Thursday, March 31, 2011

Erasure and the state of black writing

[By Crystal Boson] 

           Percival Everett’s Erasure functions both as a skillful meta-narrative, and as a postmodern critique on the state of Black writing.  The work is reflexive of Everett’s own experience trying to break into the writing game and with the cultural and popular Powers That Be, those who could either grease his passage into the literary imagination or leave him stagnating in obscurity.  The novel’s protagonist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, is often criticized for his isolation within the intellectual ivory tower, and his distance from “authentic” black writing.  He attempts to write from his personal experience and challenge the notion that black writing, or blackness in and of itself, functions as a monolith; his approach, however, is overwhelmingly ignored by publishers, peers and the public.  Books that represent the seemingly authentic black experience, ones that offer cliché and stereotype, are propelled to the top of the public imagination by celebrity book clubs and literary hype men.  In frustration, disgust, and revolt, Ellison pens a sharply satirical novel with includes a protagonist that is a disenfranchised, degraded, and dehumanized amalgamation of several other “authentically” black texts.  Of course, the public loves it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Young Writers Need Models

Kevin Reeves is the author of s.m.i.l.e., his debut novel—a love story painted against a Chicago cityscape. Reeves received a BA from Harvard College and currently resides in Chicago, Illinois.

       Young writers need models. Early in my apprenticeship my predecessors fed me greatly. Still, I was also very eager to find work by young black male contemporaries, which I thought might be more relatable. When I discovered that Richard Wright published Native son around 32, James Baldwin Go Tell it On the Mountain around 29, James Alan McPherson Hue and Cry around 25, then winning the Pulitzer Prize around 35, and Jean Toomer Cane around 29, I thought, surely, there had to be a living young black male fiction writer whom I could turn to as a model. After a dedicated search, I found none. There were some young black male writers producing contemporary works of fiction, but their work seemed determined only to entertain. I was looking for something more, a deeper, richer perspective. Later, after a more thorough and committed search, I did find one young black male writer who seemed to have a deep respect for the art form and the urgent need to try to get life right on the page. Where were the rest? 
               Given post Civil Rights era progress and the fact that there were many young black male poets, I wondered, “Why is there such a lack of young black male literary fiction writers?” The decline, beginning in the early 1980s, is striking. For a time, I attributed the shortage to the way of the publishing industry, specifically the large New York publishing houses. I reasoned that during the Harlem Renaissance and the following decades the gatekeepers of the publishing world were more actively looking for more young black male voices. The socio-political climate of the times raised the demand for their perspective. Big publishing houses, and those connected to them, look for what they think is going to sell well. Writers who appear not to represent the mainstream benefit from spikes of perceived popular interest. Yet, the trends of big publishing are not responsible for the halting of young black male literary voices.

"'Thank-You' Note to American Presidents" By Jerry W. Ward


How beautiful

is the blood of the dead

splashed like azaleas 

on the body of Earth

You have 

made my day

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
March 29, 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Black Men, Education, and Political Activism

[By Kenton Rambsy]

The “100 Novels Project” provides the opportunity for scholars to make divergent connections between a broad range of authors in order to reveal a number of similarities between their works and better understand how individual black writers have the ability to distinguish their own artistic voices and also contribute to a larger chorus of voices that constitute African American literary traditions. 

As a graduate of Morehouse College, an all African American male college, I wanted to take the opportunity to survey a number of novels and focus more on the literary representations of black men and their educational pursuits across a 158-year time span of African American literature. Even though Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave (1853) is considered a novella, his work sparked my interest to think more critically about the educational/intellectual character traits of primary and secondary male characters in novels—specifically, identifying connections between education and political activism. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Digital Perspective

Digital Perspective—

In an effort to think about how digital mediums influence a person’s relationship with written and spoken word, the HBW will bring its followers five days of quotes from a single author, every week on our Facebook and Twitter accounts. The new initiative—also known as “Digital Perspective”—explores how users interpret the meaning of a concise quote that is a part of a larger conversation or discussion.

What historical, social, and political factors influence how a person reads a quote on the web? How does the meaning of a quote change depending on how it is presented? How do quotes influence a person’s impressions of an author? Questions of these sorts have encouraged us to start our new project! Please, join our experiment by commenting on the daily round of quotes and offering your own “Digital Perspective!”

Follow us on Twitter @ProjectHBW

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Literary Imagination of DuBois: The Quest of the Silver Fleece

[By Crystal Boson]          

 While W.E.B Du Bois is most known for his text, The Souls of Black Folk, he occasionally constructed works of fiction. “The Quest of the Silver Fleece”, has the same message of black consciousness and highlighted the repressive and reductive systems of white social control.  The main character, Blessed “Bles” Alwyn, negotiates between the physical binaries of north and south, the urban contrasted to the rural, and the metaphoric binary of an oppressive wasteland and the promised land.

            His protagonist, Bles, clearly lives up to his name; he has the ability to navigate both physically and socially through the physical and social landscapes between class, colour, and static, problematic landscapes.  He initially finds the rural landscape, and how black people have to enact to be considered successful.  His relationship with Zora is extremely problematic; he considers her past and role in society something to flee from and heads North, to an upwardly mobile class, career, and section of blackness to entertain and be entertained by.  While working on a senatorial campaign, he falls in love, but is more and more disturbed by the moral compromises that Blacks must make to obtain social success; far too often their cultural roots and personhood is negated for the love of money and social position. 
            Bles’s personal journal is placed against the backdrop of social and racial injustice.  The landscape, both Northern and Southern, is practicing the idea that the emancipation that slaves experienced was in name only, and the social, economic and cultural system of the day was still beholden to the silver fleece of cotton.  The economic and social systems of government regulation and cultural access are still functioning under this assumption, and of course, the black body is continually denied access to the franchise.  Bles learns that labour under this system, whether work of the tongue and mind or of the back and brow negate the black body and bend it to breaking.  

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Comments on James Baldwin’s The Cross of Redemption

Guest Blogger Professor Jerry W. Ward

Baldwin, James. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. Ed. Randall Kenan. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.

“Is A Raisin in the Sun a Lemon in the Dark?” is one of the more revealing essays in this collection. Disputing Nelson Algren’s criticism of Hansberry’s play as a drama about real estate and his valuation of Wright’s Native Son, Baldwin contended “both Native Son and A Raisin in the Sun are flawed pieces of work,” because he found “a profound connection between the two works, and even certain rather obvious similarities. Wright’s flaw is…involved with [an] attempt to illuminate ruthlessly as unprecedented a creation as Bigger by means of the stock characters of Jan, the murdered girl’s lover, and Max, the white lawyer”(25).  Bigger’s tortured reality precludes belief in the two.  Likewise, belief is not warranted by Hansberry’s “juxtaposition of the essentially stock…figure of the mother with the intense (and unprecedented) figure of Walter Lee.  Most Americans do not know that he exists” (26).

Despite his awareness in 1961 that drastic measures were needed to educate most Americans about systemic racism, Baldwin yearned for dramatic verisimilitude divorced from social data, for a certain kind of art.  One profits from reconsidering Baldwin’s problematic judgment by way of reading Robin Bernstein’s “Inventing a Fishbowl: White Supremacy and the Critical Reception of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun” in Modern Drama (Spring 1999).

 Baldwin’s venial flaw was insufficient consideration of the agon of the particular and the universal in American letters.  His flaw leads to a cardinal, contemporary question: should most Americans even care that the characters Walter Lee Younger and Bigger Thomas have become living human beings? An answer might illuminate something.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Professor of English at Dillard University, is the author of The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO Press, 2008). A Richard Wright scholar, poet, literary critic, Ward was born in Washington, DC but has spend most of his adult life in Mississippi and Louisiana. He is co-editor with Maryemma Graham of The Cambridge History of African American Literature and HBW Senior Board Member. 

Richard Wright and Philosophy

Review By Guest Blogger Jerry W. Ward
 We can expect a significant contribution to Wright studies in late 2011 when Philosophical Meditations on Richard Wright, edited by James Haile, is published by Lexington Publishers.  According to an email I received from Hail

Philosophical Meditations on Richard Wright is an edited collection that brings together philosophers, literary theorists, and theologians on the intersection of Richard Wright’s corpus—novels, critical essays, travel writings, and poetry—and philosophical method. This collection is a unique contribution to the academic discipline of philosophy as the first sustained philosophical engagement of an African American literary figure.
Utilizing various philosophical methods—existentialism, phenomenology, and hermeneutics—this collection provides new perspectives on Wright’s work as well as on the discipline of philosophy, engaging emergent theories of black existentialism, rethinking ontology and facticity and the meaning of race and the phenomena blackness in the United States, in the West, and the world at large. Moreover, this collection allows us to realign Wright’s work, and challenges us to rethink our contemporary situation and our contemporary issues, by tracing in his work the historical trajectory and many significant moments in the modernization of the world: the legacies of segregation in South and the anonymity and alienation of the urban North in the United States, the politicalicization of nationality and race in Europe, and the paradoxical relationship between the West in general, and in particular, black Americans to the continent of Africa and the African Diaspora.

The new perspectives in this collection can help us to reexamine Wright’s readings in philosophy and his subtle or not so subtle incorporation of philosophical positions in his works. It is likely that such reexamination will free us from endless discussions of Wright’s naturalism and enable us to speak more clearly about his still relevant contributions to modernist thought.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March 16 Black Literary Suite Report

[By Kenton Rambsy]

On March 16, the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) held its first showing of selections from the “100 Novels Project.”

The 100 Novels Project explores and celebrates the political, social, cultural and historical significance of 100 works of black literature. The temporal scope of the works is wide ranging, spanning from the late 19th century to the 21st century. Many of the works have been transformed into film and were staples on the New York Times bestseller list.

The Black Literary Suite is a three-part series of exhibits that utilizes quantitative research in order to enhance understandings of black literary history. The exhibits, an extension of the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW), feature 100 African American novels from HBW’s collection.

Over eight dozen factors related to publication dates, publisher regions, author information, settings, and protagonist demographics were gathered and correlated as a way of identifying notable trends in the publishing history of black novels. The main goals of this project are to shed new light on the holdings in HBW’s novel collection and stimulate more conversations about what we can learn by studying a large number of black artistic compositions produced over 150 years.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Black Speculative Fiction and Octavia Butler

[By Crystal Boson]

  Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel, Kindred is a skillful combination of several literary genres; it serves as a superb entre into the realm of Black Speculative Fiction and functions as a postmodern, inverse slave narrative.   Her characters’ 20th century experiencing of slavery places the work within the long tradition of slaves narratives, where individuals speak to their own experiences of direct oppression and liberation, and presents the oppositional gaze, forcing Kevin to examine racialized and gendered privilege and the impact that slavery has upon the contemporary moment.
            As a work of speculative fiction, Kindred takes place both in the past and a present moment.  It also explores in this layered setting the strength in which seemingly disenfranchised characters hold against the dominant discourse.  The temporal and spatial shifting of the work make it a difficult one to nail down.
            Butler’s decision to force Kevin, a white male, to witness first hand the dehumanizing impact of slavery both upon those who enforce the practice, and the people suffering under the system sets in visceral proximity its damaging psychological and emotional effects.  The work acknowledges the defenses the dominant discourse has constructed to distance itself from slavery, through the rewriting of literary and cultural history, and works against those constructs.  Dana is physically dragged back to the past to keep her present moment from being rewritten; when Kevin does not place belief in her statement of travel, he is flung into the past as well, but without much of the knowledge that Dana possessed about the system of slavery and its degrading force.
            The work presents interesting depictions of agency.  Dana is not in control of her acts of time travel; she is summoned by some unexplained power of Rufus, and dismissed only by a tremendous fear for her life, created by circumstances beyond her control.  Despite her lack of direct control over her temporal jumps, she has both symbolic and overt power over Rufus.  Kevin is also vastly dependent upon her, both for his emotional wellbeing and his safe return to his present.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

One Function of Speculation in African American Literary History

Welcome Guest Blogger: Professor Jerry W. Ward

Predictions about the end of African American literature pivot on definitions of what is African American and on who is making the definition.  Such predictions are odd but not new.  Addressing European audiences in “The Literature of the Negro in the United States,” Richard Wright argued that “the Negro is America’s metaphor” and that what the metaphor signaled was a nervous, “constant striving for identity.”  The striving would cease when Negro writers were as intimately immersed in their cultures as Alexander Dumas, Alexander Pushkin, and Phyllis Wheatley had been in theirs.  Wright sought to persuade his auditors that should a complete “merging of Negro expression with American expression” occur, the blending would be a sufficient reason for the actual “disappearance of Negro literature as such.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Men and Migration--Revisited

[By Kenton Rambsy]

The movement of black people from the South to the North stands out as a major recurring theme in African American literature. Looking at a select few black male novelists work will reveal how migrations patterns are expressed through fictive representations of black male protagonists.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cultural Oppositions and Jean Toomer

[By Crystal Boson]

Jean Toomer’s Cane is a beautiful modernist text that captures the binaries that are most easily associated with Black literary lives of the early 20th century: The North versus the South and the rural laid against the urban.  In its entirety, the work follows the trail of the Great Migration, starting South, heading North, and concluding in a liminal space that is in simultaneously neither and both location. The first section of the book focuses upon the trappings that situate the Southern landscape as a site of horror and oppression.  The poem “Portrait in Georgia” calls up the spectre of lynching, and places it in conversation with images of inter and intra racial social violence, present in Blood-Burning Moon, Karintha and Becky.  The Southern landscape is not entirely demonized; the poems “Song of the South” and “November Cotton Flower” hold glimpses of beauty.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Oprah Winfrey and Black Literature

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Oprah Winfrey has been a major leader in promoting African American literature through various dramatic mediums. Oprah Winfrey’s mark on black literature has been significant in terms of dramatizing the works of Richard Wright, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Remixing Literary History With Paul Beatty

[By Crystal Boson]

Paul Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle often serves as a poignant satire about the modern role of the cultural mulatto and the destination of the search for communal bonding and self-identification. The novel blends elements of literary theory’s latest darling, postmodern theory, cultural displacement, alternative African American religion, and popular culture.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Great Migration

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Utilizing a database of 100 novels reveals useful ways of considering the central topic of migration in African American literature. Mapping novel settings and the movements of protagonists across different geographic locations provides general readers and scholars important opportunities to consider how migration has emerged in the literary imagination of black novelists.