Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Who's Afraid of George Walker

Who’s Afraid of George Walker?

George “Nash” Walker (1872-1911) was born in the aftermath of The Civil War in Lawrence, Kansas, the launching point of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in the fall of 1859 and site of Quantril’s Raid in the summer of 1863. The post-Civil War demographics and abolitionist politics of the region empowered Walker in historically unprecedented ways and compelled him to transcend the limited expectations of Black people in the United States. He left Lawrence in 1893 with a medicine show and met Bert A. Williams (1874-1922) in San Francisco, California later that year. Soon after forming a partnership that would last seventeen years, the two were hired to appear as Africans in what was essentially a human zoo as part of the Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco until the “Real” Africans arrived from Dahomey.

In meeting the Dahomeans, George Walker and Bert Williams experienced majesty, sovereignty and beauty from an African point of view, one that did not acknowledge White exceptionalism or superiority. This inspired them to, in the words of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “wear the mask,” and embrace the moniker of, "The Two Real Coons." In place of the luxury of preference, this choice was designed to draw in crowds and utilize the liminality of the dramatic stage to subversively exploit the contextual difference between the satire of their brand of comedy and the mockery of the minstrel tradition. Under the cloak of entertainment, this philosophy provided space to erode White exceptionalism that was/is a feedback loop of ignorance informed by the arrogance of unearned privilege. When people paid to see minstrel-style cooning, they surely got it and much more. The “more” was George’s understandably problematic, yet unprecedented insistence that audiences receive curated, Black entertainment that was full of universal examples of the human condition told from a uniquely Afro-American perspective.

Monday, May 2, 2016


The MLA Handbook, Eighth Edition (2016), bids us to consider the probability of having a single "set of guidelines, which writers can apply to any type of source" (Handbook, rear cover). This new edition may be less intimidating than the Seventh or the Sixth, and it may minimize anxiety about scrupulous documentation in the age of the digital. Nevertheless, we should not put older editions of the Handbook out to pasture, because the new one seems more a supplement than a replacement. It lacks the solid advice about research and writing we found in Chapter 1 of the Seventh, and not all of us want to visit The MLA Style Center, the open access online companion. Neither in documentation nor in the vast range of scholarship is it prudent to drift with the wind.

Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright and the Bandung Conference (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), edited by Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher, is a good omen that scholars who refuse to get lost in the brothels and mazes of theory-whipping can be productive long-distance runners. Roberts and Foulcher have used impeccable literary historical scholarship in producing a book that maps new territory for studies of Richard Wright's life, works, and prophetic acumen. Indonesian Notebook is exceptionally valuable for anyone, including political scientists and historians, who is interested in what world literature created during the Cold War period actually challenges us to interpret.

When we truly revisit Wright's The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956), armed with the generous amount of contextualizing matter that Roberts and Foulcher translated from the Indonesian, we are stimulated to ask just what did Wright see and hear at the conference and during his conversations with Indonesian intellectuals. What inspired Wright to quite accurately speculate that the world of 1955 was a crucible for multiple forms of terrorism rooted in religion? And what did Wright reveal in his lecture "The Artist and His Problems" (published as "Seniman dan Masalaahnja" in Indonesia Raya on May 22, 1955) that might have informed his decisions about what essays to include in White Man, Listen! (1957)? The winding path of scholarship may take us to Ethan Michaeli's The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) to discover why John Sengstacke assigned Ethel Payne to cover Bandung for the Chicago Defender and to James McGrath Morris's Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press (New York: Amistad, 2015) for a choice bit of information about how the U.S. government used CIA funds to enable Payne and Wright to attend an Asian-African conference. I shall soon write at greater length about Indonesian Notebook which, as Amritjit Singh aptly remarks, "reminds us that the quest for equality must confront the stubborn local socio-economic realities throughout the globe" (Indonesian Notebook, rear cover blurb), because I do want to confront the stubborn actualities of political designs and literary meanings. Fortunately, there is no single set of guidelines for that task.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. 
April 14, 201

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

African American Poetry and Contemporary Book History

The production of so many volumes of poetry by African American poets between 2000 and 2016 makes it difficult to keep track. We’re talking dozens and dozens of poets, hundreds of books, and thousands of poems. And that’s just to cite the poems that appear in book form. The poetry data greatly extends if we take stock of poems in magazines, poems in anthologies, poems performed at local spoken word scenes, and poems on YouTube.

Despite the prevalence of online materials in our digital age, physical books still matter. Further, the contemporary histories of black poetry as presented through book-length volumes contribute to our overall understanding of African American literary art. Documenting and pinpointing the nature of what has been produced will assist us in recognizing the ways that works by poets converge and depart from compositions by novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and other creative writers.

Taken together, Elizabeth Alexander, Allison Joseph, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Tyehimba Jess, Evie Shockley, Kevin Young, and many, many other poets have published a tremendous body of works over the last decade or so. Yet, I worry about whether their books will fade from our collective memories, or even enter into our consciousness. Without more concerted efforts to account for what poets have been up to, we will overlook crucial developments and important trends.

Each year, we do a good job of acknowledging select poets. In particular, we honor and celebrate award-winning poets. Notably, the numbers of such poets have increased in the 21st century. But, don’t we need more discussions concerning what’s happening with black poetry in general? One benefit of thinking about African American poetry in the context of the field of Book History is that we might be inclined to study how individual publications or groups of publications relate to a larger body of related texts along a trajectory of time.

So far, much of Book History has concentrated on works from a more distant past. However, who says that we can’t collect, organize, analyze, and describe works from a more recent past, like all the exciting developments that have taken place in poetry book publishing over the last 16 years? A clearer, even general sense of the contemporary histories of African American poetry would assist us in understanding the extents to which individual poets and works contribute to the whole.

Every few years, I’ve heard poets announce that “we’re experiencing a Renaissance” in black poetry. The remark, which I’ve heard expressed by various poets nearly every year for more than a decade now, has not necessarily convinced me of a monumental rebirth. Instead, I’ve taken note that poets at certain stages of their careers, typically those who are publishing their first books or involved with a distinct publishing project, deploy the rhetoric of a Renaissance to reflect their good feelings about what they are currently witnessing or participating in respect to poetry.

I hope that increasing numbers of poets, literary scholars, and cultural workers take up the tasks of documenting all that is occurring these days with African American poetry. Some of that documentation would involve accounting for the many poetry volumes published over the years. With a fuller account of the record of the activities, we’d be in a better position to assess the value of African American poetic contributions.

Howard Rambsy II teaches at Southern Illinois University; he blogs at the Cultural Front.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Rereading Poems from Prison

When Etheridge Knight autographed my copy of Poems from Prison (1968; 1st edition, fifth printing, March 1971), he wrote "Keep On! We gonna win." and signed his name "Imamu Etheridge Knight." By designating himself a spiritual leader , he positioned himself to remind me that some poets believe what they do pertains to mind, body, and spirit. His urging me to "keep on" could be related to many activities, especially to African and American imperatives. In the 1970s, those imperatives had something to do with cultural nationalism and teaching. His prediction that we will win something laid heavy weight on me and "all the other caged black cats everywhere" to whom he dedicated his book. And some caged tawny, white, and impractical cats were expected to share the weight. In the 1970s, a terrible beauty of optimism was frequently reborn.

It was (and still is) a funky deal when I first read stanza two of Knight's poem "On Universalism" ---

No universal laws
Of human misery
Create a common cause
Or common history
That ease black people's pains
Nor break black people's chains (25).

or the final, African American haiku in a set of nine

Making jazz swing in
Seventeen syllable AIN'T
No square poet's job. (19)

and then discovered in the poem "It Was a Funky Deal" that what Knight had in mind was Malcolm's

You rocked too many boats, man.
Pulled too many coats, man.
Saw through the jive.
You reached the wild guys
Like me. You and Bird. (And that
Lil LeRoi cat.)

It was a funky deal. (28)

The poems trigger sensations that depend on locating the poet's language in realms of one's lived experiences as well as one's acquired knowledge of social and cultural operations. In 2016, Knight's Poems from Prison is funky fresh in recalling the extreme pain of rebirth.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. 
 April 1, 2016