Friday, January 31, 2014

International Exchanges

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Professor Tsunehiko Kato’s eloquent essay on the Japan Black Studies Association (JBSA) provides relief from the glut of always already interpellations of the face (and other body parts) of the Other who occupies an interstitial transnational location in the postcolonial diasporic interrogation which is a simulacrum for academic discourses in conversation with postmodern debris of gendered desires. In Professor Kato’s essay, one hears the voice of a human being speaking to human beings about a subject that is dear to his heart and that he invites us to share.

JBSA was founded in 1954, the year Richard Wright published Black Power and Savage Holiday. Given the importance of Wright’s works for Japanese scholars prior to their having ocular proof of the fault-lines in America’s practice of democracy (e.g., segregated military bases), any future dialogue and  collaboration between African American scholars and their Japanese colleagues can begin with the importance of empirical history for international exchange.  Professor Kato makes it clear that the early stages of Japanese engagement of Negro literature was mediated by reading experiences which did not have to be filtered by theory.  I use the term “Negro literature” for the sake of historical accuracy. Timing is crucial. By highlighting Professor Kitajima’s response to Black Boy, the essay allows us to understand why Japanese literary scholars may be more in synch with African American scholars than foreign scholars who became interested in black writing after LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka challenged “the myth of Negro literature” in 1962. I surmise, for example, that Japanese intellectuals were better prepared to appreciate the experiential grounding of Wright’s response to George Padmore’s Pan-Africanism or Communism in Black Power and The Color Curtain (1956) than their Chinese peers who might have given greater weight to Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois as politically engaged men of letters.  My ideas about the locations of literary sympathy and interpretation have to be debated in rigorous exchanges which are informed by fact rather than theory.  Professor Kato whets my appetite for such exchanges between JBSA and the Project on the History of Black Writing, because I believe African American can learn much from how JBSA members formulated questions over a period of sixty years. And the third generation of JBSA members can learn from PHBW why contemporary African American literature, culture and criticism appear to create a ball of confusion.

The admirable specificity of Professor Kato’s narrative brings to the foreground, for me and perhaps for others who have taught African American literature in China, how Chinese scholarship is more strongly motivated by and mediated through what can loosely be called Eurocentric theoretical discourses. My impressions are buttressed by reading the three volumes of Critical Zone: A Forum of Chinese and Western Knowledge (2004, 2006, 2008), which are seminal in articulating what a global community of scholarship might be. My concern about barnacles of misunderstanding regarding African American thought is anchored by a recent “reading” of Wright’s Savage Holiday.  In Abandoning the Black Hero: Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2013), John C. Charles interprets Wright’s novel “in the context of his postexpatrIation search for aesthetic and intellectual freedom beyond the reductive labels of mid-twentieth-century American racial and political discourse”(21). From the exchanges I have frequently with Chinese colleagues and students, it is easy for me to imagine their not questioning a distinction between Wright’s privacy and his agency, an agency that is judiciously assessed in Claudia Tate’s Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocol of Race (1998) and Abdul R. JanMohamed’s The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death (2005). Professor Kato’s essay persuades me that JBSA members might question the theoretical implications of John C. Charles’ interpretation with more critical alacrity.

Professor Kato’s reflection on the history of JBSA strengthens my determination to call for establishing an online African American Research forum among African American, Chinese, American and Japanese scholars at the 2nd International Symposium on Ethnic Literature, Central China Normal University, October 25-26, 2014.  Without dismissing the virtues of theory, I am convinced that future international exchanges about African American literature(s) and culture(s) ought to be marked by greater recognition of shared historicity and production of knowledge, the kind of historicity that Professor Kato has most gracefully delineated.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
January 29, 2014

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

About Japan Black Studies Association since 1954

The Project on the History of Black Writing is pleased to welcome our colleagues from the Japanese Black Studies Association, one of the oldest professional organizations in the field.

[By Tsunehiko Kato]

Japan Black Studies Association was founded in 1954, the year of the Supreme Court decision in America. But it was not the founders’ intention to be timely. Rather, the establishment had its own root in Japanese context. Objectively speaking, the Association was part of newly liberated larger social and academic movements in Japan for enhancement of democracy, peace and human rights in the post-war and the emergent cold-war period. Although people were very poor, this period had liberating effects upon Japanese intellectuals after the long winter of militarism and oppression of speech. The encounter with American democracy and culture was the important part of the liberating effects. But some intellectuals were aware that even in democratic America, there were people who had been excluded from it. It seems to be not an accident that JBSA started from Kobe where there were two kinds of U.S. military bases, that is, one for white soldiers and another for black soldiers. Those people who created JBSA were also aware that a post-colonial world was emerging in Africa as well as in Asia and Latin America. They were keen on learning from their history and experience. So JBSA had from the start an interdisciplinary approach as well as post-colonial concerns. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Tribute to Amiri Baraka

[By Gregg Murray]

I was assigned William J. Harris’s very well-organized The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader for Maria Damon’s African-American Poetries class, and until that point his names meant nothing to me. Now, this is in some ways an indictment of my undergraduate coursework in English. But I was an undergrad after all, dogearing my way through the classics, the ‘important’ literature, literature with a seal of approval, the canons of centuries past, and stacking up what I thought I was supposed to read to be educated in this field. But please do not think I exaggerate when I say this: there is no poet more important than Amiri Baraka. It is counterproductive to create hierarchies of greatness, to claim one writer or thinker or visionary is better than another. So, I hope you’ll forgive my indulgence at this emotional time. Amiri Baraka is not only important; he is the very best we had.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


[By William J. Harris]

"If my letter re your poem sounded crusader and contentious I’m sorry. But I have gone deep, and gotten caught with images of the world, that exists, or that will be here after we go. I have not the exquisite objectivity of circumstance. The calm precise mind of Luxury. . . . I can’t sleep. And I do not believe in all this relative shit. There is a right and a wrong. A good and a bad. And it’s up to me, you, all of the so called minds, to find out. It is only knowledge of things that will bring this ‘moral earnestness’.”

--Amiri Baraka to Edward Dorn, 1961


He shits
And doesn’t
Even notice

He has
His mind
On the stars

Let him
On your head

--William J. Harris

It is hard to believe but the great poet, Amiri Baraka’s funeral will be on this Saturday, January 18 in Newark. It is hard to believe he has left us so soon. Each time I saw him he was so alive and vital, especially in performance. He was a fighter and an artist to the end.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Remembering Alvin Aubert and Amiri Baraka

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

My introduction to Leroi Jones was reading “The End of Man is His Beauty” and “A Poem for Democrats” in 1963 in Rosey E. Pool’s anthology Beyond the Blues (Hand and Flower Press 1962). In the head note, Jones asserted that writing “beautiful poems full of mystical sociology and abstract politics” was among his ambitions. Five years later at Fort Knox, I read the anthology Black Fire, a confirmation that focused anger has purpose. When I began teaching at Tougaloo College in the fall of 1970, Home: Social Essays by LeRoi Jones was one of the textbooks in my freshman composition course. My students had to debate why Negro literature was a myth and what black writing should be. Reading Jones before and after he became Amiri Baraka and using the terrible beauty of his mind as a touchstone for engaged cultural work was simply normal for me. Keeping up with his prodigious output was mission impossible; deciding how to deal with his ideological shifts and transformations of identity was hard work. But he was teaching me constantly that nothing worth having in our tradition of perpetual struggle comes easily, I can’t mark the year in the 1980s when I finally met Baraka, but I was relieved to discover this intellectual giant was not a man to be feared but a man with whom I could have civil discourses, with whom I could laugh and joke, with whom I could celebrate the complexities of being human. It sufficed that he would lend me his ear as I struggled with the immense range of his creativity. He was the master craftsman and teacher who taught me invaluable lessons about tradition and commitment. Baraka far exceeded his early ambitions and gave America a matchless body of engaged writing.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Black Literature and Digital Humanities: The Black Book Interactive Project

The Project on the History of Black Writing (PHBW) is the oldest, continuously running digital humanities project working exclusively on African American literature.  Founded in 1983 at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, it parallels the evolution of the field itself.  Today, thirty years later, HBW continues to engage in scholarship focusing on the study of African American literature and digital software.

Below, follow links that provide information to our newest digital initiative, “The Black Book Interactive Project”  

The Black Book Project: Why is it important?

Since the study/teaching of black literature is very often dictated by what is current or what authors will attract students to a course, most of what we know about black fiction is based on a very small sample of texts.  Our objective is to learn what this larger body of mostly non-canonical texts can tell us that we don’t know and how this knowledge alters current conceptions about black literature. Text analysis has been slow to come to black writing, but is growing. What we hope to achieve through this project is to provide the context for not only thinking about but also documenting continuity and change, tradition and innovation within African American fiction, by indexing novels according to selected features, such as word choice, geographic location, character names, narrative mode, for example. 

The Black Book Project: What kinds of important research questions are we asking?

Based on our collection of some 2000 novels, most of which are neither widely read nor taught, we see the digital medium as a way to provide new levels of access, consolidate a large amount of data and invite new questions. What patterns exist among book titles, word count and chapter structure of the novels? What are the terms and examples do authors use to describe race and racial tension, and how does this shift over time? Which African American authors are inclined to use unique words and phrases? How many and which prominent historical figures make appearances in the novels? How much do the novelists represent variations of standard and African American vernacular English in their works? What physical environments and distinct regions are described in the novels, and what common words and phrases are used to describe those places? How do stylistic preferences differ from writer to writer? How do these questions alter current organizing premises/theories about black novels?

The Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP) Overview

[By Kenton Rambsy]

The Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP) focuses on African American novels published from the mid-19th through the early 20th century novels, creating a tool that allows a comparison of thematic and stylistic elements, ideas and language use. Relying on text-mining software, mapping and geo-tagging, we can make striking observations about a large number of texts. Scholars, researchers and students will be able to ask more specific questions about individual texts in relationship to the larger group and to map literary trends more precisely. The ultimate goal for this interactive database is to allow us to customize our research questions and topics related to black novels by demonstrating the consistency and transformation of ideas and patterns across time, especially as black writing becomes more professionalized and gains increased credibility within our culture.