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Monday, July 28, 2014

Zionism, Equality, and Ice

BECOMING ICE IN A SUMMER NIGHT

Two essays in the August 14, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books light the fire of moral meditation and invite despair.  Who needs a fire at the very peak of summer in New Orleans?

Jonathan Freedland’s “The Liberal Zionist” (20, 22, 24) and Gordon Woods’s “A Different Idea of Our Declaration” (37-38) incite thinking.  Walking us through the mindscape of conflict between the Palestinians and Israel with Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, John B. Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, and Norman G. Finkelstein’s Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land as guidebooks, Freedland points out the beautiful horrors of hasbara, yorim u’vochim, mizrachim, and the Holocaust as demonic prototypes for Israeli fascism.

Two of Freedland’s sentences are especially disconcerting: [1] “On this Shavit and Judis agree: Zionism’s founding fathers were afflicted by selective blindness, unable or unwilling to register what was in front of their eyes: the presence of another people in the Land of Israel” (22) and [2] “In November 1929, Brandeis wrote: ‘The situation reminds me of that in America when the settlers who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony had to protect themselves against the Indians’.” (22)

The latter sentence is a bridge to Gordon Woods’s ideas about Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Woods’s review of what he describes as Allen’s “tour de force of close textual analysis” (38) is less disturbing than what Freedland had to say about liberal Zionists, but it does contain one fatal flaw in choice of language. Woods makes a brief reference to Allen’s “background as a mixed-race African-American woman” (37). He should have written that Allen’s background is that of a “mixed-race WASP-American woman.” It is embarrassing that he denies Allen the entitlements and equality of her WASP ancestry, that he is as colorblind and insensitive as the Declaration of Independence in acknowledging how the construction of race in the United States constipates thinking. I am led to wonder if Allen notes anywhere in her book that the American concept of equality is predicated, in part, on ethnic cleansing and enslavement. Perhaps she does not, because “she wants to make the ‘encounter with the Declaration easier for readers who have not yet built up a deep historical knowledge base’” (38).

Who needs a fire at the very peak of summer in New Orleans?  I do. The two essays leave me as cold as the Arctic Circle. They freeze me into thinking the indigenous peoples of the United States and the Palestinians are merely items in a lexicon used to justify American and Israeli moral corruptions. They employ biblical mythology to tempt me into assigning Palestinians and indigenous peoples to oblivion. The language of the two essays makes me shiver as Thomas Jefferson did when he considered that God might indeed be just, for I must weigh the possibility that contemporary Americans are losing the capacity to shiver.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            July 28, 2014

Sunday, July 27, 2014

On Black Magnolias: A Literary Journal

On Black Magnolias: A Literary Journal

To my knowledge, we have not had a critical survey of African American literary magazines since 1979, the year Abby Arthur Johnson and Ronald Maberry Johnson published the seminal Propaganda and Aesthetics: The Literary Politics of Afro-American Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Aesthetics, propaganda, and the rise, fall, and rebirth of magazines and human consciousness are vexed topics.  A few of us do want to know how magazines have functioned since the 1980s, and we might ask, for example, how Black Magnolias has influenced thinking since the turn of the century. Discovering an answer requires use of an array of research procedures.

One might argue Black Magnolias: A Literary Journal is an exemplar of Black South differentness. Is that differentness located in the style and content of what the editor chose to publish; in the expectations of the journal’s readers; in both? Evidence regarding such commerce in values is largely digital --- emails to and from the editor, a review on Newpages.com, comments on various blogsites. The relative absence of print documents demands skills in using printable documents, skills yet emerging within the nascent fields of digital humanities. The current state of African American literary sociology is less than helpful in trying to confirm one’s intuitions.

 Founded in 2001 by Monica Taylor-McInnis and C. Liegh McInnis, Black Magnolias has been a forum for writers who bring diverse cultural assumptions and rhetorical skills to the act and art of writing. Under the editorial guidance of C. Liegh McInnis, the journal has acquired regional, national and international recognition. While these facts may be more apparent than facts regarding “differentness,” interpretation is still limited to intelligent guessing. Comparison of Black Magnolias with similar journals is essential for obtaining what can count as knowledge. Much time is required to do the focused research and construct better explanations than are currently available in general discussions of literary politics.

It is a matter of raw common sense that writers published in Black Magnolias 1.1 (Winter 2001-2002) through 8.2 (Summer 2014) are indebted to C. Liegh McInnis for how he has placed them in the Zeitgeist of the 21st century. He has sacrificed much of his own career as a poet, fiction writer, and literary/cultural critic in order to serve a higher human good in the philosophical sense of “good.” He has quarreled endlessly with himself about the ethics of publishing, as he sought to balance his heavy teaching duties at Jackson State University with the equally heavy obligations of exercising integrity as an editor. Such uneasy waltzing is usually not accounted for in literary histories. It should  be acknowledged, however, in African American literary history if only to witness how faithfully as a writer McInnis has honored imperatives set forth by Margaret Walker in her essays regarding African American humanistic responsibilities.

The publication of Black Magnolias 8.2 is the turning point which provides an opportunity for acknowledgement. Both the journal and McInnis are entering an unspecified period of meaningful hibernation. I hasten to note that McInnis’s reasons for retreat into reflective solitude are more genuine and noble than those of the nameless narrator in Ellison’s Invisible Man. We might read or reread the 30 issues of Black Magnolias from 2001 to 2014 as a gesture of securing memory of what McInnis has contributed to the totality of African American literary enterprises, securing memory of his gifts to humanity. He has earned to right to renew himself in solitude.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                 July 27, 2014

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Margaret Walker Centennial


Margaret Walker’s Gifts for Her People

 

Preface for the 2015 Margaret Walker Centennial

                    

Although The Gift of Black Folk (1924) is less well-known and less discussed than The Souls of Black Folk (1903), this historical survey by W. E. B. DuBois can be instructive as an early example of Black Studies. “Who made America?” DuBois asked in the first sentence of his brief “Prescript.” In the first quarter of the twentieth-century, the question was necessary DuBois argued because “there are those as always who would forget the humble builders, toiling wan mornings and blazing noons, and picture Americas as the last reasoned blossom of mighty ancestors; of those great and glorious world builders and ruler who know and see and do all things forever and ever, amen!” The flowery prose is a negative imitation of prayer, a prelude to DuBois’ understanding that America involved building “real democracy and not that vain and eternal striving to regard the world as the abiding place of exceptional genius with great black wastes of hereditary idiots.” His sarcasm is nicely pitched in the third, final paragraph: “We who know may not forget but must forever spread the splendid sordid truth that out of the most lowly and persecuted of men, Man made America.  And that what Man has here begun with all its want and imperfection, with all its magnificent promise and grotesque failure will some day blossom in the souls of the Lowly” (1). Black assessment of America is forever and ever salted with ironies.

DuBois’ “splendid sordid truth” reveals a deliberate shortcoming in his historical memory, because he failed to deal forthrightly with the “forced complicity” of black folk in the genocide of indigenous peoples in America.  The obvious limits of his historical narration or historiography still plague contemporary discussions of how black folk fit into the unfinished process of building America (forming the nation’s identity), because cultural discourses are subjective; purpose rather than not having all the facts  governs our selectivity.  Acquiring “new,” reliable facts, of course, does encourage revision or correction of history; so too, our efforts to improve and expand our assessments of writers inform our work as literary theorists, critics, and historians, although we are not immune to subjectivity.

 The Gifts of Black Folk offers a guide for talking about Margaret Walker’s gifts for her people, a guide from an African American intellectual giant for whom she had lifelong respect. If quantity of output were the only measure, it is obvious that DuBois gave more gifts to his people than Walker.  My motives for talking about Walker have little to do with quantity and much to do with a sense that the quality of her ideas and her creative works has not been emphasized enough in a field where DuBois’ quantity and quality have been richly documented.  DuBois’ nine chapters provide handy categories for discussion of Walker’s gifts   ---- exploration, labor, military service, emancipation of democracy, reconstruction of freedom, womanhood, folk song (music), art and literature, and spirit. Walker never served in the United States military, so I substitute “political investments” for “military service.” I replace DuBois’ emphasis on geographical exploration with exploration of ideas. What might we gain now from Margaret Walker’s gifts for people?

 

WORK CITED

DuBois, W. E. B. The Gift of Black Folk. Boston: The Stratford Company, 1924; New York: Washington Square Press, 1970. Print.

                                     

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

July 22, 2014

Saturday, July 19, 2014

White Studies and the Blood of Palestine


White Studies and the Blood of Palestine

 

“Americans are not anti-Semitic. Their tax dollars help the State of Israel to purchase weapons of destruction.”  (from a declassified NSA document; call Senator David Vitter for confirmation.)

“Invisible histories” appear in my mind, especially when I am listening to the blues.  Then, stigmata appear on the palms of my hands.  The stigmata come from Palestine, Nigeria and Mississippi. They spill photographs and sugar on the floor. They bear the smell and color of blood.  Lye soap will not wash them away. Aztec children converse with “invisible histories” as they burn and die in the American Dream.

Clues about these “invisible histories” are contained in the interview George Kent conducted with Chancellor Williams on August 30, 1973, part of which was published in The Black Position, No. 3 (1973): 7-38. The original clues, of course, are in Williams’ seldom read book The Destruction of Black Civilization (Chicago: Third World Press, 1974). Clues inform us about the foundations of scholarship.  They tell us that knowledge accumulates when the absence of remembering is present.

Speaking to Kent, Williams acknowledged that some of his scholarly habits were indebted to the teaching of Leo Hansberry at Howard University.  Hansberry urged his students to find “missing pages of black history,” often by anointing their minds in the presence of their enemies.  Such advice is still solid in 2014.  Williams learned from Hansberry that “you’ve got to draw on sources that you might call non-existent sources, because you’ve got to look into areas where you wouldn’t even expect to find anything. In other words, so much of your material if fragmentary --- a line here, a paragraph there, a sentence in some other work, or a footnote somewhere ---- all of the highest significance, but in works which in no ways directly relate to African history at all” (17-18).

Right.  But the words which might produce nightmares regarding White Studies are those Williams used in talking about secrets: “Now, I get a whole lot of criticism because the records show that we are vulnerable too.  We’re backward and need to be given just as much hell as the whites in a whole lot of things that I was to uncover. They don’t want me to do that.  They say you’re washing our dirty linen in public. I say it’s already in public. We’re no vast secret society so that we can do a lot of stuff nobody knows about. The white man knows about it better than we do in a sense, because he’s the architect of many of the things we are doing; he’s seeing how well we are carrying out his program.  He’s all right; he’s safe until we begin to turn the search light on criticism of ourselves” (28).

Yes. When the Holy Land has satisfied its thirst for the blood of Palestine, White Studies will quote the final stanza of Bob Kaufman’s magnificent poem “The Ancient Rain” from The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (New York: New Directions Books, 1987): 81.-----“I remember the day I went into crackling blueness. His indescribable voice saying Black Man, Black Man, for the mole and the water jet, stay out of the cleft, seek out the great Sun of the Center.”

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.         July 19, 2014

Friday, July 18, 2014

Poetry and the New York Times


American Poetry and the New York Times

 

Noted for the patriotic attention it gives to wholesome American poetry, the New York Times raised the bar by publishing David Orr’s review of Directing Herbert White: Poems (Graywolf, paper, $15) by the “all-around celebrity” James Franco.  David Orr claims that Franco has 2.2 million Twitter followers. Orr might be appealing indirectly to that audience as he asserts that Franco’s book “is the sort of collection written by reasonably talented M.F.A. students in hundreds of M.F.A. programs stretching from sea to shining sea.” If each of Franco’s Twitter followers bought a copy of Directing Herbert White, Graywolf would be pleased and Franco would be amused. America would set a publishing record unmatched anywhere in the world.

 

Unfortunately, David Orr spoils the fantasy with the “total slaughter” of a penultimate sentence in his Sunday Book Review piece of July 17 (online) and July 20 (print): “Poetry is the weak sister of its sibling arts, alternately ignored and swaddled like a 19th –century invalid, and that will change only by means of a long, tedious, and possibly futile effort at persuasion.”

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

July 18, 2014

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ramcat Reads #4


Ramcat Reads #4

 

Allen, Jeffery Renard. Song of the Shank: A Novel. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014. Like James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird (2013), Allen’s most recent book signals how innovations in the twenty-first century African American historical novel challenge the American penchant for the ahistorical. Judicious criticism of Allen’s novel depends in part on knowing the real life history of the musical genius Thomas Greene Wiggins (“Blind Tom”) and in part on struggling to know how M. M. Bakhtin’s ideas about the dialogic imagination and speech acts might be joined with Georg Lukacs’s thinking about the role of the historical novel in the production of consciousness. Let it suffice, for the moment, that Allen has offered us an exemplary model of what purposeful black writing can accomplish.

 

Ali, Shahrazad. The Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman. Philadelphia: Civilized Publications, 1989. Ali’s confessions of a woman’s low valuation of self was sternly critiqued in Confusion By Any Other Name: Essays Exploring the Negative Impact of The Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman (Chicago: Third World Press, 1990), edited by Haki R. Madhubuti. Anyone who wishes to analyze contemporary “reality television” and the progressive pathology of American mass media in general can acquire historical perspectives from reading or rereading these two books.

 

Boyd, Herb. Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin.  New York: Atria Books, 2008. Boyd’s survey of Baldwin’s intellectual engagements with such figures as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Norman Mailer, and Harold Cruse is judiciously provocative.

 

Brown, Leonard L., ed. John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.  This collection of thoughtful essays lends credibility to T. J. Anderson’s assertion that “all creative artists are cultural anthropologists, documenters and interpreters of culture” (vi) and to Coltrane’s informing Don DeMicheal in a letter of June 2, 1962: “We have absolutely no reason to worry about lack of positive and affirmative philosophy. It’s built in us. The phrasing, the sound of the music attest this fact” (17).

 

Cobb, Charles E., Jr. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.  New York: Basic Books, 2014. An important contribution to revisionist history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Greene, Brian. The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Greene provides charming and readable explanations for non-scientists of theories regarding observations of how subatomic particles behave. The aesthetic results of his intellectual adventures, however, must be tempered by consideration of human judgment and its limits, by the corrective arguments necessary for critical thinking about the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Thus, reading David Faust’s The Limits of Scientific Reasoning (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) helps us to remember the “inherent limitations of scientific judgment.”

Jeffers, Trellie James.  Up and Down the Greenwood.  San Bernardino, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.  In this novella, Jeffers demonstrates that strong ideas derived from late 19th century nationalism can inform 21st century fiction.

Koritz, Amy and George J. Sanchez, eds.  Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. Arts-based initiatives can simultaneously fail and succeed as they address issues generated by the processes of urbanization and gentrification.

Lewis, Peirce F. New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape. 2nd ed. Santa Fe, NM: Center for American Places, 2003.  This book supplements Lawrence N. Powell’s The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).  Read together, these books create a sobering perspective on how histories, the Mississippi River, and the social geography of New Orleans dovetail with racial tensions and encrusted mythologies which make the city a place of blissful abnormalities.

Ludwig, Samuel, ed. On the Aesthetic Legacy of Ishmael Reed.  Huntington Beach, CA: Parade Books, 2013. The essays in this collection are provocative assessments of works by one of America’s most provocative intellectuals.

Thomas, Ebony E. and Shanesha R. F. Brooks-Tatum, eds. Reading African American Experiences in the Obama Era.  New York: Peter Lang, 2012. These essays are rigorous critiques of metanarratives that shape social thinking and policy.

White, Jane Barber. Lessons Learned from a Poet’s Garden: The Restoration of the Historic Garden of Harlem Renaissance Poet Anne Spencer. Lynchburg, VA: Blackwell Press, 2011.  Rich with poems written long after the Harlem Renaissance transitioned into social reality and extensive photographic documentation of Spencer’s family, house, and famous garden, this excellent book is required reading for anyone who wants to know who Anne Spencer (1882-1975) was as poet, civil rights activist, librarian, and gardener.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.        

July 14, 2014

Saturday, July 12, 2014

On a novella


ON A NOVELLA BY TRELLIE JAMES JEFFERS

 

 

 The space of black writing is densely populated, its neighborhoods of poetry and non-fiction being less comfortable than its suburbs of prose fiction or its sprawling estates of drama.  Thanks in part to new technologies of publishing, magnitude overwhelms us and makes the choice of what to read annoyingly difficult. Savvy readers often ignore what various authorities tell them they should read, what they will enjoy reading, or what they must read so as not to be out of fashion. Really smart readers navigate the vast territory by following their uncommon commonsense tastes.  They take risks and enjoy the informative thrill of the dangerous game.  Even when the thrill is gone, they find comfort in not being nondescript members of a herd. Those who elect to read Up and Down the Evergreen Tree (2014) by Trellie James Jeffers can applaud themselves for having walked through a portal of return to the source. This novella restores confidence in the instructive power of black writing.

 

Although the novella as a genre is less popular than the novel, it has the advantage of enabling readers to discern what is really there and how the writer makes a cognitive “there” possible. Up and Down the Evergreen Tree exposes the structures of story and storytelling as it reinvents the explicit message of “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes in the contexts of 1967.  The relatively simple story of how Jackson Greene, a gifted Black doctor in New England, struggles to transform his Deep South mother’s dreams into “realities” is marked by aspects of the nouveau roman.  The temptation to interpret the novella within a modernist French tradition, however, is merely an act of bad faith, a pretentious gesture of wanting to claim for the international African Diaspora what is located by virtue of textual specificity and narration squarely in the domains of African American cultural and political nationalisms. For readers who have digested post-racial and post-black and post-identity nostrums, Up and Down the Evergreen Tree may conjure rich nightmares.

 

 The significance and value of the story is accessible to streetwise readers who do not genuflect in the cathedrals of the Academy or make the sign of the cross with the holy water of forgetting but who battle with the brutal economies of womanism and masculinity.  The meaning of the story does, however, have a special weight for readers who have studied Claudia Tate’s Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century. “What is especially important to observe,” Tate remarked in her groundbreaking discourse on what was explored in late 19th century domestic novels, “is that such exploration was not simply gratuitous escapism; it offered the recently emancipated an occasion for exercising political self-definition in fiction at a time when the civil rights of African Americans were constitutionally sanctioned but socially prohibited” (7). To be sure, the sensorium of post-Reconstruction America is not available for writers and readers in 2014, but traces of that sensorium lurk in our contemporary mindspaces despite aesthetic arguments which pepper and salt literary meditations. Not disposed to have commerce with nonsense, Trellie James Jeffers offers Up and Down the Evergreen Tree as a life-oriented intervention for a question multiethnic America finds difficult to answer in the English language: Y tu abuela, donde esta?

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

July 12, 2014