American presidents. To recall  a well-known metaphor from Booker T. Washington's autobiography, we can say that as writers Powell and Adams are connected in a national  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 (assumptions about entitlement, freedom and privilege) 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. They may think 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  or passive 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 (desirable end) 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 outside and inside formal classrooms.



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 exact  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 in the 21st century.



Critics who assign maximum value to  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, to expose the innate immorality of twenty-first century societies. He targets  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 and African American identities.



 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 (his autobiography was intended, in part, to be a guidebook for his descendents)  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 the two autobiographies compelled me to make a choice.  I admit that the vernacular qualities of The Education of Kevin Powell instruct me more thoroughly about the problematic nature of  autobiography than do the deliberate "literariness" of Between the World and Me.  His writing  encourages me to learn more about aligning the building of knowledge for everyday use with critical aesthetic response, while the ego-focused rawness of Powell's confession invites me  to agonize that the lessons in his openness may be casually dismissed by many young male readers who are enthralled with being macho .



Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is not easy.  The difficulty is  constituted neither by his prose style nor his subject matter, because the subject matter is familiar and his sentences are music for the inner ear. Difficulty slams into you from a place he is not exploring, from the badlands where signs defy decoding. You feel that his having borrowed the title Between the World and Me from one of the stellar poems of 20th century American poetry transports you to a desert where the bones of David Walker, Herman Melville,  Walt Whitman, Alexander Crummell, Mark Twain, and Ralph Ellison are strewn helter-skelter and the air smells like Theodore Bilbo's breath.  In that arid, alienating place, you are hearing footsteps from In the American Grain by Williams Carlos Williams and Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman, although ultra-orthodox literary  criticism wants you to hear a sermon from James Baldwin that simply is not available. Toni Morrison's "amen corner" blurb for Coates' book doesn't persuade me to read Coates as Baldwin reincarnated.  The blurb persuades me that Morrison is complicit in an enterprise of which she once was progressively critical.  The difficulty is also constituted by the idiosyncrasy  of how my mind reads, by my uncanny affinity with Richard Wright.



Idiosyncrasy begets temptations.  Under the influence of Coates's tip of the hat to Richard Wright and the space/time where an enormous number of males have no sanctuary, you are tempted to listen once more to Billie Holiday sing "Strange Fruit."  But wouldn't the mood produced actually prejudice your reading of how Coates depicts the space of the hard place and the rock?  Listen to Thelonious Monk, October and November 1947, Blue Note LP 5002.  Monk and Art Blakey provide the jazz against which you to read Coates's blues (echoes of Ellison's calling Wright's Black Boy a species of blues writing).  You are tempted to ask why Coates romanticizes life at Howard University beyond the classroom as the Mecca.  His idea of Mecca is a translation of comments on a pilgrimage by Malcolm X,  a man whom Ossie Davis eulogized as one who made the cowardly "thoroughly ashamed of the urbane and smiling hypocrisy we practice merely to exist in a world whose values we both envy  and despise."  Is it urbane or cosmopolitan to tell your son about that Mecca and tell him nary a word about Chicago's  Mecca, the 1891 apartment building, to tell your  son  nothing about what Gwendolyn Brooks said about that Mecca?  She ordered us to "Sit where the light corrupts your face."  When you drop knowledge for your son, employ economy.  Aretha Franklin's beautiful phrasing of "And temptation's strong" cuts across Monk's "Humph."



 Trying to accord Mr. Coates the sympathy and respect he accorded Wright's illuminating habitation of the black male body, you are tempted to say unto him invest more in the vengeance of the Old Testament God for whom the pen is the sword.  After Ferguson and the white magic of daily systemic murder in the United States, you are tempted to suggest that the human body in our nation professes the New Testament God to be an invisible shadow and act.  After all, who told Jesus he could change his name?  Who?  Who?  The owl and Amiri Baraka?



Ah, Mr. Coates you use the word "body" too much in Between the World and Me and are too stingy in using the word "mind."  Do you not recall that after Richard Wright figured out what was truly between the world and himself and other black males, he figured forth the lynching of the mind in The Outsider and The Long Dream?  When you play with allusions, do not half-step.  Temptations strengthen idiosyncrasy.



You find it tantalizingly informative that Ta-Nehisi Coates chose not to imprison his letter to his son in the ancient form that letters can still assume.  He begins "Son," (page 5) and ends "Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets." (page 152)  He did not begin "Dear Son," and end "Your father, Ta-Nehisi".  The lack of formality says something about the 21st century, about the distance between what Mr. Coates deems to be the proper shape of correspondence and the outmoded antiquity  of your ideas about how courtesy ought to be signaled.  Coates operates against the formal properties of the model James Baldwin provided in his letter to his nephew.  So be it.  Although generic form is an action, it is superseded by substance.  Substance is what you are looking for in Coates's book.

You find it in the possibility that Coates is saying something to his son from the region of mind that only he can access, that is curiously represented when he writes of becoming a writer without a degree from Howard University:

I felt that it was time to go, to declare myself a graduate of The Mecca, if not the university.  I was publishing music reviews, articles, and essays in the local alternative newspaper, and this meant contact with more human beings.  I had editors ---more teachers --- and these were the first white people I'd ever really known on any personal level.  They defied my presumptions --- they were afraid nether for me nor of me.  Instead they saw in my unruly curiosity and softness something that was to be treasured and harnessed (62).



The slave trade treasured black bodies and harnessed them on plantations in a new world of capitalism.

You write on the margins of page 62: "Reconstructing the tragic chain of circumstances...." and "In the hope that there is something to learn from this account, something to salvage from the grief and waste, I've striven for accuracy and honesty."  You quote from John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (New York: Vintage, 1984), page xi, hoping (with genuine desperation) that Wideman's honesty will anoint your reading of Between the World and Me.  You begin to fear that Coates is 100% American. You write words published in 1925 on a separate sheet of paper: "Here Poe emerges --in no sense the bizarre, isolate writer, the curious literary figure.  On the contrary, in him American  literature is anchored, in him alone, on solid ground." This assertion comes from William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (New York: New Directions, 1956), page 226. You are annotating Coates's book because something is emerging.  Poe became a "major" American author by not graduating from the University of Virginia.  William Carlos Williams, a doctor and poet, found something American to admire in Poe. So too did Richard Wright, who said that had Poe not lived we would have invented him.  In the back of your mind, memory whispers: one of Wideman's early novels is entitled The Lynchers.



Is Coates saying something to his son about narrative that exceeds the conventional talk (recently rebaptized by necessity as THE TALK) which non-white American fathers think they are obligated to have with their non-white sons, saying something about the talk that ,apparently,  white fathers never have with their white sons?  When it comes to how the talk and lives of all color matter, the tongue of the white male American body is as bound as the feet of a Chinese emperor's favorite wife.  Perhaps Coates is quite indirectly telling his son that the so-called white mind actually is a fiction without material references.



"You have not yet grappled," Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son, "with your own myths and narratives and discovered the plunder everywhere around us "(21).  When and if the son does discover American history is an interlocked series of subjective narratives , then he will have to weigh the commerce of narrative and  violence  in maintaining  America's social and racial contracts.  Men created America by violating the minds and bodies of men, women, and children. You think it would be good for Coates to give his son copies of Robert G. Parkinson's The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016),   Hayden White's The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), Grace Elizabeth Hale's Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Pantheon, 1998), Tzvetan Todorov's The Conquest of America (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 3rd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967) and Leslie Bow's Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South (New York: New York University Press, 2010). The son might plunder these books at his leisure when he reaches the age of reading. Or he might reject them and  choose to plunder a very different selection of texts.  You guess that Ta-Nehisi Coates would have his son plunder in the name of unqualified  love of himself.   Should he do so,  he might indeed produce his own myths and narratives and thereby rival those created by his father.  Those myths and narratives just might resemble the autobiographical ones created by John Edgar Wideman, who makes superb use of his mind to document the homoerotic fascination white folk believe they are destined to have with the bodies of black, red, brown and yellow folk.  Your son, Mr. Coates,  might empower himself to destroy (or at least minimize)  the  ways the agents of mass media, social networking,  the ubiquitous Internet, and the American police state work feverishly to constipate his mind as well as his body and his spiritual essence.



Between the World and Me is a strong, complex, provocative book.  Like all American authors, Coates could not avoid signing deals with demons in order to have his book published commercially. You know that. You  have compassion for the book's instances of class-blindness. You  make peace with its flaws, the moments when specificity becomes generalization, because the book subverts gross ignorance and exposes your nation's unique brand of denial.  It is a brave book.  It is a book that James Meredith, author of  A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America (New York: Atria Books, 2012), might endorse if he is caught at just the right moment of generosity.  It is a truth-telling book which inspires dread.  It does not inspire promises of false hope that shall never be delivered.



 Dread is the real deal in the United States of America and elsewhere. The Dream is an evil fiction that attempts to enslave people, and  too often it succeeds beyond the expectations of its authors.

 Ta-Nehisi Coates has produced a first-rate secular jeremiad, an honest meditation on Dread.  There is a thin but critical line between a sermon and a jeremiad.  Coates is neither a priest nor a preacher.

 You sit in the desert, secure in your idiosyncrasy.  You and the ghost of Claude McKay, author of the sonnet "America" sit in the sand and take bets on who shall be the first to see Time's unerring terrorism, with much help from Nature,  dispatch the millions of people who worship in the temples  and cathedrals and mosques  of white supremacy.



Re-reading McKay's sonnet is a fine start for a judicious probing, for engaging the endlessly provocative questions behind  what Powell and Coates may be saying to their native land:



Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!

Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,

Giving me strength erect against her hate.

Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.

Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,

I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.



The sonnet is also a prelude to considering the question of John Edgar Wideman and the contemporary functions of black male autobiography.  Do the rhetorical options John Edgar Wideman chose to use in Writing to Save a Life encourage critique of how black male autobiographical writing might evade death-bound entrapment?  Permit repetition.  The autobiographical writings of Kevin Powell and Ta'Nehisi Coates appear to be relatively "traditional"  ( conventional in reassuring readers  that aspects of the status quo are very much intact )when they are read against  the "avant-garde " (making the strange seem overtly familiar)  features of Wideman's autobiographical detective work on the "lynching" of Emmett Till's father. Wideman frustrates conventional expectations by dwelling in the deep space of his own creativity, the  atypical anxieties that form and inform his life history.







Like the poetic meditation of Philip C. Kolin's Emmett Till in Different States (Chicago: Third World Press, 2015), a quite sensitive white male autobiographical rendering of how language gives birth to images of an iconic moment in America's violent past and present, Wideman's Writing to Save a Life is a remarkable exercise in the use of language to save his own life, in scrutinizing the peculiar language of World War II U. S. Army documentation to contextualize his individuality.   His blending of fact and fiction is a disarming revelation of the emotional truths which contest any "rules" that might distinguish autobiography as a genre.  What emotional truth pulsates in knowing "Private Louis Till's file revealed he had been hanged July 2, 1945, by the U.S. army for committing rape and murder in Italy" and that "Revisiting trial testimony did not help me produce the Emmett Till fiction I wanted to write…." ( Writing…12)? That Wideman substituted an autobiographical project for one devoted to fiction matters greatly,  because it reminds that the grossest obscenities of American history are not the stuff of fiction. They may be present in fiction, but they lose the abrasive qualities that non-fiction (or almost non-fiction) deliver.  And Wideman produces a noteworthy sandpapering of the mind in his memoir.  He vacillates between his reading of the redacted  Louis Till file and the evidence of how that file was crucial in assuring that the murderers of Louis Till's son would be absolved of guilt by the machinations of Southern justice in Mississippi in 1955.  The sandpapering is made all the more effective by the references to the poetry of Ezra Pound  (the treason-smeared maker of cantos) and Robert Hayden (the virtuous maker of minor epics), by multiple allusions that examine the extent of one's cultural literacy and sophistication in the sense of one's being a coloured citizen of the world still capable of hearing the voice of David Walker's Appeal  (1829).



Truth be told , Wideman, Coates and Powell as writers of autobiography do not escape the death-boundedness of the existential choices available to American males. They can no more evade entrapment than can Donald J. Trump, Barack Obama, and Warren Buffett as makers of scary autobiographical propositions.  But that's another story about global capitalism and international political affairs.  Let it suffice that the implications of the titles chosen by Powell, Coats, and Wideman shall haunt us for many decades.

POWELL , COATES, WIDEMAN  AND THE IMPLICATIONS OF TITLES



ABSTRACT:  The titles which Kevin Powell and Ta'Nehisi Coates chose for their 2015  memoirs do matter as clues for interpretation, because they invite, and perhaps compel,  us to assume particular postures in the making of meaning. Is Powell's titular echoing of The Education of Henry Adams, a classic example of American autobiography, really a calculated gesture to emphasize the historical gap between privilege and disadvantage in American life?  By deliberately borrowing Between the World and Me, the title of Richard Wright's stunning poem, does Coates affirm lynching as a death-bound American ritual?  Do the titles enlarge or limit the force of indeterminacy in our construction of meaning? How we answer these questions reveal deeper, more vexing questions about rhetorical options in the writing of what William Andrews identified as the "relativistic truth value of all autobiography" (3) in his influential study To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988). Do the rhetorical options John Edgar Wideman chose to use in Writing to Save a Life encourage critique of how black male autobiographical writing might evade death-bound entrapment?



Coates, Ta'Nehisi. Between the World and Me.  New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015.



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



Wideman, John Edgar. Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File. New York: Scribner, 2016.



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; that is to say demonstrating competence in dealing with autobiography as genre may involve a more faithful observation of conventions  (traditional expectations) and a greater belief in referentiality.  Yet, the possibility of referentiality may immerse us in a cycle of interpretive problems that resist clear resolution.



 The awareness that generic  "rules"  are based on abstractions from histories of reading (traditional habits), however, invite us to amend them in our acts of interpretation, in the cognitive acts we use in order to grasp the meaning of texts. We  are willing to break them, because we recognize that autobiography is not a static, unchanging form, but an effort to leave evidence (social, moral, aesthetic) of life experiences in this world.  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 in verifiable reality or actuality with the  individual's subjective  confessional, psychological ego-investments.  In this sense, the autobiographical writings of Kevin Powell and Ta'Nehisi Coates appear to be relatively "traditional" when they are read against  the "avant-garde "  features of Wideman's autobiographical detective work on the "lynching" of Emmett Till's father. Wideman frustrates conventional expectations by dwelling in the deep space of his own creativity.



For example, the pervasive discussion in the United States  of why "Black Lives Matter"  may seem to have a tremendous impact on how and why African American autobiographies are written from multiple "black life" angles in the first quarter of this century, because the simple sentence appears to be self-evident.  It has been floating about in one language or another since antiquity.   Nevertheless,  the fact that contemporary  variations of the sentence are circulating in arenas of social networking and mass media can tempt us to be skeptical , can tempt us to ask what precisely is the sentence designed to have us think. The terms "police brutality," "racism," and "tyranny of law and order" do not have to be spelled out in post-Civil Rights black autobiographies.  Many American readers will assume these terms inform the texts.  The terms  are assumed to be unspoken elements in the special  attention we give to the lives of African American males.  And the assumptions have become especially relevant in discussing the lives of Americans who are not visually "white" (Caucasian) or self-identified as "white."   But such terms as "inferior," "mental and physical abuse," and "exploitation" apply as well to autobiographies by African American  women.  Black men don't have a monopoly on being targets,  because the gendered aspects of life do cross freely back and forth across borders.  We do not forget (or should not forget) these possibilities as we read what Kevin Powell , John Edgar Wideman, and Ta' Nehisi Coates offer us as examples of   autobiography.



 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 as readers 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 affect 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 witnesses.  We demand, in most cases,  assurances that the autobiography is more than an absurd, commercial gimmick or a game of linguistic whim.  If the assurances fail, we are not devastated.  We all understand how American citizens "play" (manipulate) 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 life journey and the one taken by Henry Adams,  the elitist nineteenth-century descendent of two American presidents. To recall  a well-known metaphor from Booker T. Washington's autobiography, we can say that as writers Powell and Adams are connected in a national  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 (assumptions about entitlement, freedom and privilege) 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. They may think 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  or passive 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 (desirable end) 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 outside and inside formal classrooms.



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 exact  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 in the 21st century.



Critics who assign maximum value to  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, to expose the innate immorality of twenty-first century societies. He targets  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 and African American identities.



 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 (his autobiography was intended, in part, to be a guidebook for his descendents)  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 the two autobiographies compelled me to make a choice.  I admit that the vernacular qualities of The Education of Kevin Powell instruct me more thoroughly about the problematic nature of  autobiography than do the deliberate "literariness" of Between the World and Me.  His writing  encourages me to learn more about aligning the building of knowledge for everyday use with critical aesthetic response, while the ego-focused rawness of Powell's confession invites me  to agonize that the lessons in his openness may be casually dismissed by many young male readers who are enthralled with being macho .



Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is not easy.  The difficulty is  constituted neither by his prose style nor his subject matter, because the subject matter is familiar and his sentences are music for the inner ear. Difficulty slams into you from a place he is not exploring, from the badlands where signs defy decoding. You feel that his having borrowed the title Between the World and Me from one of the stellar poems of 20th century American poetry transports you to a desert where the bones of David Walker, Herman Melville,  Walt Whitman, Alexander Crummell, Mark Twain, and Ralph Ellison are strewn helter-skelter and the air smells like Theodore Bilbo's breath.  In that arid, alienating place, you are hearing footsteps from In the American Grain by Williams Carlos Williams and Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman, although ultra-orthodox literary  criticism wants you to hear a sermon from James Baldwin that simply is not available. Toni Morrison's "amen corner" blurb for Coates' book doesn't persuade me to read Coates as Baldwin reincarnated.  The blurb persuades me that Morrison is complicit in an enterprise of which she once was progressively critical.  The difficulty is also constituted by the idiosyncrasy  of how my mind reads, by my uncanny affinity with Richard Wright.



Idiosyncrasy begets temptations.  Under the influence of Coates's tip of the hat to Richard Wright and the space/time where an enormous number of males have no sanctuary, you are tempted to listen once more to Billie Holiday sing "Strange Fruit."  But wouldn't the mood produced actually prejudice your reading of how Coates depicts the space of the hard place and the rock?  Listen to Thelonious Monk, October and November 1947, Blue Note LP 5002.  Monk and Art Blakey provide the jazz against which you to read Coates's blues (echoes of Ellison's calling Wright's Black Boy a species of blues writing).  You are tempted to ask why Coates romanticizes life at Howard University beyond the classroom as the Mecca.  His idea of Mecca is a translation of comments on a pilgrimage by Malcolm X,  a man whom Ossie Davis eulogized as one who made the cowardly "thoroughly ashamed of the urbane and smiling hypocrisy we practice merely to exist in a world whose values we both envy  and despise."  Is it urbane or cosmopolitan to tell your son about that Mecca and tell him nary a word about Chicago's  Mecca, the 1891 apartment building, to tell your  son  nothing about what Gwendolyn Brooks said about that Mecca?  She ordered us to "Sit where the light corrupts your face."  When you drop knowledge for your son, employ economy.  Aretha Franklin's beautiful phrasing of "And temptation's strong" cuts across Monk's "Humph."



 Trying to accord Mr. Coates the sympathy and respect he accorded Wright's illuminating habitation of the black male body, you are tempted to say unto him invest more in the vengeance of the Old Testament God for whom the pen is the sword.  After Ferguson and the white magic of daily systemic murder in the United States, you are tempted to suggest that the human body in our nation professes the New Testament God to be an invisible shadow and act.  After all, who told Jesus he could change his name?  Who?  Who?  The owl and Amiri Baraka?



Ah, Mr. Coates you use the word "body" too much in Between the World and Me and are too stingy in using the word "mind."  Do you not recall that after Richard Wright figured out what was truly between the world and himself and other black males, he figured forth the lynching of the mind in The Outsider and The Long Dream?  When you play with allusions, do not half-step.  Temptations strengthen idiosyncrasy.



You find it tantalizingly informative that Ta-Nehisi Coates chose not to imprison his letter to his son in the ancient form that letters can still assume.  He begins "Son," (page 5) and ends "Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets." (page 152)  He did not begin "Dear Son," and end "Your father, Ta-Nehisi".  The lack of formality says something about the 21st century, about the distance between what Mr. Coates deems to be the proper shape of correspondence and the outmoded antiquity  of your ideas about how courtesy ought to be signaled.  Coates operates against the formal properties of the model James Baldwin provided in his letter to his nephew.  So be it.  Although generic form is an action, it is superseded by substance.  Substance is what you are looking for in Coates's book.

You find it in the possibility that Coates is saying something to his son from the region of mind that only he can access, that is curiously represented when he writes of becoming a writer without a degree from Howard University:

I felt that it was time to go, to declare myself a graduate of The Mecca, if not the university.  I was publishing music reviews, articles, and essays in the local alternative newspaper, and this meant contact with more human beings.  I had editors ---more teachers --- and these were the first white people I'd ever really known on any personal level.  They defied my presumptions --- they were afraid nether for me nor of me.  Instead they saw in my unruly curiosity and softness something that was to be treasured and harnessed (62).



The slave trade treasured black bodies and harnessed them on plantations in a new world of capitalism.

You write on the margins of page 62: "Reconstructing the tragic chain of circumstances...." and "In the hope that there is something to learn from this account, something to salvage from the grief and waste, I've striven for accuracy and honesty."  You quote from John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (New York: Vintage, 1984), page xi, hoping (with genuine desperation) that Wideman's honesty will anoint your reading of Between the World and Me.  You begin to fear that Coates is 100% American. You write words published in 1925 on a separate sheet of paper: "Here Poe emerges --in no sense the bizarre, isolate writer, the curious literary figure.  On the contrary, in him American  literature is anchored, in him alone, on solid ground." This assertion comes from William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (New York: New Directions, 1956), page 226. You are annotating Coates's book because something is emerging.  Poe became a "major" American author by not graduating from the University of Virginia.  William Carlos Williams, a doctor and poet, found something American to admire in Poe. So too did Richard Wright, who said that had Poe not lived we would have invented him.  In the back of your mind, memory whispers: one of Wideman's early novels is entitled The Lynchers.



Is Coates saying something to his son about narrative that exceeds the conventional talk (recently rebaptized by necessity as THE TALK) which non-white American fathers think they are obligated to have with their non-white sons, saying something about the talk that ,apparently,  white fathers never have with their white sons?  When it comes to how the talk and lives of all color matter, the tongue of the white male American body is as bound as the feet of a Chinese emperor's favorite wife.  Perhaps Coates is quite indirectly telling his son that the so-called white mind actually is a fiction without material references.



"You have not yet grappled," Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son, "with your own myths and narratives and discovered the plunder everywhere around us "(21).  When and if the son does discover American history is an interlocked series of subjective narratives , then he will have to weigh the commerce of narrative and  violence  in maintaining  America's social and racial contracts.  Men created America by violating the minds and bodies of men, women, and children. You think it would be good for Coates to give his son copies of Robert G. Parkinson's The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016),   Hayden White's The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), Grace Elizabeth Hale's Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Pantheon, 1998), Tzvetan Todorov's The Conquest of America (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 3rd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967) and Leslie Bow's Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South (New York: New York University Press, 2010). The son might plunder these books at his leisure when he reaches the age of reading. Or he might reject them and  choose to plunder a very different selection of texts.  You guess that Ta-Nehisi Coates would have his son plunder in the name of unqualified  love of himself.   Should he do so,  he might indeed produce his own myths and narratives and thereby rival those created by his father.  Those myths and narratives just might resemble the autobiographical ones created by John Edgar Wideman, who makes superb use of his mind to document the homoerotic fascination white folk believe they are destined to have with the bodies of black, red, brown and yellow folk.  Your son, Mr. Coates,  might empower himself to destroy (or at least minimize)  the  ways the agents of mass media, social networking,  the ubiquitous Internet, and the American police state work feverishly to constipate his mind as well as his body and his spiritual essence.



Between the World and Me is a strong, complex, provocative book.  Like all American authors, Coates could not avoid signing deals with demons in order to have his book published commercially. You know that. You  have compassion for the book's instances of class-blindness. You  make peace with its flaws, the moments when specificity becomes generalization, because the book subverts gross ignorance and exposes your nation's unique brand of denial.  It is a brave book.  It is a book that James Meredith, author of  A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America (New York: Atria Books, 2012), might endorse if he is caught at just the right moment of generosity.  It is a truth-telling book which inspires dread.  It does not inspire promises of false hope that shall never be delivered.



 Dread is the real deal in the United States of America and elsewhere. The Dream is an evil fiction that attempts to enslave people, and  too often it succeeds beyond the expectations of its authors.

 Ta-Nehisi Coates has produced a first-rate secular jeremiad, an honest meditation on Dread.  There is a thin but critical line between a sermon and a jeremiad.  Coates is neither a priest nor a preacher.

 You sit in the desert, secure in your idiosyncrasy.  You and the ghost of Claude McKay, author of the sonnet "America" sit in the sand and take bets on who shall be the first to see Time's unerring terrorism, with much help from Nature,  dispatch the millions of people who worship in the temples  and cathedrals and mosques  of white supremacy.



Re-reading McKay's sonnet is a fine start for a judicious probing, for engaging the endlessly provocative questions behind  what Powell and Coates may be saying to their native land:



Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!

Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,

Giving me strength erect against her hate.

Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.

Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,

I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.



The sonnet is also a prelude to considering the question of John Edgar Wideman and the contemporary functions of black male autobiography.  Do the rhetorical options John Edgar Wideman chose to use in Writing to Save a Life encourage critique of how black male autobiographical writing might evade death-bound entrapment?  Permit repetition.  The autobiographical writings of Kevin Powell and Ta'Nehisi Coates appear to be relatively "traditional"  ( conventional in reassuring readers  that aspects of the status quo are very much intact )when they are read against  the "avant-garde " (making the strange seem overtly familiar)  features of Wideman's autobiographical detective work on the "lynching" of Emmett Till's father. Wideman frustrates conventional expectations by dwelling in the deep space of his own creativity, the  atypical anxieties that form and inform his life history.







Like the poetic meditation of Philip C. Kolin's Emmett Till in Different States (Chicago: Third World Press, 2015), a quite sensitive white male autobiographical rendering of how language gives birth to images of an iconic moment in America's violent past and present, Wideman's Writing to Save a Life is a remarkable exercise in the use of language to save his own life, in scrutinizing the peculiar language of World War II U. S. Army documentation to contextualize his individuality.   His blending of fact and fiction is a disarming revelation of the emotional truths which contest any "rules" that might distinguish autobiography as a genre.  What emotional truth pulsates in knowing "Private Louis Till's file revealed he had been hanged July 2, 1945, by the U.S. army for committing rape and murder in Italy" and that "Revisiting trial testimony did not help me produce the Emmett Till fiction I wanted to write…." ( Writing…12)? That Wideman substituted an autobiographical project for one devoted to fiction matters greatly,  because it reminds that the grossest obscenities of American history are not the stuff of fiction. They may be present in fiction, but they lose the abrasive qualities that non-fiction (or almost non-fiction) deliver.  And Wideman produces a noteworthy sandpapering of the mind in his memoir.  He vacillates between his reading of the redacted  Louis Till file and the evidence of how that file was crucial in assuring that the murderers of Louis Till's son would be absolved of guilt by the machinations of Southern justice in Mississippi in 1955.  The sandpapering is made all the more effective by the references to the poetry of Ezra Pound  (the treason-smeared maker of cantos) and Robert Hayden (the virtuous maker of minor epics), by multiple allusions that examine the extent of one's cultural literacy and sophistication in the sense of one's being a coloured citizen of the world still capable of hearing the voice of David Walker's Appeal  (1829).



Truth be told , Wideman, Coates and Powell as writers of autobiography do not escape the death-boundedness of the existential choices available to American males. They can no more evade entrapment than can Donald J. Trump, Barack Obama, and Warren Buffett as makers of scary autobiographical propositions.  But that's another story about global capitalism and international political affairs.  Let it suffice that the implications of the titles chosen by Powell, Coats, and Wideman shall haunt us for many decades.