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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

humanities without lamentation


After enduring complaint after complaint from post-whatever humanists about exploitation, underfunding, and lack of praise from the general public, I was energized by Keenan Norris's sending news about a "writing freedom" project.  Norris, a young professor of African American Studies and English at Evergreen Valley College, is a writer who maximizes work and minimizes self-serving lament. He is not a "star," a spectacle, a chaser of fame.  He is just a scholar and writer who works to benefit people outside the invisible walls of Academe as well as his students.  He affirms my  notion of what a humanist should be and do. And thanks to his intervention, I now know a little about Carmen McCain as a humanist.

I got to know a bit about the quality of Norris's scholarship and imagination while he was still a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Riverside. He submitted a fine article, "The Dark Role of Excess in the Literary Marketplace and the Genesis and Evolution of Urban Literature," for the Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Issue 1 (2011).  As the guest editor, I had the pleasure of working with him on making minor revisions.  Shortly thereafter he sent me an early draft of his first novel Brother and the Dancer (Berkeley: Heyday, 2013), which was the winner of the 2012 James D. Houston Award.  In a blurb for  that book I called it "a refreshing signal that fiction in the twenty-first century can still carry the weight of moral imperatives as it mediates chaotic aspects of our heritage." I still feel "it is most rewarding to savor Norris's remarkable insights."  His mastery of prose and refusal to pander in his novel is evidenced also in his nonfiction.  His commitment to being an engaged writer was reflected in his editing Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2014), a solid guide to the genre of urban fiction.  Most recently, Norris has written mind-opening essays for Abernathy, the leading online magazine for black men. Willie Jackson, the founder and publisher, has wittily remarked the magazine is "simply a metaphor for being a decent human."  And Norris is a more than decent humanist.

A few days ago, Norris sent information about how the question  "Can we design FREEDOM?" would be answered on February 18 at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts ( /whats-on/public-square;  he included a link --- ---for "the multimedia installation about the suppression of free speech, literature, and writers' resistance to it in past and present time…."  Norris's essay on David Walker is paired with Carmen McCain's outstanding series of blogs on "The Subversive Women who Self-Publish Novels Amidst Jihadist War," which documents, in the words of Novian Whitsitt, a "vital contribution to social transformation of Hausa-Islamic culture." Together Norris and McCain do humanistic work without special pleading and lamentation.

Norris and McCain are thinkers who deserve our passionate attention.  McCain, who does research  on Hausa film, novels, and literary culture, is as clear in explaining why is it wrongheaded to think of Hausa romances as tools to escape the reality of conflict, to escape the horror of Boko Haram, as Norris is in persuading us that Walker's Appeal is a tool for confronting the horror of the Age of Trump. Both understand what the commerce of literature and politics is in the United States and in Nigeria. Or as McCain says with authority: People read to "escape" daily life , but in my research and conversations with [Nigerian] writers, they often mentioned that they wrote about things that happened to them or things they felt needed to be discussed in society.  So novels are seen as avenues not just of "escape" and "entertainment" but also seen as avenues for "advice" and "instruction." It's a godsend to have such humanists as Norris and McCain who expand our knowledge and our visions.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            February 14, 2017

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