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Monday, May 29, 2017

Chinese questions/American Answers

As I explained in a recent interview with an American colleague, building cultural bridges and participating in a culture of sharing stimulates active thinking about the study of literature and culture.  The effort  reminds me, for example, that scholars can never know enough about the growth of established disciplines or the emerging of angles of study that involve the mixing of methodologies.  Sharing assists us to expand our forms of knowing.  Getting questions from foreign colleagues or students and trying to supply helpful answers are small acts of globalizing.  When they occur between scholars in China and those based in the United States, some of the results are exceptionally rewarding.

One of my Chinese colleagues, who has been exploring the work of twentieth-century African American literary critics, notified me his new project will be a study of African American autobiography.  As luck would have it, I am doing preliminary work on autobiographies written by Mississippians.  My colleague requested that I share a list of books he should read.   Without trying to send him a comprehensive listing, I recommended

1.               Franklin, V. P. Living Our Lives, Telling Our Stories (Scribner 1995)

2.               Andrews, William, ed.  African American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice Hall 1993)

3.               Braxton, Joanne. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition (Temple UP, 1989)

4.               Mostern, Kenneth. Autobiography and Black Identity Politics (Cambridge UP, 1999)

5.               Fabre, Genevieve and Robert O'Meally, eds. History and Memory in African American Culture (Oxford UP, 1994)

6.               Andrews, William. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography (U of Illinois P, 1986)

7.               Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America (U of Massachusetts P, 1974)

8.               Lionnet, Francoise. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture (Cornell UP, 1989)

9.               Eakin, Paul John, ed. American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect (U of Wisconsin P, 1991)

10.         Olney, James, ed. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton UP, 1980)

11.         Braxton Joanne and Andree McLaughlin, eds. Wild Women in the Whirlwind (Rutgers UP, 1990)

Readers will recognize the short list is more foundational than cutting edge. For the purposes of cultural exchange,  being familiar with older resources is as important as knowing what is currently trending.

Many of the resources we take for granted in the USA are hard to come by in China, and ordering materials from American or European outlets can be awkward, costly, and time-consuming given the surveillance that obtains in the Chinese postal system.  Fortunately, my colleague was in California earlier this month for his daughter's commencement and could acquire the books more easily.

A few days after I sent the listing, he asked that I also recommend some books or articles "about the debates in African American literature ( or literary study),for instance the debate between DuBois and Alain Locke about Art or Propaganda, etc."  I used his request as an opportunity to suggest research strategies rather than compiling a list.

To my knowledge, there is no single book on the ongoing debates pertinent to  the study of African American literature.    These debates, many of them quite tendentious,  occur in book reviews, in critical exchanges among scholars and writers, in articles on why and how African American literature should be taught, and in writing on literary history.  The best way to pursue the topic, I advised my colleague,  is to  identify and then carefully analyze a number of representative instances between 2000 and the present.  The best known instance  is contained in the positive and negative responses to  Kenneth Warren's What Was African American Literature? Both PMLA and African American Review published forums on these responses. He could get the citations by accessing Google Scholar and other databases while he was in the USA.  He already knew what I thought of Warren's book from my comments in The China Lectures (Wuhan: Central China Normal University Press, 2014).   I made a special point of recommending that he print out the response Amiri Baraka wrote shortly before his death to the Norton anthology Angles of Ascent, edited by Charles Henry Rowell.  I stressed that  the topic of debates ought to be studied with attention to methods, methodologies derived from conflicting ideologies, and the motions of American literary politics (that is the roles publishers often play in manufacturing reasons for debate ).

These small acts of exchange are marked by my concern that Chinese scholars and students, until quite recently, have made inquiries about African American literature and culture under the domination of European theory and non-African American forms of literary hegemony.  My sharing of information is one and only one way of saying hegemony must be displaced by intellectual  diversity and forms of local knowing in efforts to build cultural bridges. It is one way of trying to meet  what I deem to be my moral and ethical literary responsibilities.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                  May 30, 2017

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Literary Tricks

Literary Tricks and Politics

Giving more attention to James Baldwin than Richard Wright in 2017 is a strategy in literary politics, the neat trick of asking Baldwin for a cool drink of water because the heat in Wright's kitchen threatens to suffocate American readers.  One noteworthy instance of such strategy was the publication in the March 1, 2015 issue of the New York Times Sunday Book Review of "James Baldwin Denounced Richard Wright's 'Native Son' as a 'Protest Novel.' Was He Right?" by Ayana Mathis and Pankaj Mishra.  Two months later (May 25, 2015), Benjamin Anastas reported on his teaching a course on Wright and Baldwin at Bennington College in The New Republic, using the striking title "James Baldwin and Richard Wright in the Ferguson Era."  There never was, of course, a Ferguson Era; perhaps Anastas needed this legerdemain to refer to the era of American domestic terrorism that began in 1619, to justify planning his course "as a chance to revisit the work of two writers who loomed large in African American literature of the twentieth century but who had fallen, in recent years, our of favor and off of syllabi." One can only guess what era he might have chosen had he revisited the work of Lillian Hellman and Eudora Welty.

Wright and Baldwin may not appear as frequently in American literature syllabi as Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, but that is not proof they have fallen out of favor.  It is proof that pedagogy is not immune to ideology or political choices.  Do not dance under the influence of fibs and fairytales.

Mathis, author of the novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (2012), believes that Wright's Native Son "is limited by a curious cribbed vision that fails to extend much beyond the novel's moment in 1940. Certainly the racism that made Bigger Thomas still exists, but, thank God, Bigger Thomas himself does not ---he never did."  Speaking as a disciple of Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison, Mathis challenges us with a near paradox.  Native Son has extended indirectly into the lives of a few twenty-first century males who are targets of selective profiling, and Wright's social construction lives in their psyches without losing its properties as words on a page.  Bigger Thomas never lived in the sense that all of us who are breathing do, but the name of the character lives in and disturbs our cultural literacy, especially if we happen to be black males of a certain age.  Mathis, of course, has no obligation to catch all the nuances of being male and black in America.

Mishra, on the other hand, does have an obligation that is complexly raced and gendered.  Where he fails to act in good faith is in a reluctance to say that the protest novel in English is not the unique property of African Americans.  It is a legacy extending from Henry Fielding to Joyce Carol Oates.  Thus, it is truly fascinating that Mishra should embrace Baldwin for unmasking "treacherous clichés in ostensibly noble programs of protest and emancipation" in the very moment he reifies a treacherous cliché by locating Wright in a battle royal with Baldwin.  His embrace is very white.

Anastas admits to being a Baldwinite, but he is capable of recognizing that Wright's subtext of "police-induced terror" in Native Son remains in a nightmare relationship with "the United States of Trayvon Martin and 'Stand Your Ground'."  That recognition doesn't get him off the hook.  He is complicit in what Baldwin identified as the crime of innocence.  Let us hope that two or three of his students in Vermont were able to recognize a literary trick in the New England heart of whiteness.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            May 27, 2017



Subaltern to the sun, the moon

chutzpah-possessed, enthralls the sea

and all that portends: code nihilism,

genome dens, holocaustic hate

at discount rate, the inhuman trends

bitter now, bitter then

ebbing and flowing,

living beyond the rime-shot ends.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

May 27, 2017

Thursday, May 25, 2017

From Romance to Reality


There may be a few places in the world where people have not heard the sentence "Black Lives Matter" in any language.  The sentence is a prototype for many variations on the theme of "mattering," for riffs that have appeal and utility in discordant contexts.  The sentence is poignant.  It reverberates with urgency and necessity.  In the United States of America, it reminds us that many versions of our history encourage us to minimize, to never know, or to conveniently forget what matters.  Our instinctive responses to life ( how we might behave in a state of nature) can be compromised by social constructions of reality.  That fact is inevitable.

"Black Lives Matter" is an unavoidable  accusation.  The fact that American citizens need to hear it is a mark of shame, a signal that economic violence and moral turpitude are innate in our experiments with democracy.  The more it is repeated, the more it becomes, like the familiar phrase "the pause that refreshes,"  a tiresome slogan.  Can it be made more appealing by rewriting the sentence as "Black Lives Have Always Mattered"?  No.  The greater specificity makes matters worse.

The gravity of the situation is highlighted by the publication of

Oyewole, Abiodun, ed. Black Lives Have Always Mattered: A Collection of Essays, Poems, and Personal Narratives.  New York: 2Leaf Press, 2017.

Like Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky (Durham, NC: Jacar Press, 2016), edited by Tony Medina and The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (  New York: Scribner, 2016 ), edited by Jesmyn Ward,  this anthology expands the body of literature which pertains to race and institutionalized death  (militant, selective police brutality and criminalization) in our nation.  The classic guidebook for reading the formation of American subjectivities dealt with in these anthologies is Abdul R. JanMohamed's The Death-Bound-Subject (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).  The importance of Oyewole's anthology, it might be argued, should be more seriously accounted for in the history of black writing than in the history of black literature.  The nuanced difference overshadows theory and semantics. One history exists in the panopticon of academic praxis; the other, in the totality where life has always mattered most painfully. This juxtaposition draws our attention to the simultaneous  motions of "history" and what matters as process and recording, to the profound difficulties of cognition and consciousness of being American.

Consider the consequences of reading Black Lives Have Always Mattered against a narrative "stereotyped" in 1859 by John F. Weishampel, Jr., bookseller and publisher in Baltimore, namely the work of Rev. Noah Davis, who committed himself to

"RAISE SUFFICIENT MEANS TO FREE HIS LAST TWO CHILDREN FROM SLAVERY./ Having already, within twelve years past, purchased himself, his wife, and five of his children, at a cost, altogether of over four thousand dollars"


"he now earnestly  desires a humane and christian public to AID HIM IN THE SALE OF THIS BOOK, for the purpose of finishing the task in which he has so long and anxiously labored."

One valuable consequence of such an act of reading is transformative recognition of why one hundred and fifty-eight years after the publication of Davis's narrative, all Americans are still purchasing their lives from something and somebody. History is eternally cruel.  As Abiodun Oyewole suggests in his introduction, Black Lives Have Always Mattered  "offers a thorough insight into the lives, dreams, aspirations, victories and defeats of black people in America. Considering the times we're living in these days, this anthology should serve as a mental compass for how we value ourselves and each other, and ways in how we manifest our destiny" (3).  If the anthology succeeds in convincing a number of readers that a humane and Christian public in the United States of America  neither exists nor  intends to help them, it shall have produced reasonable rather than thorough insight about what matters.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            May 25, 2017

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Trump the Teacher


Permit a nanosecond of nonsense.

ASSERTION/THESIS:   Donald J. Trump is a great teacher.

ARGUMENT/SUPPORT:    As a president elected by the tyranny of the minority, Trump exercises his absolute right as the leader of an imaginary free world to articulate great slogans that leak from the bitch's brew of wisdom.  In Classroom America, he tweets.  He is aware that American citizens, regardless of their political beliefs, levels of intelligence, and ethnic postures, do pay attention to his words.  From the maculate vantage of his mind, he believes he is doing what the dollar bill motto "In God We Trust" compels him to do: teach the washed and unwashed masses.  To promote critical thinking, Trump illuminates each day how our nation has costumed its primitive barbarism as liberal democracy.

Only by reading and absorbing great amounts of insanity, Trump thunders, can our nation mend the errors of its ways and once again become a  great conservative democracy and resume its divinely ordained mandate to guide the history of the brave great world into a future.  These are hard times.  Abandon the dreadful audacity of hope.  Accept the hard facts, even if an hour or so later they prove to be factoids.  Do not squander the opportunity to be great again in dreams of the American Dream.  Become the women and men who have gumption, gall, and guts to spit into the eyes of nightmares. Be post-Enlightenment, post-tritely great.

Trump is the epitome of the great teacher.  He distills the essence of the messianic  in a great alembic of tough love.  His great students love him unconditionally.  They take great notes and promptly forget the history of what they think they have heard.  Trump exercises his absolute right as a member of the secular clergy to award each of his students a great grade at the end of class.

Trump is a great teacher because he is a great disciple of Machiavelli, one who demands that his students navigate the unreadable prose of Jacque Derrida's Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1994) and other texts of dubious merit.  He promotes the deconstruction of deconstruction; he terrorizes his students to consult dictionaries and to analyze the histories of times past.  He inspires fear and great trembling and the great possibility that soon and very soon great Americans will abandon the fleshpots of Eden and do great work in the fascist labs of Hell.  Whether we like him or not, Trump is a great teacher who instructs us how to read the great progress of our lives with great and entertaining gusto.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            May 23, 2017

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Reading Dystopia

reading the dystopia wherein you live (revisited)

Since January 20, 2017, it is quite fashionable to talk about Donald J. Trump under the influence of reading dystopian or apocalyptic fictions.  There is the possibility that what fifty years ago was accepted as "the news" is now a blatant form of social fiction.  Broadcast from every ideological angle, what seems to be the news is replete with alternative facts and unacknowledged projections of imagination. There is a thin line between description of actuality and its reception in various media.  And many readers hop across the line without benefit of thought.  Reading is simply automatic, a reflex action

A few of us who stay out of touch with reality believe genre distinctions matter, and we attempt to discriminate such dystopian novels as Ishmael Reed's The Free-Lance Pallbearers and George Orwell's Animal Farm from tomorrow's news that happened yesterday.  Our reading is a mission impossible.  We are the news.  That is to say, we inhabit the dystopia we'd like to claim is external to us.

The problem seems to defy resolution.  We can, however, take pragmatic measures to minimize its paralyzing effects.  We can segregate dystopian fictions from descriptive treatises by using traditional conventions of reading.  The treatise purports to be objective and explanatory.  The fiction is a subjective guide  for analysis and interpretation. We gain a bit of comfort from thinking we know the critical difference between fiction and nonfiction.  Perhaps we do not, for we are characters in a "great" novel entitled  Acirema the Great.

Acirema the Great opens with cheers of victory on 11/9.  One disgruntled character mumbles that for the first time since Thomas Jefferson, a real President, died in 1826 and walked into American mythology ---the comfort zone occupied by every President until 2016, voters are being asked to make sense of a fake President who has tweeted himself out of mythology into actuality.  Does the signifying monkey speak his mind about pravda?  The nameless character opens John Gardner's On Moral Fiction (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2009) and reads the chapters on moral fiction and moral criticism.

He hits the motherboard.  Gardner proposed "that scrutiny of how people act and speak, why people feel precisely the things they do…lead to knowledge, sensitivity, and compassion.  In fiction we stand back, weigh things as we do not have time to do in life; and the effect of great fiction is to temper real experience, modify prejudice, humanize" (105).  Aha.  A fake President is a great fiction, one who tweets that every noun is "great."  A  cartoon of real experience, Trump donates the gift of moral education to the American public.  If Gardner is to be believed, writers stand a better chance than do non-writers of knowing to what extent Trump is an unreliable facsimile.  Do ordinary citizens have to become writers to arm themselves for political action?  Do they have to write themselves out of slavery into freedom, out of the caves of Greek philosophy into the warmth of other suns?

A fake President is a liability, a politically reprehensible liability.  The whole world knows that, and the terrorists among us treat the false truth as a matter of fact.  Regardless of their political beliefs, American citizens agree that a fake President is a work of art, a moral fiction.  And they are condemned, the disgruntled character remarks to treat Gardner's conclusion about moral criticism with grains of pepper and doubt.  "It is precisely because art affirms values," Gardner asserted, "that it is important. The trouble with our present criticism is that criticism is, for the most part, not important.  It treats the only true magic in the world as though it were done with wires" (135).  Really?  Isn't the only true magic in the world done with computers?

Thus, the insertion of Trump within the act of reading Animal Farm or The Free-Lance Pallbearers involves one major error. We fail to account for the great agency of citizens, readers and non-readers alike, who use a fake President as the heroic symbol of their lesser selves.  We should try to avoid the error as much as we can. And if we do want to be effective in saving democracy from drowning in fascism, we may want to permit the fake President to have the absolute right to commit treason with immunity from impeachment inside and only inside Acirema the Great.

 Reginald Martin's remark about Reed's The Free-Lance Pallbearers in Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988) invites us to be cautious: "the contemporary indices [here the reference is 1967]in the course of the novel certainly changed the reference points of American novels up to that time"(42).

Fifty years later, the indices Reed rendered as fiction are still recognizable and operative in the dystopia of American political economy.  All changes.  All remains the same.

We must use  prudent skepticism as we critique how our fellow Americans act and speak, how they broadcast the news in the great and brave new world that was born on November 9, 2016. Above all, we must vote and force real politicians to represent real human beings not characters in dystopian or apocalyptic fictions. 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            May 17, 2017

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

James Baldwin and Metanarratives

 James Baldwin and Metanarratives

August 2, 2017 will the 93rd  anniversary of James Baldwin’s birth in Harlem Hospital.  December 1, 2017 will mark the 30th anniversary of his successful escape from the penitentiary of languages.  Between 1924 and 1987, Baldwin paid the price of his ticket, using his intelligence, his ethical and moral authority, his haunted eyes,  and his tragicomic imagination to create a legacy.   That legacy has been transformed by cultural theories and practices into  a gumbo. It mixes the flavors of extreme American neo-liberalism with the filé of an evangelical religiosity and a teaspoon of essential nationalism.  The resulting soup (which might not pass muster in a strict construction of Louisiana cuisine) is being advertised as the cure-all for the current, dominant American malaise.  Like any cure-all, the legacy has a telling effect, but it proves ultimately to be ineffectual.  To discover what is, without doubt, authentic in Baldwin's legacy (Henry James would have called it "the real thing"), we ought to go back to that other country whence came the ingredients.

It is as useful to think of the spaces we inhabit as locations in a panoptical prison as it is to consider those places as coordinates on a stage.  Actors and inmates have a shared existence with people who exercise obscene power and people who live and die unaccounted for in the scribbling of history. You and they and I are condemned and incarcerated by bondage, enslavement.  Had James Baldwin not recognized as much, he might never have said to Quincy Troupe  

                It's difficult to be a legend.  It's hard for me to recognize me.  You spend a lot of time trying to                 avoid it. A lot of the time I've been through so many of the same experiences Miles has gone        through.  It's really something, to be a legend, unbearable.  I could see it had happened to Miles.               Again, it's unbearable, the way the world treats you is unbearable, and especially if you're black.             (189)

[Troupe, Quincy, ed. James Baldwin: The Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989]

 As Baldwin knew by way flesh and blood experiences and moral consciousness, or quickly learned after he left the United States for Europe in 1948, if we want sanctuary  ----well, we have to work and create our own versions of damnation/ salvation by virtue of cognition and perception.

We produce metanarratives (narratives about narratives) as we read Baldwin's fictions and essays, witness a production of one of his plays, and view documentaries about his life or videos of his interviews and speeches.  We normally don't talk about metanarratives.  We talk with other people about our reactions something Baldwin wrote or how his body language and use of his eyes drew more than casual notice to what he was saying.  To speak of our reactions as metanarratives is to disturb the commonplace, to highlight that our reactions to artists and their works belong to special categories of feeling and thinking.  Growth of interest in Baldwin derives, in part, from jouissance.

Interest in Baldwin has increased remarkably since 2000, particularly in efforts to appropriate his legacy more for cultural discussion than for political analysis, i.e. rewriting histories of the Civil Rights Movement.  We come to a high point in 2015 with Toni Morrison's assertive  blurb for Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015): "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died.  Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates."  Morrison oiled the machinery for redemptive jouissance, made it less creaky.  The newer appreciations for Baldwin were preceded by a broadening of academic criticism.  There is a slight danger, Douglas Field noted in All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), "that some criticism veers toward a dissipated picture of Baldwin as a writer who is 'post-categorical' and without any cohesion" (145).  For Field, the criticism assigns Baldwin to an "uncertain place in American literature"(146).  The best and brightest American writers inhabit that place where their portraits are not dissipated and their legacies pulsate in defiance of being turned into museum objects.  Cultural memory of Baldwin is equipment for living. It can be enhanced by reading the online, open access James Baldwin Review 

I offer two examples of  metanarratives-in-progress.


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 begins that task   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.


Discussion Notes:

Ashé Cultural Arts Center   6:00 p.m., May 11, 2017

Karen Thorsen, director & co-writer

Douglas Dempsy, co-writer

James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket

Length of film ---1 hour, 27 minutes

PBS American Masters ---14 August 1989

James Baldwin (2 August 1924-1 December 1987)

We have a great deal to watch, to listen to, to think about, to discuss.

Between May 9th  and  12th , the digital restoration of James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket was screened at three locations in New Orleans ---Sweet Lorraine's Jazz Club, The Old US Mint, and Ashé Cultural Arts Center.  The James Baldwin Project (access ) has sponsored screenings at many sites across the United States. 

The film aired for the first time on August 14, 1989 as part of the PBS American Masters series.  Now the citizens of New Orleans had an opportunity to produce their metanarratives through conversations after each screening with musicians, community people, National Park Service rangers, and the filmmakers Karen Thorsen and Douglas Dempsey.  At Ashé, Monica McIntyre's lyrics and music established a mood for viewing the documentary  ------I'm thinking of Cassandra Wilson's innovative performances for no apparent reason as I listen to McIntyre.  For one hour and twenty-seven minutes, we sat enthralled by the film.  We sat transfixed as the devil found work.  I moderated the conversation that followed.

Most of the metanarratives were about feelings ----amazement that the film was as relevant to the Age of Trump as it had been to the final years of the Cold War; testimony that the film induced a state of balance (a catharsis) grating against an assertion that the film galvanized the amoeboid concerns of #Black Lives Matter; recommendations that the film be part of a national conversation, that it be used in public schools and community spaces to promote face-to-face discussions; concern that social networking magnifies emotion and diminishes critical thinking about social problems;  pointed questions for Thorsen about the genesis and making of the film.

There was  my own "losing it" by way of giving a mini-lecture on Baldwin's prophetic moral authority.  Moderators ought not lecture; they should manage.  My memory of having had a late night conversation with Baldwin in the 1980s undermined my sticking to the script, but my transgression had a purpose.  I wanted my fellow citizens to know that the price of our tickets was further remembering of history (the process and the stories)  and  contextualizing the film by using our individual sociocultural literacies, of constructing metanarratives of moral ambiguity.  I wanted them to reconsider the gravity of Baldwin's having shaped his legacy and his legend within the narrow space of a black-white American social binary, minimizing how the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Asian immigrants actually fit into the American past, present, and promised future.  My metanarrative focused most on Baldwin's helping us to know why, at least for the so-called Western sector of humanity, the implacable anger of the Old Testament God is more important than the bromides of Christian love that flavor Baldwin's splendid legacy.

I Am Not Your Negro challenges and is challenged by James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.  But that is my opinion.  Watch both of the films.  Think.  Generate your own metanarrative.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            May 16, 2017

Sunday, May 14, 2017



A Preface

Q: Should one give critical attention to a stylistically and rhetorically flawed book by a self-proclaimed left-wing Conservative?

A: Yes.

Q:  Why?

A:  If the book tries to examine reasons for "mass incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" from a black Republican or independently conservative  point of view, it merits attention rather than self-righteous silence.  The book's failure to meet the intellectual  standards established in The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life (New York: Atria Books, 2008), edited by Kevin Powell, and Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow ( New York: The New Press, 2010) is instructive.  A negative touchstone has value.  Dealing with that touchstone by way of constructive criticism can be a habit of the heart.

Q:  Are you guilty of special pleading because the author of the book is African American?

A.  Yes, very definitely.  Attention to an imperfect example of black socio-cultural analysis as black writing is consonant with the broad aims of the Project on the History of Black Writing (PHBW). The project is catholic.

Q:  Do you dare to skate on the thin ice of what you believe to be honest?  Would you give equal attention to a flawed book by a Caucasian, a Chinese American, or a Mohawk?

A:  Yes.  I inhale and exhale the miasma of American dilemmas and nightmares without fear.  My motives, however,  for criticizing a book by a non-Black thinker would be remote from criticizing Daryl Hubbard's The Decarceration of Black America: Systemic Analyses and Strategic Plans for Our Future (Jackson, TN: Black Consciousness Series, 2017).  ISBN   2370000399625.

A Body

Daryl Hubbad is the City Court Clerk for the City of Jackson, Tennessee.  As an elected official, he sees "firsthand the damning effect that America's criminal justice labyrinth has on the poor and ignorant" (149), and as a concerned citizen he has intervened by writing a book. Official duties allow him to gather information, to produce ideas which can be used in analyses of the history and dynamics of incarceration in America.  Apparently, he has read widely.  His book contains quotations from and/or references to many people ---Carter G. Woodson, Frances Cress Welsing,  Fanon, Walter Mosley, Frederick Douglass, Gore Vidal, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Samuel Yette, Sista Souljah, David Walker, Michelle Alexander, John Potash, James Baldwin,  and a dozen or so others.  His excessive quoting, without providing the appropriate documentation, begets a devastating question: Has he read wisely? Given his indebtedness to Michelle Alexander, has he examined why her sentences are effective and her paragraphs are coherent and how skillfully she avoids inadvertent plagiarism?  Has he given up a lunch hour to read The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, a book that helps many a writer to avoid egregious errors?  And given his hope that readers will find his book "a sort of catalyst for a mental and social revolution in the country, bearing in mind that you cannot spell revolution with the letters  L  O  V  E "(13), does he know what argumentum ad amicitiam is?

His book is a catalyst, but it may be one that decimates his two-fold purpose:

1.  To sound an alarm akin to Paul Revere's ride to black folk to alert them that the prisons are coming.

2.   To remind white folk that too many years of colonialism, racism, dehumanization, discrimination,            

lynching, violence, prejudice and apartheid have traumatized Black America, but despite all of these seen and unseen forces, our people have somehow managed to survive and find ways to transcend such a terrible beginning in this country. (7-8)

He has too many objectives and too little mastery of the art of writing to fulfill them persuasively.  He wants to deal with the crisis of incarceration "in a profound and intellectual fashion" and to amplify a main theme of "how to keep our young people from not only continuing to murder each other, but to also keep them educated and out of the grips of our current prison industrial complex" (12).  He sketches attractive intentions for his eight chapters.  He promises to (1) "examine an American educational system that has allowed the malaise of mass incarceration and senseless homicide to metastasize…"; (2) "have an honest talk with our young  black men" about how "they have been hoodwinked and bamboozled…."; (3) "will attempt to have an open conversation with our young women about why ghetto behaviors can contribute to the death and incarceration of their own children"; (4) "take an in-depth look at America's criminal justice system…"; (5) deal "with white privilege" and try to explain "how the Black Lives Matter movement also needs to look in the mirror"; (6) show "in detail how the U.S. government has appeared to derail the development of true black leadership"; (7) provide "an essential reading list for all black people; (8) ask "a critical question that will hopefully serve as a road map showing how we can escape from our current cultural morass." (12-13)  When a writer attempts to accomplish mission impossible, she or he paves a highway to disappointment.  She or he illuminates why black writing (whether it is vernacular or academic) that is not well-crafted deserves severe criticism. In our tradition, the tough love of criticism produces anger and resentment, stage one in the never ending process of trying to write.

A Tentative Conclusion

Daryl Hubbard needs help.  A single negative review doesn't help him enough, and a single positive review of The Decarceration of Black America would be a regrettable disservice.  If no workshop for established and emerging writers exists in Jackson, Tennessee, one needs to be established posthaste. It is widely but not universally recognized that a thinker who possesses Hubbard's insights can only become a good writer by reading wisely, sharing ideas and samples of writing with kindred spirits (face-to-face not by email or snail mail), getting critical feedback, and then returning to a room of his own to woodshed like a serious jazz musician.  Daryl Hubbard needs help of the kind he proposes to give to young women and men: real-time conversations that truly matter.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            May 14, 2017