Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Blues Moment in Dusk of Dawn: A Note on Autobiography

[By Jerry Ward]

W. E. B. DuBois’s writing in The Souls of Black Folk (1901) is spiritual, and Dusk of Dawn (1940) complements the first installment of his autobiographical project with a secular sorrow song, with the blues.  Despite the magnification of difference between Booker T. Washington and DuBois, it is refreshing to know that DuBois admitted his kinship and parallelism with Washington in the matter of miscalculating a solution for the problems of black folk.  In Dusk of Dawn, Chapter 7, “The Colored World Within,” DuBois frees the cat from the bag. A truth scampers out.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Inaugural Poems: Touching Bones of Consciousness

[By Jerry Ward]

Rudolph Lewis, publisher of the online journal ChickenBones, has suggested that we welcome Richard Blanco’s use of proletarian elements in “One Today.”  I concur. With the exception of Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” an old poem he substituted for “Dedication” which he had written for the 1961 inaugural, inaugural poems do refer to the proletariat or to labor. Frost could not read “Dedication” because the glare of sunlight on snow stabbed his eyes.  Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” and Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” refer to work.  One might argue that Frost also referred to the labor of colonizing.

A Poetry for Ordinary Use

[By Jerry Ward]

We are condemned to live with the seven deadly insanities of the 21st century, but we can choose to find bright moments of sanity in the poetry of Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and other writers who knew dross often conceals gold.  If we are brave enough to set aside our jaded posturing, we may actually find pleasure in the kind of poetry James E. Cherry offers us.
Stephen F. Austin University Press has recently announced (and I quote verbatim from the announcement) ------

…the release of James E Cherry’s latest collection of poetry, Loose Change. With Loose Change, James E. Cherry explores those things that make us human. These poems are visceral, honest and possess a vulnerability that will allow you access into the world each day. In this collection of verse, very little is exempt from examination. Family, politics, race, art, aging and much more are placed under the poet’s microscopic eye to be clearly defined. But these are more than mere analytical explorations. Its [sic] Cherry’s ability to interpret those findings and how they have impacted his life that moves this work beyond the personal into the universal. He has managed to take the pedestrian and left us with a remarkable second collection of poetry. From the discordant aspects of his life, a melodious solo rises. You’ll continue to pat your feet long after the final page is finished.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Against Academic Tyranny

[By Jerry Ward]

Although the Django Unchained syndrome will have a short life, it should convey a powerful lesson to scholars who teach American literature and culture:  Americans are exercising their First Amendment rights and speaking slantwise against the tyranny of literary and cultural criticism. The particulars of the syndrome will evaporate with the advent of Women’s History Month 2013. Reawakened interest in “History” and the sentient histories we inhabit, however, will prevail a bit longer.

Scholars do not always know, as they argue about the validity of responses to a work of art, what is best.  Myopic albeit practical concerns regarding promotion and tenure, possession of authority, and esteem among their multiracial colleagues too often alienate scholars from their students and the general public.  They forget the excellence of Barbara Christian’s 1987 essay “The Race for Theory”  and of pioneering work by Carolyn Rodgers and Stephen Henderson regarding speech and music as interpretive referents;  of  Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (1938),  LeRoi Jones’s Blues People ( 1963),  Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970),  George Kent’s Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture (1972), Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985),  Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Kalamu ya Salaam’s What Is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self (1994), and Charles W. Mills’s The Racial Contract (1997).  These works and others assert the centrality of reader or viewer responses in our interpretations of literature and non-literary writing, and in interpretation of history as narratives of lived experiences.

Reading Sterling D. Plumpp

[By Jerry Ward]


In March 1995 I spoke about Sterling Plumpp in the PASSWORDS series at Poets House, proud to be a Mississippian in New York speaking about a Mississippian.  Poets House was then located at 72 Spring Street.  It is now located at 10 River Terrace.   In 1995, I thought Plumpp was the finest blues poet our nation had produced, surpassed only by Langston Hughes.  Much has changed.  In 2013, I am convinced Plumpp is still standing next to Hughes; no writer who claims to be a blues/jazz poet surpasses him with the exception of Amiri Baraka, who is our most total music poet.  Should I discover that anyone agrees with my opinion, I shall promptly have a minor heart attack.  That person will have killed my ability to have the blues.

I venture into the future to find the present and leave the past frozen.  Obviously, I am troubled by the apostasy that infects our contemporary discussions of poetry.  I will learn you to play bid whist with Death.   If you choose, you may turn ice into either steam or water.  It is entirely up to you.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Rereading Henry Van Dyke (3 October 1928--22 December 2011): The Pleasure of the Text

[By Jerry Ward]

Often you can derive pleasure from rereading a novel by an author whose contribution to African American literary tradition is not a hot critical topic.  For example,   Henry Van Dyke’s Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1965) provokes laughter, the robust folk laughter of recognizing how rich and educational African American idioms can be.  On the surface, Van Dyke’s novel is a relatively slight Bildungsroman, the narrative of a young man’s learning that “when a peacock’s days are over, they’re over.” But the matter under the surface demands a reckoning.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Condemnation & Redemption: The Works of Donald Goines

[By Jerry Ward]

Addison Gayle, Jr. was not a signifying monkey.   Many contemporary scholars and critics ignore his existence; they dismiss his insights as strident sub-literary talk, noise not to invite to dinner at the Academic Big House.  A few critics of my generation refuse to erase him.  We do not embrace Gayle’s views without question.  We do, however, respect the historical importance and contemporary relevance of his thought.  We find his exploration of fiction in The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America (1975) to be bracing.  We find useful insights in the essays he collected in The Black Situation (1970), and one of those essays “Revolutionary Philosophy” seems poignant in the midst of debates about the status of the gun in the United States.  Rereading that essay casts light on issues explored in Word Hustle.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

“They’ve Done Taken My Blues and Gone:” Listening to Langston Hughes: a New Year’s Resolution

[By Maryemma Graham]

Like most people, I have been looking back over the year these last few days, thinking especially about the spikes in the news.  It’s easy to be political, given the November election, putting Obama in the White House for a second term, giving him and the nation another first.

But since 2013 is the thirtieth anniversary for the Project on the History of Black Writing, I want to stick closer to home, to what I know and do best.

Monday, January 7, 2013

America’s Soul Unchained

[By Jerry Ward]

Django Unchained is the most patriotic American film of 2012, because Quentin Tarantino plunged into the system of Dante’s Inferno and brought up the bloody, violent and unchained soul of the myth of the United States of America.  He succeeds in making viewers frustrated, angry, and anxious to debate the merits of reducing Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung to a soap opera and ending a fragmented black love story with Broomhilda and Django riding off into the bliss of fugitive darkness.