No More Water Runs (the second version/witnessing of our nowness)
When a new generation addresses an old topic, the best it should expect from its elders is respect for the effort. No more. No less. The new generation should anticipate, however, that elders might ask titanium questions that actually have no answers.
Did the new generation get the story right? For whom are they really writing? So what?
Having fulfilled the responsibility of asking questions, the elders may return to the bliss of silence. They know when peace must be still.
Even the blind can see what the American publishing industry is up to at present. True to what it has become, it is playing the race card for profit (a funky iteration of social engineering) and gambling with writers and a diminishing cultural literacy. Read the titles. What spirits are being conjured? And for whom? Why does the engineering of the American mindscape in 2016 depend so exclusively on making the ghost of James Baldwin the whipping "boy" of dubious morality? Even the blind can see what is afoot in matching the dead icons of the past with the living titles of now:
Henry Adams/ The Education of Kevin Powell by Kevin Powell.
Harriet Tubman/ The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Richard Wright/ Between the World and Me by Ta'Nehisi Coates
James Baldwin/The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward ( New York: Scribner, 2016).
Fair enough. And the beat goes on.
But is it necessary to hang neo-Cold War curtains ---Iron Curtains, Bamboo Curtains, and Oil Curtains ----between human consciousness and the regressive progress of capitalism? Is it necessary? Or is it strategic and convenient to hang those curtains as firewalls against an inevitable burning?
Is the work of Nature, terrorism, climate change, and global warming insufficient? Must the Church, the Synagogue, the Temple, the Mosque, and the Shrine chant a niggardly "Amen" of the kind Ahmos Zu-Bolton once sang? Who the hell is to say in this season?
In her introduction for The Fire This Time, Jesmyn Ward believes it is necessary to have a book "that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon"(8). Kevin Powell and Ras Baraka had a similar belief and did a similar thing for their generation in editing In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers in 1992. And then Powell, in the interest of enlarging the forum for his generation, took the Word/Nommo to a newer, higher level by editing Step Into A World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature in 2000. In her contribution "Cracking the Code" (89-95) for The Fire This Time, Ward imagines she has "ancestors from Sierra Leone and Britain, from France and the Choctaw settlement on the Mississippi bayou, from Spain and Ghana…." But another black writer from Mississippi suggested, in an e-mail of September 29, 2016, "that Ward's anthology while well-intentioned and having its bright moments also suffers from fishing in the narrow pool of African-American voices. Once again, the limited rivers of Callaloo, AAR, and a few other publications and organizations have defined what it means to be an African American and what is the African-American voice. As such, the anthology includes no Black Nationalists, no Radical Integrationists, nor Southerners who are primarily concerned with the South as its own thing and as the cornerstone of the American socio-political battlefield." I will not utter that writer's name and compromise his entitlement to broadcast his razor-sharp insights elsewhere. I quote in silence.
Should Jesmyn Ward's editor at Simon and Schuster have advised that a generation speaking about race has to be a bit more transparently international? Would such a suggestion have been an act of treason within the American publishing industry? Would a truly transparent collection of international voices reveal precisely what The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race rather successfully conceals? Would the book that does not exist, and therefore canonizes SILENCE, not have given affirmation to the gross ABSURDITY of HOPE: randomly motivated DEATH is the only possibility that any child born in 2016 shall witness in the remaining years of the 21st century? Would metaphoric acts of treason within the American publishing industry have the nobility of Edward Snowden's theft of state secrets? Would they not be the white thing to do, the "white/right" thing to do?
For me, the provisional answers come most clearly from the essays "White Rage" (83-88) by Carol Anderson and "The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning" (145-155) by Claudia Rankine. The provisional answers/responses that warn against premature Jubilee come from "This Far: Notes on Love and Revolution" (197 - 204) by Daniel José Older and "Message to My Daughters" (205 - 215 ) by Edwidge Danticat. This is not to say that other contributions in The Fire This Time do not merit notice. All voices matter in the narrow pools and limited rivers that are slowly streaming to an ocean of no return. But these four pieces most strongly motivate my sending you to
to read a special feature on the killings of black people and to read and read again Brenda Marie Osbey's essay "Fallen at Charleston," which provides much more than a grain of credibility to my belief in the absurdity of hope and my knowing that the quality of "goodness" that condemns the majority of African American citizens in the United States in 2016 is our eternal undoing.
The American publishing industry has mastered the game of capitalism and knows how to sniff out profits. I know why a caged bird is entitled to sing about an eternal problem named "race", and so too did James Baldwin in 1963 when he quoted the wisdom of an enslaved song. And it is reprehensible to put the onus on the shoulders of his spirit.
I respect the effort of the new generation despite the fact that the effort is not lasting, that the effort cannot burn systemic horrors into oblivion.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. October 8, 2016