Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Of Literature and Humanity

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). Professor Ward has been a faithful guest blogger for the HBW.

Having been informed recently by a young philosopher that metaphysics has been banished from the realm of serious philosophy, I shall assume the premature death of African American literature is complemented by the premature rebirth of human literature. What did not perish in a white fire to be reborn as if it were an amoral phoenix is African American or black writing.

The wickedness of my premise must be challenged by thoughtful readings of Charles Johnson’s Being & Race: Black Writing since 1970 (Indiana UP, 1988), Dear Chester, Dear John: Letters between Chester Himes and John A. Williams (Wayne State UP, 2008) and Lawrence P. Jackson’s The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 (Princeton UP, 2011). The concept of human literature, as it is articulated on the playgrounds of some American universities and of the influential publishing industry, seems to be linked in odds ways to ideas about progress, the ahistorical disappearance of Jim Crow from the American body politic, amnesia of memory, and transcendental miracles in the practice of everyday life.  In the actual world of readers, no one doubts that Reginald Martin’s Everybody Know What Time It Is (2010 edition), Eileen Myles’s Inferno (A Poet’s Novel), John Edgar Wideman’s The Cattle Killing, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale, Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit, Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King are instances of human literature. The virus of doubt thrives best in combat zones peopled by ideologues, people who reinvent reality in their own images.

            Charles Johnson uses the phrase “human literature” strategically in “Progress in Literature,” posted on May 8, 2011 on E. Ethelbert Miller’s E-Channel: Johnson lends credibility to Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature? (Harvard UP, 2011) when he asserts that early 21st century black literature “can be said to have progressed to the stage of being seen now as simply human literature.”  Who is doing the seeing is my immediate question. People who are suddenly emancipated from Plato’s cave?

            Johnson answers my question in a universal fashion by concluding “Progress in Literature” with an open-ended question:

“All American writers, then, can only be approached today in terms of their individual voices and visions. And the quality of their literary and intellectual performances.  That is the basis on which each will be experienced and judged.  And isn’t that the dangerous freedom --- the progress --- that writers during the Harlem Renaissance dreamed of having?”

Johnson’s question ought to be dealt with in the context shaped by George Schuyler’s “The Negro-Art Hokum,” Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Richard Wright’s “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” Ann Petry “The Novel as Social Criticism” and LeRoi Jones’s “Myth of a Negro Literature.”  Moreover, one must observe the battle lines Johnson drew in Being & Race as he criticized “pre-individualistic” ideologies by declaring

“Obviously, it cannot be through such ideologies that genuine creative work is achieved.  Rather, all presuppositions, all theories, must be suspended before experience and meaning can be brought forth in black literary art” (29).

I hear sinister and dangerous laughter on the playgrounds and in the combat zones. “See, I told you African Americans never created anything that was genuinely creative until we ended Jim Crow, and they opted to fall in love with post-soul and post-racial aesthetics.

            When one reads all of Being & Race, one comes to the recognition that Johnson’s principled thinking is warranted in the Toulmin sense of argument by his commitment to philosophy.  The nature of language precludes our knowing the intentions that stand behind his thinking, because intentions can only be known by way of mimesis or representation. It is sufficient that his novels are instances of human literature.  We need to supplement our reading of Johnson with reading of the correspondence Chester Himes and John A. Williams conducted between 1962 and 1987. As writers of human literature, Himes and Williams had to climb many mountains.  Their exchanges are more than historical documents, because their written speech acts resonate meaningfully among the conditions of 2011.  And as we arm ourselves for serious engagements in the combat zones of literary critical thinking about human literature, we do need all the ammunition that Lawrence P. Jackson provides in a magisterial way about authorship and criticism between 1934 and 1960.

            Transmogrifying Jim and Jane Crow is not a signal that historians and creators of black writing should abandon indignation and vigilance at present or their tolerance for writing that is transcultural in the face of imagined futures. Literature and humanity do not ask us to perform a death dance on an electrified rug or on the Internet. Literature and humanity can only request that we acknowledge change and continuity without selling our heritage for thirty pieces of anything.

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