Sunday, August 21, 2016

Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me: KU Common Book 2016-17

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates's critically acclaimed second book and the winner of 2015 National Book Award for nonfiction has been chosen by the University of Kansas as the 2016-2017 common book. The KU Common Book Program is run by the Office of First Year Experience with the goal of creating a diverse strong community and shared academic experience among first year students, faculty and staff.


In Between the World and Me, Coates writes a letter to his young son in an attempt to address our nation's past and current racial history.

The abstract from Goodreads.com reads:
Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.

In a New York Times book review, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow (2010), explains how she approached Coates's book in the same way she approached James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (1963), a book that evidently inspired Between the World and Me. In a similar fashion, Baldwin writes a letter to his nephew to talk about the racial injustices of the time. While Alexander acknowledges that Between the World and Me did not live up to her expectations, she recognizes that Coates's book is simply and purposely unfinished. Alexander writes:

But here we reach a fork in the road. Baldwin, in writing to his nephew, does not deny the pain and horror of American notions of justice — far from it — but he repeatedly emphasizes the young man’s power and potential and urges him to believe that revolutionary change is possible against all odds, because we, as black people, continue to defy the odds and defeat the expectations of those who seek to control and exploit us.

Coates’s letter to his son seems to be written on the opposite side of the same coin. Rather than urging his son to awaken to his own power, Coates emphasizes over and over the apparent permanence of racial injustice in America, the foolishness of believing that one person can make a change, and the dangers of believing in the American Dream

She concludes:

On the second reading, my frustration diminished. I came to believe that the problem, to the extent there is one, is that Coates’s book is unfinished. He raises numerous critically important questions that are left unanswered.



Perhaps Coates hasn’t yet discovered for himself the answers to the questions he poses in Between the World and Me. But I suspect that he is holding out on us. Everything he has ever written leads me to believe he has more to say. He may imagine that we are better off figuring out for ourselves the true nature of the Dream and what it means to be engaged in meaningful Struggle. But I believe we could only benefit from hearing what answers Coates may have fashioned for himself. Whether you agree or disagree, one of the great joys of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is being challenged in ways you didn’t expect or imagine.

You can follow the KU Common Book Reader's Guide and blog for the latest campus events, activities, and resources to support your reading of Between the World and Me throughout the year.

Howard Rambsy, owner and blogger at Cultural Front, has compiled an extensive list of articles and reviews on Ta-Nahesi Coates's Between the World and Me. Rambsy is an associate professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Click the link above to read more on Coates's book.


[by Matthew Broussard]

Friday, August 19, 2016

ICYMI: The Last Few Week in Black Writing and Culture (July 31-August 18)

After a brief break, we're back! We at Project HBW look forward to bringing you the latest content in black writing and culture.


Dr. Howard Rambsy of Southern Illinois University wrote a review in The Crisis of the collection Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky (March 2016).

Poet and Kansas native Kevin Young has been named the new director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York.

Jaime Alfaro addressed the treatment of racial trauma. Racial trauma is a "cumulative experience, where every personal or vicarious encounter with racism contributes to a more insidious, chronic stress." This racial trauma can occur through direct or indirect experiences with racism, such as social media and the continuous killing of black men published in the news.

Responding to the all-too-frequent killing of black men, poet Danez Smith imagined a place where "everything is a sanctuary and nothing is a gun."

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the 10th anniversary of her novel Half of a Yellow Sun and her identification as a feminist. 

Lynn Okura Bey revisited Maya Angelou's powerful 1993 interview in which she spoke on the dangerous impact of racist language. 

Colson Whitehead's newest novel, The Underground Railroad, has been named the next title for Oprah's Book Club.   In an interview, Whitehead discussed his novel with National Public Radio. Additionally, Michael Schaub of NPR wrote a review of The Underground Railroad.

Jean Ho responded to the ongoing debate about the lack of diversity in publishing by arguing that having more diversity alone isn't enough. The books also need to be marketed more effectively.

Audie Cornish of NPR spoke with Jesmyn Ward, editor of the new collection The Fire This Time. Ward collection is a tribute to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. Writers acknowledged Baldwin's legacy while responding to the current racial situation in the United States.






Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Toni Morrison and Her Role as Editor: A Toni Morrison Society Conference Report


The seventh biennial conference presented by the Toni Morrison Society took place in New York City from July 21-24, 2016. The previous conference was held in 2010 in Paris, France with the theme "Toni Morrison and Circuits of the Imagination," and its return was nothing short of outstanding. With the reinstatement of the conference came a new direction in the society's engagement with the work of the Nobel laureate. Unlike the structure of previous conferences, speakers did not present individual papers. Instead, sessions were plenary panels. Following the keynote speaker, participants were split into groups and lead by a principle discussant. Many more participants, therefore, had an opportunity to participate in discussions. The conference theme, “Toni Morrison and her role as an editor,” also diverged from previous conferences, focusing on Toni Morrison as an editor rather than a writer.

Dana Williams, professor of English at Howard University, touched directly on the theme of Morrison as editor at Random House as she discussed the research for her forthcoming book, Toni Morrison at Random: Midwife of a Generation.  Williams's talk specifically focused on Morrison's commitment to publish works by black authors writing about the global black experience. Williams discussed the radical nature and significance of this move. Morrison was a woman of color working in mainstream publishing at a time when much of what was being written about the black experience did not come from black people. In the books she edited, Morrison challenged the perceptions in literature of people of African descent. Contemporary African Literature (1972) is one such book, an anthology of African texts that began with the provocative introduction: "Africa was discovered by Africans."

The next session focused on the authors Morrison worked with as an editor. The panel consisted of Angela Davis, John McCluskey, and Quincy Troupe. Davis talked about her experience working with Morrison on her autobiography. Like other panelists, Davis noted the success of her work with Morrison was grounded in her relationship with her as a mentor and a friend. She stated that even though she was working on an autobiography, a non-creative piece, Morrison encouraged her to draw on her knowledge as produced by her senses and to give place to site, sight, and feelings in her narrative. Through Morrison's guidance, Davis "learned the epistemology of aesthetics... (that) knowledge arises out of the embodied." This point was echoed by Troupe, who reflected on Morrison's encouragement for him to write about what he valued as important. Troupe's editorship of Giant Talk: The Anthology of Third World Writing (1975) came out of this advice. 


Morrison’s career as an editor before her literary fame and the impact of this experience on her own writing is something that not many people know about due to lack of scholarship. Sessions dedicated to this topic produced interesting and varied responses from participants in the round-table discussions. In my group, we talked about Morrison’s efforts to bring out the form and voice in authors she worked with and examined the impact of this advocacy. Morrison feels it is important that the author's voice and position emerge through the text to add to the narrative of the multifaceted black experience.

Many references were also made to Morrison’s involvement in the publication of The Black Book (1974). Howard Ramsby, professor at Southern Illinois University, described the book as a "cultural witness" of African American life, testifying and evoking memories of the past. Cheryl Wall went on to describe The Black Book as a "polyrhythmic record (that) shifts from tribe to tragedy...a history where everyone is talking." Wall questioned why the book has no significant place in African American historiography and suggested that it is because it does not conform to ideas of what constitute history. That is, it is a revisionist history and the editors made no pretense at objectivity. Morrison joined this discussion in agreement with Wall, arguing that The Black Book gives readers the responsibility of making their own meaning. This meaning is not literal in the book and must be discerned through metaphors, and this meaning is both a personal and collective experience. Its purpose, Morrison stated, is to pay tribute to those in the past who have made the present possible. 


This role of text as cultural memory relates strongly to Morrison's oeuvre and the Society recognizes this through its Bench by the Road project. This initiative places benches as a commemorative gesture at important sites of black history here and abroad, like the recent bench placement at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Both Morrison and Anthony Marx, the director of New York Public Library, unveiled it. Marx spoke on the significance of the bench's location and the impact of Morrison's work on black American history and culture, joking that although he is not allowed to admit publicly, Morrison is, in his opinion, “the great American novelist." The bench placement and a gala celebrating Morrison's (belated) 85th birthday brought the conference to a close, with warm wishes and congratulatory messages from Morrison's friends and colleagues, including Homi Bhabha and Wynton Marsails, who joined the gala via video link.  



[By Portia Owusu]

Portia Owusu is a Fulbright scholar and doctoral student from London, England attending SOAS, University of London. She spent the 2015-2016 school year working with Dr. Maryemma Graham and the Project on the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas as she completed her dissertation.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Remembering James Alan McPherson (September 16, 1943 - July 27, 2016)

In "On Becoming an American Writer," James Alan McPherson once wrote, "I believe that if one can experience diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize all this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned the right to call oneself 'citizen of the United States.'"

This quote exemplifies the work of James McPherson. While McPherson's characters are frequently specific to the black American experience, he set himself apart by refusing to separate race from the universally human. He is best known for his portrayal of working class characters. "Certain of these people happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; but I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept," McPherson once said of his work.

As a writer who greatly admired the example of Ralph Ellison and his other mentor, Albert Murray, McPherson was conscious of the need to exploit the complexity of African American culture. McPherson saw black culture as integrally connected with white culture, all a part of the American tradition.

A mentee of McPherson, Suketu Mehta said that McPherson's work belonged to the "humanist tradition of American letters: an anger at the economic and racial injustices of the country, coupled with a constant appreciation for the way community forms out of unlikely alliances, such as between poor Southern blacks and Southern whites."

In the New York Times book review, Robie Macauley  praised McPherson's Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories Elbow Room for its “fine control of language and story, a depth in his characters, humane values.” Mr. Macauley wrote that McPherson "established his viewpoint as a writer and a black man, but not as a black writer...He was able to look beneath skin color and clichés of attitude into the hearts of his characters...a fairly rare ability in American fiction where even the most telling kind of perception seldom seems able to pass an invisible color line.”

In the introduction to Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, edited by S. Lemke, Houston Baker argued that the "most pressing endeavor for scholars of Afro-American literature for the 1980s is the articulation of an adequate theory of Afro-American Literature" (Baker, "Introduction" 13). The most appropriate model, Baker argued, is a vernacular model based on the blues. In James Alan McPherson's Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture, Baker suggests that McPherson's "train people" is also the world of blues musicians, and Baker praises McPherson for setting a model for future studies of American culture. In Railroad, Baker writes, McPherson highlights "the value of a blues matrix for cultural analysis in the United States (12).

McPherson's non-fiction has also received much acclaim and its cultural significance is paramount. In a December 15, 1997 interview with Publisher's Weekly, interviewer Calvin Reid stated that McPherson's non-fiction book Crabcakes "'tap dances on the synapses,' presenting a procession of seemingly isolated social interactions separated by time and space and finding subtle psychic connections among them. In Crabcakes, McPherson examines the dehumanizing, prosaic regularity (and postmodern reinvigoration) of American racism; Western versus Eastern spiritual values and a disabling 'standardization' of the language used to describe the most terrible events of our time. He creates a theater of memory, revisiting Baltimore, in 1976 and subsequent years, to examine his past acts. He recalls visits to old neighborhoods and to Baltimore's old Lexington Market, the place to get the best Maryland crabcakes. 'What runs through the book is a sense of deep moments,' says McPherson, 'A sense of time that is circular. That what goes around comes around.'"

James Alan McPherson was born in Savannah, Georgia on September 16, 1943. McPherson worked as a dining car waiter on the Great Northern Railroad throughout his college years. This experience would influence one of his first published stories, "On Trains," about a white woman's treatment of black porters and waiters on a train.

After graduating from Morris Brown College in 1965, McPherson entered Harvard Law School, working as a janitor to pay his expenses. While a law student, McPherson submitted a short story called "Gold Coast" to The Atlantic for a writing contest. The story, included in his first collection of short stories Hue and Cry (1969), was about a young aspiring writer working as a janitor and his older white supervisor.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, he decided against a career in law and instead entered the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa where he earned an MFA and eventually became a professor. McPherson had been a professor and member of the writers' workshop since 1981 where he gained status of professor emeritus.

His next anthology Elbow Room (1978) won McPherson the Pulitzer Prize, and he became the first African American to win a Pulitzer for fiction (Alex Haley was awarded a special Pulitzer for Roots in 1977). McPherson's non-fiction work includes Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture (1976), and he has written personal essays such as Crabcakes (1988) and A Region Not Home (2000) that explore his own life and identity.

Other notable awards include receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1972, being named a MacArthur Fellow in 1981, and an induction into the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences in 1995.

McPherson passed away on July 27, 2016 at the age of 72.