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Friday, April 28, 2017

Poetry and Dust


As April moves to an end, reminding us to continue reading poetry all year long, I pick up and begin to read May Miller's Dust of Uncertain Journey (Detroit: Lotus Press, 1975). The lines that open "The Voice Heard" (pages 60-61) force me to pause:

Oh, the elders, the poor elders

Have lost their way

Within the cobwebbed room.

Who are the elders?  How thick must cobwebs be to obscure vision?

Midway the poem, the voice I recreate in the reading declares

We are the young

Singing in their dying,

The image mirrored ---

What they were, what we are ---

Free verse, hot horns, pop art,

Rosaries of sex heavens and hells.

Being myself an elder, am I condemned by age to see poetry, jazz and blues,  popular representations of what somebody wants to persuade the world is art, and secular prayer beads each morning in a mirror?  So be it.  I can live with that.

I can live with the inevitable until the closing lines of the poem inform me

We go nowhere perhaps

Beyond the monolith of self,

Not that it matters really

As long as we come in free

In  the resurrection.

It is just here that May Miller's poem delivers me to trouble.  I begin to suspect Miller conjured a post-truth about poetry and dust before post-truth had a name and habitation.  So, I have to begin another cycle of reading poetry, slightly more aware that elders can read themselves beyond the cobwebbed room.  If we know what to listen for, we do not have to lose our way to somewhere.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            April 28, 2017

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Remembering Trayvon Martin


Hefty, genuine, and poignant. Essential and coat-pulling.

No-nonsense eloquent. Spirit-provoking.

These phrases describe some qualities of the comments Trayvon Martin's parents made at Dillard University on April 24, 2017.  They spoke in Georges Auditorium to an audience of approximately 350 people   ---   high school students, a smaller number of college students, and an odd number of folks over the age of 30. Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin spoke from the depths of something that must pulsate within people who have lost a loved one as a result of racially motivated violence.  Faith is what  we usually call the emotional space or place from which they spoke.  African Americans have no monopoly on faith, but the historical experiences of black folks in the United States have endowed them with the ability to absorb and deploy faith with amazing grace.  Fulton and Martin are exemplars of that fact.

As poised as scholars who know their subject matter intimately, they taught us a great deal about the uniqueness of individual grief.  Although I read only one chapter of their book

Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2017)

before they began to speak, I could sense a strong correlation between the printed words and the spoken ones.  This is a good omen, a sign that Fulton and Martin have created a powerful tool for continuing the legacy of their son.  They have blended love, grief, and pain-forged equanimity into a book of alternating witnessing of the mother and the father.

Tracy, Chapter 12:

                If we continued saying his name, would his name continue to stand for something?


                Something deeper than his death.  Something bigger than his unfinished life.  Something that                could  last longer than this trial.  Something that would turn his passing into power. (302)

Sybrina, Chapter 13

                All I wanted was to be a mother , to work at my job and raise my kids and live a normal life.

                Then my son was killed and that world went with him and God led me to another place, another

                world, and another life.  I became a mother on a mission.  A mission to bring awareness and    change.  So that he killing of Trayvon Martin would stand for something, so that the killing will       someday stop and the healing will begin.  So that our children, and all children, can live in peace.

                Rest in power, my son. (331)

The mother's answer to the father's question is definitive, and the magnanimous control of grief is transformed into a weapon.  Trayvon's parents teach us what must be done if we are to ever rest in power.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            April 25, 2017

Monday, April 24, 2017

One Hundred Days


April 29, 2017 will be the 100th day of the Trump presidency, a sliver of American political history.  But history will make more of that day than it seems to be willing to make of the John F. Kennedy Centennial.  As far as I know, this centennial has neither been celebrated in our nation's few venerable newspapers nor subjected to reliable critique on television.  Please correct me if I'm ignorant something history is actually doing.  Might it be the case that the sellers of news fear the necessity of reminding us that Kennedy's mystery-wrapped  assassination was connected somehow with the U.S.S.R. (Russia)? Would fresh speculation about that mystery highlight too much the current mystery of President Trump's alleged love/hate relationship with Putin?  Would historical critique expose how history's fictions threaten our nation's security?

The answers we might desire are not forthcoming.  Instead, what is trending ---dangerously so ---is smirking and smiling among some of us who give more allegiance to Literature than to History.  We smile that Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece of magic realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), invites us to entitle  what has emerged since January 20, 2017 One Hundred Days of Executive Ordered Desperation. Our smirks and smiles are ephemeral.  A disappeared realism isn't a fit object for laughter.  Only the mentally challenged are entitled to joke and laugh as neo-fascism gains ground in the United States of America.  And that is a true post-truth fact that Trump's loyal minions dare not deny.

April 29, 2017 should be a day for comparing what Trump "promised" with alacrity during his campaign with what he "promised" with audacity in the smoke and mirrors of one hundred days: NOTHING.  His infamous tweets and dismissive quips ( signs of his ultimate disdain for American citizens who lack wealth and who do not aspire to join his class) confirm NOTHING, the very NOTHING that for Shakespeare was signified by sound and fury (see Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5).  Nada. Deep echoes from Ernest Hemingway's short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"  ----"Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada…."  NOTHING.  The tale told by an idiot with benefit of blasphemy.

April 29, 2017 should be a day for accounting for progressive deconstructions, bold erasures of regulations and faith, exquisite nurturing of lies and counter-lies ---all the ideologies and actions that can ensure that America might cultivate the desire to abandon democracy as a viable option and become, under President Trump's exceptional leadership, the greatest autocracy recorded in human histories.  Like the militant radicals who blamed President Obama for EVERYTHING, we just might be destined to become extremely  militant conservatives who blame President Trump for NOTHING.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            April 24, 2017

Friday, April 21, 2017


WARD:  We are socialized to think race is "normal."

When we ask, "What does it mean to be an American?", the question has to be dealt with from angles of thinking or not thinking about indigenous peoples. We need to somehow account for our being in this space in relation to that greatly decimated population, Why is it so easy for us to forget, unless we live in certain states, that there are still descendants of these people with whom we have not engaged the question of reparations, while we have had reparations for a number of other groups that are elements of the American mix. Indigenous people are also a part of what it means to be American.

When we begin at  early American history, colonial history,  the political situation becomes complex in strange ways. I've recently read a book about  “the common cause”  and the American revolution, a moment in the development of capitalism. The common cause  was as much about  the desire to assert dominance and white superiority as it was about liberty or freedom.

I say this because when we go back to the American revolution, what is now becoming better known is that through the newspapers and broadsides and other printed materials a special case was being made for the rights of those European people who lived in the colonies and who were not prepared to be loyal to the British Crown. Those were the people who wanted to be independent in a very special way. No matter what beautiful words were written in the second draft of the Declaration of Independence, in order to confirm their independence meant that they had to diminish and demean other peoples, particularly Native Americans and Africans. And they had to insist that those two populations did not and would not deserve to be fully invested in the enterprise of liberation from what was called the tyranny of the king or the tyranny of the monarchy, the tyranny of Britain.

Indeed, using various arguments, especially those from what was known as natural history at the time, those two populations were completely set outside the pale. This is very important, especially in terms of ourselves as African American peoples who have criticized the America democratic experiment without totally rejecting some of it premises . One of our oversights—I think shortcomings might be too strong a word—  one of the things that we overlook is our relationship to indigenous peoples, and  how that "common cause"  is a major part of our changing locations within capitalism.

We should recall that in the years before 1776 it was an obligation for European settlers to minimize the presence of indigenous peoples in the North American geography they wanted to own. We begin with colonial history and remember how that history is still operative. Our mass media has not thoroughly examined why a considerable number of indigenous people and their allies gathered a few months ago  to protest an oil pipeline. This indigenous assertion of historical claims, moral issues, and ecological fears has not been accorded sufficient attention.

Let us begin with remember colonies, plantations, and common causes. I notice you are reading a book about cotton. At that moment, I am trying to learn something from Robert G. Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution ( Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016) .    The master narrative of the American Revolution has to be rewritten with greater accuracy. Research by Parkinson and others informs us how a species of literature—newspapers, broadsides, and other printed materials—was used to promote a specialized rather than a universal idea about independence. In 2017, digital media are used to promote a similar objective.  That independence, no matter what beautiful words were written in the second draft of the Declaration of Independence, required white colonists to diminish and demean other people, particularly Native Americans and Africans. The twenty-first century heirs of white colonists have not abandoned that enterprise.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Raoul Peck and James Baldwin


The book is short  --- 25 pages of introductory material + 109 pages of text and images + 1 blank verso + 2 pages of CREDITS +1 page of BIBLIOGRAPHY + 1 blank verso +  1 page of PERMISSIONS +1 blank verso +2 pages listing ILLUSTRATIONS   ---   a total of 143 pages to be read at one sitting.

Peck, Raoul, ed. I Am Not Your Negro: From Texts by James Baldwin.  New York: Vintage International, 2017.

As the companion for Peck's film I Am Not Your Negro (2016), the book is a  mosaic of Baldwin's unfinished "Notes Toward Remember This House, " snippets from other works by Baldwin, images and quotations from television and film,  and slivers of song lyrics.

One does not read the mosaic.  One consumes it.   Consumption is contingent on whether one engages the mosaic before or after viewing the film.  Dealing with the book before seeing the film prepares one to listen to Baldwin's voice, Samuel Jackson's narration, and other archived sounds with more than usual attention and to attend with passionate interest to the film's visual rhetoric. Using the book after witnessing the film helps one to check nuances that one's eyes and ears missed or misinterpreted in the darkened cave of a cinema.  These diverging affective and efferent experiences reveal much about the processing of past and contemporary information, much about how one's mind navigates sight and sound.  How one contextualizes Peck's manipulation of Baldwin's legacy.

Witnessing is all.  In the cliché-saturated ambience of "# Matters,"  moral judgment is a vexed affair. That is to say the circumstances under which one witnesses Peck's reconstructive witnessing of Baldwin's unfinished effort to locate the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  matters greatly.  One's age, ethnic identity, citizenship, and depth of interest in the conditions of being human are crucial in finding meaning and significance in the film and book versions of I Am Not Your Negro.  They determine, to paraphrase Peck, whether it is possible to have "a deep and intimate personal reflection on [one's] own political and cultural mythology, [one's] own experiences of racism and intellectual violence" (xi).

When a friend suggested we should set up a panel discussion of I Am Not Your Negro after viewing the film,   I objected.  The only panels that have practical legitimacy, as far as I am concerned, are those constituted by people who belong temporarily to a community of seeing and hearing at one time and in one place.  Members of such a nonce community should tell one another, not be told by a panel of critics and experts,  what is important about what and how  the film galvanized them to think and to feel, and perhaps to vow to do.   Raoul Peck's commendable interventions by way of film and book demand multiple and quite diverse enactments of community, an investment in being human that the first quarter of the 21st century tries daily to assassinate.  James Baldwin's gift of brutal confrontation demands nothing more and nothing less if the world's population is to defeat all enemies by saying "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO" and acting accordingly.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            April 17, 2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017

JEAL 7 introduction


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

                Many notable changes are occurring in contemporary literary and cultural studies, and the emergence of  Digital Humanities (DH) is gradually altering our thinking about why we study and teach literature and what our projects, choices of methods and methodologies, and critical debates contribute to the growth of knowledge. In contemporary discussions of DH as interdisciplinary  research and scholarly inquiry that exploits digital technologies and procedures, it seems that insufficient attention is given to humanism as a primal force in the history and production of African American literature.  This special issue of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature on the achievements of  Margaret Walker (1915-1998 ) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000  ) as poets and intellectuals seeks to revitalize humanism as a central topic by way of illuminating examples rather than polemics.  Walker and Brooks came to national attention, as R. Baxter Miller has suggested between worlds, 1940-1960.  Walker's For My People won the Yale Prize for Younger Poets in 1942; Brooks'  Annie Allen was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950. As women writers who occupy special locations in male-dominated  American and African American literary histories, they complement one another in terms of their regard for the mission of poetry, their technical skills in creating works of art, and their differing perspectives on the function of literature as cultural critique.  Walker and Brooks were exemplary humanists.  Given the probability that future studies of their works will occur in the arena of DH and through focused explorations of their archives, it is crucial that we remember and question  how their works are informed by humanism and its historical imperatives.[1]  Prior knowledge about the dynamics of  humanism, aesthetics, ideology, and ethics in African American literature is crucial for generating significant, culturally grounded questions .

It is intellectually profitable to consider that essays in JEAL 7 are, or might be,  preparations for the DH work discussed in JEAL 4 (2014), a special issue on black poetry and technology.  To the extent that contributors to that issue "provided histories of future work in the fields of American and African American literary studies" (7), the contributors to JEAL 7 provide literary and cultural surveys of the territory emerging technologies may enable us to map with greater accuracy in efforts to make use of the ends of humanism.  Indeed, our contributors have provided materials for exploring the meaning and significance of literary studies. Robert Luckett, for example, engages selected problems pertaining to Margaret Walker's reputation and critical visibility by using evidence from her journals and manuscripts, by mining the archive.  RaShell Smith-Spears brings to the foreground the centrality of class and labor in Walker's poetry and prose in arguing that we study Walker "because her poetry and novels" (1) articulate gendered struggles, (2) raise "the consciousness of the audience  and provide an alternate vision," and (3) "offer internal criticism and analysis."  Turning to Walker's interest in astrology, Seretha Williams joins Luckett and Smith-Spears in using the archive to show how an alternate vision locates Walker's work in "a broader tradition of scientific inquiry and engagement with natural phenomena."

In his essay on the topic of influence, Jean-Philippe Marcoux establishes a symbolic bridge between Margaret Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks and makes a strong case for how their work "traces the pathway to self-discovery, self-realization, and blackness," which logically creates a space that Carolyn Rodgers and Sonia Sanchez further explore in drawing our attention to "a culturally re-inscriptive future."  Marcoux's discussion of influence as confluence is taken into new literary historical territory as Thom Addington uses Brooks's work to challenge the Euro-American hegemonic model of periodization and to advocate our "moving literary scholarship toward a greater recognition of crossroads confluence."  Michelle Pinkard 's sustained reading of Brooks's In the Mecca invites us to once more dwell on the nexus of gender and literature.  If we think of these essays as required reading in a mini-seminar on women writers, poetry, and humanism, we can take William Ferris's photo-essay on Margaret Walker to be a gesture of closure, "a homage to a truly great writer, poet and teacher who significantly enriched our understanding of the black experience."  Verbal and visual closure of this kind is not a conclusion but a new beginning for remembering that  Gwendolyn Brooks was also "a truly great writer, poet, and teacher" and that both of them are seminal figures in accounting for the diversity of African American literary experiences, a diversity that many scholars in the late twentieth century overlooked in reductive discourses about a singular black experience.  Thus, from many angles the contributors to JEAL 7 invite us to ponder how the work of Margaret Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks  might enable us to have visions of a liberated scholarly future in the realm of digital humanities.

[1] For essential background information on the place of humanism in the works of Walker and Brooks, one should read two collections edited by R. Baxter Miller, Black American Literature and Humanism (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981) and Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986) as well as  Walker's  "The Humanistic Tradition of Afro-American Literature." American Libraries 1 (1970): 849-854. and Minrose C. Gwin's seminal essay "The 'Intricate Design' of Margaret Walker's 'Humanism': Revolution, Vision, History" in Fields Watered with Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker. Ed. Maryemma Graham. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001: 66- 77.

Monday, April 10, 2017

To HBCU Presidents and Their Boards of Trustees

Note to HBCU Presidents and Their Boards of Trustees

An increasing number of HBCUs are under fire and surveillance.  On one hand,  external events ---reductions of state budgets for higher education , the prospect of reduced support from the U.S. Department of Education and some philanthropic foundations, the merging of HBCUs with non-HBCUs --may compromise an institution's ability to offer scholarships and to offer above average academic programs.  On the other hand, internal affairs ----rapid turnover among presidents and top administrators, student unrest,  votes of "no confidence" in presidents, unwise decisions regarding allocation of limited funds by boards of trustees and presidents, confusing models of shared governance,  hesitation to mount long-term capital funds campaigns, inequitable salary freezes or reductions, decline in student enrollment,  edgy re-branding of liberal arts schools as STEM-specific ones, acrimonious race relations (particularly when non-black faculty outnumber and out-strategize black faculty, delayed attention to crumbling infrastructure ----create "spectacles."  Mass and social media delight in reporting and  exaggerating  "spectacles."  Finger-pointing, telling half-truths, or manufacturing blatant lies in the name of public relations retard progress.

The more aggressive HBCUs may be able to negotiate with politicians and the public to minimize the damages caused by external events, but relatively passive institutions will suffer.  Internal affairs, however, constitute a different can of worms,  a different Pandora's box.  Too often arrogance, ego-worship,  Trump-inspired disdain for African American colleagues and students, refusal to honor the obligations of "power" and casual dismissal of the historic strengths of HBCUs portend undermining and collapse. Do a bit of cold, non-nostalgic fact-checking, please!

As a proud alumnus of a HBCU, who taught at HBCUs for 42 years, I send a modest challenge to HBCU presidents and their boards of trustees.  Read The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques, 1906-1960 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001) by W. E. B. DuBois. I hasten to caution that the book offer panaceas or quick-fixes for the kaleidoscopic problems that bedevil  higher education and HBCUs in the 21st century.  The main profit from reading the book may be an increase in humility and plain common sense.  Even so small a benefit  can inspire the minimizing of "spectacles."

I am stunned by a passage in DuBois's tenth critique "Wither Now and Why" (1960):

The great American world of which we have for centuries been striving to become a part and which has arisen to be one of the powerful nations is today losing its influence and that American Negroes do not realize. There was a time when as leader of a new democracy, as believers in a new tolerance in religion, and as a people basing their life on equality of opportunity, in the ownership of land and property, the United States of America stood first in the hopes of mankind.  That day has passed (200).

So too has the day when HBCU presidents and boards of trustees can pretend to be innocent and  cast blind eyes on the past and what is currently passing.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            April 10, 2017

Clarence Hunter: A Remembering

CLARENCE HUNTER ( September 19, 1929- April 3, 2017): A REMEMBERING

We shared a birthplace in common ---Washington, District of Columbia ---and a faith ---Roman Catholicism and habits of mind ----the life-sustaining quest for things and values that might actually be true, eternally beautiful, good and immune to the touch of evil.  We shared respect for  decency, for honesty and decorum , for  the evidence of rigorous scholarship, and for integrity in our commerce with people.  We cared very much for Tougaloo College and the students who influenced our decisions and actions.  Above all, we (Clarence and I ) shared a rare and deeply satisfying friendship, secure in discovering where our meandering selves might greet one another. That happened most frequently  at crossroads marked by time and talk. By secular measures, sharing ceased on April 3, 2017.  In diverse dimensions of emotion and spirit, sharing continues without end. The traces will always be archived somewhere, traces of two men who strove not to waste their lives. Those men ---Clarence Hunter and Lolis Edward Elie --- were successful in leaving  legacies of intelligence, joy, and hard-earned wisdom for  which I have a single word: invaluable. At some time as yet undetermined, I shall write at greater length about wonderful transactions with Clarence Hunter.  At this moment, I write in remembering him a variant of the  poem "Ending" that is entitled "Beginning."

As they lay dying, my friends, implant

memory where grief would be a thorn;

a spirit toiled in longing just can't

occupy that sacred time; so torn

love lets dust come once to life

and soul become sage in the light.          April 2, 2017

For valediction, my elder brother chose

memory when grief would be a thorn;

his  flower blooms brighter than the sun;

the black badge of honor is born;

love bids dust come once to life;

infinity blesses his holy dream.                                April 10, 2017

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Writing Death


Responding to one of my poems, the poet C. Liegh McInnis wrote: "Memory and language are truly the things that keep the existential from imploding us." (email to the author, April 4, 2017)  When McInnis reads, he goes to the core of the matter.  His fingers trace a new pattern in the molten lava of meaning. When he reads, he reads for real.   He provokes inwit.  How many times have I learned something new through the prism of his analysis of meaning and significance?  Frequently.  Always.

McInnis was referring to "Ending"

                                As they lay dying, my friends, implant

                                memory where grief would be a thorn;

                                a spirit toiled in longing just can't

                                occupy that sacred time; so torn

                                love lets dust come once to life

                                and soul become sage in the light.

the words I wrote in anticipation of the death of two friends, Clarence Hunter and Lolis Edward Elie.

Hunter died on April 3; Elie, on April 4; twenty-five years ago, my mother died on April 5.  Does the word "sage" in the final line of "Ending" refer to wisdom or to the herb indigenous peoples burn to purify the area where something must be done?  As I navigate the domains of loss and sorrow, I prefer not to answer my question.  Uncertainty is answer enough.  I prefer not to implode.

To avoid debilitating pity regarding the natural and necessary facts of death,  I write. People die.  Friends die.  Later or sooner, I shall die.  Ashe. Amen. Ashe.

On a panel at the 2017 Tennessee Williams Festival, one poet said he was engaged in getting over his self-righteousness as he deals with the new and great American autocracy.  Another panelist said his writing process involves frequent revision, writing from the dark into a light. "Ending" enters a light without revision.  The panel's moderator wanted to account for political threads.  Another panel member asserted that writers should listen more.  Having listened to cacophony since November 8, 2016, I urged that we writers who believe ourselves to be liberal attend  to conservative apologies for fascism, to the words that ordain the death of democracy.  Was the panel an  omen, a sign that I should find comfort in the possibility that death is the precise moment when everything happens? 

April 5, 2017 is my day of remembering, of obeying the laws of Nature and Nature's God.  I dry my eyes.  I blow my nose.   I recall how the goodness of my friends shaped my existential being. I write death into my life so that I might survive and become a poem.   I write to purify the air.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            April 5, 2017

Monday, April 3, 2017

Aesthetics in April

Aesthetics in April

Wasatch, snow-blessed mountains

The mindscape.  You remember nothing until the forgetting has begun.  Remoteness from reason is not geography, for even a retarded peacock would know the West is not the South.  Especially if the West decided to have three days of snow in April, the cruelest month in Mr. Eliot's imagination.  But he is dead and wrong.  November beats out April in the realm of mental torment.  Christ is not a tiger, nor is St. John the Baptist a polar bear.

The mountains are gray-white and purple, most lovely at 7:12 a.m. when you have your daily aesthetic experience.  Fresh.  The air is fresh, very remote, very innocent.  The air knows nothing about the smell of life in New Orleans.

This is Utah.  It is younger and cleaner than Louisiana.  It is not adult enough to have Afro-Cajun swamps. Or reptiles who earn doctoral degrees in corruption. It is still in the salt lake stage of life. This is Utah, the property of Utes appropriated by Mormons.

The Chinese ink-wash of Utah mountains refuses to occupy canvas or paper, refuses to confuse the purity of being with bliss.

And, thank God, Salt Lake City does not remember Noah and the Flood.  The purpose of global warming is a fact not a theory.  You remember nothing as your eyes sample the awe of mountains.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            April 3, 2017