Friday, December 13, 2013

The Gifts of Black Prisoners

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

 Just as DuBois's The Gifts of Black Folk (1924) is overshadowed by The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the long shadows of our classic slave narratives obscure the importance of studying other autobiographical forms in efforts to write more expansive histories of how African Americans have used literary and literature or black writing in English since the 18th century. Accidental "discoveries" of lost materials are special moments in the growth of scholarship, enabling us to enlarge the body of black writing and to conduct archival projects to refocus our perspectives. Julie Bosman's article Prison Memoir of a Black Man in the notifies us that a special moment is in the offing.

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library's acquisition of Austin Reed's "The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison," dated 1858, is a great find if the memoir is indeed authentic and not a parody written by a white prisoner or white prison guard in the 1850's by a person who wished to exploit the popularity of slave narratives. We do not need yet another example of bogus black writing. We are still in a state of uncertainty about whether Hannah Craft's The Bondwoman's Narrative is truly what we have been told it is. We do need a 19th century bit of prison writing that is beyond dispute, that can be analyzed in some framework of African American autobiography and set against the literary/non-literary qualities of, let us say, George Jackson's Blood in My Eye and Soledad Brother: The Prisoner Letters of George Jackson and other writings by the imprisoned (e.g. the early poetry of Etheridge Knight). It is better to err in the direction of extreme skepticism than to be duped.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mirror of Violence: Charles Fuller's Zooman and the Sign

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

 It is a truth, widely recognized, that blue-blooded and red-blooded Americans love violence. To be sure, it is deemed unpatriotic to detest violence, which along with "race" is a permanent fixture in the minds of Americans. Like esteemed works of ancient world literature, contemporary American literature idolizes violence. Literary and cultural critics who condemn violence in art and in life are naive candidates for mental asylums, because unquestioned embrace of violence is the sign of one's 21st century humanity. It is a deeper truth, however, that Americans are ambivalent about disregard for the sanctity of human life. They applaud it until one of their children is killed by another person's child. Tears of grief flow like waterfalls. Anti-violence protests sprout like mushrooms and people wear costumes of solidarity, then disappear when the next episode of violence begins on television, in sports stadiums and cinema, or goes viral on the Internet. We are paragons of human contradiction.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

African American Literature and Humanism

[By Goyland Williams]

For quite some time now, I have been thinking critically about African American Literature and Religion. Drawing largely upon the works of James Baldwin, I have found this enterprise to be fascinating and complex. Given the historical context and religious experiences of black people in America, it is no surprise that traces of religion appear a great deal in black writing. 

James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker are just a few names that come to mind when I think about the relationship between religion and philosophy of literature. All of these figures wrestle with the question: What can you say about god in light of human suffering? While Baldwin and Walker follow a more theological response, Morrison and Wright offers up humanism as a response to the problem of evil.

In a previous post, I argued that Morrison's The Bluest Eye challenge western theological constructs with its humanist slant. Today, I want to explore James Baldwin's Just Above My Head as this text wrestles with similar questions. Recalling a particular moment of his life while Arthur was living, Hall Montana says:

Monday, December 2, 2013

Amoebic Motion in Literature and Culture

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Imagine that you have the good fortune of getting a job interview at the MLA Convention for a position as "Assistant Professor of African American and Diaspora Literature." You feel secure. You defended your dissertation on "Signifying and the Blues in the Detective Novels of Chester Himes" with honors. You have read Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Gayatri Spivak, John Cullen Gruesser, and most of Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism. You are prepared to talk about postcolonial theory and the Diaspora. One member of the interview team asks how you would incorporate issues about Sinterklass? Zwarte Pieten? You are paralyzed as a deer staring into headlights. Crestfallen, you leave the interview, knowing you will not get this job. No one told you the Diaspora the search committee had in mind pertained to northern Europe. No one warned you about how different African American literature is from other ethnic-based literatures within the deliberately ignored arena of American literature's postcoloniality. 

This hypothetical scenario is instructive. Many people who decide the fates of emerging scholars have given inadequate attention to undergraduate and graduate education; to teaching as teaching (holistic pedagogy); to the uncertain job market in our nation, and the impact of global political and economic changes upon the shaping of higher education, especially as it pertains to African American literature and culture. In advertising the position, the institution presumed that "Diaspora" had an Alice-in-Wonderland definition. No one asked what version of expertise in the Diaspora was most desired. Diaspora in Canada, Mexico, Central and Latin America (including Portuguese Brazil)? Diaspora in the Caribbean (Anglophone, Francophone, Spanish, and Dutch)? Diaspora in the UK and Europe (especially Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia)? Diaspora means differently. This fact was not considered. Like the code term "people of color," it means whatever people of no color in a position to hire scholars want it to mean at any given moment. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Up Close and Personal

[By Dr. Maryemma Graham]

When my hometown was placed under federal mandate to desegregate the schools, my mother was selected as the first black teacher to move to an all white school. I say “selected” because as we know from Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, these are carefully orchestrated moments.  She had taught at a rural school up to that point, loved the students, their parents and the community that grew up around the school, but recognized this as a charge she would have to keep. 

 One day, she walked into the teachers’ lounge in the middle of an intense conversation among the teachers, so intense, in fact, that they missed their usual cue.  Usually conversation would come to a screeching halt when she entered, everybody leaving the lounge to her.  The reason she was selected, they more than implied, was that she was light enough to blend in and probably wouldn’t create too much of a ruckus.  This rumor turned out to be truth when the principal asked at the end of her first torturous year if he could count on her or “find some more” just like her.  She took the high road, never mentioning his words to those she actively recruited join her.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Don't Deny My Voice: Virtual Seminars and Public Access

[By Goyland Williams]

Over the past month, the Project on The History of Black Writing and Don't Deny My Voice NEH Institute have hosted three virtual seminars on black poetry. The first webinar, moderated by Professor Opal Moore, featured award-winning poet, Nikki Giovanni. Within an hour, Giovanni covered topics ranging from black churches, music, jazz, science and technology, poetry, space, and of course, poetry.

The range and depth of knowledge that Giovanni displayed was simply impressive. Not only has she mastered the craft of creating poetry, but she displayed a critical acumen over a range of topics and narratives of black life. At one point during the interview she observed, "We have to keep telling the story, because the Black American story is a great story." To say that Giovanni is a raconteur is a understatement.

No matter how complex or simplistic, Giovanni never shyed away from difficult questions. Likewise, C. Leigh McInnis, Brenda Marie Osbey and Ishmael Reed have all answered the call of what it means to be a black writer in America: to disturb the peace. To do otherwise, is to avoid the seriousness of life and art.

Don't Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry has provided public access to writers second to none. From Nikki Giovanni to Ishmael Reed, these writers engage both the creative and the critical; the profane and the prophetic; the sacred and the secular. In other words, each have deeply engaged black experiences in all of its complexities.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Gordon Parks: Photography and Intervention

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr]

The "Gordon Parks: Making of an Argument" exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art provides a fine lesson about the art of photography and socially conscious discursive interventions. The argument in question refers to "Harlem Gang Leader," Life, November 1, 1948, pages 97-104, 106. The article was based on Park's photographs of Leonard "Red" Jackson and members of the Midtowner's gang, but the text was written by unnamed Life Magazine editors. There is a delicate tension between the text and the many photographs Parks shot over a period of four weeks.

Kalamu ya Salaam has suggested that photography is "writing with light," and as such it demands use of visual literacy that parallels the print literacy we apply in analysis of traditional texts. "Harlem Gang Leader" illustrates that the art of "reading" in 1948 was as complex as it is in 2013. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ntozake Shange and The Role of Language

[By Goyland Williams]

By now, many of you may have read the piece on Ntozake Shange by the New York Times. But, if you have not, then it is definitely worth the read. In the interview, Shange talked about her latest book of "choreoessays" turned theatrical show, "Lost in language and Sound: Or How I Found My Way to the Arts."

Taking lines from one of her characters in the play, she recalls, "I can't count the times I viscerally wanted to attack, deform and maim the language I was taught to hate myself in...The language that perpetuates the notion that causes pain to every black child." The "problem" of language, in this instance, is the problem of Black Vernacular English. At one point during the interview, she laments the fact that even technology seems to ruin her work. Combat.

In a 1979 essay also published in the New York Times, James Baldwin raised the following question: "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" As if he anticipates Shange's struggle with the role of Black English, Baldwin concludes that "language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other--and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him." For Baldwin and Shange, the other is both black and articulate.

While Baldwin may or may not have anticipated the intersectionality of the body, language, and technology, his essay is a poignant reminder that language is a combat zone. It reveals not only the speaker, but it confesses "your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and alas, your future". And that confession is always both personal and political. 

The "tangle of technology" that Ntozake Shange finds herself in as she weaves the standard with the vernacular is both a question of experience and power. To reject black language is to reject black experience; to wield white power through art. Combat!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Footnote for A Work-in-Progress

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Doreen Fowler's Drawing the Line: The Father Reimagined in Faulkner, Wright, O'Connor, and Morrison (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013) is a prime example of how lost in the wilderness one becomes by following psychoanalytic maps of non-referentiality. Some critics find psychoanalytic theories to be useful in reading texts, because those theories sanction language being in conversation with language. One need not deal with the messiness of referentiality fiction and non-fiction invite. One can momentarily escape the horror of knowing that signifiers co-exist with the material presences which negate signification. 

As a Wright scholar, I profit from efforts to link Wright's works with contemporary criticism. My profit from reading Fowler's chapter "Crossing a Racial Border: Richard Wright's Native Son" is disappointment. I am disappointed that Fowler uses psychoanalytic theory as an excuse to avoid dealing with the totality of Wright's reimagining the father, a rich and insufficiently explored topic in Wright studies. 

Fowler travels into the dense terrain of Native Son by following paths mapped by Freud, Lacan and Kristeva. She either deliberately or inadvertently ignores the "map" drawn by Wright's authoring of and authority in a text that reimagines the father of all its characters as early twentieth-century American society, a deadbeat parent. Fowler's assertion that "Wright's novel also has mapped out a way to reconcile competing drives for culturally specific identities and for solidarity with others" (71) is not illogical. It is limited. It supports the view that the lawyer "Max embraces Bigger as a son" (71). In terms of psychoanalytic theory, this morphological feature of the text is significant. It draws sharp notice, however, to the embrace as a single move in a game of language. It confuses the referential import of Wright's blistering critique of American patriarchy with the theoretical objectives of such feminist thinkers as Kristeva and Jessica Benjamin. This accidental hegemony leaves the act of reading in the wilderness. And Fowler should have been more cognizant of what Shoshana Felman sees as traps and dupery in psychoanalysis.

The extensive map to lead us out of the wilderness is constituted by Wrights reimagining of the father in The Outsider, The Long Dream, Savage Holiday, and A Father's Law. Without that map, readers are stuck in the critical funhouse, unable to articulate what Wright's language games tell us about American social and cultural histories.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Loss and The Katrina Papers

[By Goyland Williams]

In her afterword to David Eng and David Kazanjian's edited collection of essays entitled, Loss: The Politics of Mourning, Judith Butler notes, "On the one hand, there is the loss of place and the loss of time, a loss that cannot be recovered or recuperated but that leaves its enigmatic trace." She continues, " And then there is something else that one cannot "get over," one cannot "work through," which is the deliberate act of violence against a collectivity, humans who have been rendered anonymous for violence..." (468). Like the rest of the essays in the collection, the question of loss; of mourning; of melancholia; and of trauma, drive the weight of the text. In particular, the question at the heart of Butler's investigation is, "After Loss, What Then?"

As of late, I've been reading and re-reading Jerry Ward's The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (2008). The struggle with grief, human suffering, uncalculated loss, exile, mourning and mo'nin' [Read Fred Moten's essay, "Black Mo'nin'"] buoys this text. Like Butler's afterword, Ward also begins on a  blue note-- loss.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rita Dove, Edwidge Danticat, and the New York Times

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Reality evaporates, and a quark restores reality. The change escapes notice. Good. The reaction allows writing to produce stasis, the five-dimensional space in which we write.

If your mind, spirit, and body demand that you write, write. But be honest, or, as we said in the flame-blooming 1960s, be "for real." Writing that gains the world's respect is not a spewing of disassembled feelings nor is it a pampering of your ego. Writing is work, a disciplined discovery of patterns and ideas in words. You must have a sense of human history in order to know your address in time. you must train yourself to cope with rejection and use it as a reason to perfect your craft. Before you begin writing, read widely and wisely. Study your tools---words and the options for organizing them. Study how and hwy your literary ancestors, be they poets, philosopher, or historians of science, have used the tools to communicate effectively. Chew language slowly and reflect deeply on the ideas the flavors release. Then write. Know for whom you are writing and why. Above all, discipline yourself and let your writing become an act of love, a gift of talent for now and the future.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lucille Clifton: The People's Poet

[By Jeff Westover]

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 (BOA Editions, 2012), edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser, makes available "all the poems Lucille Clifton published in book form during her lifetime" as well as a significant amount of her unpublished poetry (xxvii). This 769-page volume is a welcome addition to the list of Clifton's publications, since it includes work not gathered in two earlier selections (Good Woman, 1987 and Blessing the Boats, 2000), including Clifton's last two published books of poems (Mercy, 2004, and Voice, 2008), an unpublished yet impressive 2006 set of poems titled "Book of Days," eleven "Last Poems and Drafts," and a substantial number of poems composed (but never published) before her first book, Good Times, came out in 1969. 

In Mary Carole McCauley's review of the book published in the Baltimore Sun on October 20, 2012, co-editor Michael S. Glaser explains that he rescued several of Clifton's late poems from oblivion. In an illuminating afterward to the volume, fellow editor Kevin Young elaborates: "when she cleaned out her office after retiring in 2005, she threw away a number of things, including poems, many in her hand or with her clear edits-- all of which are now part of her archive...The typescript for "Book of Days" was among these discards, complete it seems without any editorial markings or even her name" (746). 

Monday, October 28, 2013

History Redux 2013: Umbra and FST

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Two symposia, "Talkin Revolution," (New Orleans, October 17-20) and "Celebrating the Umbra Workshop," (New York, November 1) will cast light on the matter of history redux, the ways people remember and reconfigure specific moments of cultural development.

The wording of David Henderson's announcement about the Umbra symposium is instructive:

Join us for a half century celebration of the Umbra Workshop! Founded on New York's Lower East Side in 1961 and dispersed in 1964, Umbra's influence on American literature continues to this day. The Umbra Workshop was comprised of an aesthetically diverse group of young artists, many with "a strong commitment to 'nonliterary' black culture." The Workshop was nurtured by people as disparate as Langston Hughes and Andy Young, actively engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, in questions of diversity in letters, and, later, in the Black Arts Movement. The first in a series of gatherings, this event bring together several of the founding members, including poets, novelists, and activists Steve Cannon, David Henderson, Rashidah Ismali, Joe Johnson and Ishmael Reed for readings and conversation and focusing on some of the complex aesthetic, political, social, and literary relationships that informed this legendary Workshop. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

We Want the Funk

[By Erin Ranft]

Today in my Afrofuturism course, I channeled Tony Bolden and Howard Rambsy II. After having the opportunity to learn from Bolden and Rambsy over the summer at the NEH Summer Institute, "Don't Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry" at the University of Kansas, I was anxious to put music and poetry listening sessions to work in the classroom. And what a session it was!

In preparation for our discussion of Funk, and specifically Afrofuturist elements of Funk music primarily by Parliament, the students read some background information on the musical genre and the different productions by Parliament. After a group presented their findings on the readings, the class listened to tracks from Mothership Connection. Feet were tapping, shoulders shrugging in time, and heads were bobbing. We were 'on the one.'

Rickey Vincent, in Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One, defines 'the one' as a point when "a harmony among all people is achieved." We were there, on the one during our listening session and in the discussion that followed. To add to this, the students also read Etheridge Knight's "It Was a Funky Deal" to add dimensions to our understandings of 'funk' as a term, idea, and a genre that developed prior to and alongside the Black Arts Movement.

Line by line, the students went through the lyrics from Mothership Connection and lines of Knight's poem, adding their understandings and interpretations of these texts to the overall course theme of Afrofuturism. Utilizing the practices, methods, and ideas related to poetry and music employed by Bolden and Rambsy were, well, instrumental.

What a day, and a day when I felt the presence of all the fellows, faculty, and staff from the Don't Deny Summer Institute.

We gotta have that funk.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

C. Leigh McInnis and the sounds of Black Poetry

[By Goyland Williams]

If you have never heard/seen C. Leigh McInnis's powerful performance/reading of his work(s) "Manhood," "What Good Are Poems?" or any of his poems for that matter, then you are missing out on a hidden gem. As an extension of the NEH Institute "Don't Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetries," McInnis and a host of other distinguished poet/scholars have agreed to participate in a series of virtual seminars. Yesterday, I was a witness to his genius. 

At one point during McInnis' virtual reading, I saw comments ranging from "Amen" to "Ashe". For a moment, I thought that I was hearing a black sermon. A few participants immediately called attention to Iis sounding like Amiri Baraka. Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X. Walker even proclaimed: "I hear Baraka's fire, Haki's (Madhubuti) politics,and Saul William's energy." All of these were assessments that I would have to agree with. 

What does this say about the nature or characteristics of the performed text?

For whatever reason, I really took to his poem "What Good Are Poems?".  He begins the poem by raising  a series of questions about the nature of a poem:

Can a poem be laid on top of a poem,
be laid on top of a poem, be laid on top of a poem
until we have built a shelter for the homeless?

As he continues, the verse flows while steadily building fervor and fire with the repeated phrase "Can a poem...". Similar to the black preaching tradition, the repeated phrases serve a rhetorical and performative purpose. It is no surprise then that the poem follows the call and response tradition. The first stanza asks very clearly: What is the function of a poem? The second stanza is the response.

Poets are the African bees of political pollination.
Poems are the sperm of revolution.
We need poets to stop adding extra syrup and saccharin
to their sonnets so as to appease the pale palates of people
who have not the stomach for the straight-no-chaser truth.

There is no denying the sound of Baraka, Haki's fire, or Saul Williams' energy, but more importantly, there is no denying the fact that McInnis's work follows a long tradition of black poets that take the words from the page to the stage.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Unghosting African American Literature

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Unghosting, as the word is used in the title of Frank X. Walker's recent collection of poems, Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers (2013), might refer to connotations of "recovery" in the work of criticism and literary history. Aware that "recovery" is a subjective action, we can strengthen our work by exploiting that subjectivity more than we normally do. Walker's poems can be discussed in an interpretive context shaped by Michael V. William's Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (2011) and Minrose Gwin's Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement (2013). 

When Gwin remarks that Turn Me Loose "takes measure of these long shadows of southern history and the bifurcating forms of memory they elicit in lingering contemporary arguments" (21), we appreciate more Williams' caution that we not deify Evers but "analyze his contributions so one might understand his overall impact on the movement for the social, political, economic, and racial equality" (11). Intensified awareness of subjectivity might sharpen critique of how William's writing of biography, Gwin's judgments about historiography, and Walker's poetry cooperate in a process of unghosting.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Centennial 2014

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Dudley Randall (1914-2000), Daisy Bates (1914-1999), Kenneth Bancroft Clark (1914-2005), Billy Eckstine [William Clarence Eckstine 1914-1993] Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), Joe Lewis [Joseph Louis Barrow 1914-1981], Sun Ra [Herman Poole Blount 1914-1993], Woody Strode [Woodrow Wilson Woodwine Strode 1914-1994], Sonny Boy Williamson I [John Lee Curtis Williamson 1914-1948], and Emmett Ashford (1914-1980) are all candidates for centennial celebration.

It shall be edifying to chronicle how remembering will be divided among interest groups-----literary and social historians, patriotic warmongers, the musicologists, political analysts, sport experts, film critics, transnational theorists and civil rights scholars. The year 2014 presents an opportunity to think again about 1714, 1814 and World War I. Can we adequately assess the role of time and circumstance in the making of Americans if we segregate those listed above from Jiang Qing, William Westmoreland, Jonas Stalk, Joe DiMaggio, Daniel Boorstin, Clayton Moore, William S. Burroughs, Octavio Paz, Dylan Thomas, Lester Flatt, Bernard Malamud, and Ernest Tubb? What do we gain from selective celebration that is predicated on use of the social construction named "race"?

In ideal situations, it would be easy to have collective centennials. We live, however, in reality and amoral actuality. Our cultural studies and remembering thrive on interdisciplinarity which is governed more by ideology than by reason. Viewed comparatively, remembering the achievements and life histories of Dudley Randall and Joe Lewis or of Billy Eckstine and Sonny Boy Williamson might illuminate similar comparisons of William Westmoreland and Daisy Bates or of Sun Ra and Lester Flatt. We talk multiculturalism and the Omni-American. We talk, make hot air, and put with Z "in conversation" A, but we do not have critical  absorption that minimizes cultural amnesia.

In my work as one of the "little people" from Mississippi, the commitment of Dudley Randall as a poet and founder of Broadside Press is a stronger candidate for memory than Ralph Ellison and the novel Invisible Man. Putting Randall's Life and accomplishments under the microscope of 2014 does not minimize the need to attend to other writers born in 2014. It accelerates my interest in looking at the Black Arts Movement from the perspective of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in hearing Sonny Boy Williamson from the angle of Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude, in asking whether Daisy Bates made a more substantial contribution to the moral dimensions of the American mind than did William Westmoreland or William Burroughs.   

For my centennial rituals in 2014, I shall examine again

Boyd, Melba Joyce. Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.  

Miller, R. Baxter. " 'Endowing the World and Time': The Life and Work of Dudley Randall." Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960. Ed. R. Baxter Miller. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

Thompson, Julius E. Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Reflections on a NEH Institute: Cornelia Walker Bailey and Sapelo Island

[By Will Cunningham]

Cornelia Walker Bailey is Sapelo Island. She is a descendant of Bilali, of whom she writes in her memoir that "If you had been standing on the white sands of this island at day clean in 1803, or a little later, you might have seen a tall, dark-skinned man with narrow features, his head covered with a cap resembling  a Turkish fez, unfold his prayer mat kneel and pray to the east while the sun rose. This was Bilali, the most famous and powerful of all the Africans who lived on this island during slavery days, and the first of my ancestors I can name." Cornelia is the Island's griot,community leader, writer-in-residence, tour guide, political activist, and historian. She wears many hats. 

While this post will focus on her memoir, her written work feels somewhat secondary to her grassroots fight to preserve her people's heritage. The situation on Sapelo island is complicated, both politically and socially-but without Cornelia's presence there, many doubt whether there would be any Geechee presence left on the island at all.

Cornelia's memoir, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man is as much a memoir of the entire island as it is her own life. Dr. Buzzard (voodoo practice or roots healers) and the Bolito Man (a Geechee form of talking about luck) weave in and out of the daily practices of the Geechee community in ways that are both humorous and sobering. Cornelia's prose is fluid, sometimes poetic, but at all times reminiscent of the oral tradition from which she comes. Reading her memoir is like sitting by a fire with the faint sound of waves crashing on Sapelo's white sand, finishing a medley of stewed tomatoes and okra, and listening to a voice smoothed and sweetened by homemade wine tell you a story. It is melodic in the way that only a true storyteller's prose could be. 

Those interested in low country history, African heritage in the America's and African American folklore would find this book useful. But I would recommend this book to anyone- it is simply a  pleasure to read! The personal time I was able to spend with Cornelia Walker Bailey, though, eclipsed my enjoyment of her book. And the good news? If you find yourself in the Savannah, Georgia area, Sapelo is just a  short drive away. And if Cornelia is not on a book tour, fighting stubborn Georgia politicians, or already giving a tour, you might find her sitting in front of her house catching a sea breeze and sharing her stories with friends and family. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Reflections on an NEH Summer Institute

[By Will Cunningham]

The history of black writing has taken many twists and turns over the last few centuries; but never have I encountered a more complex, exciting, and perplexing example of it as I did last summer. As a 20th century scholar, I seldom encounter "novelty" forms of writing. My academic interests rarely call me out of the library or office. 

But to trace black writing in America prior to the Civil War is often an exercise in futility-especially within the context of enslaved Africans. While free blacks certainly produced and published varying pieces of writing, the large majority of African Americans were enslaved in a system that largely prohibited literacy. But, ever so often, scholars will stumble across examples of literacy that date back to this period, and they are often surprising.

I spent two weeks this summer in Savannah, Georgia at the Georgia Historical Society for a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute. While there, we took a trip to the First African Baptist Church of Savannah. This church's history dates back to the 1770's, but has occupied the current building since 1859. The church has been masterfully preserved, including the original pews in the balcony. 

When we first walked up into the balcony, the first thing I noticed (besides the change in temperature) was that nearly every pew (40+) contained very curious etchings on the side. The historian leading us through the church noted that while no one had attempted to translate the pews, he believed the carvings were written in West African Arabic. The pews themselves predate the 1850 building-they were transported from the previous church building once the new building was acquired. While the language of origin is certainly speculative (he noted that others believed it is an example of "cursive Hebrew"), I was amazed that no one had even attempted to translate the carvings. 

With so few examples of enslaved African writings available, these etchings contain potentially valuable information concerning the life and culture of enslaved Africans. I was, to put it bluntly, simply dumbfounded that no scholar had attempted to translate these. For anyone that reads this blog, please think if you know someone who might be able to recognize these carvings and forward this post on! 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Angela Jackson: The Novel as Luminous Web

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

It is not uncommon for writers to use many genres to provoke thought about historical time. It is unusual, however, to consider that the interplay of genres shapes our larger visions of time and life.

Reading a stanza from Angela Jackson's poem "The Spider Tells Her Horror Stories"

Even I
have no sufficient howl.
Not enough thunder
in the cups of my eyes
To slit irises, let out
the barren spaces, the
besieged lives.

[[Dark Legs and Silk Kisses: The Beatitudes of the Spinners (Evanston, IL: Triquarterly Books, 1993), pp. 38-39]]

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

June Jordan: The Critic as Activist

[By Goyland Williams]

To be a minority in America, or in any "democratic state" is a dicey proposition. I've been inhaling essays in June Jordan's Moving Towards Home. Jordan's words may come as a shock or, as Robert Frost puts it, " a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong..." for those who resist structural analysis for cheap American patriotism.

The immediacy and timelessness of her essay "Problems of Language in a Democratic State" is so utterly true and frustrating. Frustrating because the force of her critical acumen has gone unanswered, if not altogether, avoided. Frustrating because what is found there, might save our [black] lives. 

 Perhaps June Jordan knew that a gun was already at our heads. And that we need new words. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

LeRoi Jones/ 1963

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

It seems to be an innocent use of time when we celebrate memory at intervals of fifty years.  The ghosts of things past, however, can become rowdy.  Things can get out of hand. 

Reflection on then and now, dignity,and solemnity could have marked celebration of the historic March on Washington. The March was not about Dr. King and a good Baptist sermon about dreaming. The trek to the nation's capital in 1963 was about the sacrifices made by thousands for social justice. The ghosts of the past and the media gave scant attention to original intent. The cameras focused on bickering among heirs of history and the seduction of self-advertisement. 

Time does not bow to desire for neat patterns. James Weldon Johnson published Fifty Years and Other Poems in 1917 not 1913. We have no opportunity to say he celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) fifty years later. We could alter history and say LeRoi Jones's publishing Blues People, a landmark work in vernacular cultural theory in 1963 was a special salute to Johnson's admonition "to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without." Without resorting to the ahistorical, we can say LeRoi Jones did salute Johnson. He theorized that the music of the enslaved, the blues, and jazz was a better manifestation of racial spirit than what could be found in "Negro literature." In this way, Jones acknowledged Johnson's insights about the ineluctable connections of music, poetry and spirit. We celebrate Jones [Amiri Baraka] and Blues People fifty years later by asking what the book tells us about 2013.

The lines

Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy and; his Brother
Who killed Dr. King, Who would want such a thing?

Are they linked to the murder of Lincoln?

From Baraka's long poem "Somebody Blew Up America" (2001) is a dense warning that we may want to be careful in remembering November 22, 1963 and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. We do well to interpret Baraka's questions in the context of political murder in the United States of America, a context saturated with awareness that terrorism is ferocious, amoral, and vengeful. We benefit from remembering that for fifty years Jones/Baraka has sandpapered our minds with light.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Future Revolution in Critical Talk

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Lu Xun (Zhou Shuren 1881-1936), one of modern China’s most important writers, understood the danger of premature celebrations.  “The first thing is not to become intoxicated by victory,” he wrote in an essay on success in Nanjing and Shanghai,” and not to boast; the second thing is to consolidate the victory; the third is to give the enemy the finishing stroke, for he has been beaten, but is by no means crushed.”  Xun understood that intoxication blurs awareness that victory is always provisional not permanent.  Consider the “victory” of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  The Randolph County Board of Education in North Carolina wants to ban it. Or the “victory” of being a Nobel Laureate.  Recently, Toni Morrison had to speak out regarding the banning of The Bluest Eye in her native State of Ohio. And Richard Wright has suffered many a year from censorship by exceptional American patriots. International acclaim and respect from some Americans does not preclude one’s being thrown under the bus by other Americans.  Such is the nature of American peoplekind, the universal nature of human beings. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Nina Simone and the Blues Tradition

[By Goyland Williams]

When Nina Simone heard about the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, she was listening to the radio at home. Filled with so much anger, she went to her garage and tried to make a gun. As she later explains in I put a Spell on You "I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone. I didn't know who, but someone I could identify as being in the way of my people getting justice for the first time in three hundred years". Her husband, Andy--standing behind her finally said, "Nina, you don't know anything about killing. The only thing you've got is music." She put down her tools, went to her piano, and wrote "Mississippi Goddam." In the words of the poet Saeed Jones, "music was her gun."

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Albert Murray: The Temperature of Death

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

--> You want your obituary to communicate the best ideas you have about yourself.You are pleased, of course, that the New York Times took notice of your departure. Only the best people have death notices in the Times. You have a small measure of gratitude to National Public Radio. The use of expensive air time to make a verbal portrait of the artist is not something at which you sneeze. It was the luck of the draw to have death words splashed in the Washington Post before the paper becomes digital funk. You do wish that person who did a credible profile of you int he New Yorker some years ago had done a more decent eulogy for The Root. What he wrote says more about literacy commerce than it does about the elegant respect that ought to be accorded to a national treasure. You know in your heart you are better than that. 

In this new century, taste and decorum are in low cotton, and the temperature of death is so easily miscalculated. Something told you, you should have written your obituary last year. You did not listen to something.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

James Baldwin: Notes on the House of Bondage

[By Goyland Williams]

In November of 1980, James Baldwin's essay "Notes on the House of Bondage" appeared in The Nation at a moment not unlike our current political landscape. Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were inadequate at best, and bankrupt at worst. According to Baldwin, A vote for Jimmy Carter was not an endorsement but  a cold calculated risk, "a means of buying time" (1). Indeed one must always contend with time and space.

When he raised the question, "Who you going to vote for Uncle Jimmy," it was loaded with as much anger as it was rhetorical. Baldwin didn't have to consult Nina Simone to know that anger--born out of intelligence, has a way of moving things. 

A glance at the American political and social scene illuminates the sense of hypocrisy, mendacity, and outright criminal activity by which our politicians have operated. James Baldwin prefigured this moment. He knew--without an iota of doubt--that when one is dealing with corporate thugs and pimps, the vote has little to no power. Time, and a lot of hope is the cure. Speaking to that point, Baldwin reasoned:

My vote will probably not get me a job or a home or help me through school or prevent another Vietnam or a third World War, but it may keep me here long enough for me to see, and use, the turning of the tide--for the tide has got to turn (3).
At a moment when the paraphernalia of power and chaos remain intact and highly visible, Jerry W. Ward, Jr. knew that it would be hard to be a patriot in America. Still, Baldwin cautioned against holding one's peace--knowing that silence is deadly. 


Monday, September 30, 2013

Jesmyn Ward and the National Book Awards

[By Goyland Williams]

In 2011, the National Book Foundation awarded book awards in poetry and fiction to Nikky Finney and Jesmyn Ward, respectively. I go back to that moment in 2011 because it is and was a rare occasion when not one, but two black women received one of the premier prizes for writers. Furthermore, it was the first time that I—a young black man tuned in to watch what became an interesting moment in history. 

In addition to Finney and Ward, Yusef Komunyakaa and the late Manning Marable were also nominated for The Chameleon Couch and Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. With the exception of Jesmyn Ward, all of the writers/scholars mentioned above were already established and successful prior to the nominations. Of course, it never hurts to win a National Book Award!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Novel Ahead of Time

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

The gatekeepers of American culture who think American literature is dying as their worlds hip hop to a start can find consolation in Mat Johnson’s Pym: A Novel (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010).  The book extends the olive branch of hope.  It is evidence of things not seen.  If the gatekeepers have not been convinced to stop playing at being Melchizedek by Garry Will’s Why Priests? : A Failed Tradition (New York: Viking, 2013), Pym will teach them the errors of their ways.

Pym restores the centrality of Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), in American Studies.  It confirms that white cannot possess “the perfect whiteness of snow” without a drop of black.  “Whatever twentieth-century ‘whites’ think about ‘blacks,’ according to Joseph R. Urgo’s Novel Frames: Literature as Guide to Race, Sex, and History in American Culture (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991), “they owe their existence ---politically and culturally, and in many cases, genetically --- to those same black drops”(19).

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Paul Robeson: Artist and Activist

[ By Meredith Wiggins]

The Tallest Tree in the Forest, actor and playwright Daniel Beaty’s new one-man show about the life of African American actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson, ends with Beaty eulogizing Robeson with some of Robeson’s own words: “The artist must take sides.  He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery.  I have made my choice.”  That quote, which would become Robeson’s epitaph, provides an accurate summation of Beaty’s view of Robeson, an artist and performer whose real-life dedication to human rights causes and early support of the Soviet Union saw him branded as a Communist by the press and government of the United States and driven out of show business almost until the end of his life.

Before he came under fire from J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy, Robeson spent a number of years building a massive following as an international film and theatre star.  He is probably best remembered for his role as Joe in Hammerstein and Kern’s groundbreaking musical Show Boat—specifically, for his rendition of the show’s most famous song, "Ol' Man River"—but Robeson was actually not the first actor to play the role.  (He took over from the original Joe, Jules Bledsoe, when the show opened in London in 1928, and subsequently played the role twice more on stage, as well as in the 1936 filmed musical.)  So great was his popularity that the lawyer-turned-performer even sang before the Prince of Wales.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Looking Back: The Project on the History of Black Writing

[By Goyland Williams]

Over the past week, the Project on the History of Black Writing have released our Look Back Series as part of HBW’s 30 year anniversary. Collectively, the video series has given a glimpse into key events, conferences, literary scholars, grants, and institutions that have helped to ensure the success and mission of the project.

Although HBW’s history spans all the way back to 1983 at the University of Mississippi, (1989-1997) at Northeastern University, and (1998-Present) now at the University of Kansas, one factor has remained fixed—Dr. Maryemma Graham. Graham’s emphasis on collaborative work, board member support, and her persistence, has been integral for the success that HBW has enjoyed throughout the years. 

While at the University of Kansas, HBW has been very successful in receiving funding from the National Endowment in the Humanities and other external funding devoted to public outreach, professional development, and literary recovery. Below, I have compiled a list of NEH funded projects [at KU] that has helped Dr. Graham advance and promote African American Literature and culture. 

*2001--“Speaking of Rivers: Taking Poetry to the People” 

*2002--“Language Matters I: Reading and Teaching Toni Morrison”

*2003--“Speaking of Rivers: Taking Poetry to the People”

*2004--“Language Matters II: Reading and Teaching Toni Morrison, The Cardozo Project Model”

*2009--“Making the Wright Connection: Teaching Black Boy, Native Son, and Uncle Tom’s Children”

*2010--“Language Matters IV: Reading and Teaching Toni Morrison in Translation”

 *2013--“Don’t Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetries” 


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Michael Eric Dyson: 2000-2010

[By Goyland Williams]

It is hard and sometimes impossible to imagine that a single scholar/public intellectual can publish as much as Michael Dyson has done. In a decade, Dyson published and edited more than 10 books. Wow! With topics ranging from the complicated and often misunderstood life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to philosophical reflections on life, popular music, and religion, Dyson brings a wide array of scholarship to the table. The timeline that I compiled, highlights the impressive range and depth of topics by one of America’s most sought after public intellectual.

Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) Look Back Series—Featuring Michael Eric Dyson

[By Goyland Williams]

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Eugene Redmond Timeline:1969-1977

[Compiled by Goyland Williams] 

As a continuation of HBW’s Look Back Series, I wanted to outline a timeline of what seems to be Eugene Redmond’s most productive years. Although this list is not exhaustive and only captures a small part of Redmond’s career, it highlights the great success that Redmond enjoyed from publishing several volumes of poetry, editing two anthologies, and publishing the seminal academic work on Black poetry. Aside from all of that, his status as Poet Laureate in East St. Louis continues to be a task/role that he takes seriously.

*1969—Eugene Redmond’s A Tale of Time and Toilet Tissue is published. Redmond also edited an anthology entitled Sides of the River: A Mini-Anthology of Black Writings.

*1970—Redmond begins his tenure as Professor of English and Poet-in-Residence at California State University-Sacramento and his book Sentry of the Four Golden Pillars is published.

Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) Look Back Series—Featuring Eugene Redmond

[By Goyland Williams]

Monday, September 16, 2013

Jerry Ward, Jr. Timeline: 2000-2013

 [Compiled by Goyland Williams]

*2000--Ward is the Lawrence Durgin Professor of English, Tougaloo College; Ward receives the Darwin T. Turner Award of Excellence from the African American Literature and Culture Society

*2001--Ward is the Lawrence Durgin Professor of English, Tougaloo College; Ward is inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African American Descent (Chicago State University)

*2002-- Ward leaves Tougaloo College after 32 years of service and accepts an appointment at Dillard University as Distinguished Professor of English and African American World Studies; Ward performs as Richard Wright for the Mississippi Writers Chautauqua, September 19-October 22, 2002

*2003--Ward served as a UNCF/Mellon Mentor at Dillard University

*2004--Ward participates in Furious Flower II: “The Black Poetic Tradition –Toward the 21st Century,” Furious Flower Poetry Center, James Madison University and interviews Houston A. Baker, Jr. for the video Program I-Roots and First Fruits (California Newsreel)

Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) Look Back Series—Featuring Jerry W. Ward

[By: Goyland Williams]

Friday, September 13, 2013

Dr. Jerry Ward on Edwidge Danticat

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr]

It is hard to classify Edwidge Danticat, to map where her imagination is located between the future and the past. She writes well.  This adverbial compliment identifies her as a successful rebel. She satisfies the demands of commerce and undermines those demands in her critiques of banality.

Is she an American writer?
Yes. She writes in and about the Americas.

Is she a Haitian writer?
Yes.  She knows the anatomy of the womb wherein the primal horror of her native land gestated. Aimé Césaire”s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal enjoys conversations with her works.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Alice Walker, Autobiographical Contract, and Sciences of Memory

[By Jerry Ward, Jr.]

Definition is essential.  What does womanist mean and what is its relation to feminist?  Does the assertion that womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender explain saturation as a major difference in historical experience?  The various essays, bits of interviews, poetry (inside prose frames) and reviews collected in Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983) suggest an answer. They suggest that Walker the novelist is of a “revolutionary” mind like a furious flower, is as serious as was Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, and Toni Cade Bambara. These women assumed the freedom to create is an entitlement of nature not of man. And they have the backing of words attributed to Sojourner Truth in 1851: “Whar did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman! Man had nothin’ to do wid Him.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Letter to Kalamu Ya Salaam

[By Jerry Ward, Jr.]

Note:  For essential  life history  information about ya Salaam, read “Kalamu ya Salaam 1947-/Art for Life: My Story, My Song” in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 21, pages 179-252. The letter is my response to the typescript of THE SOUND (ING) OF BLACK POETRY: A Study Guide To The Theory and History of Black Poetry.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
1872 Lincolnshire Blvd.
Ridgeland, Mississippi 39157-1213

                                                                                          September 3, 1995

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Dr. Jerry Ward and the Project on The History of Black Writing

[Compiled by Goyland Williams]

This is long overdue. Since 2011, when the HBW literary blog was founded, Board Member- Dr. Jerry W. Ward, Jr. has been its strongest supporter. By supporter I mean, both in spirit and in words (literally).  Nearly 60 post (and counting), he continues to offer the finest critiques and insights that one man can muster up. His works range from philosophical insights of Richard Wright to the “democratic perfectionism” of Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

Not a stranger to those in American Literature and African-American Literature, Dr. Ward’s voice is timeless.  Below, I have compiled the blog posts that Dr. Ward has written for HBW-chronologically. These posts have been invaluable for my research interests and for the development of HBW’s online presence in Black Writing and Culture.