[By Jerry Ward]
To address the growing interest in African American literature and culture at HuaZhong Normal University (Wuhan) and other institutions in China, I have given lectures there since 2009. Chinese auditors, however astute and savvy they are, may be easily confused by the literary critical games played in the West. Often they do not understand the cultural dynamics of academic trends. Why do Western critics so dread the absolute, the essential, and the certain? The reasons, of course, are at once philosophical, racial, and political. One must exercise care in explaining that the universal is not universal but merely a smokescreen for intellectual hegemony, that deconstruction can too often be a weapon of massive destruction.
During May and June 2012, I presented nine lectures designed to plant seeds for critical growth. The listing includes a post-delivery comment for each of them.
1) The Poetry of Natasha Trethewey ---Trethewey’s strategies for recovering history in Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, and Native Guard are aesthetic warnings against post-racial delusions. To put Trethewey’s being named Poet Laureate of the United States in proper perspective, one must read Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s brilliant essay “The Subjective Briar Patch: Contemporary American Poetry.” Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring 2012): 97-106.
2) The Cambridge History of African American Literature and the Limits of Literary History – This commentary seeks to explain the inevitable absence in literary historical narratives of writers who are of equal merit with and sometimes of greater importance than those who are discussed.
3) On Reginald Martin’s Idea of Transcultural Theory –This discussion of Martin’s appropriation of transcultural theory as a method of reading texts foregrounds the need to make clear distinctions among theory, methodology, and method.
4) The Tonal Drawings of Asili Ya Nadhiri: Temporality and Musicality – Given the absence of critical attention to how Nadhiri uses oral/aural memory , grammatical innovations regarding tense, ideas about music and art, and some problems of time and being dealt with in theoretical physics in a conceptual poetic genre, this lecture acknowledges his unique contribution to African American poetry.
5) Ishmael Reed and Multiculturalism –A discussion of Reed’s sustained efforts since the late 1960s to promote real rather than lip-service multiculturalism in the literature of the United States, this lecture suggests that Reed has provided a rich matrix for the delayed conversation on what it means to be an American.
6) Acknowledgement: The Contact/Combat Zone ---A meditation on the function of the literary critic in the 21st century, this lecture argues that warfare is the dominant but rarely acknowledged trope in discussions of the literature of the United States.
7) Richard Wright and Twenty-first Century Questions ---The purpose of this lecture is to argue that significant research questions and making of transcendent connections (imaginative reflection) can be derived from close reading of Richard Wright’s “Blueprint for Negro Writing” and his novella The Man Who Lived Underground.
8) American Literature and Digital Humanities ---This lecture involves a series of speculations on how new technologies may change the study and teaching of literature, especially of African American literature.
I have little interest in fashionable academic games, efforts to avoid telling a truth about the essential complexity of African American literature and its continuing evolution, or rhetorical lies about the existence of shared values among diverse citizens of the United States or Europe. To promote honest exchanges among Chinese and American intellectual communities, I embrace an unfashionable humanism that minimizes post-human dominance. I want my Chinese colleagues to have more options for making conclusions about truth.