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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lorenzo Thomas (1944-2005)

Lorenzo Thomas (1944-2005)

As I reread a few of Lorenzo Thomas's essays and poems, I recall  the first line of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" ---

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving

          hysterical naked…."

The single word in the beginning of Ginsberg's semi-autobiographical, derivative tribute to Walt Whitman that captures attention is "minds," although the current visibility  of mental illness and homelessness in the USA might derail that focus.  Madness, which isn't identical with insanity, and the companion images of hysteria and lack of food and clothing invite aesthetic adventures which are tangential ( and perhaps beside the point).  Over the past thirty years, criticism and theory have encouraged more concern with the material body than with the abstract operations of the mind. Enthralled by such emphasis, many a fine poet has plunged into innovation, outing, and  shock-value.  The dullness of post-WWII America may have justified Ginsberg's wanting to approach the surrealism of Bob Kaufman to protest how poetic expression was imprisoned.  The jury is still out on that possibility.  Reading Thomas against the sweep and gestures of "Howl," I am intrigued that as one of the best minds of my generation Thomas chose to dismiss the limits of protest and to map new territories for African American creative work.  Thomas invested heavily in language, history, and the mind.

One small instance of Thomas's superior mind occurs in an interview Charles Rowell conducted with him in 1978  ("Between the Comedy of Matters and the Ritual Workings of Man" ).  When Rowell suggested that Thomas might "probably agree with W. H. Auden's "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" --- that "poetry makes nothing happen," Thomas finessed the moment by saying that Auden's assertion was right, but that Black poets are interested in Yeats as "a nationalist and an activist and a mythologist as well."  It was not Yeats's making of poems and theater pieces that made anything happen, "but their presence in people's consciousness is what made things happen.  In a few simple words, Thomas accurately contextualized and deconstructed a reprehensible stereotype by using plain ancient Egyptian common sense rather than complex, deceptive European-derived jargon.  Whether they are experimental or traditional, poets are not ethnic commodities in pre-future cargo ships.  Thomas stood on the shoulders of Langston Hughes.  He understood clearly the aesthetic kinship of poets and musicians and what ought to count as valid in matrices of creative expression.  There is lasting relevance in the point Thomas made regarding what was problematic in the Black Arts Movement  and is still problematic in the reception of American poetry: "The concept of the poem functioning as a political entity ---as rhetoric that was to be acted upon --was and is a mistaken notion.  The poem creating consciousness, which will then inspire people to act, is valid."  I attribute Thomas's excellent insight to his possessing  a unique blending of African Diaspora, Central American, and New York sensibilities.

Challenge my high regard for how Thomas mapped territory by going to the sources, by reading his eloquent essays in Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry  (2000) and Don't Deny My Name: Words and Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition (2008). Challenge your own literacy by reading his major collections of poetry ---The Bathers (1981),  Chances are Few (1979; and the expanded second edition, 2003), and Dancing on Main Street (2004).  Try to avoid being  complicit in allowing your mind to be "destroyed by madness" in 2017.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            March 23, 2017

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Update --"Our Poets are Our Dangerous Friends"

Our Poets are Our Dangerous Friends

Our poets do many beneficial things for our commonweal.  They teach in public schools, in colleges and universities, in alternative education programs, in community centers and churches and sites of ill-repute.  When they feel generous, they call our attention to the works of other poets, to the writings of novelists, essayists, hard and soft scientists, and dramatists.  When they feel bitter and small, they call attention only to their egos.

They ---  Dudley Randall, Naomi Long Madgett, Margaret T. Burroughs, Margaret Walker, Ishmael Reed, Lenard D. Moore, Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady,  Haki Madhubuti  ---build institutions of great importance in our cultural lives ---Broadside Press, Lotus Press, DuSable Museum, the Margaret Walker Center for the Study of the African American Experience,  I. Reed Books, the North Carolina Collective African American Writers Collective, Cave Canem Foundation,  Third World Press.

They --- Al Young,  Gwendolyn Brooks, Lance Jeffers, Ntozake Shange, Angela Jackson, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Sapphire, Clarence Major, Ishmael Reed,  Sherley Anne Williams, Gayl Jones , HonorĂ©e Fanonne Jeffers, James Cherry --- write novels.

They  ---  Kalamu ya Salaam, Marvin X,  Rudolph Lewis,  and E. Ethelbert Miller  --create and maintain list-serves, websites, and blogspots.

They  ---  Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed,  Kalamu ya Salaam,  Clarence Major,  Camille T. Dungy, James Weldon Johnson, Larry Neal, Kevin Powell, Sterling Brown, Mari Evans, Dudley Randall,  Tony Medina, Arna Bontemps, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez,  Michael Harper, Sterling D. Plumpp,  June Jordan, Kevin Young, Louis Reyes Rivera, Rita Dove, Kwame Dawes, E. Ethelbert Miller, Quraysh Ali Lansana  ---  edit noteworthy anthologies.

They  ---  Eugene B. Redmond, Alvin Aubert, Quincy Troupe, C. Liegh McInnis, Tom Dent---  found and/ or edit  and publish magazines   --- Drumvoices Revue, OBSIDIAN, Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire,  Black Magnolias, Callaloo

They  ---  Audre Lorde , Lorenzo Thomas, Kalamu ya Salaam, LeRoi Jones[ Amiri Baraka],  Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Nathaniel Mackey,  Eugene B. Redmond, Maya Angelou, Margaret Walker, Jean Toomer,  Harryette Mullen , Bob Kaufman ---  write touchstone books  --- Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Extraordinary Measures, What Is Life?, Blues People, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Liberating Voices, Discrepant Engagement, Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Jubilee, Cane, The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews, Golden Sardine.

Our poets are our dangerous friends who give eyesight to the blind.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            March 21, 2017                 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Poetical Matters

Salvo for American Poetry Month

Nikki Giovanni's persona poem "Phillis Wheatley" is the foreword to Richard Kigel's Heav'nly Tidings from the Afric Muse: The Grace and Genius of Phillis Wheatley (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2017).

The poem is typical of Giovanni's recent work, plain words in economic stanzas, and noticeably in opposition to the early poems through which she achieved fame in the 1960s.  Giovanni does not seek to imitate features of Wheatley's poetry and epistolary prose, does not echo 18th century sentiments. The voice she creates is pointed, suspicious about how an adopted language communicates, and graced with wry remembering of a life's journey and gentle sarcasm regarding the word "Sold." Six closing lines hammer out an early American message:

I don't know

What language to use

For my Heart or my Speech

I write



The word "sold" is used six times in the poem, drawing attention to the freighted colonial meanings of the distributed sequence  "Freedom," "Free," "Freedom," "Unslavery," "Free."  We do not miss the implications of Wheatley's being sold and how she sold poems to gain cognitive freedom  and ultimately to arrive at a highly qualified state of being a freedwoman.  Nor do we miss the tragicomic humor involved with the selling of Phillis Wheatley in the twenty-first century.

The foreword is well-matched with Kigel's use of early American documents to construct a biography of Wheatley and his conversational use of criticism and scholarship by such figures as William Robinson, Mukhtar Ali Isani, Vincent Carretta,   John C. Shields, Julian Mason, and Merle A. Richmond to flesh out his ideas about Wheatley's assimilationist grace and genius and her intelligent recognition of revolutionary hypocrisy  -----the considerable effort of white colonial males to obtain freedom for themselves and freedom to preserve the institution of slavery.

Vincent Carretta's Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (University of Georgia Press, 2011) was clearly designed for a community of scholars.  Kigel's biography addresses a different readership, the students in public and charter schools who might study Wheatley in Advanced Placement courses and readers who have little patience with tortured sentences and jargon-dripping paragraphs.  His tone is civil, inviting, celebratory.  Carretta's work is provocative; Kigel's,an echo of nineteenth-century sentimentality.   Calling Wheatley "a Middle Passage survivor and "Poet Laureate" of the American Revolution involves a post-racial breeziness predicated on twenty-first century assumptions about biography and literary history. It sugarcoats a prevailing flaw in our nation's intellectual history.  But if Kigel's book can encourage broader and deeper curiosity about the vexed origins of American poetry, it is a contribution to our endlessly delayed national conversation and the role poetry can play in breaking  the circle of reluctance and denial.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            March 19, 2017

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Indian Country


Trump's "America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again" is a collector's item, a first-edition of a tribe's economic ideology.  Citizens shall quote selected passages of the document as they applaud or turn down their thumbs.  Their representatives in Congress shall do likewise.  All should subject the language of the document to "strict construction," because Trump-polished language disguises ambiguity. [Access the full text at ]

Trump boldly announces in his message to Congress that

The American people elected me to fight for their priorities in Washington, D.C. and deliver on my promise to protect our Nation.  I fully intend to keep that promise.


We are going to do more with less, and make the Government lean and accountable to the people.


This includes deep cuts to foreign aid.  It is time to prioritize the security and well-being of Americans, and to ask the rest of the world to step up and pay its fair share. (pages 1-2)

If you flip to page 27, you discover a proclamation in a box:

The Department of the Interior (DOI) is responsible for protecting and managing vast areas of U.S. lands and waters, providing scientific and other information about its national resources, and meeting the Nation's trust responsibility and other commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and U.S.-affiliated island communities.

N.B.  American Indians.

On the same page, you discover that the 2018 budget sustains funding for DOI's

collection and disbursement of roughly $10 billion annually from mineral development, an important source of revenue to the Federal Treasury, States, and Indian mineral owners.

Moreover, DOI

supports tribal sovereignty and self-determination across Indian Country by focusing on core funding and services to support ongoing tribal government operations.  The Budget reduces funding for more recent demonstration projects and initiatives that only serve a few Tribes. (page 28)

N.B.  Indian mineral owners, tribal sovereignty and self-determination, recent demonstration projects, a few Tribes

You should ask where "Indian Country" is located, especially when you discover the 2017 CR/Enacted appropriation for DOI was $13.2 billion but the 2018 Request is $11.6 billion, an 11.7% reduction.  Pray for the Indian Country that is your Nation.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            March 16, 2017

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

instruments of termination


Mass media and social media do seem to serve the purposes of the Trump administration well. Despite its commitment to inform the public, mass media use half-truths and lies to frustrate the process of thinking in the United States of America. Its agencies profit from the enterprise.  Its agents take delight in toying with issues and ideas, providing scant evidence one might use to make judgments.  They perform scripts and entertain; they do not tax themselves to specify frames of reference.  The audience is saturated with whatever can be easily  improvised.

Social media, on the other hand, is more transparent about its artifice.  Driven by legions of passion, users eschew collective responsibility.  Responsibility, particularly the ethical variety, does not fit well with the orgasm of expression.  Subjective, highly individual reductions of the actual to the real flourish.  No explanation is needed, because all of us who use social media are secure with our tribal identities, and we blithely assume the individual is the herd.

Reading Gustave LeBon's sociological classic, The Crowd (1895), intensifies belief that both mass and social media treat ideas as "the daughters of the past and the mothers of the future, but throughout the slaves of time."  Slaves of time?  Yes.  LeBon's words blacken our  eyes so that we might see better. A concentrated gaze exposes just how female and feminist the United States of America has become in 2017.  Yes, the trace of sexism is most visible.  The possibility energizes President Trump to deploy the tweet with maximum force, to use it as his primary instrument of termination.  And what does he desire to terminate?  Democracy as we once pragmatically understood it.  And he wills to replace democracy with new and improved fascism, the necessary and sufficient condition for making his nation great.  Mass media and social media massage us to be comfortable with the blessings of a want-to-be dictator.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            March 14, 2017

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Mari Evans


(Mari Evans, July 16, 1923-March 10, 2017)

After a zillion sounds, stone-washed clean;

after broadly casting such truths to people;

after taming music into measure of mind;

after making bronze lyrics of ancient black,

you came to return space to origin.

You left a stern, eternal  crystal watch.

You left warning days vital as nights.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

March 11, 2017



O what limb-rending pains in furrows by thy lightnings rent.

This is eternal death, and the torment long foretold.

William Blake, "America, A Prophecy"

East, at midnight the sun falls, and all

Congress is in purdah,

eating caviar; fish sweat perfumes the hall.

Yma Sumac steams cha chi cha,

bison blues;  for the West her story has no news.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            March 11, 2017

Tuesday, March 7, 2017



"You have a real problem with the oil spill," Wang Yukuo said, as I picked up another slice of lotus root with my chopsticks.  I pause, weigh his words.  I do not have sufficient understanding of Chinese humor to retort without offending.  In the cage of my American imagination, ideas gestate.  With the rapid urbanization and modernization occurring in the People's Republic of China, I think it would be a godsend for the Chinese to pick up a few million barrels of oil from the Deepwater accident. Might they then understand the oil spill problem is not exclusively American?  Might they better understand why the Gulf of Mexico misfortune and the threats to the coastal wetlands of southern Louisiana is akin to problems of ecology in their own nation?

"Yes," I finally replied, not want to lose my grip on the lotus root. "A very serious crisis."  The faint smile on Wang's face reminded me of global crises ----Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan; famine in North Korea; excessive consumption of KFC and McDonald's grease in Asia and Europe; global warming and global cooling;  genocide popping up in places with names unfamiliar to American ears; the tragedy of unconsecrated  oil in the Holy Land.  It is right to smile, to wear the mask of being cool and rational, as one ponders the unending accumulation of crises.  Wang's smile suggests he is very smart, but it intensifies my feelings about disaster.  Environmental abuses in his nation forecast a smoggy future for the Chinese.

BP's  inability to quickly stop a leak approximately 5,000 feet under water may symbolize that rampant  progress is writing an unhappy future for unborn generations of Americans.  I don't have  precise information about the toxins that affected us prior to Hurricane Katrina, nor do I have reliable prognoses about long-term effects environmental toxins from 2005 to 2105.  Progressive greed writes an uncertain narrative for Wang and me.

It might be rash to say that the oil leak is Nature's revenge for man's several million years of using and abusing the earth.  It is silly to project human motives upon amoral Nature.  Nature simply moves according to some cosmic time we can't measure accurately.  The guilty and the innocent are united in being punished existentially.  Oil/schmoil!  I chew the lotus root slowly.  It is delicious.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            March 8, 2017.

Monday, March 6, 2017

DJT's executive order on HBCUs


President Trump's zany tweets provide clues about his intentions.  His executive orders, which initially seem to be straightforward, upon inspection reveal forking paths.  His officially announced strategies and tactics are trickster pipers .  Following the music, one is rewarded with confusion.  A fine example is his executive order of February 28, 2017 "on The White House Initiative to Promote Excellence and Innovation at Historically Black Colleges and Universities."

Revoking President Barack Obama's Executive Order 13532 of February 26, 2010 on "Promoting Excellence, Innovation, and Sustainability at Historically Black Colleges and Universities," Trump's order deleted the word "sustainability" from the title.  This is an omen.  So too is deletion of 2020 as a benchmark year for obtaining the general goals of Obama's initiative.  Trump's order evicted the initiative from the Department of Education, where it had been housed for more than three decades, and relocated it to the Executive Office of the President.  The move increases the possibility for Trump to tweet more directly about his initiative, his HBCUs, and his African Americans.  The possibility begs us to have anxiety and to ask why "sustainability" was deported.  Will Trump in the near future revoke Obama's executive order of July 26, 2012 on the "White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans"?

Anxiety grows when one notices that Section 2. (b). (i) replaces the "five core tasks" specified in Executive Order 13532 with "two primary missions" which focus on

(i) increasing the private-sector role, including the role of private foundations, in

(A) strengthening HBCUs through enhanced institutional planning and development, fiscal stability, and financial management; and

(B) upgrading institutional infrastructure, including the use of technology, to ensure the long-term viability of these institutions; and

(ii) enhancing HBCUs' capabilities to serve our Nation's young adults…..

There is some legerdemain involved in transferring the onus for building a "cradle-to-college" pipeline from the Federal government to the private sector.  The private sector is not bound by Constitutional law to comply or cooperate.  Philanthropic  foundations have their own agendas, which may or may not be correlative with Trump's intentions.

To some extent, the signing on February 28, 2017 was little more than a public relations opportunity, purchased with the chagrin of HBCU presidents misled by the music to expect less ceremony and a more serious event for substantive dialogue with President Trump.  Wrong from the start.  Trump's behavior from January 20 to February 27, 2017 should have been a clear signal that HBCU presidents would be use to impart credibility to an episode of  American  political reality television .  It would not do for the show to lack color.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            March 6, 2017

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Melville and Coetzee

Melville and Coetzee/ Postcolonial Aberrations : A Forum Note

Among the sophisticated, cutting-edge papers delivered at the 2nd Forum for Modern and Contemporary English Literature (Central China Normal University, December 5-6, 2016), two galvanized my thinking about how literary discussion can often sharpen or expand awareness of non-literary issues.  Without violating the integrity of works of art, literary criticism draws attention to timely moral and ethical issues.  Xu Bin’s “Moral Panic and Home Anxiety: ‘Imperial Boomerang’ in Caryl Phillips’ The Lost Child” expanded my reflection on national anxieties in European countries; David Attwell’s “A New Footing: Re-reading J. M. Coetzee’s Barbarian Woman” sharpened my ideas about how narrative features in Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno  illuminate ideology in contemporary American life.  Neither Xu nor Attwell mentioned American literature.  Xu argued convincingly that Phillips’ novel “illuminates the delayed effects of 18th century British imperial politics on the racial and political assumptions of the 20th century British national ego “(Xu’s abstract).  Attwell, whose most recent book is J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, questioned the limits of postcolonial theory by suggesting the magistrate, the narrative focaliser, in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians unsettles assumptions about what is “essentially subaltern” and what is representative of “the permanent stasis of alterity” (Attwell’s abstract). Listening to Xu and Attwell encouraged me to reconsider why reading can be a rich, situated response to perplexing allegories of guilt and perversity.

Two hundred years ago, Amasa Delano’s  A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817) was published, and in 1855 Melville published what he appropriated from  Delano’s locating desire in history as Benito Cereno.  Is it tendentious to believe Melville wrote postcolonial fiction that casts light on American issues in 2017?  No. America did have several colonial histories.  It is a matter of seeing/reading  Delano's travel writing and Melville's transformation of it into psychological fiction as tools for dealing with contemporary manifestations of intention and desire.  Delano was complicit with Spanish imperialism (slave traffic);  Melville, influenced by Abolitionist discourses I presume,  focused on American blindness in dealing with appearance (the subaltern/slave's lack of power) with reality (the subaltern/slave's exercise of power).  Recognizing the odd postcolonial status of 19th century American literature enables us to see a little more clearly  how democratic boomerangs function in contemporary American society and alert us about postcolonial aberrations, the distortions that theory sponsors when we fail to be skeptical about theory.

The kinship between Melville and Coetzee is an entwining of the literary, the aesthetic, and the  moral. From  different temporal zones, Melville and Coetzee critique  the flawed perspectives of those who gaze upon either the enslaved or the barbarian as the typical Other without recognizing that they themselves are the authentic Others. made all the more enslaved and barbaric for wearing the masks of civilization and Empire as narrative focalisers of what they can't or refuse to see. Coetzee and Melville help us to assess moral panic in the United States before and after November 8, 2016. And Coetzee's NYRB (January 19, 2017 issue) review of Antonio Di Benedetto's Zama (1956) tells us a great deal about the authentic Other and Empire.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

A note to Congress


Dear  Congresspersons:

                Either indirectly or directly, all of you are responsible for creating the political climate that encouraged American citizens, with the help of the Electoral College, to elect President Trump.  In the spirit of trying to perpetuate  a liberal democracy , citizens voted.  A number of feel cheated. We have been  cheated as  the MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN mantra resounds throughout  the United States. In this Republic , which can  be little more than  a metaphor for democracy, we are dismayed that the number of popular votes for a candidate counts for naught.  We shall continue to vote, especially in local and state elections.  Mark my words.  Some of you may wish to apply for one of  the jobs your President has vowed  to bring back to America. The grapes of wrath shall bloom.  Some of you shall lose your seats.

                Those of you survive ought to attend to the work of restoring a modicum of confidence in the political process.  American citizens are not ancient Romans in need of a circus. "The virtues of our system of federated governments, " Carl L. Becker wrote in Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life (1945), are indeed very great" (93).  Noble words.  Becker was aware, however, that "the most striking defect of our system of government is that it divides political power and thereby  conceals political responsibility.  The business of governing is entrusted to the President and the Congress, but it too often happens that no body of elected representatives can be held responsible or called to account for the formulation of policies or the enactment of measures to carry them through" (95).  The defects you have been complicit in sustaining since 2000 have encouraged the slipping of democracy into fascism.  In his first address to Congress, Trump made it clear, even unto the deaf, the dumb, and the blind, that such slipping is at the core of his political ideology.  Weight his propositions.  Do not pretend that you have not been warned.

                The minority of Congresspersons who refuse to dirty their minds and hands with bad faith can profit from reading Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (2011) by Dorothy Roberts.  She has made a principled, comprehensive analysis of how President Trump's dedicated racialization of our nation is a choice that, with your help, can destroy democracy.  In her conclusion, Roberts provides a logical warning:

Will Americans continue to believe the myth that human beings are naturally divided into races and look to genomic science and technology to deal with persistent social inequities?  Or will they affirm our shared humanity by working to end the social injustices preserved by the political system of race?  This is the most pivotal question facing this nation in the twenty-first century because the answer will determine the basic nature of the relationship between citizens and the government and with each other.  One path is already leading to aggressive state surveillance, extreme human deprivation, and unspeakable brutality against whole populations on the basis of race. By obscuring this coercive control over poor communities of color, the new racial biopolitics permits the growth of a state authoritarianism and a corporatized definition of citizenship that endangers the democratic freedoms of all Americans.  We must chose the other path of common humanity and social change if we are to have any hope for a more free and just nation." (312)

Heed her warning.  Either weed the garden or allow it to grow into a negative Eden of implacable dread.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            March 4, 2017.