Monday, December 17, 2012

The Death of African American Literature

[By Jerry Ward]

Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.
John 2.18

Most scholars, writers, and readers might agree that African American literature consists of orature (oral literary creations) and writings by people of African descent in the United States from the colonial period to the present. Once we move beyond so simple a definition, we forced to navigate a swamp of competing claims.

The definition of what was called Negro literature from the colonial period up to the 1960s was challenged by two of LeRoi Jones' (Amiri Baraka's) essays ---"Myth of a Negro Literature" and "Black Writing" --in Home: Social Essays (New York: William Morrow, 1966). Following the spirit of Richard Wright's "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937), Baraka argued successfully that Negro literature was created more for the inspection of white people than as a body of work that directly addressed the needs of African Americans; he called for black writing or black (African American) literature that would speak directly to black people. Thus, a new definition of African American literature came into being in the 1960s.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

4 Novels: Veterans in African American Literature

[Compiled By Goyland Williams]

Recently, I noticed the connections between Toni Morrison’s Sula and her newest novel, Home. In both novels, Morrison captures both the pain and sheer violence that African American veterans still endure many years after they have returned home from combat. Whether it is Shadrack-the shell shocked veteran of World War 1 who institutes “National Suicide Day” or Frank Money-the 24 year old Korean War Veteran who simply wanted to escape “the worst place in the world”, both narrative emphasize the lasting horrors and enduring trauma of war.

What is most interesting to me is that Morrison’s work is just a part of a larger African American continuum from Chester Himes to Junius Edwards. All of their work, to some extent, depicts the impact of racial, psychological, and personal problems of African American soldiers.

I have compiled a list of four novels by African American writers that place an emphasis on black men who were affected by participating in American wars.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Reading List: 5 African American Books for the Winter Holidays

[By Goyland Williams]

With the holiday season fast approaching, I have begun to compile my reading list for the Christmas and New Years break. Ranging from Jesmyn Ward to Percival Everett, my reading list is comprised of black writers whose work seeks to expand our conception of how black identity is constructed and how we conceive of those persons living on the margins of society.

In some ways, Morrison’s Home provides a revisionist history of the 1950s America to disrupt the “Leave it to Beaver” image that many have about the period and show the struggles that existed under the surface of black American culture.  Tananarive Due, on the other hand, offers Afro-futuristic visions about the healing power of music in her speculative story set in the not too distant future.  

My holiday reading list consists of five works of fiction written by black writers published within the last two years.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Excellent Absurdity of Legitimate Rape: A Note on Art and History

[By Jerry Ward]

The American mind seems to have a limited capacity for dealing with either the diachronic or synchronic aspects of issues.  That is unfortunate.  However, if we seek to overcome those limits, we discover a profound need to deal with the absurd.  In August 2012, we had occasion to consider the excellent absurdity of legitimate rape.

Representative Todd Akin of Missouri said on public television”

It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare.  If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

Had Akin momentarily become the anti-hero of Voltaire’s novel Candide and were his unguarded remarks  informed by the twisted beliefs of Dr. Pangloss?  Was he at all aware of what Mark Twain, a famous writer from Missouri, had said about the madness of “rape” in King Leopold’s Soliloquy?  Perhaps not.  Few of our politicians can demonstrate cultural literacy.  But from the angle of literary analysis, it seemed Akin had uttered a proposition about “rape” that was itself “legitimated” by the genocidal “rape” of indigenous peoples to obtain the Lebensraum that is now the United States of America.  From the angles of cultural analysis and biology, it seemed Akin was dead wrong,  because “legitimate rape” of the African female body during the period of slavery so frequently resulted in pregnancy. Akin suffered from the convenient amnesia that for thousands of years has made rape legitimate. Much of the outrage about his statement pertained, I suspect, to his treachery in revealing a secret that was no secret.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The White Minstrelsy of American Politics

[By Jerry Ward]

Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen’s aptly titled Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip Hop (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012) is a smart and timely book.

It is smart because Taylor and Austen chose not to ape Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993) or to mimic Robert C. Toll’s Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (1974).  Instead they focus on the centrality of minstrelsy in cultural expressions and suggest we should care about that expressive tradition because American “culture wouldn’t exist without minstrelsy” (5).  Take their exaggerated claim with a grain of pepper: American culture would be duller and safer without minstrelsy, but it would exist.  Nevertheless, their attractive work should have a companion volume entitled Darkest America: White Minstrelsy from Colonial Conquest to Social Pathology.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Eugene B. Redmond and Cultural Documentation

[By Jerry Ward]

Eugene B. Redmond turns seventy-five on December 1, 2012.  It is obligatory to make a few notes about his legacy to world culture and the world of letters.

How many of his fellow writers has he helped to scrub a river’s back by publishing them in Drumvoices Revue?  How has his invention of the “kwansaba” enriched poetics?  How does his extensive collection of photographs, housed in the Elijah P. Lovejoy Library at Southern IllinoisUniversity Edwardsville, constitute an invaluable archive for research on writers and artists?  How do Redmond’s poems exist as works of art and as models for work to be assumed by individuals in a tradition, by people who have not committed artistic or intellectual suicide?  What impact has his neologic signature had on our use of poetic languages?  How does his now classic Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry (1976) serve as our prototype for critical, humanly engaged scholarship?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Function of Voice: Narrating in the Third Person

[By Kenton Rambsy]

My discussion of Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright and their use of African American Vernacular English in their short stories led me to think about other short story writers and how their use of third person narrative voice can possibly reveal insight into the relationship between black writers and their reading audiences. In addition to short stories by Hurston such as “Spunk” (1925) and “Sweat” (1926) and by Wright like “Big Boy Leaves Home” (1936) and “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1944), Charles Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” (1898) and Rudolph Fisher’s “The City of Refuge” (1925) also utilize the third person to relate information to their reading audiences. The frequent appearances of these stories in anthologies over the decades might mean that we should give more attention to the common narrative modes that the writers adopted. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Text Mining: Two Short Stories By Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Often times, there is a major emphasis placed on the ideological differences between Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. In some respects, the tendency to highlight their differences overshadows their similarities. Besides, perhaps their writings have more in common than accounts of the differences imply.

I recently decided to focus on what the writers had in common specifically concentrating on how they used language in their short stories. To aid in my investigation, I used the text-mining program Voyant to analyze Hurston’s “Sweat” (1926) and Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home” (1938). Voyant is a free text analysis program that allows its users to sift through digitized texts and pinpoint similarities and differences among a number of texts.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Philosophy and Politics

[By Jerry Ward]

HBW Board Member Prof. Jerry Ward responds to questions posed on the HBW Blog and Facebook Accounts

Q:  Where can I read more about how Wright employed philosophy in his writing?  Who did he drawn on and what political experiences was he responding to?

A1:  You can read Philosophical Meditations on Richard Wright (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), edited by James B. Haile, III and The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), edited by Jianqing Zheng.  These books will inform you about Wright’s uses of Western and Eastern philosophies.  To gain some insights about how philosophy was an integral part of Wright’s life and creativity, you should the biographies of Wright by Constance Webb, Michel Fabre, Margaret Walker, and Hazel Rowley.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lance Jeffers (1919-1985): WRITING TOWARD BALANCE

[By Jerry Ward]

Equating the power of Lance Jeffers’ mind with intellectual passion, Eugene Redmond proclaimed in his introduction for When I Know the Power of My Black Hand (1974) that Jeffers was “a giant baobab tree we younger saplings lean on, because we understand that he bears witness to the power and majesty of ‘Pres, and Bird, and Hodges, and all’ “(11).  In bearing witness to fabulous musicians, Jeffers left evidence in his poetry and his novel Witherspoon (1983) that the art of writing well entails finding a balance between the kind of humility to which Redmond alludes and the mastery of craft.

In an interview with Paul Austerlitz included in Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity (Middletown, Ct: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), Milford Graves speaks about his interest in Einstein and quantum physics.  John Coltrane was also immersed in study of Einstein’s physics. In the poetry of Asili Ya Nadhiri, one discovers his indebtedness to jazz and physics, just as one finds in Jeffers’ poetry an indebtedness to the study of anatomy, jazz and classical music.  Strong poets and strong musicians are receptive to mastering their craft by making intellectual investments in disciplines which, on the surface, seem remote from their own.  Assertive humility is important.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Thomas Sowell’s Post-Intellectual Novel

[By Jerry Ward]

Often only a small portion of a work attaches itself to the mind as equipment for living.  “What happens to a dream deferred?” (Langston Hughes,”Harlem”), “But what I killed for, I am! (Richard Wright, Native Son), or the words I never quote precisely “You know…as well as I we have not been in this howling wilderness for four hundred years for the right to be stupid.” (Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters)  --- words are weapons for war.  After reading Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2009), I want to add to the ammunition pile ----“The great problem ---and the great social danger --- with purely internal criteria is that they can easily become sealed off from feedback from the external world of reality and remain circular in their methods of validation” (7).  In those disciplines Sowell chose to criticize, especially those of the humanities, what he calls the “empirical validity” of an idea is rarely discussed.  As we move by way of digital humanities ever deeper into the territory of interdisciplinarity, we need “empirical validity” to protect ourselves from the natives.  It might also be wise to take along some glocks and AK47s that are not metaphors and to let the habit of taking things at Facebook value taste the bitter flavors of death.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Lament for Ralph Ellison

[By Jerry Ward]

HBW Board Member Prof. Jerry Ward responds to questions posed on the HBW Blog and Facebook Accounts

QUESTION:    The Invisible Man creates a space outside of time where he indeed can begin to imagine and construct new relations between the past and present as well as art and technology.  By doing so, he creates a new black future.  How can I expand upon this thought with other literary examples?

With so many political issues being discussed in black novels, how do you distinguish from political propaganda and art?  Or, is it both?  In other words, would some black writers write just for art’s sake and happen to have political sentiments in the work?

Throughout the novel, the protagonist concludes that his invisibility stems from the fact that he is unable to define himself outside the influence of others.  There is a lack of agency that is attributed to blackness.  Nearly everyone that he encounters throughout the novel attempts to tell him who and what he should be.  Thus, his going underground literally is an attempt to define himself for himself outside of time and space (everyday ebb and flow) while still confined by that same time and space.  Is this a correct reading of Ellison’s Invisible Man?  What other literary works deal with these ideas of visibility and invisibility?  It doesn’t have to be a literal invisibility, but perhaps being ignored or overlooked.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Making the Connection with Gwendolyn Brooks: Maud Martha & “Kitchenette Building”

[By Simone Savannah]

Gwendolyn Brooks Maud Martha (1953) is said to be an example of the decline of the protest novel because it offers a shift to optimism. The novella is semi-autobiographical as it does not offer a straight memoir of Brook’s lived experiences. Additionally, Maud Martha  is structured in vignettes which adds to the very poetic personal story of the protagonist. Furthermore, the novella presents a theme of domesticity that is also present in Brook’s poem “Kitchenette Building” (1963).

One could argue that vignettes fifteen and twenty-three of Maud Martha establish the background for “Kitchenette Building” and help readers come to an understanding of a kitchenette. For instance, vignette fifteen, “the kitchenette,” describes the type of apartment building. Maud Martha imagines the furniture she would like to move into her apartment before she learns that she is not permitted to add, remove, or rearrange any furniture. The apartment and apartment building then become a “gray” space occupied by the odors and sounds of Maud Martha, her husband, and other tenants. Further, “kitchenette folks” describes the tenants and each of their habits.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Winning: Changing the Language of Breast Cancer

[By Phillis h. Rambsy]

In her recent blog post, Simone Savannah reminds us that instead of thinking of their bodies as “abnormal” women should “take charge of their health which also means embracing the differences in their bodies.”  Savannah points to the several poems that “give women the space to embrace their bodies.”  These poems allow women, particularly, Black women, to re-imagine the racist and sexist views of the Black female body.

Just as Savannah reminds us to be cognizant of the necessity of re-imagining the body, we should also be cognizant of re-imagining the language that is utilized to describe the lives of those who fight the opponent of breast cancer.  In revisiting a post from last year about Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, the vitality of Lorde in the face of breast cancer rival is striking.  Lorde’s language is one of a victor; one who is faced with a life-threatening disease but still chooses autonomy and victory rather than victimization and defeat.  Although, Lorde ultimately died as a result of breast cancer, she definitely was not defeated by the disease.  Lorde, through her narrative about her struggle with disease, proves that those diagnosed with breast cancer are not mere victims of the disease.  Above all, even in death, Lorde’s words remind us that those who have breast cancer, and even die from it, do not necessarily endure a losing battle.

Breast Cancer: Black Women's Bodies and Poetry

[By Simone Savannah]

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was established in 1985 to encourage women to take charge of their breast health by getting mammograms. Mammography is used to screen breast abnormalities for both men and women. As I did my research on breast cancer, I was drawn to the word “abnormal” as it was very much present throughout each blog and medical site. What exactly is “abnormal,” and how do medicines, treatments, and surgeries correct abnormalities?

I’ve come across various blogs and journal articles that talk about how various body types are abnormal, especially if they belong to Black women.  Of course, there are articles on Sara Baartman, a Khoi (South African) woman who became a spectacle of white male sexual desire because of her voluptuous body. Featured in a London exhibit, she was subjected to poking and ordered to parade before a white audience that was fascinated by her “abnormal” buttocks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Democratic Womanism by Alice Walker

[By Simone Savannah]

Alice Walker recently read her new poem, “Democratic Womanism” on Democracy Now! Used throughout her book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, the “Womanism” is used to describe the perspectives and the experiences of women of color. Though the propaganda surrounding this election has been about women’s issues, including reproductive health and rights, and though candidates have attempted to share their own “feminist” values/beliefs, Walker crafts her poem as a call for a new (Womanist) order. As stated in her poem, she wants Democratic Womanism, “a way of life that honors the feminine; a way that acknowledges the theft of the wisdom female and dark Mother leadership might have provided our spaceship all along”.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Confrontation With Abuse for Black Women in Ntazoke Shange's “With No Immediate Cause” and Nikki Giovanni's “Woman”

[By Simone Savannah]

I have spent a number of years examining women’s issues, including the confrontation with sexism and racism for Black women in Literature and Creative Writing. Furthermore, since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and because of the overwhelming conversations about recent attacks against Black women, I have chosen to dedicate this post to victims/survivors of domestic violence.

The conversations surrounding the abuse of brown and black girls have been particularly frustrating for me and a few of my colleagues. Examining the language used to justify domestic (and public) violence, it is possible that these conversations are unnerving to women (and men) who have suffered abuse and are working to dismantle patriarchal notions of masculinity and femininity that shape our responses to violence.

Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Bad Blood

[By Jerry Ward]

A (1):  To read Wright’s review, click here.

There you will find the in-house review by Hurston’s publisher and reviews by George Stevens, Lucille Thompson, Sheila Hibben, Otis Ferguson, Sterling Brown, and Alain Locke.  Wright was not the only male who did not praise Hurston’s novel in 1937.

A (2):  As one result of American cultural games, the bad blood has been so magnified that what is a sub-atomic particle looks like a Siberian tiger.  In literary circles, one game is played by driving a contrived wedge between selected African American iconic figures.  The divisive action is formulaic.  Select two people ---let us say, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Terry McMillan and Toni Morrison, or Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.  Extract diametrically opposed quotations from each either in or out of context.  Magnify and distort the differences.  Claim the differences are symbolic of some more or less permanent fault line in the collective consciousness of a people, symbolic of a wailing wall of hate between the two people selected.  You do not have to provide proof, nor exercise the civility of waiting for an answer.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Souls of White Folk

[By Jerry Ward]

One hundred and forty years after his birth, Paul Laurence Dunbar‘s presence in African American collective memory is as secure as any presence can be in a society that values forgetting. Finding

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Collected Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Herbert Woodward Martin, Ronald Primeau and Gene Andrew Jarrett. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009.

in a New Orleans public library inspires a spoonful of hope.  Readers who only know Dunbar as our historical poet laureate or his novel The Sport of the Gods (1902) and a few of his short stories have an opportunity to discover, as the editors note, that Dunbar’s first three novels --- The Uncalled (1898), The Love of Landry (1900), and The Fanatics (1901) –“together challenge the long-standing assumption that African American authors should cast only blacks as main characters and as messengers of racial justice” (vii).  Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Sewanee, William Gardner Smith’s Anger at Innocence, Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door, Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday, and Ann Petry’sCountry Place do challenge the assumption, but so weird an assumption  warrants  our being reminded of Dunbar’s pride of place in challenging what is inane.

Reading Gayl Jones Corregidora: The Body Text

[By Goyland Williams]

The Corregidora women are haunted. The trauma is evident. Entrenched in a narrative marred by the legacy of slavery, oppression, and the ghost of the past, Gayl Jones explores what Susan Sontag calls “collective instruction” of traumatic narratives that are inscribed upon the flesh of the Corregidora women. Lines become blurred. The personal, familial, and collective remembrances of violent histories collide. In her novel, Jones creates a family legacy of remembering such trauma through passing down stories of terror and horror to future generations. In this moment, remembering and witnessing are kept to make visible both the scars and the blood.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Lesson Before Dying: Notes for Human Liberation

[By Goyland Williams]

Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying has been compared to the works of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and even William Faulkner. Much like these writers, Gaines calls the reader to confront the entire bitter history of black people in the South and America as a whole. No doubt, Gaines writes this piece just as much for the white youth of this country as he does for the African-American youth of the rural south—a south germinated by race and slavery.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An Ethic of Quiet: Beyond the Black Public Self

[By Goyland Williams]

It is 1968. Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman stand poised during the Olympic medal ceremony in Mexico City. Both Smith and Carlos’ heads are bowed-as if in deep prayer, their clinched fists are raised high, and their black bodies are on display for all the world to see. And while this public protest may be read as both intimate and resistant, it is the latter that is received as the dominant read of black culture. Beyond the boundaries of public expressiveness, the concept of quiet may also inform and articulate the depths of one’s humanity. So begins Kevin Quashie’s The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Black Humanist Theology: Reading Toni Morrison

[By Goyland Williams]

My research interest in philosophy and literature- more specifically, Existentialism, has continuously led me to the works of Toni Morrison. And while Morrison’s works need no justification—philosophical or literary—they present an opportunity to consider how the history of oppression can afflict a group of people, both past and present. The Bluest Eye presents the most compelling response to the question Dubois raised nearly a century ago: “What Meaneth Black Suffering”?

Precisely, Morrison’s novel is a question of “theodicy”—understood as the question of God’s justice in the presence of human suffering. In her fictional world, God is not limited to the traditional Western notion of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Instead, the concept of God must compete with the existence of evil and narratives of suffering and affliction in the face of a faith tradition that preaches the omnipotence of a just God.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Learning from a Postracial Moment: Notes from The University of Bielefeld

[By Maryemma Graham]

Bielefeld University in the western part of Germany seemed an unlikely place to make a discovery.  Teaching for 30 years, facing a new group of students on a regular basis is common practice for me. As far as I was concerned, my trip to the University of Bielefeld for an intensive 4 day seminar “Gender and Memoir” entailed another set of prepared lectures, knowing that I was going to a meet interesting students whose comprehension of what I had to say would come by way of translation.  I had also prepared myself also to expect little of the nuance that comes when there is apparent cultural and/or ethnic reciprocity, even if the discussions are at a high level of sophistication.  What could really happen in such a short span of time, I thought to myself.

I was pleasantly surprised to find otherwise: fully engaged students, highly proficient speakers and readers of the literature I had proposed we read, and a entirely new set of questions and interpretations—as a result of the range of disciplines the students represented. We have something to learn from those who read literature with fresh new eyes, free from the predispositions that living in racialized America brings.

But this is not about those questions and interpretation, but about something else far more valuable that I learned.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Our Poets are Our Dangerous Friends

[By Jerry Ward]

Our poets do many beneficial things for our commonweal.  They teach in public schools, in colleges and universities, in alternative education programs, in community centers and churches and sites of ill-repute.  When they feel generous, they call our attention to the works of other poets, to the writings of novelists, essayists, hard and soft scientists, and dramatists.  When they feel bitter and small, they call attention only to their egos.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Black Studies and Digital Humanities: A Growing List of Online Resources

[Compiled by Kenton Rambsy & Goyland Williams]

I am interested in online mediums, blogs in particular, can be used as a space to think through ideas when preparing larger publications, getting immediate feedback, and simply giving larger audiences access to new ideas and information.  In terms of bridging the gap between “Digital Humanities” and “Black Studies,” developing an online presence is crucial. Online websites concerning black culture serve as points of entry for how wider audiences engage in scholarship about African American life and history.

Below, this list constitutes the growing “digital resources” by professors, public figures, collective groups, and institutions that can be used to discuss and study issues in Black Studies. Ranging from the personal blog of Professor Adam Banks and rhetorical matters to digital archives of HistoryMakers, the innovative means by which social networking and online mediums are used to create and shape conversations about black culture is noteworthy. 


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mixtapes, Digital Humanities, and Black Studies

[By Kenton Rambsy]

In terms of hip-hop culture, mixtapes have always been a crucial part of how rappers and other musical artists produced and circulated their works beyond official channels. Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc, back in the day, and in more recent times Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, and Frank Ocean utilized mixtapes to get their works out to different publics.  

With the rise of social networking, mixtapes have played an even more crucial role in shaping the musical landscape by reconfiguring how fans get access to music, what type of musical trends become popular, and what artists we listen to the most. Overall, the digital age has altered the means of production and distribution in some respects.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What Literary Scholars Can Learn from Rap Genius

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Among many useful outlets out there on the web, Rap Genius serves as one important model of a collaborative, digital database comprised of an expansive body of works featuring an African American art form. Rap Genius is akin to Wikipedia. However, it’s for rap music.

The website explains the relationship between musical lyrics and social/historical content to provide explanations to rap music and R&B songs. To use the website, users simply have to search for a specific song, scroll their cursor over a particular line, and read the, often times, in-depth explanation of the content of a particular line, word, or verse of a rap song.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Access Stunts Digital Studies in Black Literature

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Last month, I attended THAT Camp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) hosted by the University of Kansas’s Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities. The three-day institute’s goal was geared towards equipping scholars/researchers with online resources to enhance how we study literature by building online databases, using text mining software, and the like.

Not surprising, I was only one of about 4 other black people in attendance at the conference. It was not a surprise because among emerging literary scholars, I often hear a version of the comment that “black scholars just aren’t that sold on the benefits of digital research.” While I think that view has some merit, I started to focus more on the structural issues that may even prevent younger scholars from becoming engaged in using new technologies to participate in knowledge production in black literary and cultural study.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips: The Revenge of Unfinished Modernism

[By Jerry W. Ward]

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ The Ground (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2012) distinguishes itself from many of the first collections flooding the poetry market for at least two reasons:  1) Philips is remarkably modest in using his broad cultural literacy and his translator’s insights about the strengths and fragility of language qua language; 2) the ontology of The Ground is made special by the conditions of its materiality. The book has been published by one of the few remaining firms in the United States that possesses the aura of class.  The virtue of the book is attested by the right people: Lucie Brock-Broido, who theorized in 1995 that a poem is a thing that wounds; Henri Cole, the poetry editor of The New Republic; Evie Shockley, a poet and critic who happens to be a Cave Canem graduate fellow. The book jacket is a sepia photograph by Nuria Royo Planas, a powerful evocation of film noir to characterize the dark psychology of post-9/11 New York City.  It is obvious that grace and sophistication was involved in locating Phillips’ work in the territory of high-ground modernism.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ishmael Reed and the American War of Words

[By Jerry W. Ward]

The October 3 presidential debate was a capital example of America’s war of words and visualized rhetoric.  The spectacle was ulotrichy.  Viewers are still at a loss to determine whether either debater said anything substantive regarding the economy, health care, the role of government, or a philosophy of governing.

Things would have been different and clearer had Ishmael Reed rather than James Charles Lehrer been the debate moderator.  Reed would not have stayed out of the flow.  He would have directed the debaters into the superdome of history.  Unlike Lehrer, Reed understands that a presidential debate is predicated on America’s social and racial contract and that one dividend of this contract is our nation’s contemporary nervous breakdown.

On Richard Rorty’s Shadow of Pragmatic Hope

[By Jerry W. Ward]

Kevin Young promotes the idea of the lost shadow book in The Grey Album.  “In some crucial ways,” according to Young, “the lost shadow book is the book that blackness writes every day.  The book that memory, time, accident, and the active forms of oppression prevent from being read”(14).  Young, of course, is lying like a first-class philosopher as he recycles the governing idea in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo: Jes Grew must seek its text.

Sometimes the lost shadow is oral, as was the brilliant public conversation between Max Roach and John Scott at a Zora Neale Hurston Festival.  The conversation was not taped.  It can’t be heard.  It is a shadow of memory in the minds of those who were there, who listened in awe.  To be sure, those fragile shadows are hastened to oblivion by the brighter shadows of emerging technologies.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Natasha Trethewey and the Eyes of Historical/Poetic Consciousness

[By Jerry Ward]

In Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), an aptly titled collection, Trethewey makes a partial analysis of bondage.  Unlike their synonym “slavery,” thrall and bondage provoke images of the exotic, the gendered perversity we can easily confuse with “love,” and what is plainly erotic.  Trethewey is extending the work begun in her second collection Bellocq’s Ophelia and placing greater stress on ekphrasis, the literary commentary on the visual image as text.  The emphasis in Belocq’s Ophelia was on use of the persona and restoration of voice to the visual silence of invasive photography.  Thrall directs attention away from such intimacy and toward the more blatant uses in painting of visual classification, particularly in the casta paintings of Juan Rodríguez Juárez and other artists fascinated by the body, the racialized evidence of the social constructions of biology. Ekphrasis is not exactly rare in poetry, and in African American poetry its touchstone is Clarence Major’s masterpiece “The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage,” a redoubling painterly text which Linda Ferguson Selzer brilliantly explicated in African American Review.  One might gain much from reading Trethewey’s poems in tandem with rather than in gendered opposition to Major’s experiment with historical/poetic consciousness.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Third Annual Black Aesthetics as Politics: Call for Presentations

Black ExistentialismS: Situating Black Existential Philosophy
February 15, 2013

Submission Deadline: December 1, 2012
Send Submissions and Inquiries to

Celebrating the diversity of understandings, explanations, and explorations into the meaning of blackness within cultural, political, philosophical, and aesthetic life, Duquesne University in conjunction with the Black Aesthetics and Politics series invites participants from a wide range of disciplines and mediums to this year’s topic, Black ExistentialismS: Situating Black Existential Philosophy.

Ytasha Womack author of Post‐Black: How a Generation is
Redefining African American Identity
Jaamil Olawale Kosoko of The Philadiction Movement
Staycee Pearl of Staycee Pearl Dance Project

Monday, October 1, 2012

Encountering Richard Wright & Jerry Ward

[By Howard Rambsy II]

In July of 1996, shortly after completing my first year of undergrad at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, I was on a bus traveling from Paris to Dijon, France, where I would be taking summer courses. As I settled into the bus ride, I decided to look over reading material that I carried—the 1993 reissue of Richard Wright’s Black Boy. It turns out that Jerry W. Ward, Jr., whom I would take my first literature course with in the upcoming fall at Tougaloo, wrote the introduction for the edition of Wright’s book.

I had read Wright’s Native Son my senior of high school, and in some ways, I had been inspired to go to France because I had discovered, in the back of the reissue of Native Son, that Wright had traveled to France years and years ago. Later, as a grad student, I would retrace Wright’s steps again, this time to Ghana.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. and Custodial Clowns

[By Jerry W. Ward]

Several times during his September 20, 2012 lecture on “The Crisis of Black Leadership” at the University of Kansas, Eddie Glaude, author of In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (2007), used the phrases “custodial politics” and “democratic perfectionism.” “Democratic perfection” is so critical a concept in political theory that it is virtually invisible in the everyday practices of American politics.  The high visibility of “custodial politics,” on the other hand, is an agonizing pain in the butt.

Eddie Glaude: Prophetic Witness and Black Leadership

[By Goyland Williams]

I was fortunate to witness two powerful and thought-provoking lectures given by Eddie Glaude Jr., the William S. Todd Professor of Religion and African-American Studies at Princeton University. The first lecture “The Crises of Black Leadership” was given on Thursday, September 20, 2012 and the second lecture “The Role of the Black Church in the age of Obama” was held in the community at Ninth Street Baptist Church.

In Glaude’s first lecture, “The Crisis of Black Leadership”, he makes his case for what he calls “prophetic pragmatism”- a pragmatism rooted in the Deweyian (John) tradition of American pragmatism and dipped in the waters of what Amiri Baraka calls “Blues People”. It is this blues sensibility that Professor Glaude believes can give voice to the suffering of “the least of these,” and one that challenges the ways in which blacks think about themselves, imagine their history, and how they conceive of their own actions.

Monday, September 24, 2012

On Being Cool: A Cold Announcement

[By Jerry W. Ward]

In the later years of the last century, Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993) broadcast clear signals about the misdeeds of humanistic disciplines in the United States, the British Commonwealth, and the theoretical centers of Europe.  Said’s aim was not to erase the Western intellectual tradition that informed his thinking.  He only wanted to expose its hidden agendas, its disinformative ideologies.  Said’s pugnacious critiques have yet to be digested by people who study literature and culture.  Perhaps the wounds we shall suffer from Arab Spring and Taliban Summer will promote greater attention to Said’s work, to his brave integrity.  Said was cool.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Toi Derricotte’s Open Confession

[By Jerry W. Ward]

Open confession --- public broadcasting of once private spiritual desire and/or agony   --- may be good for the soul.  As far as contemporary American poetry goes, whether open confession is a many splendid thing or a depressing invitation to tour another person’s dread and suffering is debatable.

The poetic mode identified as confessional is as ancient as the Epic of Gilgamesh and as modern as Toi Derricotte’s The Undertaker’s Daughter (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011).  In African American poetic tradition, poets as diverse and different as Gwendolyn Brooks, Lenard D. Moore, Wanda Coleman, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Robert Hayden have confessed.  What does it profit you to add the burden of another’s psychological/metaphysical dread to your own?  Is the dread imaginary or real?  Is the confession a hook to catch the reader, to bait her or him?  What is the profit in peeping through the keyhole of language at the intimate violence behind the door, the eternal agon resurrected by memory?

Witherspoon: A Novel by Lance Jeffers (1983)*

[By Jerry W. Ward]
Such Agonies Suffer Our Men of War

Reading Witherspoon, one is moved by its aesthetic and its morality.  Lance Jeffers does not depend on mutilation of language, allusion to the arcane, or puzzles in logic to achieve effects.  He is too good and too honest an artist to engage in easy tricks.  He knows, as wordsmiths have known since the pre-history of Africa,  that a good story told in language the community can understand is not to be surpassed.  The grace and strength of fiction are located in its ability to show us our lives with more order, insight, and clarity than we can normally obtain.  Good fiction pushes us toward recognition, toward a profound, relentless honesty about ourselves and others.  It forces us to make moral decisions while satisfying our penchant for narratives about man’s endless contest with the fate of being human.  Because it fulfills these criteria superbly, Witherspoon is a fine, important novel.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Gil Scott-Heron and a Hint-filled Detail

[By Jerry W. Ward]

“Gil Scott-Heron was one of [the] most insightful thinkers of the late twentieth century,”  Tony Bolden writes in Chapter 22 of The Cambridge History of African American Literature, “yet few critics have considered him a serious artist” (552).  Few have commented on Scott-Heron’s serious artistry in the novel The Nigger Factory (New York: Dial, 1972; Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2010).  This work of vernacular realism fell through the cracks.

Recuperative criticism can reconnect The Nigger Factory with the sabotaging of history and “the redemptive power of storytelling and satirical truth-telling for the liberation of the minds of black people” (Bernard Bell, The Contemporary African American Novel 248).

The Ethnic Ethical Turn

[By Jerry W. Ward]

Nature extracts a high cost for beauty.  From an amoral aesthetic perspective, Hurricane Isaac’s performance of a logarithmic spiral is beautiful.  The sublime beauty of a hurricane kills people.  Does the beauty of our cultural studies and theories participate in such murder?

The amorality of nature is a foil for the presence or absence of ethics in the works of human nature.  No doubt, Western philosophy is capable of arguing that deadly forms of behavior are ethical entities.  A few thinkers might say that capability is reprehensible.  We have no survey of Western philosophy that offers necessary and sufficient proof that perverse ethical entities are not operative in global societies, in the Diaspora, in the United States.  It is prudent to think cautiously when we talk about the nihilist dimensions of African American cultural expressions and when we participate in the production of discursive beauty.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Stitching Rifts: Finney Mends American Environmentalism

[By DaMaris Hill]

On September 6, 2012, the Hall Center for the Humanities hosted Dr. Nikky Finney. Her talk was entitled "Making Poetry in Our Anthropocene Age". Anthropocene is a scientific term coined to suggest that humans are the geophysical force changing the climate of the planet, and ushering in a new geological period.  The central question of Dr. Finney’s talk concerned the connections between the damage done to the earth's ecosystems and her role as a contemporary poet.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Nikky Finney: The Role of the Writer and Critic

[By Kenton Rambsy]

On Thursday, September 6, U.S. National Book Award-winning poet, Nikky Finney visited the University of Kansas to deliver a lecture on “Making Poetry in Our Anthropocene Age.” I was eager to attend the lecture to find out what angle Finney would take in bridging the literary world to issues of environmentalism.

Perhaps my view of ecology was limited solely to the physical interactions of the natural environment. Finney’s talk expanded my conception of “nature” to emphasize the role of one’s memory in how we conceive of and relate to our surroundings.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Black Literature and the Democratic Spirit

[By Jerry Ward]

The democratic spirit demands that all voices be heard and that all interests be represented.  In the literary sector of everyday life, the spirit can manifest itself as a risk-free membership plan offered by an African American book club.  If I join the club, I can get three books for “$3, plus shipping & processing and applicable taxes.  I agree to buy 4 more books in the next year.”  If I want to be thrifty, my option is to buy 1 book now and “reduce my commitment to 3 books in 1 year.”  I will then be billed “an added $5.98, plus shipping & processing and applicable taxes.”  Just do the math.

Witherspoon: A Novel by Lance Jeffers (1983)*

[By Jerry Ward]

Such Agonies Suffer Our Men of War

Reading Witherspoon, one is moved by its aesthetic and its morality.  Lance Jeffers does not depend on mutilation of language, allusion to the arcane, or puzzles in logic to achieve effects.  He is too good and too honest an artist to engage in easy tricks.  He knows, as wordsmiths have known since the pre-history of Africa,  that a good story told in language the community can understand is not to be surpassed.  The grace and strength of fiction are located in its ability to show us our lives with more order, insight, and clarity than we can normally obtain.  Good fiction pushes us toward recognition, toward a profound, relentless honesty about ourselves and others.  It forces us to make moral decisions while satisfying our penchant for narratives about man’s endless contest with the fate of being human.  Because it fulfills these criteria superbly, Witherspoon is a fine, important novel.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Poetic Journey

[By Prof. Jerry Ward]

Once in the 1970s when I was driving E. Ethelbert Miller and a lady whose work got some attention in the early twentieth century to some event, the lady snidely remarked that Margaret Walker was a one-poem poet.  A young man must respect his elders.  I winced in silence.  Literary history does reward snobbishness.  The lady is as seldom mentioned for her plays and poetry as her once-famous father is mentioned for his contributions to African American intellectual history.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Are We Losing Our Humanity, Part 2.2

[By Prof. Jerry Ward]

This blog serves notice that many of my friends and I are not losing our humanity.  We are transforming our humanity.  We are using “new and improved” humanity to produce more than toothless civic discourses and critiques in the orbit of the merely academic. Uses of language that divorce themselves from the actuality of physical, spiritual and psychological suffering among the seven billion people on Earth get no respect from us. We recognize that language is by nature participatory in combat and contact zones. Treating acts of language as if they were absolutely metaphors only intensifies the reality of suffering.  It does not acknowledge the necessity for scholarly activism. It creates more wretchedness.  Truth be told, cultural work or knowledge work can not eradicate terrorism or wretchedness.  This fact is not a sufficient reason for cloaking the hidden dimensions, betrayals, and hypocrisies of so-called civic discourse.  We have read the dying words of Richard Wright’s Cross Damon and we do know what they mean.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Are We Losing Our Humanity?, Part 2.1

[By Prof. Jerry Ward]

Dr. Neal Lester, Foundation Professor of English and Director, Project Humanities, at Arizona State University, will provide the opening remarks for the September 7 forum.  Lester began Project Humanities as a university initiative in 2010, and I suspect he shares my belief that maintaining a divide between the hard sciences and the humanities is bogus.  Whether he shares my belief that divisions among the soft or human sciences, matters of law, and the actuality of evil are bogus may be revealed in his remarks.  It is unlikely his remarks will cast light on my reasons for being deeply angered by the wording of the question which locates the third discussion topic:

Is there room for the humanity of all seven billion people to be recognized, or is it inevitable that many will remain (or become) commodities? 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Are We Losing Our Humanity?: Part 1

[By Prof. Jerry Ward]

This is an announcement.  Time is not accidental.  Dates are.  It is accidental that November 5, 2012 is the deadline for submissions to PMLA on the general topic of tragedy.  It is accidental that on November 6, 2012 millions of American citizens will participate in the ritual of electing a president.  It is  accidental that in the May 2012 issue of PMLA one finds Rob Nixon’s thoughtful article “Neo-liberalism, Genre, and ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ “ (593-599) and Rudolph Fisher’s missing story “The Shadow of White,” nicely authenticated by Molly Anne Rothenberg’ s remarks on how “Dr. Fisher offers his audience a therapeutics of the imagination”(618).  It is accidental that Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the Modern Language Association, will moderate the forum “Are We Losing Our Humanity?” at the National Press Club on September 7, 2012.