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.