Friday, August 28, 2015

William Shakespeare and Amiri Baraka

Many years ago at a dinner party I proposed that Shakespeare got too much attention, that commentary on this Elizabethan writer was just so much bardolatry, that  Shakespeare's contemporaries and other writers deserved generous critical attention.  The honored guest at dinner happened to be a famous, very erudite Marxist.  He fixed his bright dark eyes on me, saying "Young man, Shakespeare has been read and misread, but he can never be read too much nor sufficiently."  The instructive arrow, shot by C. L. R. James,  is still lodged in my memory. Bold superficiality is one of the banes of youth.

For James, as Aldon L. Nielsen intimates in C. L. R. James: An Introduction, reading Shakespeare included making challenging theses and discovering how form in  great English language texts is not a mirror "but a metamorphosing lens revealing that which is invisible to the naked eye, and that  which is yet to come "(39).  Perhaps James chided my young Self for its want of transformative attention, and now my old Self profits from his spoken words and from his published criticism, especially of Herman Melville, just as it has gained much from Sterling Stuckey's enlightening commentaries on Melville.  From both James and Stuckey, those remarkable historians,  literary criticism ought to learn lessons about its own peculiar, dynamic  functions.  The seminal texts are Stuckey's  African Culture and Melville's Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick and James's Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and The World We Live In.

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Great American Protest Novel

A spiritual inheritor to Agee, says Ward.
[by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

“There is in Southern white man, distributed almost as thickly as the dialect,” James Agee wrote in 1936, “an epidemic capability of sadism which you would have to go as far to match and whose chief basis is possibly, but only possibly, and only one among many, a fear of the Negro, deeper and more terrible than any brief accounting can suggest or explain. The flaw of sadism can turn its victims loose into extremities which the gaudiest reports have only begun to suggest.”

These surgical words come from the conclusion of “Cotton Tenants: Three Families,” a report Fortune magazine would not publish. Cotton Tenants did not see print until 2013. Agee indicted his race in a way his race dared not acknowledge, for to have done so would have been tantamount to staring into Medusa’s eyes. Agee’s people understood that “Southern white man” was identical with “American man” and that “fear of the Negro” was a sly allusion to a Yankee idea represented through a Spanish character in Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno.”

Agee knew his race well.

ICYMI: The Last 2 Weeks in Black Writing (8/4 - 8/16)

- HBW collected tributes from a number of important writers and scholars to bid farewell to Chancellor Bob Hemenway, who - among many other accomplishments - wrote a foundational literary biography of Zora Neale Hurston.

- ForHarriet shared 7 Black Women Science Fiction Writers Everyone Should Know. (One of the authors, Nalo Hopkinson, has a new short story collection out right now.)

- Roxane Gay opens this conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates by noting the frequent comparisons of Coates to James Baldwin. 5 days earlier, Vinson Cunningham wrote about why Coates isn't the James Baldwin of our time.

- Baldwin or not, Coates did make it onto President Obama's summer reading list.

- Beverly Jenkins spoke to NPR Books about writing historical romances with black protagonists.

- Issa Rae, author of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, was profiled in the New York Times in "The Misadventures of Issa Rae."

- Walter Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins series, sat down with NPR for conversations about the Watts Riots and his Southern roots

Friday, August 7, 2015

Robert “Bob” Hemenway (1941-2015), Literary Scholar and Mentor - A Special Tribute from the Project on the History of Black Writing

The Project on the History of Black Writing is deeply saddened by the passing of Robert Hemenway. Best known for his work as a biographer of Harlem Renaissance writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, Hemenway established himself as a major literary scholar early in his career. His book, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, was named one of the Best Books of 1978 by the New York Times, and was winner of the Society of Midland Authors Award in Biography as well as the Rembert W. Patrick Memorial Prize of the Florida Historical Society. In this literary biography, Hemenway utilizes unpublished letters, personal manuscripts, and interviews of Hurston’s close friends to create an original, full-length study of Hurston’s life and literary career.

Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific American author of innovative and influential works, both creative and scholarly. Hemenway used Hurston’s scholarship, art, autobiography, and novels to emphasize her rich contributions and commitment to the history of black writing and culture. Today we recognize her centrality to the emergence of women, gender, and sexuality studies, as well as to the advancement of folklore studies in the United States. Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is one of the most widely read and discussed novels in American and world literature.  

Poet and novelist Alice Walker wrote, “Robert Hemenway's book on the literary life of Zora Neale Hurston is a major work, and one for which scholars and readers and writers will be extremely eager. They will also be grateful for his thorough research and sensitive reconstruction of Zora's life. It is for me a great book, because it gives back to all of us something invaluable that was nearly lost: reliable information and knowledge of the life of a great writer and unique human being. It is just such a joy to know that Zora's story is in the world, at last!”

Similarly, Harlem Renaissance scholar Houston Baker remarked that the book was “A landmark in American literary biography, drawing from virtual obscurity a singular life marked by outstanding works of art.”

In addition to his literary biography on Hurston, Hemenway served as editor of Taylor Gordon's Harlem Renaissance memoir, Born to Be, published “Folklore Field Notes from Zora Neale Hurston” in The Black Scholar, and contributed to the College Language Association Journal with his article “'Baxter’s Procrustes': Irony and Protest,” in which Hemenway analyzed a well-known story of African American writer Charles Chestnutt. 

Upon retirement, Hemenway left his personal papers to the University of Kansas, where they are housed at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library

A few months before his passing, the Project on the History of Black Writing announced its plan for a special Hemenway-Long scholarship to be awarded to an incoming graduate student focusing on African American and Ethnic writing. (Octavia Long was a 1909 African American graduate student of KU. Long's recovery continues the work to which Hemenway was and HBW remains committed).

Click here to read the University of Kansas's Tribute to Robert Hemenway and a statement from current KU Chancellor, Bernadette Gray-Little.

Chancellor Hemenway leaves behind many friends, colleagues, and those who benefited from his mentorship, many of whom have reached out to express their sentiments. HBW is honored to collect these remembrances. More will be added as they come in. Read the powerful reflections on the life and legacy of Robert Hemenway below, starting with Alice Walker's tribute: