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Saturday, June 18, 2016

requiem for human dreams

Requiem for Human Dreams

"Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved."  This sentence from W. E. B. DuBois's article "A Negro Nation Within the Nation," Current History 42( 1935 ): 265-270 has been quoted by Ibram X. Kendi in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016).  DuBois's assertion sounds in 2016 like a lament from a person in ideological pain, and there can be no doubt that Kendi quoted DuBois to remind us of the implacable and always changing conditions of human existence.  There are indigenous nations still within the United States of America, but we who have no membership in those nations  remain ignorant of them by choice.  Perhaps, the ignorance is more a reflex action than a rational choice, an unconscious motion of marking the authenticity of being an American.  Such ignorance and indifference, or selectivity in our commerce with facts, is not innately necessary or sufficient, a part of unadulterated biological functioning. It is a part of social and cultural engineering.   No doubt we remain unmoved by knowing this fact, because the excruciating pain of being an American paralyzes common sense as well as the qualities of charity, hope, and faith which manifest themselves in most of the religions of this world.

Stamped from the Beginning, like any book,  may only awaken a few dozen Americans and disturb the bliss of ignorance.  Nevertheless, Kendi's book may awaken a handful of Americans to recognize what such widely discussed books as Kevin Powell's The Education of Kevin Powell, Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow,  and Ta'Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me and such infrequently discussed books as Dennis de Rougemont's The Devil's Share, Sam Greenlee's Baghdad Blues,  Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and Gustave Le Bon's The Crowd work toward by indirection: the abject cognitive  poverty of sentences in which the word "race" is the subject.  There can be no doubt that  Americans  remain indifferent and unmoved by arguments in Charles W. Mills's The Racial Contract, arguments that are as crucial as the fictions about terrorism which circulate internationally.

As an irreversible new ordering of the world descends upon us , cognitive poverty ascends.  In 2016, Americans and other human beings  know only two facts: (1) Nothing is neither true nor false, because it is nothing and (2) Everything is either true or false, because it is everything.  Know that these magic propositions ordain a requiem for human dreams.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            June 18, 2016

Monday, June 13, 2016

Poems by John A. Williams

Poems by John A. Williams

It is common to identify a writer with a single genre --- W. E. B. DuBois with nonfiction, Toni Cade Bambara  with fiction, and August Wilson with drama, failing to remember that accomplished writers do not live in one penthouse or prison cell.  They, like non-writers,  explore, undertake  imaginary and real expeditions.  It is common to recognize that John A. Williams (1925-2015) wrote The Man Who Cried I Am, but quite out of the ordinary to know that he published Safari West: Poems (Montreal: Hochelaga Press, 1998), which won the American Book Award in the same year.  It is as uncommon to identify him as a poet as it is to identify Charles Johnson as a visual artist.

For readers in my generation, reading the forty-five poems in Safari West can be a rewarding exercise in discovery and renewal, in noting relocations of long-term dislocations.  One of the earliest poems "The Age of Bop" (1953) takes us back to the territory of attitude, innovation, and music associated with post-WWII events and the thematic  adventures of searching in Western worlds.  According to Williams,

Bustling Bop in retreat from Baroque

Finds it own answer, free from the yoke. (36)

Being "free from the yoke," however, is an ephemeral condition, because as Williams challenges the proposition in one stanza of  "Nat Turner's Profession" (1995)

All men whom others hold in bond

must one day know a time is near,

when they will meet their Babylon

in those with little left to fear. (19)

This irregular ballad stanza of thirty-two syllables gives voice to a promise that crashes into a Rococo delusion, a bourgeoisie entrapment that, in the language of Sterling D. Plumpp, is ornate with smoke. Reading Safari West is ultimately refreshing in its affirmation that as a poet, journalist, novelist, cultural critic, and witness of time, John A. Williams brought relentless common sense and clarity to the existential dimensions of being.  He really nailed wisdom in the brevity of "In Private" (1972) -----

Knowledgeable of myths

we create our own

seeking truth halfway. (47)

Safari West brings reality back to the promiscuous assignations we insist on having with poetry.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            June 13, 2016

Saturday, June 11, 2016

political pornography

Political Pornography

A few decades ago in the Black South, it was not uncommon for black women who did domestic work to speak of "our white folks" as if they actually owned those people.  Such womanist talk involved subtle, racial codes.  It was easy to misinterpret what they were saying, to think they were speaking in terms of affection and intimacy about members of the family.  Their observations were based on proximity rather than endearment.  Love was not a part of the conversation.  When it is alleged that Donald Trump said "look at my African American,"  is it  reasonable to think he was talking like a domestic worker?  Hell, no.  His utterance was informed by the codes of the slave auction not those of the kitchen. "Donald, did you buy the dude at a discount?"

Unfortunately, we seem to lack reliable conservative voices to explain what Trump is saying about the opening of the American mind.  There is dead silence when it comes to discriminating between what Trump is selling and what Allan Bloom tried to market in The Closing of the American Mind (1987).  Yes, the neoliberal voices babble endlessly about Trump, but the attention they give him is informed by perverse blindness.  They seem not to see what Ralph Ellison inscribed about politics and the sociology of race in his beloved novel Invisible Man (1952), especially in the battle royal episode.  Those who are not visually challenged seem to have taken a vow of silence.  It is unfortunate that William Bennett, once one of the more important white conservative voices in America, loss his moral compass and can now say nothing that has credibility.

If you have read Invisible Man, you may recall that in the battle royal episode, "the most important men of the town" ---"bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants…[e]ven one of the more fashionable pastors" were enthralled by "a magnificent blonde  --stark naked, "  a sex object who danced "a slow sensuous movement." The representative male citizens salivate, gazing upon her body "where below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V."  Trump is not a character in fiction, but he slobbers with alacrity in the presence of an immaculate, fictional symbol of the United States of America.

Our current political story is more gender-bent and intriguing than the one Ellison's narrator told.  As the great white Republican hope, Donald Trump is the narrative voice of the visible man poised to engaged in a bloodless battle royal with the visible woman, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic champion.  Perhaps as we move toward Election Day, American voters will confess that politics can be kinky, sublimely vulgar, and erotic.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            June 11, 2016

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

the treason of histories


Tzvetan Todorov, a nonhistorian of interest, confessed in The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (New York: Harper & Row, 1984) "that to become conscious of the relativity (hence the arbitrariness) of any feature of our culture is already to shift it a little, and that history (not the science but its object) is nothing other than a series of such imperceptible shifts" (254).  Todorov's meditation on Spanish genocide in the Caribbean and Mexico is a remarkable document of his negotiation with his adopted culture, a record of how the quite "other" narratives of that culture often  provide sobering instruction about the spectacle of Western histories and historiographies.  It is reasonable to think the so-called European imagination (not its ontology but its representation) is condemned to refashion its outlier properties  (when it dares to be honest) and to manufacture fictions with alacrity (when it opts to prevaricate).  Seldom are we urged to associate such instability with African and Asian acts of remembering and forgetting.  Were we to take a radical plunge and have immediate experiences with cognitive hydraulics, perhaps we'd be less bamboozled by uncertainty. We might be less awed by  indecisiveness, particularly in discussions of imperialism, ancient and modern stories of group hatred,  and other hegemonic enterprises.  Perhaps we'd be less gullible regarding the quality of histories and more adult about the deliberate selectivity of  their rhetorical gestures . And having plunged into Yao Glover's June 7 2016 entry on "The Death of Narrative" (see, I see a flicker of hope in a maelstrom.  Nothing more than a flicker.

Todorov's meditation, like Edward W. Said's seminal studies --Orientalism ( New York: Vintage, 1979 ) and Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), can serve as a prelude for reading  Manisha Sinha's The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016) and Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016). Said and Todorov activate special recognitions.

 Although neither Todorov nor Said writes explicitly about contracts, their works remind us of how essential the idea of a contract is in any narrative that claims to be history.  A contract, whether it is explicit or not,  functions in the asymmetrical engagements readers have with writers (who can only be as present as their texts are).  In the reading of American narrative texts , the contract is indivisibly aesthetic and political. Affect and effect  matter greatly.  This feature has been, and continues to be, crucial at any chosen moment in the culture(s) of writing and  reading in the United States of America and especially crucial for readers who  want to free themselves from cages of American miseducation and self-contradicting promises. Historians, I would argue, are not telescopes and microscopes, i.e., objective , scientific instruments.

In the matrix of the American democratic experiment, freedom is more a myth or social science fable than a palpable reality.  Therefore, it is prudent in any consumption of  American history as narrative to frame one's reading within some awareness of the penetrating insights of Charles W. Mills's The Racial Contract (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).  His book has little value as a guide to African and Asian histories, but it is a persuasive exposure of what ought to be known regarding histories of the Euro-named Americas.  It is a counterweight to the distractive delight of Eduardo Galeano's  Memory of Fire trilogy. Mills directs us to the realm of common sense as he notes a major discrepancy between the idea of the social contract as sketched by Jean Jacques Rousseau and the machinery of the racial contract conceived and birthed by the "canonized" fathers of the American republic.  Mills is a philosopher, and what he says about the phenomenon of racism in his book  is provocative:

Racism as an ideology needs to be understood as aiming at the minds of nonwhites as well as whites, inculcating subjugation.  If the social contract requires that all citizens and persons learn to respect themselves and each other, the Racial Contract prescribes nonwhite self-loathing and racial deference to white citizens"(89).

As I ponder what reading history might entail, Mills's statement rewords itself: racism is a set of double-edged , entrenched beliefs designed to convince Americans to dislike themselves and all other human beings.  Those beliefs are magnified each day in mass media, in the spinning of infotainments.

Borrowing language from the blurbs Nell Irvin Painter and John Stauffer wrote for The Slave's Cause, one might say that Manisha Sinha has written "a revolutionary narrative" that "should be required reading for every scholar in the humanities and social sciences who is concerned with the American condition."  It is easy to imagine that a genuine revolutionary narrative would annihilate Western reasoning.  Sinha's aim is not to assassinate reason but to explore what reason habitually represses. The authorizing or marketing use of blurbs does not always serve the needs of  all potential readers, and one might be misled to believe Sinha's work is so specialized as to be of minimal interest to all American citizens. Have we abandoned concern with our everyday condition? Do we believe suddenly that  there is innate value in whatever is labeled "revolutionary" ?  I am not persuaded that we have done either of those things.

We do have revolts (drastic revisions) in the writing of history, and technological (digital) advances do sharpen our vision of how the past "lives" in the present.  It is doubtful that we have yet witnessed a genuine revolution or irreversible change in our habits of thinking about the past. "Revolution" is an attractive but ultimately impotent sign.

 We can speculate, however, that  Sinha addresses American readers who have reached a certain level of critical thinking about reconstructing the evidence of the past, whether they have come to that point through academic training or along the paths of indigenous knowing (the knowing associated most with homespun oral histories).  It is a capital error to think non-academic readers are incapable of detecting sense and nonsense in academic writing.

Her  admirable, rigorous research and the readability of her prose can appeal to all who know  that  the need for abolition did not come to a dramatic halt in 1865. In the United States, the need to abolish one reprehensible attitude or  habit or another began  with European colonial history and  prevails in the 21st century as we continue to quest for the golden fleece of social justice and human rights. The prize disintegrates as soon as one touches it, leaving us in possession of new and improved kinds of  enslavement.  Indeed, the contemporary enslaved persons  who have a desperate cause in our nation are not always those whom we unthinkingly throw into the basket marked "people of color." One of the major contributions of The Slave's Cause may be its tacit announcement that people who have no color are still waiting for Godot, ignorant that the obligation to take a side in the agon of endless abolition is normal.

Such a perspective informs Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning, a refreshing  and serious exercise in iconoclasm.  Calling his work a "definitive history, " Kendi challenges the treason of histories  (the betrayal of good intentions) by punching it out with its own native categories of analysis.  In this sense, he puts Ishmael Reed's familiar metaphor ----writing is fighting ---to good use. Kendi is forthcoming about writing in a historical moment when white on white criminality is on the rise and the disdain Americans have for one another is  ascending in our sociopolitical circus.  His aim is to document the origins of racist and racialist ideas in antiquity and to focus primarily on the American display of racist ideas by using Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. DuBois, and Angela Davis  as representative figures in what he calls "the history of …three distinct voices ---segregationists, assimilationists, and anti-racists --and how they each have rationalized racial disparities, arguing why Whites have remained on the living and winning end, while Blacks remained on the losing and dying end" (2).  Kendi is ambitious, and the breadth of coverage in Stamped from the Beginning may be as daunting for some readers as the depth of coverage can be in The Slave's Cause.  

 In the spirit of constructive critical response, I note that Kendi and Sinha do not go far enough in critiquing  the treacherous Black/White binary that is a cancer in body of American histories and in the minds of all American citizens.  It is probably a  reification of racism to insist that the primary colors (metonymies)  of the United States of America are Red, Yellow, Black, Brown, and White, but an effort to provide a fuller disclosure of the multi-colored dynamics of our nation and the disjointed experiences of its inhabitants ought to be the dominant if not exclusive aim of American histories which want to move us into a better state of being human.  We cannot expect Kendi and Sinha to produce magic.  It is enough that they have been honest in showing us the limits of historical understanding  when the issue is building knowledge of the United States.  It is sufficient that they have provided noteworthy books which do move us to be vigilant rather than abjectly stupid.  They have certainly warned us about the futility of thinking the rhetorical shadows of hope in American histories exist as rainbow signs for anyone.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            June 7, 2016

Saturday, June 4, 2016

small advantages of the private intellectual

 Small Advantages of the Private Intellectual

Casual, unscientific observations about events in American daily life reveal a shrinking of civility.  Vulgarity flourishes.  Self-fulfilling irony  lends credibility to unfettered expressions of hatred. Relentless negativity is normal, and iconoclasm is unchecked.

People who thirst for power, who want to manipulate and dominate  others, know how valuable Adolf Hitler's comment on "the big lie" (see Mein Kampf) is for 2016. They lie with glee.  Those of us who want to preserve our partially free lives and much of our sanity are driven to embrace Machiavelli's suggestion that a person who vows to be good all the time comes to ruin among people who choose not to be good.  We are driven to acknowledge the  peculiar wisdom of  Aimé Césaire's proposal in Discourse on Colonialism (1955) that Hitler deserves to be studied because "he makes it possible to see things on a large scale and to grasp the fact that capitalist society, at its present stage, is incapable of establishing a concept of the rights of all men, just as it has proved incapable of establishing a system of individual ethics."

The prevailing climate does not bode well for people who insist on being  public intellectuals.  One might predict they will be killed literally and figuratively as fascist democracy materializes.  To be sure, the United States of America has no monopoly on bad behavior as a new world order dawns, as actuality triumphs over reality. We should see things on a large scale.  All nation-states contribute to the progress of global tragedies.  The handful of United Nations officials who might risk their lives to tell "a truth" can supply confirmation.

Now it  is  good  to read (or discover for the first time) Sissela Bok's Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978), Samantha Power's "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide (2002), and Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985) by Robert N. Bellah and others.  In the near past, public intellectuals garnered a modicum of respect.  Thinkers as diverse as Derrick Bell, Noam Chomsky, Mari Evans,  Rachel Carson, Toni Cade Bambara, Ishmael Reed,  Angela Davis, Vincent Harding, Edward Said, Amiri Baraka, and John Hope Franklin could urge us to be still and to seek clarity in critical thinking.  A public intellectual who was a rare politician wrote The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006) and reached the mountain top of American politics.  Gone are those days.

We swirl like leaves in a hurricane.  Chomsky is taken to task for what is alleged to be "simple sloppiness" in his "selective use of history" in Who Rules the World? (2016).  In his review of this book, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (access does have the decency  to say that "imperfect as the book is, we should understand it as a plea to end American hypocrisy" (NYRB, June 9, 2016, page 8).  In this context, nothing is said of Chomsky's lasting contributions to linguistic theory.  Likewise, political condemnations of Cornel West, scapegoat #1 in neo-liberal imaginations, avoid the decency of saying West provided a noble contribution to contemporary thought in writing The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989) before acclaim and fame led him into a lurid wilderness .  Like William Blake's invisible worm, fame has targeted Ta-Nehisi Coates and other young thinkers who steadfastly refuse to worship false gods.

 We are witnessing  a death of integrity, and we are asked to find colorblind salvation in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Bob Kaufman and Audre Lorde; in the fictions of Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Grisham;  in the prophetic  essays of Ayn Rand and  James Baldwin;  or in the transparent texts of Benjamin Franklin ($100) and Thomas Jefferson (5¢ ).  It is not "correct" for our jaded ears to discriminate among  John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra , Nina Simone, John Cage, Beyonce Knowles, Adele, Elton John, Curtis Mayfield, Esther Phillips and Roberta Flack as sonic thinkers.  Our smoke-filled eyes should not discern the difference between a toilet stool and a genuine work of art. We are encouraged by a devolving world  to be a docile congregation in the dumpsters of reality televangelism.  Anti-intellectualism ascends.  The American majority has spoken.

So what?  So nothing.  Our option is to now praise the private intellectual, the woman or the man or the person of rainbow gender who refuses to be a commodity or a spectacle.  The private intellectual is not immune, however,  to corruption, to the horrors that destroy many insecure public intellectuals.  Sooner or later, the  worm will invade privacy. There is no hiding place.

 As an embattled group, private intellectuals think and write quietly,  communicating nationally and internationally with others who scorn the trolls of ephemeral fame.  Disciplined  by choice, they insist that integrity has value and that poverty does have a few virtues ; they create works for a dubious future.  They try to avoid whorish, niggardly egotism.  Perhaps time will either  redeem them or condemn them to permanent invisibility and silence.    Only a future can make that decision. Whatever the case, private intellectuals  are most often  models for not wasting one's life in vanity.  They teach us something about the small advantages to be found in nanoseconds of creative happiness.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            June 4, 2016