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

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



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