Follow by Email

Sunday, January 31, 2016

February 1, 2016

Today is Langston Hughes's 114th birthday.

Read two of his poems before midnight.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

February 2016


 February 2016

 

Let us take a lesson from the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans.  They spend an entire year creating new suits for Carnival Time.  We should spend twelve months in research, debating, action and writing in order to have something important to say when we engage the themes announced by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History for Black History Month.  "Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories" is the theme for 2016.  The best site for memory is the mind.

Elder minds might remember The Institute of the Black World was once located at 87 Chestnut Street, S. W., Atlanta, Georgia 30314.  In January 1983, Vincent Harding sent out "IBW Thirteenth Anniversary Update and Fund Appeal" along with an unforgettable quotation from Lerone Bennett's The Challenge of Blackness:

"….we believe in the community of the black dead and the black living and the black unborn.  We believe that that community has a prior claim on our time and our talents and our resources, and that we must respond when it calls."

Elder minds continue to share Bennett's beliefs  in greater and lesser degrees.  Times have changed. Let us ask minds that are twenty and younger if Bennett's words still have mad juice, even if we don't know what mad juice is. Let us be still and wait for silence or a hip hop word of four letters or an answer in Twitter syllables.  Times have changed, but the need to cultivate minds has remained constant.

In 2016, elderly farmers can plant old seeds from Vincent Harding's The Other American Revolution (1981) in the soil of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (2010):

"At the edge of history, how shall we move? Do we continue to trail behind the most revolutionary insights that our struggle has already achieved; do we turn away from the radical directions that Malcolm, Martin, and Fannie Lou had already approached in the 1960s?  Or do we stand with them, move with them, move beyond them, move on for them and for ourselves and our children to remake this nation?" (231)

The seeds might produce talking plants that will care to say:

Teach the unborn what law is and law is not as citizens, with or without benefit of uniform, kill young minds contained in young bodies.  Teach the unborn that they are expected to excel in mathematics and STEM.  Teach the unborn to be conversant with how global economies function inside and outside the United States of America.  Teach the unborn that the arts and the humanities are not useless; they are limited.  Teach the unborn that ACTUALITY dominates REALITY.  Teach the unborn that natural law does not baptize, ordain, and canonize STUPIDITY and that WISDOM is a terrible thing to waste.

It is not beneath the dignity of elder minds to do a bit of sharecropping.

In another part of the upper forty, the talking plants will repeat words from Harding that will upset the minds of the black living.  He asserted "that just as many of the energies of the middle-class black freedom movement leadership have now been absorbed into the middle level structure of the American nation, so, too, the phenomenon that we called Black Studies  ---and many of its similarly middle-class proponents ---has been absorbed into the structures , ethos, and aspirations of the American university system" and  " that Black Studies was absorbed (with a few important partial exceptions) for many of the same reasons that we experienced in the larger area of national struggle.  Essentially, it happened because the Black Studies movement failed to carry to their logical, radical ends many of the challenges to the assumptions, ideology, and structures of American higher education, failed to continue to press the critical issue of the relationship between black people inside the universities and those who will never make it" (227).

In February 2016, the elder minds will be silent and listen for sounds from the young and middle-aged minds inside and outside of the Trilateral Commission, the  Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the  United Negro College Fund, the BK Nation, the various #Whatever Matters phenomena, the IMF and the World Bank,   the National Council of Black Studies, the CDC and the NSF, the College Language Association, the Urban League , the United Nations and the NAACP.  Should the elder minds hear nothing more than white noise, they will continue serene conversations in the community of the black dead.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 26, 2016

Monday, January 25, 2016

Black critics and Chinese Questions


Black Critics and Chinese Questions /Notes for a Dialogue with Wang Yukuo, November 2014

 

Q1. The biggest difference between critics of the last century and those of today  is one of attitude. The critics of the early twentieth-first century  are more adamant in  exploring theory.  Their interests are  diverse, diffused, and quaintly speculative. Many of them  are passionate about creating new critical histories in order  to escape the confines of a History which bids us to represent " the Race" or African Americans as an ethnic group. They are more interested in representing "the American" or some variety of existential diversity. They reject the sense of obligation that was evidenced by the critics of the early twentieth century. Some of the contemporary critics might find the very  idea of obligation to be antiquated if not offensive. They seem to be more interested in the nature of change than in the probabilities of continuity.  They are interested in discontinuity, in change as a series of ruptures or breaks with what is past , breaks that ordain bold explorations of the present, breaks that minimize the chore of remembering . They want to account for what is occurring now much more than they want to document the critical postures of one hundred years ago.

We are speaking , of course, in generalizations.  It would be most unfair to suggest that the young critics are bereft of a sense of history or that they do not know of the critical struggles of earlier critics.  Some of them know a great deal about such history.  Some of them do not. The critics  are not unified ; they do not rally around a single purpose. They have chosen  to focus their intellectual energies on 21st century problems of how literature functions now, especially in the United States or in the African Diaspora or in global contexts.

In sharp contrast to these critics, those who wrote about Negro literature (American Negro literature) in the early years of the 20th century felt obligated to give legitimacy to works by black writers.  They had to convince a majority white readership that Negro literature was indeed literature rather than some scribbling to be laughed at or dismissed as inferior efforts to put words on paper. They worried about how well the Negro writing conformed to white criteria for art. Such agonizing is not part of our contemporary scene.  And when it does appear , we are surprised by the tyranny  of theory .What matters today is how craft and techniques represent  the constantly changing modern, post-modern, and post-whatever sensibilities shared by artists and critics from many ethnic groups. The preoccupation of 20th century critics with justification has become a subject for historical recovery.

The difference between 20th- and 21st-century  critical roles must be examined in terms of attitudes about responding to cultural situations.  It is most instructive that in the United States a few critics think it is possible to write post-racially about  literature that has racial properties.

 

Q2. The assumption that black writing must have racial properties  is primitive. It totally ignores how much of African American writing is focused on the Self, the psychology of the Self, on dealing with all the existential issues of life that are not strictly racial and social. A considerable portion of black writing is devoted to pure aesthetics, particularly in the genre of poetry. That is to say, the writers experiment with language as language and with the power of language to manipulate and multiply our perspectives on everyday life. If one has only read the exceptionally small number of black writers who are listed in the CNKI, one makes ill-informed assumptions.  One has simply not explored enough black literature.

 

Q3. To uproot is not to eradicate. The Africans who survived the Middle Passage and recombined their ethnicities did not undergo a kind of science fiction brain surgery that erased all memory of African cultures.  Indeed, the fact that we speak of African/European hybridity indicates that something African remained in the mixture.  So, it is really a matter of our studying how displaced peoples forged new cultural and literary traditions and how those new traditions have been very influential in shaping modern transnational ideas about culture. Historians have done better work in helping us to understand what Paul Gilroy named the Black Atlantic than have many literary critics.

Q4. African American scholars have been dealing the influence of technologies on criticism and scholarship for more than a decade. Consider how such social networks as Twitter, Facebook, and Rap Genius have incorporated bits and pieces of literary discussion; how the emergence of digital humanities has encouraged more work with digitizing older African American texts so that one can use diverse software to crunch information and highlight previously little mentioned characteristics of traditional texts. Alondra Nelson is the  acknowledge pioneer in Afrofuturist theory, and her writings on AfroFuturism are seminal. A good place to start exploring how much new technologies have begun to reshape critical discussion is the Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Issue 4 (2014), which was edited by Howard Rambsy II, one of the leading scholars who is thoroughly committed to using new technologies. I must note that only those scholars and critics who have fairly easy access to the most powerful technologies can truly take advantage of them.

 

Q5. In my opinion, the most distinctive feature of black writing is a continuing investment in the histories of the United States of America and in the multiple levels of those histories. Examine Charles Johnson’s novel Middle Passage; James McBride’s novel Good Lord Bird, which is a comedic treatment of John Brown’s abolitionist mission; Brenda Marie Osbey’s History and Other Poems, an exploration of Creole impact on history in a small portion of the American South; August Wilson’s cycle of plays about the 20th century mainly from the angle of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Other ethnic American literatures also invest in history, but African American literature does so with greater deliberate passion.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

bones, ashes, minds


OUR BONES/OUR ASHES/OUR MINDS

 

In his nicely crafted review essay "The Anger of Ta-Nahesi Coates" (New York Review of Books, February 11, 2016 issue), Darryl Pinckney raises the penultimate question of our day:

"Which is better:  to believe that blacks will achieve full equality in American society or to realize that white racism is so deep that meaningful integration can never happen, so make other plans?"

In the first choice of response, the word "equality" really ought to be "power," so that the second choice would appear with better advantage. Moreover, the word "power" might provoke certain neoliberal, colorblinded readers to have epiphanies.  We recognize, of course, that Pinckney is writing for the NYRB audience, and some liberties of vision are simply forbidden.  One must not trample on the tender sensibilities of an august readership.  For the 1% of the readership that has achieved post-humanity, even the common sense phrase "white racism" will be deemed micro-transgressive.

For that portion of the readership that is still capable of being enlightened, however, Pinckney's offense is weaving a male-centered discussion of anger.  In order of reference he names: Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, DuBois, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Leroi Jones, Malcolm X, Paul Coates, George Jackson, Eric B & Rakim, Robert Hayden, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michael Brown, Prince Jones, Frederick Douglass, Martin Delaney, and Harold Cruse.  The deliberate absence in what purports to be a liberal overview of the growth and development of post-Reconstruction anger are the invisible threads named: Ida B. Wells, Sandra Bland,  Barbara Jordan, Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Lou Hamer, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Toni Cade Bambara, Michelle Alexander, Alice Walker, Joyce Ladner, Ann Petry, Mary McLeod Bethune, Margaret Walker, Angela Davis, Tarika Wilson, Sonia Sanchez, Wanda Coleman, and Elaine Brown.  Had Pinckney dared to weave a dense fabric, we might have nominated him for an award for prescience.

In fairness to Pinckney, we recognize that his voice is hedged by the rules of the game.  He was employed to write in a tradition of counter-anger that one associates with William Stanley Braithwaite and Alain Locke and Nathan A. Scott, Jr.  If one has a sliver of understanding about the neoliberal and protofascist designs of contemporary publishing, one is aware that Pinckney is embroiled in autarky --"forcible separation from the rest of the world" in the footloose interpretation used by Jeffry A. Frieden in Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century (2006). One must turn to the Oxford English Dictionary to recover a better definition of autarchy.  The game demands that Pinckney situate Ta-Nahesi Coates and Between the World and Me inside the discursive WEB (Wright/Ellison/Baldwin mechanism  of emotional assurance).  The game has an old, rather ignoble history. Therein, Pinckney has implied authority to play riffs on sagas of black fathers and sons.  He can use lightweight historical and cultural analyses and comparisons to defang the modest revolutionary potential of Coates's prose, to transform the promise of a flame into a flicker. He will not cause the NYRB readership to suffer a single moment of cognitive indigestion.  He speaks in the pages of the NYRB as effectively  for his kind of people as Donald Trump speaks on the airwaves for his race and Hillary Clinton speaks for her gender.  Pinckney is an experienced player in the five rings of our national intellectual circus.  And the sales of Coates's book shall not be significantly diminished.

However much Pinckney's review essays is a heartfelt reading of the roots of Coates's alleged anger, what one reads may be other than what one gets.  Although we lack grounds for accusing  Pinckney of insincerity or want of moral integrity ----after all he is playing a literary game without spilling blood, we  should not ignore how Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty  (or Indeterminacy) Principle functions within the game.  A few black and non-black readers among us may experience acid reflux as they grasp the implacable rightness of Coates's success where tamed anger is unexceptional and welcomed.  In territories where belief that the social destiny of black people is fixed in a dualist tradition has no funk-appeal, we recognize the severe limits of literary persuasion and why Between the World and Me is a highly accomplished but incomplete representation of authentic anger. Indeed, I dare to imagine that were our nation more literate, Coates and his publisher could have entitled his book A Father's Law rather than Between the World and Me in order to expose just how much  the obscenity of domestic genocide in the United States of America is complicit with irreversible changes in world order.

 

I have reasons, which I care not to interrogate, for repeating the following paragraphs from August 7, 2015:

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 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.

Thus, I announce as a response to Pinckney's penultimate question of our day that I have chosen to make other plans.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 24, 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Reading Mahmoud Darwish


Reading Mahmoud Darwish: A Polemical Note

 

Some years ago, I read Darwish's famous poem "Identity Card," thinking of how we seem to need plastic and passes, ink, paper and photographs ----legitimate or forged documents ---to move through and across geopolitical territories.  Is it not strange that we require inscriptions to authenticate our flesh, our blood and bones, our cognitive activities?

"Identity Card" is a finely executed act of self-fashioning, proof of what and how symbols signify.  In Darwish's case, the signifying and significance are apparently anti-Zionist.  It is the trace of an Arab, a Palestinian who sends words as weapons of self-defense into real and imagined space.  As luck would have it, I had written "I Didn't Ask to be a Palestinian" before I read "Identity Card."  I was not under his influence in the poetic appropriation of identity, despite the empathy that links his poem and mine.  Links matter.  The joy of linking informs what I think of his epic lyric " The 'Red Indian's ' Penultimate Speech to the White Man" from If I Were Another. Trans Fady Joudah. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.  I say with due caution that this poem is superior to "Identity Card" as an aesthetic  critique of "the ideology/ of madness."   One of my paternal great-grandmothers was no more named "Red Indian" than her husband was named "Negro."  It is a truth, acknowledged by the cosmos, that in their pathetic love/hate affair with symbol and substance, human beings are damned to rarely see what is  uncertainly actual. I suppose the very best poets on Earth do blacken our eyes and our minds to help us see better.

The illegal, alien entity that calls itself "the white man" is at one with the bogus entity that calls itself "the black man" and other  diversely mixed and thoroughly raced and gendered  entities in America in forgetting what/who  decimated indigenous peoples and continues to rape and violate  the Earth that belongs to them and to us.  Darwish, thousands of miles away from the Father of Waters, knew "the stars/are illuminated speech…if you stared into them you would read our story entire:"  I salute Mahmoud Darwish for helping me to remember a few things which #ultimately matter.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 23, 2016

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

For whom does New Orleans matter?



#For Whom Does New Orleans Matter?#

 

In the aftermath of August 29, 2005 and the Flood, which altered the history of New Orleans,  I spent a year writing The Katrina Papers: A  Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO Press 2008).  As an exercise in getting a grip on my secular and  Catholic "selves," the book saved my faith in what Nature failed to destroy: the human spirit that prevails under pressure.  Yet, when I touch the book now and think about race relations in the new New Orleans of 2016, I have commerce with  an angry ghost.  Or, as the prodigious philosopher  Jacques Derrida said with dubious authority: "Given that a revenant is always called upon to come and to come back, the thinking of the specter, contrary to what good sense leads us to believe, signals toward the future" (Specters of Marx, 245).  Although the book restored a modicum of hope and charity, it did not erase my consciousness of living in a city and a nation afflicted by the HIV/AIDS of race.  New Orleans is a revenant of conditional love and unprotected hatreds. Its current manifestation is Death waiting to implode.  SNAFU.

And for whom does New Orleans matter?  It matters greatly to those who have the capital, access to power,  and moral disengagement necessary to profit from disaster.  It matters in equal measure, if not more, to those who find themselves demoralized  by disaster.  They, I suspect, are the majority of the population.  None of the performers in the tragicomic drama of New Orleans, regardless of class, ethnicity, degree of religious piety, country of origin,  caste, or color are without sin.  New Orleans matters for all of us who are actors in the play and  essential ingredients in the gumbo that is the play's major theme.  A less romantic, more thought-provoking,  fact-based response to the question is "We Got 99 Problems and Lee Circle Ain't One," the New Orleans Tribune editorial of July/August 2015. One paragraph hits us like the blast of a shotgun:

"The Crescent City White Citizens League did not hold hush-hush meetings behind closed doors in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina, scheming to keep Black citizenry from coming back to New Orleans  with their plan for green space in the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East and their grand designs for a smaller, wealthier, more splendid and ostensibly Whiter city." (9)

When my Mississippi ears hear the words "White Citizens," my blood freezes.  Although many of the grandiose plans discussed at city-wide  charrettes in the months after the Storm and the Flood did not materialize, only the brain-damaged fail to understand in 2016 that "White Citizens" have bleached the Chocolate City.

 

 What has happened  by virtue of bleaching  (and the influx of l'étrangers ) lends special irony to lines from Marcus Bruce Christian's signature  poem "I am New Orleans" (1968) ------

I am New Orleans

A city that is a part of, and yet apart from all America;

A collection of contradictory environments;

A conglomeration of bloods and races and classes and colors;

Side-by-side, the New tickling the ribs of the Old;

Cheek-by-jowl, the Ludicrous making faces at the Sublime.

 

It is indeed ludicrous that a  disproportionate number of African Americans in New Orleans are stripped of dignity by a caste system predicated on unskilled, menial labor.  Can self-esteem rather than self-denigration flourish  in a city where an estimated 50 % of its African American male population lacks employment? Probably not.  The shifting demographics we can attribute to an increase in immigrant laborers has only made the crisis of black unemployment more critical.  That  many parents are  baffled by the strange choices they are required to make as they try to ensure that their children can be educated is yet another abnormality.  The romance the city is having with undemocratic, tax-supported,  privatized education (charter schools) deepens their frustrations. The post-Katrina  murder of public education in the city was the symbolic equivalent of an enraged policeperson killing an unarmed person, and non-partisan research can prove that what happened was part of a national plan. Yet another planned abnormality is the  phenomenon of  many black youths being  targeted and criminalized by what Michelle Alexander has aptly named the new Jim Crow while the crimes of non-black youths are carefully photo- shopped.  African Americans of all ages in New Orleans have been  seasoned for three centuries,  as it were,  for mass incarceration, uphill battles to succeed,  permanent inequality,  and gradual  genocide, the logical outcomes of psychological terrorism.  We have to ask how the city shall deal with its historical ugliness that can't be divorced from its internationally acclaimed  beauty during the forthcoming Tricentennial.

 How shall the city articulate for whom its contradictory environments matter?

Should African Americans not loudly insist that their diverse stories be heard and respected during the Tricentennial,  American mass media will broadcast cultural nonsense with alacrity. As the chief bureau of spinformation (i.e., deodorized misinformation), mass media  works 24/7/365 to portray the majority of non-black New Orleanians as paragons of American civic virtue and to insinuate that non-white New Orleanians are overwhelming happy,  fun-loving, remarkably intelligent,  gifted in the creation of music, visual art and other expressive forms but   wanting in steadfast allegiance to the cold Protestant work ethic needed to rebuild a city.  It indeed matters that  truthful narratives about cycles of  progress and regression be told, even if those stories  reduce in a small degree the attractiveness and fictionalized charms  of the city that care forgot.  Even if the narratives confirm that race relations are in low cotton and going down slow.

More  attention has to be  given to sustained, longitudinal analyses of pre- and post-Katrina political and social dynamics that provide a reasonable foundation for beginning to understand what is right and wrong with this city.  Truth be told, New Orleans matters for all of its inhabitants.  Nevertheless, the city matters in a painful way for those of us who are utterly disgusted with hypocrisy, legalized corruption, and the asinine fantasy that the city's patron saints are Carnival, Mardi Gras and the pimps of misrule and self-renewing lust.  We do not live inside a fairytale.  What matters more than New Orleans as a gentrified work-in-progress is the possibility that the resurrection of white supremacy locally and nation-wide may force many African Americans to  intensify their struggles to protect and maintain  the rich historical culture they contributed to the city.  And this time, the struggles will not be televised or social networked as  "# Whatever Matters."  Praying daily to Our Lady of Prompt Succor "to help us in the battle of today against violence, murder and racism," and asking Mother Henriette Delille to "pray for us that we may be a holy family" may provide temporary relief. The family prayer authored by the Archdiocese of New Orleans promises that one day we shall have "human dignity in our community." Nevertheless, the revenant of race relations must appeased by rituals more ancient than prayer before that day arrives.

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 12, 2016

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Mario Vargas Llosa and Culture


Mario Vargas Llosa and Culture

 

Vargas Llosa, Mario. Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society. Ed. and trans.  John King,  New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015.

 

We have had overmuch talk about the crisis of the humanities , and Mario Vargas Llosa has cleverly offered us an alternative  ----  the crisis of culture.  He has dusted off and polished the subject matter of Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy  (1869, 1875) to relieve us of boredom.  In so doing, he doesn't invite us to jog through the Victorian realm of Arnold's sweetness and light; instead, he invites us to surf the contemporary ocean of chaos. His jeu d'esprit is not cheap.  But thanks to John King's lucid translation of La civilización del espectáculo (2012), we can afford the price of the ticket to gawk at the cage wherein Vargas Llosa has sought habitation as if he is truly a Kafkaesque hunger artist.

Shortly after Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Spanish monarch bestowed him with the entitlement to be addressed as "Ilustrisimo Señor Marqués de Vargas Llosa," a gift that has no doubt improved the quality of Spanish nobility.  Being an integral part of Spanish spectacle, Vargas Llosa employs his new aristocracy to lecture us on the death of culture.  Like earlier efforts to announce the Death of God, the Death of the Author, the Death of the Novel, and the Death of Death, this recent broadcast is momentarily enthralling.  Yet, the attempt to persuade us that Walter Benjamin and Karl Popper can serve "as evidence that however rarified the air might become, and life turn against them, dinosaurs can manage to survive and be useful in difficult times" (226) ultimately fails. We are amused but not persuaded when we notice the limits of Vargas Llosa's neoliberalism.

He begins the collage of essays with a swift review of T. S. Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), a modernist work that anticipates the postmodernism displayed in Notes on the Death of Culture.  To be fair, we admit that reminders of what Eliot said regarding culture, the individual, the group or class, and the whole society are necessary for specifying the character of Western civilization.  It is from Eliot that Vargas Llosa derives the notion that the democratizing force of education is fracturing and destroying "higher culture."  In this regard, he is in synch with Allan Bloom's lamentations in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), implying that membership in the elite is requisite for  acquiring  true knowledge.  Yet, the idea of knowledge promoted by Eliot, Bloom, and Vargas Llosa is suspect and much in need of deconstructive unpacking.  Certain kinds of indigenous knowledge (which  might be more respected in advanced physics than in the sprawling humanities) seems to be beyond their comprehension.

Vargas Llosa hints at this possibility in his remarks about George Steiner's In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture (1971).  Steiner attributed Eliot's failure to acknowledge that the carnage of World Wars I and II was an integral element of culture to anti-Semitism, and Vargas Llosa is uncomfortable with Steiner's alleged belief that postmodern society is dominated by science and technology. He seeks a little comfort in Guy Debord's La Société du spectacle (1967) but actually seems to find a more authentic comfort in La cultura-mundo: Respuesta a una sociedad desorientada (2010) by Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy and the best comfort of all in Frederic Martel's Mainstream (2010).  After dancing in English, French and Spanish, Vargas Llosa must conclude that pre-twenty-first-century culture was designed to transcend time but that post-whatever cultures evaporate with noteworthy swiftness in their own times.

However much we applaud the performance, we are left with the enduring  problem of how theories of culture are merely incomplete speculations, particularly coming from the imagination of a writer who apparently is uninformed about what W. E. B. DuBois,  Lu Xun,  Frantz Fanon , and  Edward Said have written about the life of culture.  Vargas Llosa is right in claiming that entertainment is a universal passion.  He is rather naïve in thinking that Benjamin and Popper, whom we admit are very  important in a long parade of committed writers, show us "by writing, one can resist adversity, act and influence history"(226).  He aristocratically glosses over the implacable dread of material suffering and dying in global civilization as he makes a trenchant critique of our deadly passivity.  We may like the spectacle of Mario Vargas Llosa as Don Quixote, but we are not obligated to believe and dream the impossible dream, to confuse the image with the actuality.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            January 17, 2016

 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The keyword museum


The Keyword  Museum

The Modern Language Association's project on Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments is a space-bending and mind/behavior-altering enterprise.  It will change the future of what is loosely known as the Profession,  the diverse arenas of higher and lower education, and the traditional work of social scientists and , most  importantly, of people in the hard sciences who think in combinations of mathematical symbols and natural languages.  The MLA enterprise, which is open for comment until January 31, 2016, is a 21st century companion to a still important 20th century print-centric tool, namely Keywords (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976) by Raymond Williams.

Forty years ago, Williams had traced how 155 words function in the English language  domain of cultural transmission.  He did not select "race" for inclusion in his book.  That is odd.  Given the blitzkrieg of "race" in American and European discourses from 1900 to 1976, one might have expected it would not have been ignored by a Cambridge University professor.  But the Western academic world is a strange place where omissions can be rationalized and theorized into non-existence, erased until they return home to roost. As a sidebar, one should note, using "evidence" from Google's Ngram, that after ebb and flow from 1930 to now, the frequency of using "race" has currently returned to its 1940s, 1950s, and 1970s levels.

Adeline Koh (Stockton University) has brought that prodigal child named "race" back to the animal farm.  Under her curatorial guidance, we are beginning to see more clearly just what kind of personification Race has been historically.  We are invited to interrogate the stealthy delinquent as an agent of psychological destruction, a victim of its own "affluenza."  Koh links race and technology.  She admits she has made a "deliberate political choice" in deciding that "any responsible representation of race and technology should offer challenges to and an expansion of how digital pedagogy and digital humanities are defined."  Whether her choice is absurd or correct is open for debate.

One might also be skeptical of Koh's claim that much vital digital work on race is unlikely to receive "the sorts of governmental, federal, and institutional support other less politicized work has,"  primarily because the work is done outside the academic factory.  But it  is probable that a network of surveillance agencies do support digital work on race by using code words that seem remote from the bogus concept of race.  After all, our nation is the greatest nation on Earth, and we the people  are  capable of doing anything.

Among the curated artifacts Koh offers for our review are African Diaspora Ph.D, Ferguson Syllabus, Mapping Police Violence, SAADA (South Asian American Digital Archive), #This Tweet Called My Back, Soweto 76, and Invisible Australians: The Real  Face of White Australia.  She provides her own NITLE Race and the Digital Humanities Zetro Bibliography, other related materials, and WORKS CITED for our inspection.  One must ask, of course, where are the curated artifacts pertaining to Whiteness, Hispanic Diaspora, Pacific Island Cultures, and the Hamitic/Semitic Middle East?  If Digital Pedagogy is the future, we need a better keyword mapping of why  so-called White Folk speak freely all races except the one to which they belong.         Jerry W. Ward, Jr.     January 14, 2016

MLA Source:  http://digitalpedagogy/commons.mla.org/keywords

January 13


Topics for Cultural Memory 2016

 

I am remembering January 14, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary for John Oliver Killens (1916-1987).  Frank Garvin Yerby (1916-1991) will also be 100 on September 5, one day before Richard Wright celebrates being 108.  The dead and the living can celebrate a birthday together.

Killens and Yerby chose to follow different paths or ideologies.  That is to be remembered.  Killens chose to confront and question the Establishment, the system.  Yerby chose to take advantage of the Establishment's nostalgia for the past to enlarge his bank account.  Their choices are starting points for cultural remembering.  We can use the common topics of rhetoric (definition, comparison, relationship, circumstances, and testimony) as well as the special topics (deliberative, judicial, ceremonial) as we read or re-read works of the past and make connections.  Those who are younger than we are must always be equal partners in the conversation.  Like the dead and the living, the young and the old must speak to and listen to one another.  Otherwise, we emit hot air and waste time.

We can remember Eugene B. Redmond's Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry was published 40 years ago as we recall the Eugene B. Redmond Club has been in existence for 30 years. This remembering is an apt prelude for giving attention to the East St. Louis Riot of 1917 in the context of what happened in Ferguson and other combat zones.  The urban discord of then has something to teach the urban unrest of now.

Margaret Walker's Jubilee was published 50 years ago.  The idea of Kwanzaa is 51, having been created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1965.  Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture)  dramatically  uttered the phrase "Black Power" during  James Meredith's "March Against Fear" from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi in 1966.  These three facts bid us to negotiate (1) history and fiction, (2) African American celebration of seven principles [Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, Imani], and (3) political actions.  We have options for choosing how and what to remember. And we should ask as well why Goodread's list of the top 200 books published in 1966 includes Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? but omits Jubilee.

The selection of options can be an investment in re-examination, analysis, and perhaps rededication. We can hope that the young will speak about  the future to the present and the past.  To be sure, the old can contribute insights about  mistakes and suggest (but only suggest) guides for avoiding them. The young should tell us WHAT, WHERE, and HOW.  And we should say to them  WHY and WHO all of us ought never forget.  How we converse about topics of cultural memory in 2016 has the possibility of enlightening and empowering us as we try to build a future that will be slightly different from the one President Barack Obama had the audacity to dream in his January 12 "State of the Union" address.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 13, 2016

Sunday, January 10, 2016

the hegemony of drama

v
The Hegemony of Drama

I hold my heart in my hands letting my blood freely flow

 

                Ira B. Jones, "the sign of freedom"

 

only fools don't intimately know ghosts,

the  dna of humanity, leaping like porpoises slick out of the sea

 

                Kalamu ya Salaam, "Ghosts"

 

Cognitive restructuring of behaviors through moral justification and palliative characterizations is the most effective psychological mechanism for promoting destructive conduct. (172)

 

                Albert Bandura. "Mechanisms of moral disengagement. " Origins of Terrorism. Ed. Walter Reich.

                Washington, D C: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998. 161-191.

 

 

If you are an American of a certain age and ethnic group, it is possible to reread Bill Gunn's Black Picture Show (Berkeley: Reed, Cannon and Johnson, 1975) and have an overdose of nostalgia . There actually was a time when every movement or word was not a performance?  The poetic language of Gunn's play reminds you it was once possible to discriminate what was pretense from what was intended to be serious.  Contemporary culture minimizes such discrimination.  The world is not like a stage; the world is a stage.  The Renaissance metaphor has lost its charm.  The metaphor is plain, ugly fact.

Under these circumstances, your rereading of the play is a performance, an involuntary admission that what Black Picture Show depicts is the thin line between the insanity of what is normal in 2016 and recognition, possible way back  in 1975,  that certain abnormal entrapments were  not alien in the worlds of American theatre. Over a period of forty years, the rules of the game you play with race cards have changed very little.  Assisted by technological changes and American moral regression, the rules have become more deadly.

In a gripping bit of monologue, Alexander, the poet/playwright/protagonist, recites

Some piece of European truth

that has dearly come apart

emaciates my blood

and manipulates

my heart.

 

I have come to understand

through the accident of stress

that art devoid of me is

genocide

at best. (82)

 

Alexander sends a most discomforting "truth" about art into your ears.  Alexander's words, like those which challenge and tantalize you in some plays by Adrienne Kennedy and Suzan-Lori Parks, an absence or gap of meaning that is not filled by the critically acclaimed plays of August Wilson or by the overwhelming popular productions in several genres of works by Tyler Perry. You begin to think about the probable crisis of art in America.

 

 Through distress you gaze into an abyss with stoic awareness that you and people like you signify nothing, or signify a lot that has come to mean very little.  Your exaggerated sentiments are grounds for claiming that the paucity of serious discussion of plays by African Americans from 1975 to now is a flaw in the production/performance of how we ought to account for black writing.  You are thinking of plays that get reviewed nowhere.

 

The hegemony of drama in our social and political lives seems to have silenced our voices about Black Picture Show and kindred plays that seek to create rather than merely perform emancipating languages. Why do we so willing swallow whatever panders to our foibles? We have not been sufficiently proactive  in calling out the hegemony of drama for the obscenity that it is, or in cursing about  the moral disengagement  so highly prized and rewarded by the Academy and the Establishment.  We have not fought hard enough to create conversations about the work, let us say, of Harold E. Clark, a New Orleans playwright who is morally engaged. Those of us who say we are deeply interested in black writing must, unfortunately, live with our complicity in being performed by theory and praxis into self-destructive conduct.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            January 10, 2016

Thursday, January 7, 2016

For E. Ethelbert Miller


Post-Postscript for E. Ethelbert Miller

 

New Orleans, January 7, 2016

 

Dear Ethelbert,

 

Thirty-seven years after telling you "We need to review less and teach more," I repeat the assertion.  I kiss tomorrow goodbye as I write notes on the first seven issue of Callaloo and find ghostly happiness in rebroadcasting my 1976 open letter to you with 1979 postscript.  Is this post-postscript necessary?  Is it being written by the ghost of remembering how you and I laughed as we ate pancakes on a Sunday morning in Washington, DC in the mid-1970s?  Let cultural memory and forgetting make the decision.  After all, history is a wonderful trick bag, a philosophical opportunity for pulling a digital rabbit out of a bespoke hat made in China.

 

At any rate, Ethelbert, I do want to read what reviewers will say about The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller. Ed. Kirsten Porter. Detroit: Willow Books, 2016.  They will not know the pleasure of possessing first editions of Andromeda (1974), the long poem The Land of Smiles and The Land of No Smiles (1974), Migrant Worker (1978).  Nor will they know what was meaningful (for me if for no one else)  in your writing the lines

 

on ollie street

in deridder louisiana

13 spirits live in the house of zu

 

and amplifying them with references to russell chew and the poet ahmos.

 

The reviewers may think they know what is the pre-future of yesterday in the poem you wrote on the Hanafi Muslim Terrorist Takeover of three buildings in D.C.  March 9-11, 1977 as they surf the Internet to find out what The Washington Post did not say then.  Bereft of pleasure, the reviewers may teach something to somebody.  Or perhaps they will not.  Perhaps they will send love poems to oblivion.

 

On January 3, 2016, you wrote in E-NOTES WHEN THE NEWS IS NOT ENOUGH. The Blog of E. Ethelbert Miller, with reference to your collected poems

 

"I plan to ignore all reviews.  I doubt if the book will be nominated for any awards.  Hopefully my work will find an audience with hearts that care about the path human are on.  So much African American culture is being destroyed within."

 

Hopefully your collected poems will find their way to China sometime in 2016 and be taught there in Wuhan, Nanjing, Beijing, and other cities. In 2016, we need to review less and teach more.

 

In friendship,

 

Jerry

 

-------

The above can't be contextualized without the below.

 

-------

 

1976 Open Letter to E. Ethelbert Miller with 1979 Postscript

 

Charlottesville

20 July 76

 

Dear Ethelbert,

 

Who reviews what, where a review does or does not appear, for whom and to whom a review thinks he is speaking  ---  we had discussed these matters within the past month.  Yet, when I read the June-July issue of Small Press Review this afternoon, I was surprised to find your non-review of Adesanya Alakoye's Tell Me How Willing Slaves Be.  Since Ellen Ferber's black and blue paper "Reviewing Reviewing" appears in this issue, your jeremiad had good company.  Ms. Ferber deals with some much-need-to-be-raised issues about what the hell is going on in the reviewing colony.  Less directly you raise the same issues about Black reviewers.  I hope your non-review moves some people to buy Adesanya's book.  Because I have obligatory and personal connections with Energy BlackSouth Press, I feel compelled to respond to your dropping a broadside on Black critics.

 

Ethelbert, you tell readers things are so bad that you have to write about a book published by a company for which you work.  Adesanya's book came off the press in April.  You must be patient, brother.   Black reviewers are slow.  Surely someone would have reviewed the book by Christmas.  CPT still holds the Black mind in its grip.  Things are not that bad.

 

Now you say Adesanya is one of Washington, D. C.'s better poets.  I agree.  You also claim "the publishing outlets for Black poetry in D.C." are underdeveloped.  I agree.  But you overlook two important facts: 1) the publishing outlets for poetry are underdeveloped nation-wide, and 2) the market for poetry is flooded.  Only a small number of people who can read in this country read "literature" and a very elite group (other poets and writers) reads poetry with any degree of regularity.  Moreover, Washington is a bourgeois town, and folks be interested in foxtraps  not in how willing slaves be.

 

You contend your action would not have been necessary if folks would review books as well as add them to their collections.  Folks do review books.  I review between 12 and 16 books each year.  You probably review as many or more.  What you mean, I guess, is that people don't review books by small presses or by authors who have not made a spectacle of themselves.  We published reviews of 13 books in four issues of Hoo-Doo.  Obsidian has published reviews of 7 books in four issues.  Black Books Bulletin is a review of books, is it not?  I suppose what we need is a magazine devoted exclusively to the reviewing of Black books.  But who would support it?  Who would read it?

 

You claim Energy BlackSouth has not received a single review of the books it published.  That is not true. Synergy just got a favorable review from Marlene Mosher in SPR (June-July 1976).  Your book The Land of Smiles and the Land of No Smiles got a rave review from Marlene Mosher in the September 1975 issue of CLA Journal.  It is true that not one word about Hoo-Doo has been printed.  But we must admit the idea of reviewing a magazine would strike the Black critic as an avant-garde undertaking.  Do I have to remind you that Black people are conservative?

 

Yes, Ethelbert, "all those Black critics out there are just..." (just as adjective not adverb) and Energy BlackSouth's day will come.

 

I can offer you a number of reason why Black reviewers don't review as much as you think they should: 1) the outlets for reviews of Black books are underdeveloped  --- please recall that some Black reviewers have hang-ups about publishing in non-Black journals; 2) they don't review books they can't have a love affair with; 3) they can't review many books because they know practically all the Black writers in America; 4) they are too busy writing their own books to review anyone else's books; 5) they don't get paid for doing reviews, so they feel prolific reviewing is a waste.  The list of reasons could go no for several pages.

 

You cut your non-review before you began "cussing in public."  That was wise.  It would be bad business to completely alienate all the Black critics.  But I would have enjoyed seeing some good, old-fashioned, down-home, gut-bucket cussin in print.

 

Now you have me thinking that well-conceived reviews might be more important than some of the second- and third-rate poetry people feel obliged to submit somewhere.  Should the remaining issues of the Hoo-Doo Blackseries and the new magazine Synergy publish fewer poems and more reviews? Should we show the people who don't review how it should be done?

 

Sincerely,

/s/ Jerry

 

Tougaloo

29 June 79

 

Dear Ethelbert,

 

I have argued for several years that contemporary Black literature, especially poetry, is read within an incestuous circle: poets read poets, critics read poets and other critics, poets read their critics and react in words read by other poets. Black readers not in the circle could give less of a damn.  Unless it is forced upon them, they seem to maintain a careful distance between themselves and black writing.  Yes, they do read Ebony, Jet, Sepia, Essence, The Crisis and Black Enterprise.  They do peruse the major news magazines, local newspapers, and professional journals and TV Guide.  After all that heavy reading and the attention they must give to twenty-four hours of non-stop radioed soul and the television, they are too exhausted to read the "literature" in First World , Y'Bird, Obsidian, Nkombo, Grio, Callaloo, Hoo-Doo, and other magazines devoted to nommo-magic. As Haki Madhubuti said in "Black Writers and Critics: Developing A Critical Process Without Readers" (The Black Scholar, Nov/Dec 1978), "reading (or research and study) as a necessary life enrichment experience is not foremost on the must do list of most black people ."  We need to review less and teach more.**
 
**"Congo Square III: Reading and Review." Callaloo No. 7 (Volume 2, No.3, October 1979), 106-108.

 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Ramcat Reads 8

v
Ramcat Reads #8

 

Kolin, Philip C. Emmett Till in Different States: Poems.  Chicago: Third World Press, 2015. In the metaphysical philosophy of Martin Heidegger, poiesis is "the essential agency of primary truth." Seeking to rescue diverse human experiences from godlessness, Nathan A. Scott, Jr. noted in The Poetry of Civic Virtue (1976) that

Indeed, Heidegger considers any truly fundamental act of reflection to be an affair of "poetizing," for it is the poet (der Dichter) who is, in his view, far more than the thinker (der Denker), a proficient in the art of "paying heed" to the things of earth.  And it is just the capacity for this kind of attentiveness that he regards as the great casualty of those attitudes toward the world engendered by a culture so heavily dominated as our own by the general outlook of scientific positivism.  For, in such a climate, the sovereign passion controlling all transactions with reality is that of turning everything to practical account: the furniture of the world is approached predatorily, with an intention to manipulate it and convert it to use. (5)

In contemporary American culture, the sovereign passion is irrational, regressive and hate-driven, and how Heidegger positioned "paying heed" must be revised.  Poets and historians  and readers of poetry and history  (narrative reconstitution of verifiable facts) are also thinkers.  We have no necessary and sufficient evidence to prove that one camp or the other is more proficient in attending to the glories and horrors of everyday life.  The point is nailed  by Philip C. Kolin's Emmett Till in Different States: Poems (Chicago: Third World Press, 2015), and the coffin is nailed tightly should we compare Kolin's extraordinary book with The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), edited by Christopher Metress, or with Devery S. Anderson's Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015).  Navigating back and forth between history and poetry can't prevent the assaults of sovereign passion, but it can strengthen us, perhaps,  as readers to conduct  defensive combat in 2016.

Kolin's poems on the iconic tragedy of Emmett Till urge us to remember that acts of reflection can have the properties of a prism; they can split enlightenment into component parts.  Unless I am blindly misreading  Kolin, he is encouraging us to discover the pragmatic linking of history and poetry.

Emmett Till in Different States follows in the tradition of Gwendolyn Books, Julius E. Thompson, Langston Hughes, Richard Davidson, Audre Lorde, Bob Dylan, Wanda Coleman, and Sam Cornish  ---a few of many American poets who remembered 1955, who used art and their aesthetics to create a socially responsible prism or literature of everyday life to buttress cultural memory. Kolin takes us into the territory of abrasive remembering, the space where language gives birth to images of an iconic moment in America's violent past.  These morph into kindred images of a terrible present.  Kolin's poems deliver us into the dread of an existential future.  They demand that we abandon delusion, embrace common sense to eschew spinformation, and make our peace with the unending obligation of reckoning.   A life-promoting account of the furniture in our minds is a virtue not a vice.

As a title, Emmett Till in Different States refers at once to Till's life and death in Illinois and Mississippi and to the aesthetic states advocated by poetry and history in concert with one another.  We have options in how to read Kolin's book, but two of them intrigue me.  If one reads the forty-nine poems printed between pages 7 and 72 and delays reading paratextual matter, one may hear a long black song performed in many voices, a particular sonic remembering.  On the other hand, if one reads the book from cover to cover, one dwells on the architectonics of remembering, the structural machinery of engaging history through the poetic prism of a different consciousness.  In this case, one moves through the frames of Till's extended chronology (1902-2016), a prologue extracted verbatim from parts of The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative, the multiple voices of the poems, the notes on the poems, and Kolin's concise biographical sketch.  These two states of experience are relevant for cultural literacy and cultural memory, for the "paying of heed" that the velocity of 2016 tries to deny us. Through the efferent and aesthetic reading so nicely theorized in Louise M. Rosenblatt's The Read The Text The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), our minds can give rise to a third state of awareness: the reconstituting in the dreadful contexts of 2016 of what Faedra Chatard Carpenter calls "the well circulated, yet never exhausted story of Emmett Till" and of how, as Devery S. Anderson aptly reminds us, the Till case "remains an open wound not only in the South, but throughout America."  Like the poems in  Frank X. Walker's Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of  Medgar Evers (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), the poems in Emmett Till in Different States invites us to stare all the ghosts of America in the eye.  It is significant that in the final poem Kolin uses his Roman Catholic poetic sensibility to  canonize Till on the feast of St. Moses the Ethiopian, thus putting the domestic terrorism of lynching into the purview of eternal verities and sending us back  via poiesis to the continent of mankind's origins.

 For 2016, I urge those who say they "love" poetry to explore the territory of Kolin's poetry and be born again in a baptism of blood.  We can perhaps  manifest our "love" for poetry and the sanctity of  human life and have better transactions with reality by walking in the minefields of  American and world histories.

Laskas, Jeanne Marie. Concussion. New York: Random House, 2015.

Although a trustworthy friend recommends the film "Concussion" and the  Internet trailers featuring  Will Smith  are inviting, I have yet to see the movie.  Based on Jeanne Marie Laskas's  September 2009 GQ article "Game Brain,"( http://www.gq.com/story/nfl-players-brain-dementia-study-memo ) the film will probably have the impact of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which provoked me to utter angry words about a nation of sheep.  I imagine "Concussion" is sufficiently right-wing for no film critic to call it an "egregious cinematic stinker," and certainly Dr. Bennet Omalu, upon whose life and forensic work the film is focused, stood on his ground and produced testimony regarding dementia pugilistica that even extreme,  conservative critics might allow their hearts to admit has merit.  What their mouths will say about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a different can of worms.  For devout fans of football and other American gladiatorial games, the film may provoke thirty seconds of anxiety before they return to normal.

I have read Laskas's Concussion and have cultivated more than a grain of admiration for Dr. Omalu as a Nigerian American who poured determination and  Igbo spirituality through the alembic of Catholicism to become, despite his agon with depression, a fine role model for African and African American males.  I shall not hesitate to say that some immigrants are better models of the excellence to which we should aspire than are some native sons.  Laskas has the prescience to grasp that Dr. Omalu's life history is as compelling as what he discovered about tau tangle in the brain of Mike "Iron Mike" Webster and published as the scientific paper  "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player" in the July 2005 issue of the prestigious journal Neurosurgery.  Laskas is an accomplished, clever writer.  Her prose is conversational and witty.  There is a delicious edginess in her weaving of an extended parable into the book about the relationship between Dr. Omalu and Dr. Cyril Wecht, whose mastery of hubris makes Donald Trump look like an inept neophyte.  Even more tasty is her cultivated muckraking of the National Football League, which continues to value billion dollar profits more than the lives of professional football players.  After all, American players are, like Roman gladiators, expendable and  replaceable.  The bottom line is to keep fans happy and money rolling in.  Ethics and morality count as much in the game as washed-up sex workers, or to use language attributed to Dr. Wecht "malicious editorial pimps and reporter prostitutes."

Dr. Omalu's rediscovery and exposure of what had been known in the Western world for several centuries about the effects of brain trauma has cost the NFL a pretty penny, thanks to an April 2015 uncapped settlement that will cost the League about one billion dollars over the next sixty-five years (Laskas 260).  That's chump change.  The NLF knows it; the retired or discarded, brain-injured players know it; the fans know it.  But the American sports industry is an improved version of Shakespeare's Shylock.  It will plead in no court for a mere pound of flesh.  It will contract athletes to man up and be patriotic about the consequences of concussions.

Miller, W. Jason. Origins of the Dream: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2015.  Miller's archival research is first-rate.  His astute interpretations of how speech acts can function in social and political histories.  Origins of the Dream is an exemplary model for future inquiries about the confluence of thought, poetry, and social action.

Norrell, Robert J. Alex Haley and the Books That Changed a Nation.  New York: St. Martin's Press, 2015. The ongoing hype from the publishing industry that books can change a nation is a Eurocentric joke. An occasion for a good Asian or African laugh.  The Autobiography of Malcolm X did change some aspects of ideology among Americans who wanted to decide whether to canonize Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X or both; Roots, as book and television series, changed the  tenor of conversations about heritage among a significant number of African Americans and created interest in research on ancestry and family history.  Neither Haley nor his writings changed the United States of America in ways that can be confirmed by empirical evidence, and in 2016 empirical verification counts for more than nostalgia.  Norrell's claim that "Haley wrote the two most important works in black culture in the twentieth century" (227) is utter nonsense.  What isn't nonsense, however, is his research in extant Alex Haley papers and court documents, the crucial information that drives inquiry about the nature of collaboration between Haley and Malcolm Little/Malcolm X/El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, about the role of culture industries in promoting or demeaning  that book as well as Roots, about Haley's court battles with Margaret Walker and Harold Courlander.  What Norrell does well is to reopen interest in one day having an approximation of full disclosure in the case of Alex Haley.

Scroggins, Mark.  Intricate Thicket: Reading Late Modernist Poetries.  Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015.  Amidst all the great noise we make about poetry, prizes, and personalities as if we were at a great rally of Dadaists, it is a relief to read Scroggins's blunt assertion: "Any attempt to capture an inclusive picture of contemporary poetry  --  even of a particular corner of contemporary poetry --in a given moment is doomed to incompletion and partiality."  Intricate Thicket and other works in the growing catalog of offerings from the Modern and Contemporary Poetics series published by the University of Alabama Press remind us that we have responses for everything and reassuring answers for nothing.  Scroggins's assertion applies equally to vain efforts to project inclusive histories or portraits of American literature and culture.

White, Shane.  Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire.  New York: St. Martin's Press, 2015.  It is instructive to read this biographical study of Hamilton, a man who used his remarkable intelligence to beat nineteenth-century New York financiers at the racial games they loved to play.  It is instructive to consider how White, an Australian professor of history, exposes the architecture of writing history with the panache so often lacking among American historians who try to tell a black story.  It is most instructive to remind ourselves that 21st century historiography must expand its view of the multi-layered presence of African Americans in the never finished narrative of what it means to be an American.

Wheelock, Stefan M. Barbaric Culture and Black Critique.  Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015.  Wheelock's very scholarly examination of black antislavery writers, religion, and the drama of the slaveholding Atlantic invites a new engagement with matters of race and philosophy that Cornel West explored in Keeping Faith (New York: Routledge, 1993).

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    January 6, 2016