Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Notes on Richard Rodriguez and Autobiography

[By: Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]
Rodriguez, Richard. Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.  New York: Viking, 2013. 

 As a writerly act of defiance and discovery, Rodriguez published Hunger of Memory: The Education of  Richard Rodriguez in 1982. In the contexts of stereotyped machismo and socially imagined American desire, the book was a triumph of ethnic spirit. It exploited the seductiveness of American literary history. The main title was a slantwise echo of Richard Wright's American Hunger; his subtitle, an appropriation of The Education of Henry Adams. It reiterated the indeterminate properties of autobiography as a genre as well as the articulation of ethnicity. One could read the book as a post-modern signifying on Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery, if one deemed autobiographies to be success stories. An uncommon reader might contrast Hunger of Memory with Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings (1984) to ponder gender, ethnic and class differences in American Writing. One imagines Rodriguez took a tip from Wright in meditating on alienation, especially in distancing himself from the assumptions of Mexican American Catholic decorum and from parents who were "always mindful of the line separating public from private life." Rodriguez wanted a consumed cake to remain intact.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Malcolm X Materials Digitized

[By: Dr. Amy E. Earhart]

I would like to bring to your attention a newly published small edition, "Alex Haley's 'The Malcolm D. I Knew' and Notecards from The Autobiography of Malcolm X." Published in the peer review journal Scholarly Editing, the edition includes an unknown 29 page typed manuscript of an essay that Haley used when he was writing The Autobiography. The materials are transcribed, annotated and include high quality images that I hope will be of use to scholars. The essay and notecards provide insight into the complicated relationship between Haley and Malcolm X. For example, scholars including the late Manning Marable, have wondered why the OAAU (The Organization of Afro-American Unity) has received little attention in The Autobiography. The notes reveal that Haley did discuss the OAAU with X, adding notes to the cards for inclusion in the volume. At some point later, then, the decision to exclude the OAAU occurred, suggesting that Haley may have bowed to pressure from the publisher. Further, Haley recounts a previously undocumented interaction between X and a white couple in "The Malcolm X. I Knew" which reinforces a particular shaping of X by Haley. 

We also learn that while there is only one documented case of Malcolm X supporting labor unions-- a 1962 hospital worker strike--one note indicates that X thought unions had the potential to create change. The notes also reference passages in The Autobiography. For example, Haley recounts one interview session during which X "was gesturing with his passport in his hand; he saw that I was trying to read its perforated number and suddenly he thrust the passport toward me, his neck flushed reddish: 'Get the number straight, but it won't be anything the white devil doesn't already know. He issued me the passport'" (21). The passport number is recorded in Haley's hand on notecard 37. As scholars examine the digitized texts it is likely that new discoveries will come to light.

Friday, April 25, 2014

National Poetry Month

[By: Simone Savannah]

Did you know that April is National Poetry Month? Black History Month in February and Women's History Month in March inspired the Academy of American Poets to dedicate April to celebrating and increasing the awareness of poetry in the United States. President Clinton stated, "National Poetry Month offers us a welcome opportunity to celebrate not only the unsurpassed body of literature produced by our poets in the past, but also the vitality and diversity of voices reflected in the works of today's American poetry" (April 1, 1996 Proclamation). The Academy of American poets has honored Black American poets and their contributions to literature in a number of ways. For example, in 2001, the Academy of American Poets asked the public to vote on their favorite American poet to be put on a U.S. postage stamp. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a stamp with the image poet, playwright, and novelist, Langston Hughes. 

To honor poetry/poets, many of my poet-friends and I are hard at work writing a poem each day in April! With the help of prompts (and my new obsession with short poems), I have managed to stay on track with "30 for 30." In fact, I've submitted  one of my poems to a poetry workshop and received some great feedback from my colleagues. In addition to keeping me on track with writing, "30 for 30" encourages me to ready poetry written by poets who I have not read before. It also inspires me to continue to share history regarding how Black poets are both read and honored. For example, a stamp honoring Paul Laurence Dunbar was issued on May 1, 1975, 26 years before the Academy of American Poets evidenced concern for so honoring Black American poets. 

So, how are you honoring poets and poetry this month? It may be too late to join us in scrambling to write villanelles at midnight this month, so consider writing a poem each month to honor poets. 

Allen Polite: A Poet You Might Consider Reading

Allen Polite was born in New Jersey in 1932. His poetry was first published in 1958 in Yugen. His writings also appear in Sixes and Sevens, An Anthology of New Poetry (1962) and in Langston Hughes' New Negro Poets, U.S.A. (1964). An early association with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)  led him to serve his apprenticeship as a beat poet before he became identified with the Black Arts Movement. 

After his service in the U.S. Army in Korea and Japan, Polite moved permanently to Europe, settling in Stockholm in 1963. There he was part of a collective of artists, musicians and poets that included the late Harvey Cropper, another black expatriate. Allen Polite died of cancer in 1993. His papers are housed at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. 

Polite left hundreds of poems, paintings, and drawings that he had planned to publish later in his career. His wife, Helene Polite privately published three volumes of the work he left behind, Poems  (1996), The Rice and Fiol of the Turd Rake (1996), a rhapsodic play for three voices', and Looka Here, Now! (1997). She has also assisted HBW in reissuing two of his volumes 

In 2012, HBW organized a panel at the College Language Association, where novelist Tony M. Grooms presented a paper on Polite's work. Additionally, Polite's poetry was included in discussion of poetry of the 1960's during the 2013 NEH summer institute,"Don't Deny My Voice." 

About Simone

Simone Savannah is currently a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Kansas. Her interests include Black Female Autobiographical Writers/ Artists, Black Poetry, and 20th Century Black Literature.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Disney and Diversity Part II: What We Owe to Oprah

[By: Dr. Maryemma Graham]

 What are we to do with Disneyfication? It's here to stay. I may be succumbing to the mass media hype, but I am no longer ashamed to admit that I have hope in Oprah. 

Admittedly, Oprah caught my attention when she reassessed the impact of her book club and brought it back after a one-year hiatus in 2002. As a teacher of literature, I continued to be pleasantly surprised by her selections. While publishers maintain the separation between "literary" and "popular" fiction, which traditional English departments have reinforced over the years, Oprah ignored the distinction. Instead, she let us know that she was a reader, and her selections followed the reader's ecumenical taste and logic. Thus, forgotten classics appeared alongside contemporary works that she "discovered," turning them into overnight sensations. 

The "Oprah's Book Club" gold seal became a marker of association and status; it symbolized a brand. Oprah had learned from Disney. She became a household name as she built an empire.

Much has been said about the Oprah effect, and we have to thank her for encouraging America to read across the color line, turning her faithful followers into passionate readers. Her reach was broad, intentionally diverse, her appeal always personal. The year she discontinued the club, the reason she gave resonated with all of us in the academy. She couldn't keep up with reading itself and stay on top of everything that was coming out. Alas, Oprah was like us: she was human.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Studying Black Yin

[By: Bro. Yao (Hoke S. Glover III) and Dr. Valerie Prince]

Blackness as we know it today cannot escape the white vs. black/ good vs. bad/ righteousness vs. evil dichotomy that upholds the idea of white supremacy. The snare is even more labyrinthine for language and intellectual brokers who confront the colonial history  of the language we write and speak as an obstacle in communication. What "black" means is not simply what we intend; rather, the idea has a legacy which establishes a trajectory that leads us to dead-ends or pathways that are not our desired course. Though we have tried to change the definition of black within the English language, the task may be impossible. In effect, the connotations inherent in the language cannot be overcome by systematic rebuttals and an exertion of will.

Instead, if we are to articulate notions of blackness that are not trapped in the good vs. bad dichotomy we must move outside of English to find an alternative system of codifying our experiences. Consider as an alternative the paradigm of "black" and "white" found in the Yin and Yang symbol. The connection between polarities implied by the diagram is worthy of he Black writer's study. The Yin and Yang symbol is a circle comprised of black and white in equal measure, separated by a complex border, with a smaller circle of each within the heart of the other. Here, the binary opposites are inextricably linked and swirling around each other in balance

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Disney and Diversity in the 21st Century: Part 1

[By: Dr. Maryemma Graham]

Diversity has become a vexed issue in the 21st century.  Once it was a priority in our corporate and education sectors, with accountability for its implementation built in. Today, it has become that carefully crafted phrase one sees on websites, usually so watered down we pay scarce attention. Even when we were not guided by a principle but by underlying marketing needs, diversity forced us to have many honest, if difficult dialogues.  Now it seems that only members of  “diverse populations” talk about or show concern for diversity.   And we know what that means.  In the last three years, I have been to too many strategy sessions —even at my own university—with the absence of any discussion of diversity.  It seems to bother no one. If we ask questions about it, we are strangely inappropriate. If answers come, they serve to redirect the conversation. So we are often silent or vow to show our protest with our future absence.

If diversity is everybody’s concern, where did it go? When did we start letting the university, our administrators, our CEO’s off the hook?  Was it only the intimidating presence of affirmative action legislation that “made” people do the right thing? Now that the pressure is off, it’s back to business as usual.  While the concept is still with us, there’s no power behind it.

Can we blame social media for this shift, the place where everybody has a voice?  After all, nobody is legally denied access anymore. The catchword “equal” is everywhere; we all expect jobs to say “equal opportunity employer.” Surely this suggests that a major goal of the civil rights movement has been accomplished.
But there’s a downside to the social media. To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell here, the voices that seem to be the loudest are not those that offer constructive or balanced critique in good faith. Gladwell is correct: those who want to sway public opinion, present a biased point of view, and show disregard for facts, may have more to gain by social media than those who are more fact-driven. Social media can make us feel connected to each other, at the same time it can divide, exclude, and distort the truth.  Our heavy reliance on it confuses us.  We think we see what is not there; we think we know more than we do. We connect with like-minded people, and we assume this to be “most” people. We are, all of us, living in a world of illusions.

No one was better at creating illusions than Walt Disney.  He had the unique ability to appropriate and collapse centuries of historical knowledge from ancient and modern cultures.  He helped to turn entertainment and marketing into the institutions that are the fabric of our lives today.  As he turned his own dreams into reality, creating newly imagined identities for us all to share, he ushered in an era that diminishes the need for any real knowledge while simultaneously clouding our vision of diversity. While Disney is not wholly responsible for the illusions of wealth accumulation that are pervasive, disneyfication is synonymous with the post modernization of America and the world.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Black Poetry Bears Witness

[By: Dr. Shauna Morgan Kirlew]

The students in my "Literature as History" freshman writing seminar recently read and analyzed Audre Lorde's "Power". The story of a young black boy gunned down in the streets resonated powerfully with the students, even though none of them had heard of Clifford Glover, whose life inspired Lorde's poem. They found the subject matter so relevant to their 21st-century reality that it opened the door to further analysis of the metaphors and imagery in the text.

"I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds" begins the second stanza. One student noted that the desert, and the "whiteness/of the desert" represented the United States social and political landscape where there is no justice for murdered black children. I was struck by the sense of powerlessness that emerged from, what seemed to be, a new cognizance of their vulnerability to violence and injustice. However, it was the long, sustained history of brutality against black children that troubled them. The reality that their society resembled that of their parents and grandparents in its disregard for their bodies and lives left them feeling defeated. 

I offered a short list of additional poets and titles that bear witness to this history of white brutalization of black children, including work from Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman, Nikki Giovanni, Jerry Ward, Sonia Sanchez, and Frank X Walker. Shortly after, issue ten of Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture arrived, and this deeply moving tribute to Trayvon Martin, which opens with "Autopsy" by Patricia Smith, was received with immediacy as a literary and historical marker.

One student, noting Smith's signifying and references to slavery, suggested that the poem also functioned as an autopsy of the white-washed history of white violence and the criminal justice system that would have society believe that "Black boys fold their bodies around bullets."

Black poetry paints and writes our stories-- records our histories and reveals truths. This art, even when it turns around stories of loss and brutality, is the evidence of black life in America. With good cause, and with brilliant clarity, it continues to resonate between and within generations of our people.