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Friday, June 30, 2017

Appreciating Gwendolyn Brooks


Appreciating Gwendolyn Brooks





Readable prose is hard to come by in 2017.  We are drenched with tweets.  Poison-tipped arrows,  jargon-laden bullets, and ideological rocks violate our minds.  Thus, it is most pleasant to discover that



Jackson, Angela. A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks.

Boston: Beacon Press, 2017



is delightfully readable and intellectually refreshing.  One imagines Gwendolyn Brooks would bless the accomplishment.  The book produces a bright moment when the civility of poetic virtue ascends.





It is easy to forget that appreciation complements evaluation.  Jackson, herself an accomplished poet and novelist,  was mentored by Brooks.  I recall that Brooks admonished Jackson to "crispen the edges" of delivery prior to a 1985 poetry reading in Washington, D. C.  Jackson absorbed the good advice and still uses it wisely.  The evidence is located in the style and tone she employs in writing a judicious appreciation of her mentor's life and legacy.  Without falling into the traps of uncritical hagiography, Jackson details key moments in Brooks's life as a total, brilliantly gifted human being who chose to write.  She supports key points about Brooks's evolving poetics with well-chosen anecdotes and quotations.  Jackson's prose is discriminating; her rhetorical strategies help us to better appreciate why in the realms of American literature and intellectual history Brooks's works have an honored place.



A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun provides a fine introduction for readers who may know the name Gwendolyn Brooks but who have never read Maud Martha, her two autobiographies, and collected poetry, who have never engaged her legacy.  The book also puts those who have expert knowledge about African American writing on notice:  they may know a bit less than they believe they know, especially about how furiously literature flowers from one aesthetic /political season to another.  The pleasure of reading this book is an act of cognitive renewal.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            June 30, 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017

RELENTLESS READING MATTERS


RELENTLESS READING MATTERS



Lebron, Christopher J. The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.



Lebron's book is eloquent, refreshingly readable, philosophically nuanced, and profoundly troubling.  It is "radical" in a judicious sense of that word, because it exposes roots. We commend his turning back to the rootedness in the writings of Anna Julia Cooper and Audre Lorde.   His argument is superbly constructed and provocative, an excellent invitation for a reader to confess her or his prejudices in concert with Lebron's confession of his own preferences.



 Lebron uses James Baldwin's moral compass with greater precision than Ta-Nehisi Coates uses it in Between the World and Me, and that fact magnifies both the necessity and the horror of a reader's making cultural and political choices.  Coates allows us to eavesdrop as he saturates his son with advice, straight out of his private agon with black masculinity.  Lebron addresses his readers directly, straight out of his need to articulate his investment in moral philosophy.   He forces them to dwell on the vaporous efficacy of Baldwin's compass and to question why , in the last decade or so, Baldwin is so frequently referenced in discourses on race and moral correctness and so seldom mentioned in robust, unromantic  discussion of Realpolitik.  If a reader is honest and admits that she or he is guided more by the political wisdom  or pragmatism of Machiavelli and by the logic of Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals  than by always delayed Biblical platitudes and promises, he or she will live with bracing discontent  during and after reading Lebron.



Lebron's accounting for the history of an idea is scholarly.  It is responsible, but it's a little short of being the corkscrew of specificity that non-academic participants might need to shape a constellation of emotive responses (i.e., #BlackLivesMatter ) into the black hole of a viable movement.  We might suspect academic readers will be happy with how the book puts them in conversation  (to use threadbare jargon), puts them   in a safe, evasive  conversation  with people they would never invite to dinner.  Only an inattentive reader would miss the class biases in Lebron's rhetorical gestures. Thus, The Making of Black Lives Matter stands as an example of our need to transform language into actions which reduce the death-inviting risk of being respectable, magnanimous, and morally correct all the time. Failure to channel resentment sufficiently is the book's venial flaw.



 Lebron is forthright in his introduction about his motives for writing. He desires "to provide the philosophical moorings of #BlackLivesMatter," and he tries "to contribute to our moment by bringing to bear the forefathers and foremothers of black American social and political thought on an urgent claim: that black Americans are humans, too" (xiii).  His aim is to provide just that analytic narrative "we need to fully appreciate the depth of 'black lives matter'  " (xv). STOP.  In confronting the unavoidable messiness of inter-racial and intra-ethnic features of intellectual histories, readers must ask to whom "we" actually refers in the unfolding of the book. RESTART.



The structure of Lebron's unfolding is fascinating.  He begins Chapter 1 (American Shame and Real Freedom) with timely remarks on the writings of  Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells.  He moves in Chapter 2 (Cultural Control against Social Control: The Radical Possibilities of the Harlem Renaissance) to refreshingly intelligent albeit debatable  commentary on Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston  and the characteristics of the era of the New Negro.  He focuses on "the present uses of black urban performance to make a stand for social progress and then goes back to a foundationalist moment in black arts and letters  ---the Harlem Renaissance" (xvi).  It is not original for Lebron to contend that Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly is an act of rebellion, an act that may have forecast the making of revolutionary lemonade.  It is original for him to not consider that Lamar's performance may not be quite so free as it seems, particularly in light of how an overwhelmingly non-black entertainment industry manipulates consumers, and it is likewise original that he directs no attention to the lessons Harold Cruse taught in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual  (1967)about how myopic the Harlem Renaissance was with regard to social control or to the lessons Houston A. Baker, Jr. taught  two decades later in his extended essay Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987) regarding cultural control.  The idea of "renaissance" or "rebirth" is far too central an issue in what matters about black life to avoid swiping cognitive fingers over its jagged grains.



Lebron does a better job of according due diligence to gender and sexuality in Chapter 3 (For Our Sons, Daughters, and All Concerned Souls) by way of examining the arguments and struggles of Anna Julia Cooper and Audre Lorde, dwelling appropriately on their groundbreaking work.  He set the stage for more sustained inquiry about what is groundbreaking and exceptionally relevant for #BlackLivesMatter in the writings of Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, bell hooks,  Barbara Smith, Mari Evans,  Angela Y. Davis, and numerous other writer/activists for whom lives mattered/matters tremendously.



Chapter 4 (Where Is the Love? The Hope for America's Redemption) deals fairly with the ideas of James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. and with the painful moral assessment that begs to be made of what Dylann Storm Roof did on June 17, 2015 at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  Even if one concedes that Lebron is fair in dealing with the ideas of agape and philia, the chapter leaves a most agonizing question without an answer:  Does Malcolm X matter so little in philosophical mooring and concern for love and redemption that he receives only scant mention on pages 119-120, 122?  The absence speaks volumes about our needs and the contours of Lebron's thinking.



Chapter 5 (The Radical Lessons We Have Not Yet Learned) directs us to black conservative arguments (Thomas Sowell, Randall Kennedy and black respectability politics, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter) in order to alert us "to the need for a refreshed black radical politics" (129).  Lebron rings the alarm bell gingerly, however, because he writes nary a word about a premature forgetting of lessons in radical politics created by  Cornel West!  He does give us an indirect clue about why there may be no space for West in the kind of intellectual history he wants to write.  He uses what he calls the mechanics of Nietzsche's accusations about ressentiment to critique errors in conservative discussions of #BlackLivesMatter.  It might be argued that Nietzsche was a quintessential pragmatist,  and mentioning West would make it necessary to comment on The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989) and West's conviction that a deep investment in pragmatism is essential for a revolution in American society and culture. Such notice would deconstruct what Lebron seems to want us to remember about reform, reforming, and what matters.



In the coda (Afterword: Nobody's Protest Essay) , Lebron most accurately predicts how many of us will misread his unfolding of intellectual history.



The most likely misreading of this essay  --- and likely due to some fault in my presentation --- is that I am ultimately calling for black Americans to turn the other cheek, but really, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Rather, it is me trying to make my anger more intelligent and precise, and nothing has ever been more destabilizing to the status quo than that ---the discipline to smile to keep a conversation going just so you may ultimately win the argument rather than storm off without the goods you came for in the first place….

If the discipline is well-honed then we also come to realize when it's really revolution time, which is something quite opposite from turning the other cheek. (164)



Lebron gives us one frame of reference for critical thinking about what Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi set flowing in 2013 under the sign of #BlackLives Matter, but it may be necessary to misread the frame in order to take appropriate action.  Like Baldwin, Lebron insists on believing "the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice" (159).  Lebron does not incorporate Amiri Baraka's 2001 poem "Somebody Blew Up America" in his discussion of what it is essential for us to know, but that  evidence of what is not seen in his text doesn't provide reason to believe the status quo he would destabilize is still standing.  When we read The Making of Black Lives Matter relentlessly, we recognize the arc of the moral universe bends toward chaos and the status quo in the United States of America is a dystopian wasteland, the civility of philosophy notwithstanding.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            June 23, 2017

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Prelude to reading the Fourth of July


Preface to Reading Frederick Douglass

(for whom it indeed concerns)



Go thou, and like an executioner

Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,

That look too lofty in our commonwealth:

All must be even in our government.



Richard II. III.iv. 33-36



In a chapter on Shakespeare's Richard II, James Boyd White proposed "that every claim of authority we can make, on any subject and in any language, should be regarded as marked by a kind of structural tentativeness, for every claim implies its counter within its language and every language implies a host of others answering it" ( Acts of Hope: Creating Authority in Literature, Law and Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994: 77).  If there is validity in this positioning of claim and language, it is obvious that our speaking, our struggles to transform the actual into the materiality of American English sounds, is a defense mechanism (either a learned motion or an instinctive reflex) to conquer abject insanity.  White's statement may reduce fear of political language, but it intensifies dread of devastating political action.  Should we commend White for arming our minds to deal with the disconnection of language and action since January 20, 2017?



White's civility and Donald Trump's barbarity arrive at an identical point of structural tentativeness as we make choices about what we can tolerate in a democracy and what ( not who I hasten to note) we should murder therein. Our priority is to defend ourselves and  to murder systems not human beings.



Neither the aesthetic enlightenment of Richard II nor the rhetorical insight of Acts of Hope is sufficient, because we are condemned by common sense and existential necessity (if we do want to survive) to deal brutally with the New Fascism which has replaced the Old Jim Crow and the debatable efficacy of an American Dream.



Should we not master the structural tentativeness of Frederic Douglass's oration, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852," and treat it as more than ritual remembering or historical ceremony?  Contemporary slaves are rainbow---- indigenous, African, Hispanic, Caucasian, Hebraic,  of Islamic ancestry, Asian, and diversely gendered.  These slaves constitute the total population of the United States of America.  Should our bodies follow our minds through the portals of Douglass's language and fight in the toxic combat zones engineered each day by the Tribe of Trump?  The answer is in your brain.  Do you believe that "all must be even in our government"?



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            June 21, 2017

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Between the World and Ta-Nehisi Coates


Between the World and Ta-Nehisi Coates



During the final session of the "Generations of Struggle" series at the New Orleans Public Library on June 15, 2017, we arrived at diverging opinions about two four-letter words ----hope and love. The catalyst was Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me.



 As overlapping abstractions, hope and love may inspire some African American  readers to think of universal  virtues, to dwell ---however momentarily ---in a realm of ideals.  These readers are optimists.  They believe we can hear the harmony of liberty  above the cacophony of the United States of America.  We can hear the harmony if we are true to our God and to our native land.  The song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," co-authored by the brothers James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson, is an anthem, a hymn  of faith. The same readers faithfully embrace Arna Bontemps's admonition to hold fast to dreams.  Their thinking habits as dreamers  align them oddly with the Dreamers, who Coates describes at one point, as people who "plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself" (150).  When African spirituality is integrated with New World religiosity, these Christ-haunted readers thrive. They are romantics.



Among the readers in our group who occupy the middle of a spectrum, love and hope are philosophical possibilities not eschatological, historical givens.  The readers are as judicial as Jesuits.  They are tolerant.  They have compassion both for readers who are locked in bubbles of faith and routine and for readers who are bubble-busters, who reject rose-colored visions of what is actual.  They hear in Coates's appropriation of Richard Wright's superb lynching poem a warning against uncritical, unconditional embracing of hope and love.  They are aware of how Coates borrowed and modified the form and content of James Baldwin's "My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" and "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind" (The Fire Next Time. New York: The Dial Press, 1963).  They do not worry that Coates is more "commercial" than Baldwin was (and continues to be).  They give passionate attention to Baldwin's claim that "it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent.  It is the innocence which constitutes the crime" (19-20).  They weigh that claim against Coates's assertion that "The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all" (151).  They will neither pit Coates against Wright nor Baldwin against Coates in the discourse on systemic racism.  They are aware that systemic racism is blind and deaf and dumb in its rejection of civility, in its embrace of barbarity.  They know that the words guilt, hope, love, innocence are unstable signifiers in a human being's descriptions of existence and choices of identity.



At the end of the reader's rainbow that is remote from those who pursue either neutrality or romance are the strong readers who contend that discussions of hope and love are compulsively fractal.  They are relentlessly  critical of how Baldwin and Coates wrote jeremiads for the unregenerate.  They do respect how Coates and Baldwin, in greater and lesser degrees, championed the need for love of Self prior to love for the Others, but they do not believe that faith transcends Darwinian action or deep knowledge about the eternal struggle to combat the corrosive properties of all that dehumanizes.  They inhabit the region between the world and Coates and fill the void that plagues and limits Coates's book as equipment for living.  Those readers are my comrades.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            June 18, 2017

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ramcat Reads #14


  Ramcat Reads #14





Benforado, Adam.  Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice.  New York: Crown, 2015.

Whether we are trying to make sense of vice or holiness, innocence or guilt, stupidity or intelligence, we are condemned to think with rather than against the tides of media.  Our contemporary fascination with social networking positions us to be complicit.  We resist, then discover resistance does not suffice.  The labels or ideological stances we adopt ----independent, conservative, liberal ---eventually collapse under what both David Walker and Frantz Fanon understood wretchedness to be.  Our souls may escape to elsewhere, but our minds cannot.  Given this scenario, Adam Benforado's work should be required reading for the temporary relief it offers.  The book should be required reading in our nation for President Donald J. Trump and his tribe, for members of Congress (especially for those who pretend to be Democrats), for public school and university students and teachers, for all of us inclined to resist from diverse angles.



Cushman, Ellen et al., eds. Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.

A good collection of essays to promote thinking about technologies and diverse forms of literacy.





Harris, Jessica B. My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir.  New York: Scribner, 2017.  Harris's "confessional" memoir is innovative.  It deserves special attention for what it reveals about the presentation of self and how dependent the shaping of identity can be on reference to famous persons.  Harris also embeds recipes in her text to emphasize how cuisine is related to language, affection, and social bonding.



Long, Richard A.  Ascending and Other Poems.  Chicago: DuSable Museum of African American History, 1975.  With an introduction by Hoyt W. Fuller and Margaret T. Burroughs' note "about the author," Ascending and Other Poems is a rare volume of sixteen poems, which should be accounted for in histories of the Black Arts Movement.





Nolan, James.  Reinventing Justice: The American Drug Court Movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. For people who have professional investment in the American criminal justice system and special knowledge of legal reasoning and practices,  Nolan's study may be lucid and nuanced.  For those who do not, the book may seem to be dense.  It is not easy to understand how radical replacing "just desert" with "just treatment" might be.  Nevertheless, lay readers will grasp that displacing retributive procedures with therapeutic practices entails  "fundamental role transformations for the major actors in the courtroom drama"(89) -----the judge, the defendant,  the prosecutor, and the defense lawyer.  Nolan's exposure of how theatrical the justice system might become is sobering.





Taylor, Elizabeth Dowling. The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era.

New York: Amistad, 2017.  While the topic of black elitism has low priority in African American historiography, it serves as a counterweight to emphasis on the underclass and cycles of deprivation in studies of black social and cultural history.  According to Taylor, the primary focus of her book is designed "not only to highlight the heterogeneity of the black experience but to put into highest relief the absurdity of the notion of white supremacy" (409). More studies of class as a racialized category of analysis are needed to expand our understanding of how assimilationist values and thinking continue to function in the evolving of American society.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Meditating on Wretchedness under a Stawberry Moon

v
Meditating on Wretchedness under a Strawberry Moon





Whether we are trying to make sense of vice or holiness, innocence or guilt, stupidity or intelligence, we are condemned to think with rather than against the tides of media.  Our contemporary fascination with social networking positions us to be complicit.  We resist, then discover resistance does not suffice.  The labels or ideological stances we adopt ----independent, conservative, liberal ---eventually collapse under what both David Walker and Frantz Fanon understood wretchedness to be.  Our souls may escape to elsewhere, but our minds cannot.



Given this scenario, Adam Benforado's Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice (New York: Crown, 2015) should be required reading for the temporary relief it offers.  The book should be required reading in our nation for President Donald J. Trump and his tribe, for members of Congress (especially for those who pretend to be Democrats), for public school and university students and teachers, for all of us inclined to resist from diverse angles.



Benforado pricks consciousness.  Is he selling a fake post-truth or an undeniable fact in the following paragraph?



The news media further distorts our perceptions because our threat-detection system tends to rely heavily on whatever is within easy reach.  Incidents that are prominent in our memories end up taking on an outsize role.  And how easily we can recall an event influences not only our sense of how frequently that event occurs but also our sense of how important it is.  It makes a difference, then, that there is far more coverage of serial rapists and child kidnappings than of diabetes deaths.  Likewise, the disproportionate number of stories on the local news about crimes committed by young African American men increases people's fear of black men and leads to an overvaluation of the threat they pose, which may in turn affect how police officers, prosecutors, judges, and jurors treat them. (xvi)



Is Benforado providing a description of why deliberate suppression of stories about crimes committed by white women and men cultivates fears among non-whites of the collective threat so-called white people present to humanity?



In this instance, it is prudent to use the standard of reasonable doubt in any engagement with Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice, because Benforado backs his claims with testable evidence from research in psychology and neuroscience.  Science does have reasonable credibility, does it not?



The importance of his book pivots on the credibility of "Benigne faciendae sunt interpretationes, propter simplicitatem laicorum, ut res magis valeat quam pereat; et verba intentioni, non e contra, debent inservire" ((trans. Constructions [ of written instruments ]are to be made liberally, on account of the simplicity of the laity [or common people], in order that the thing [or subject matter] may rather have effect than perish [of become void]; and words must be subject to the intention, not the intention to the words.))  There is a reason that the American legal system buries its treasures in Latin. See Black's Law Dictionary.  Benforado's book is a tool for meditating on wretchedness under a strawberry moon.  It is not a solution.  It is guide for action, for bending the arc of history toward elusive justice (286). It tells us what many African Americans know from historical experience, what non-African Americans have yet to learn.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            June 9, 2017

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Generations of Struggle, Part Three

v
GENERATIONS OF STRUGGLE: Discussion Notes, Part Three



Session 4, June 15: Between the World and Me: A Father's Message to His Son.



Discussion prompt and questions from the African American Research Collection, New Orleans Public Library:



As a father, Coates emphasizes the threats of police violence, systemic racism, and economic uncertainty, but also the power of his son's potential despite the odds.  Racial injustice is seen as permanent; the American dream is out of reach.



1. Coates directs the book to his son.  How does this shape his message?  What are his greatest fears for his son?  How do we learn about race from our families?



2.   How does Coates define the American Dream?  Why does he believe it is unattainable for African Americans?  Do you think the American Dream is alive today?



3.  Coates writes from the perspective of a lifelong resident of the northeast.  How do his descriptions of urban life differ from that of a Southerner?  What does he learn in New York?  In Paris?





I had partially answered these questions  when Ta-Nehisi Coates published Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015)--------





Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is not easy.  The difficulty is  constituted neither by his prose style nor his subject matter, because the subject matter is familiar and his sentences are music for the inner ear. Difficulty slams into you from a place he is not exploring, from the badlands where signs defy decoding. You feel that his having borrowed the title Between the World and Me from one of the stellar poems of 20th century American poetry transports you to a desert where the bones of David Walker, Herman Melville,  Walt Whitman, Alexander Crummell, Mark Twain, and Ralph Ellison are strewn helter-skelter and the air smells like Theodore Bilbo's breath.  In that arid, alienating place, you are hearing footsteps from In the American Grain by Williams Carlos Williams and Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman, although ultra-orthodox literary  criticism wants you to hear a sermon from James Baldwin that simply is not available. The difficulty is constituted by the idiosyncrasy  of how your mind reads, by your affinity with Richard Wright.

August 6, 2015 12:42 AM

Idiosyncrasy begets temptations.  Under the influence of Coates's tip of the hat to Richard Wright and the space/time where an enormous number of males have no sanctuary, you are tempted to listen once more to Billie Holiday sing "Strange Fruit."  But wouldn't the mood produced actually prejudice your reading of how Coates depicts the hard place and the rock?  Listen to Thelonious Monk, October and November 1947, Blue Note LP 5002.  Monk and Art Blakey sound you to read.  You are tempted to ask why Coates romanticizes life at Howard University beyond the classroom as the Mecca.  His idea of Mecca is a translation of comments on a pilgrimage by a man whom Ossie Davis eulogized as one who made the cowardly "thoroughly ashamed of the urbane and smiling hypocrisy we practice merely to exist in a world whose values we both envy  and despise."  Is it urbane or cosmopolitan to tell your son about that Mecca and tell him nary a word about Chicago's  Mecca, the 1891 apartment building, and what Gwendolyn Brooks said about that Mecca?  She ordered us to "Sit where the light corrupts your face."  When you drop knowledge for your son, employ economy.  Aretha Franklin's beautiful phrasing of "And temptation's strong" cuts across Monk's "Humph."  Trying to accord Mr. Coates the sympathy and respect he accorded Wright's illuminating habitation of the black male body, you are tempted to say unto him invest more in the vengeance of the Old Testament God for whom the pen is the sword.  After Ferguson and the white magic of daily systemic murder in the United States, you are tempted to suggest that the human body in our nation professes the New Testament God to be an invisible shadow and act.  After all, who told Jesus he could change his name?  Who?  Ah, Mr. Coates you use the word "body" too much in Between the World and Me and are too stingy in using the word "mind."  Temptations strengthen idiosyncrasy.

August 7, 2015 9:27 AM

You find it tantalizingly informative that Ta-Nehisi Coates chose not to imprison his letter to his son in the ancient form that letters can still assume.  He begins "Son," (page 5) and ends "Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets." (page 152)  He did not begin "Dear Son," and end "Your father, Ta-Nehisi".  The lack of formality says something about the 21st century, about the distance between what Mr. Coates deems to be the proper shape of correspondence and the outmoded antiquity  of your ideas about how courtesy ought to be signaled.  So be it.  Although generic form is an action, it is superseded by substance.  Substance is what you are looking for in Coates's book.

You find it in the possibility that Coates is saying something to his son from the region of mind that only he can access, that is curiously represented when he writes of becoming a writer without a degree from Howard University:

I felt that it was time to go, to declare myself a graduate of The Mecca, if not the university.  I was publishing music reviews, articles, and essays in the local alternative newspaper, and this meant contact with more human beings.  I had editors ---more teachers --- and these were the first white people I'd ever really known on any personal level.  They defied my presumptions --- they were afraid nether for me nor of me.  Instead they saw in my unruly curiosity and softness something that was to be treasured and harnessed (62).

The slave trade treasured black bodies and harnessed them on plantations in a new world of capitalism.

You write on the margins of page 62: "Reconstructing the tragic chain of circumstances...." and "In the hope that there is something to learn from this account, something to salvage from the grief and waste, I've striven for accuracy and honesty."  You quote from John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (New York: Vintage, 1984), page xi, hoping (with genuine desperation) that Wideman's honesty will anoint your reading of Between the World and Me.  You begin to fear that Coates is 100% American. You write words published in 1925 on a separate sheet of paper: "Here Poe emerges --in no sense the bizarre, isolate writer, the curious literary figure.  On the contrary, in him American  literature is anchored, in him alone, on solid ground." This assertion comes from William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (New York: New Directions, 1956), page 226. You are annotating Coates's book because something is emerging.  Poe became a "major" American author by not graduating from the University of Virginia.  William Carlos Williams, a doctor and poet, found something American to admire in Poe. So too did Richard Wright, who said that had Poe not lived we would have invented him.  In the back of your mind, memory whispers: one of Wideman's early novels is entitled The Lynchers.

Is Coates saying something to his son about narrative that exceeds the conventional talk (recently rebaptized by necessity as THE TALK) which non-white American fathers think they are obligated to have with their non-white sons, saying something about the talk that ,apparently,  white fathers never have with their white sons?  When it comes to how the talk and lives of all color matter, the tongue of the white male American body is as bound as the feet of a Chinese emperor's favorite wife.  Perhaps Coates is quite indirectly telling his son that the so-called white mind actually is a fiction without material references.

August 7, 2015, 12:04 PM

"You have not yet grappled," Ta-nehisi Coates writes to his son, "with your own myths and narratives and discovered the plunder everywhere around us "(21).  When and if the son does discover American history is an interlocked series of subjective narratives , then he will have to weigh the commerce of narrative and  violence  in maintaining  America's social and racial contracts.  Men created America by violating the minds and bodies of men, women, and children. You think it would be good for Coates to give his son copies of Hayden White's The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), Grace Elizabeth Hale's Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Pantheon, 1998), Tzvetan Todorov's The Conquest of America (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 3rd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967) and Leslie Bow's Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South (New York: New York University Press, 2010). The son might plunder these books at his leisure. Or he might reject them and  choose to plunder a very different selection of texts.  You guess that Ta-nehisi Coates would have his son plunder in the name of unqualified  love of himself.   Should he do so,  he might indeed produce his own myths and narratives and thereby rival those created by his father.

He might empower himself to destroy the  ways the agents of mass media, social networking,  the ubiquitous Internet, and the American police state work feverishly to constipate his mind as well as his body and his spiritual essence.

August 7, 2015, 4:49 PM



Between the World and Me is a strong, complex, provocative book.  Like all American authors, Coates could not avoid signing deals with demons in order to have his book published commercially. You know that. You  have compassion for the book's instances of class-blindness. You  make peace with its flaws, the moments when specificity becomes generalization, because the book subverts gross ignorance and exposes your nation's unique brand of denial.  It is a brave book.  It is a book that James Meredith, author of  A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America (New York: Atria Books, 2012), might endorse if he is caught at just the right moment of generosity.  It is a truth-telling book which inspires dread.  It does not inspire promises of false hope that shall never be delivered.

 Dread is the real deal in the United States of America and elsewhere. The Dream is an evil fiction that attempts to enslave people, and  too often it succeeds beyond the expectations of its authors.

 Ta-nehisi Coates has produced a first-rate secular jeremiad, an honest meditation on Dread.  There is a thin but critical line between a sermon and a jeremiad.  Coates is neither a priest nor a preacher.

 You sit in the desert, secure in your idiosyncrasy.  You and the ghost of Claude McKay sit in the sand and take bets on who shall be the first to see Time's unerring terrorism, with much help from Nature,  dispatch the millions of people who worship in the temples  and cathedrals and mosques  of white supremacy.

August 7, 2015, 8:25 PM

FOOTNOTES FOR JUNE 8, 2017*



1.  We learn about race from the conversations we have with members of our families, from the stories transmitted from one relative to another, from wondering why there are certain questions that older family members flatly refuse to answer.



2.  The American Dream is not dead. It is slowly dying as lies, fractions of truth, mass media, and social networking prove that the dream is a vulgar nightmare that benefitted a small percentage of the American people from 1776 to the present.



3. Coates's writing about urban matters is edgy and calculating.  A Southerner writing about Atlanta, New Orleans, or Birmingham might focus more sharply on a sense of community.   Coates learns in New York and Paris what anyone learns in a major cultural arena: life is generous with hellish opportunities.



*The footnotes may be revised after the discussion occurs.





Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            June 6, 2017




Generations of Struggle, Part Two


GENERATIONS OF STRUGGLE: Discussion Notes, Part Two





As might be the case with Marilynne Robinson's Home, in A Lesson Before Dying, "the religious backgrounds inhabited by the characters and the community generate a mythology of the past and a vision of a possible future, but the action persistently, and often frustratingly, remains arrested in the anxious and unfulfilled present" (Ray Horton, " 'Rituals of the Ordinary': Marilynne Robinson's Aesthetics of Belief and Finitude. PMLA 132.1 (2017): 126 ).  Moreover, as Horton proposes "the experience of being stretched uncomfortably between past and future (eschatological time) and the way that such an experience, when conceptualized in a theological or theopoetic framework, opens new avenues of aesthetic perceptivity (aesthetics of immediacy)" (126). That Gaines's novel addresses a sliver of African American Louisiana cultural history in tandem with the demands of the American criminal justice system in 1948 necessitates a more perfect interpretive union of theological and secular frames.  Interpretation of A Lesson Before Dying is  more vexed than interpretation of Home.  Therein is a crucial lesson about difference between American and African American understandings  of criminal justice.



Session 3, June 8: A Lesson Before Dying: Jim Crow and the Imprisoned Life



Three questions supplied by the African American Resource Collection, New Orleans Public Library:



1.  Jefferson is convicted of murder in what appears to be a case of "wrong place, wrong time." His defense attorney describes him as a "hog," a description Jefferson repeats once he is imprisoned.  What prejudices are reflected in that description?  How does Grant combat this blow to Jefferson's self-esteem?



Before trying to name prejudices, we ought to read the wording of the text carefully.  Prior to using the word "hog," the attorney informs the jury that Jefferson is a boy, a fool, "a thing that acts on command"(7).  The word "thing" activates pre-existing attitudes a white juror possessed about black males in a Louisiana parish circa 1948; the black male was considered to be semi- human, possessing limited intelligence "inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa…." The attorney apologizes for the error of using the word "man."  He bids the gentlemen of the jury to consider, whether the thing was innocent or not innocent, "What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen?  Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this" (8). The jury in good conscience can find an "it" or a thing "guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree." It is as futile for a thing to appeal a verdict as it is for a plow to protest that it has been abused.  The prejudices reflected in the description are those which are innate in American racism.



Pressured by his aunt (Tante Lou) and by Jefferson's godmother (Miss Emma), Grant Wiggins reluctantly undertakes a series of verbal and material actions to persuade Jefferson that he is not a thing or a hog but a human being, a man who is condemned to die. He slowly persuades Jefferson to recognize that he does possess agency, the human capacity to discriminate between right and wrong, along with the dignity that no hog can ever possess. Jefferson leaves evidence in his diary ( Chapter 29)  of how his self-esteem is restored. In terms of literary history, we note the closing lines of Jefferson's diary parallel the final statement Bigger Thomas makes to his lawyer in Native Son.



2.  Grant sees his small town in Louisiana as a prison and yearns to escape.  What holds him back?  How does this conflict impact his relationship with his students?  With Jefferson?  With Vivian?



It is difficult for Grant to admit to himself that he is held back by a sense of commitment and a certain recognition that no man is an island.  His small town, Bayonne, is thirteen miles away from a plantation where he lives and teaches; it is a rural scene of action in 1948, the year that President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which "barred segregation in the Armed Forces and created the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, to end discrimination in military facilities and units." In 1948, "30% of all the Negroes in school in the South were educated in buildings contracted under the Rosenwald Fund's aid programs." [Quotations from Bergman, Peter M.  The Chronological History of the Negro in America (New York: Mentor Books, 1969), page 516]  The building in which Grant taught was a church contracted by the plantation and maintained by people who lived in the Quarter.  Commitment to those people holds Grant back and leaves him in agony.



Grant teaches his students with tough-love, transferring to them his desire to be liberated from the "prison" that a plantation could be. A Lesson Before Dying conjures memory of what is documented in the film Slavery by Another Name.  Although Grant is aware that his university education has created a barrier between Jefferson and himself, he is equally aware that both he and Jefferson are located in a mythology of rural Louisiana, a Southscape, or in the words of Thadious M. Davis [Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011)], "the incarceral world goes on with its dividing lines, its racist segregationist codes, its systemic injustices" (302). From the theopoetic angle, Grant and Jefferson and Vivian remain" arrested in the anxious and unfulfilled present" (Horton 126).  Grant's conflicted feelings create great tension between Vivian and himself, but those feelings endow his love for Vivian with maximum honesty.





3.  Is the conflict between Grant and the reverend a generational conflict or a religious one?  Do you think their arguments remain relevant today?



The conflict between Grant and Reverend Ambrose is at once generational and religious.  It is no mere accident that Grant teaches in a plantation church, yoking the sacred and the secular in his personhood.  It is Reverend Ambrose who tries to complete the education that Grant did not obtain from the university, namely that the practice of religion incorporates the lying and hypocrisy that relieves the intense pain of living.  Listen as Reverend Ambrose "lessons" Grant:



"Yes, you know. You know, all right.  That's why you look down on me, because you know I lie.  At wakes, at funerals, at weddings  ---   yes, I lie.  I lie at wakes and funerals to relieve pain. 'Cause reading, writing, and 'rithmetic is not enough.  You think that's all they sent you to school for?  They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt  ---and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie.

……

And that's the difference between me and you, boy; that makes me the educated one, and you the gump.  I know my people.  I know what they gone through.  I know they done cheated themselves, lied to  themself ---hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain." (A Lesson Before Dying 218)



The arguments and the lesson have extraordinary relevance in 2017 for us and what we may think about the American criminal justice system that vicious, subtle, and bereft of spirituality.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            June 6, 2017