Follow by Email

Thursday, April 13, 2017

JEAL 7 introduction


INTRODUCTION:  WALKER, BROOKS, AND THE ENDS OF HUMANISM

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment