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"all the poems Lucille Clifton published in book form during her lifetime" as well as a significant amount of her unpublished poetry (xxvii).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and Blessing the Boats, 2000), including Clifton's last two published books of poems (Mercy, 2004, and Voice, 2008), an unpublished yet impressive 2006 set of poems titled "Book of Days," eleven "Last Poems and Drafts," and a substantial number of poems composed (but never published) before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.