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Monday, July 10, 2017

invisible worms in roses


There's a bit of relief to be had from the intense heat of Trumpism by coldly reading The Death of White Sociology (New York: Vintage, 1973), edited by Joyce A. Ladner.  It is a matter of common sense.  Conflicting premises, murky motives for doing one kind of research rather than another, blind spots sprawling in humanistic and social science projects in 2017, the rainbow colors of methodologies ----these all highlight the rightness of Ladner's claim in 1973 that "sociology, like history, economics and psychology, exists in a domain where color, ethnicity, and social class are of primary importance.  And as long as this holds true, it is impossible for sociology to claim that it maintains value neutrality in its approaches" (xix).  It is equally impossible for humanities to possess value neutrality. As Trumpism ups the ante for indigenous knowing as well as convoluted theoretical interrogations and interventions, being cold matters greatly.  We are not detached from our thinking.  And after four decades, I suspect that white sociology in the USA is not sufficiently dead.  As I work on Reading Race Reading America: Literary and Social Essays and another project on ideological shuttling between democracy and fascism, I find the cautions in The Death of White Sociology to be at once helpful and troubling.  I ask myself if intellectual projects are somewhat quixotic, permanently incapable of detecting invisible worms in roses (see William Blake's magnificent poem "The Sick Rose," 1794).  I will not be denied the "true fact" of the worm, the "magic" of Trumpism notwithstanding.

A fellow writer notified me yesterday about a survey of nomenclature in Black Studies ( )) )proposed by Nolan Kopkin and Erin N. Winkler, members of the Department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A butterfly zoomed through my mind.  Is there a Department of Europology at any institution in the USA?  Would such a department undertake a survey of nomenclature in White Studies or Jewish Studies as subsets of American Studies?  The butterfly asked and would not stay for an answer.  Why do I smell a worm I can't see?

Why at just this moment does Kopkin, who uses econometric techniques to pursue his work in political economy and public policy, racial prejudice and entrepreneurship, and substantive black political representation, express interest in nomenclature or identity-naming?  And why has his colleague Winkler, who uses the qualitative methods of Africology to study (among other things) childhood and learning about race, partner with him in the undertaking?  In the name of digital humanities, I am deeply interested in where to locate the value investment of their motives and their enterprise.  Why do I smell the familiar aroma of the rose that once studied the Black Subject into near oblivion and bloomed without giving a nanosecond of notice to its own compromised subjectivity?  Perhaps a cold rereading of The Death of White Sociology can help me discover an answer.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            July 10, 2017

Friday, July 7, 2017

Aesthetic Suicide


When you must die,

duplicate  an aristocrat.

Plate death artfully

on Limoges (Bernardaud, of course).

Your appetite must dare not refuse,

must pair the course

with absinthe (Pernod Fils, of course).

Gourmet thyself

in a green hour

to Elysian Fields.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            July 8, 2017

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Poems by Clint Smith

On Poems by Clint Smith

One of my friends who protests, much to my amusement and my dismay, that poetry should be plain enough for lumpenprolitariat  readers to understand would like

Smith, Clint. Counting Descent.  Los Angeles: Write Bloody Publishing, 2016.

He and Smith are natives of New Orleans, and they share cultural kinship from the angles of tradition and attitudes.  Smith's poems would seem at first glance to satisfy my friend's demands for transparency and easy recognition. Smith and my friend seem to be brothers.  "Seem" is the operative word, because Smith's poems are not scripts for greeting cards. They do not confuse respect for integrity with deceptive sentiment.  What my friend would assume is the inviting easiness of Smith's work is the complex simplicity that informs the genuinely American  poems of Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. Smith's poems, like those of Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, are tools for actual rather than passive thinking.

Unlike the poetry of some modernist and post-modern writers, Smith's poems can be read and understood without referring to dictionaries and encyclopedias or obscure texts and unfamiliar belief systems.  They are vernacular for our time, without resort to artificial neo-dialect, in the very sense that Paul Laurence Dunbar's late nineteenth century poems were affirmations of unconditional humanity .  I have yet to figure out why people like my friend think they must broadcast misinterpretation of  Karl Marx's definition of lumpenprolitariat  in order to say they like vernacular  literature.   Their comments strike me as a pretentious blending  of  radical desire with stereotyped laziness, a vulgar embracing of low valuation of Self.  Many of Smith's artfully constructed poems in Counting Descent, especially those which focus on the subjectivities of black boys, are aesthetic instruments to counter an uncritical embrace of nihilism and psychological destruction. He uses wit, the epitome of complex simplicity,  to reject the temptations of  despair. His book contains poetry for everyday use rather than innovative fossils for a canonical museum.

Two companion poems in this collection, "James Baldwin Speaks to the Protest Novel" and "The Protest Novel Responds to James Baldwin," are touchstones of Smith's prescient imagination as well as his superior knowledge of African American literary history.  They are forecasts of the brilliant writing, plain and not so plain, that Smith might contribute to a future for the republic of American letters.  Read Counting Descent to fight before you fiddle, to empower your mind to rise and take control.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            July 6, 2017

Sunday, July 2, 2017

President Obama

President Obama ---The Man/The Icon

                David J. Garrow's  Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama  (New York: William Morrow, 2017) is a big book.  Its ten chapters of narrative occupy 1078 pages; the remaining 383 pages consist of the acknowledgement (1079-1084), the copious chapter notes (1085-1356), the bibliography (1357-1391), the index (1393-1460) and the "About the Author" page (1461).  Are so many pages needed to cover the life of Barack Hussein Obama II from August 4, 1961 to January 19, 2017?  Yes.  Do so many pages adequately provide full disclosure of Obama's rise as our most noteworthy Kenyan American and 44th President?  No.  A single book  can't possibly give us all the contextualized facts we either need to know or think we need.  A trenchant analysis of anything in our everyday lives, especially of major figures and events in American politics,  requires a crunching of big data and the writing of persuasive narratives.  Rising Star is Garrow's effort to make a compelling statement about our rage for social, political, and cultural information.  His success, however, compounds the difficulty of knowing what is truly necessary and sufficient.

                Reading Rising Star cover to cover is probably not the path many readers will take.  They will sample chapters and depend on the index to guide them to topics which seem to be of immediate relevance.  Unlike their nineteenth-century ancestors, most contemporary readers lack the patience and discipline to engage a big book ---unless the book pertains directly to a job, career advancement or retrofitting, and a paycheck.  Even for readers who work in the arena of politics, policy decisions may be of greater importance than expanding their sense of history.  Rising Star will be relegated to a shelf of reference books and consulted only when a search engine doesn't provide immediate access to specialized information or "factoids" about President Obama and his eight years in office.

                We can anticipate that Rising Star will eventually appear on the collateral reading lists for advanced graduate courses in American government, political theory, historiography, or  the politics of race.  Special, limited audiences of teachers and students will explore Garrow's artistry in aligning snapshots of Obama the man (organic human being) with formal photographs of Obama the president (the fashioned or constructed political being).  They will be positioned to make sense of Garrow's pragmatic  coup de grรขce :

In Springfield too a perceptive woman understood how Barack "is an invention of himself."  But it was essential  to appreciate that while the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core. "You didn't let anyone sneak up behind you to see emotions --like hurt or fear ---you didn't want them to see," Barack long ago had taught himself, yet hand in hand with that resolute self-discipline came a profound emptiness. (1078) [my italics]

Irony of irony that what is imagined to be hollow and empty will in time be seen to be solid and full. We shall need yet another 1461 pages to begin to understand the quintessential American irony that Garrow invites us to ponder.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            July 2, 2017

Poem for my birthday


But for this unhappy man there is not clear path leading out of the blind alleys of the world.

           Nathan A. Scott, Jr., The Poetry of Civic Virtue

Immune to





the attic

of the bone house

of seven senses






this bitter earth

a better world.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

July 2, 2017