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Friday, March 27, 2015

Performing Richard Wright in 2015

Performance: Richard Wright in 2015

Despite my having “performed” Richard Wright with a modicum of success some years ago in a Chautauqua series sponsored by the Mississippi Humanities Council, I know virtually nothing about performance theory as an “interdisciplinary area of study and critical method” as it is discussed in the recent book Black Performance Theory (Duke University Press 2014) edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez.   For me, performing Wright was a matter of absorbing what I could of his personality and changing states of mind from his writings, listening to his recorded voice, and praying that at some spiritual level Wright would channel my imagination.  I am not an actor, so I just gathered courage and, on magical night, I did become Richard Wright.  Or so that was what several people in the audience told me.
Tonight I had the opportunity to witness the performance of a project conceptualized by Dr. Ross Louis, a professor in Xavier University of Louisiana’s Department of Communication Studies, that used “haiku as a performance aesthetic to prompt questions about Richard Wright, his haiku, Native Son and Black Boy.  Borrowing the title “This Other World” from the collection of 817 haiku selected from the approximate 4,000 haiku Wright wrote in the last two years of his life, Louis did substantial research in the Richard Wright Papers at Yale University and then wove a small number of haiku and Julia Wright’s introduction to Haiku: This Other World (1989) together with excerpts from Native Son, Black Boy (especially the young Richard’s inquiries about race, his catalog of very poetic discovery images, and the moment of verbal paralysis in a school room), “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” and “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born.”   It is important the Wright’s collection has been most recently published as Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon, because the change of title is itself a publishing “performance” that has consequences for our reception of Wright’s work.  Louis directed two Xavier students, Thomas James Nash II and Mia Selena Ruffin, in using their voices and bodies to perform a quite challenging sketch of Wright’s creativity at the end of his life.  Presented in the outdoor sculpture garden of Xavier’s Art Village, the experiment succeeded in dealing with two questions: 1) How does Wright represent place within his haiku, especially rural Southern places? And 2) How do the values of the haiku genre guide decisions about space, time and movement in a performance of Wright’s work? Nevertheless, the experiment raises enormous questions about our motives in transforming Wright’s poetry into sound and motion and spectacle in 2015.
As the sun set over New Orleans and Xavier on a breezy spring evening with the background musicality of construction noises, I was at once pleased with the originality of the experiment and disturbed that the performance was not followed by some dialogue among the audience, the director, and the performers.  The originality consisted in putting Wright’s haiku or projections in the haiku manner into Nature (the site specificity of New Orleans) and saluting the Japanese spirit of creating a certain kind of poetic experience.  This was far more satisfying than flawed adaptations of Wright’s works for the stage, the movies, and the television screen. Without clarifying dialogue about what was absent ----especially a clear connection between Wright’s early proletarian poetry and his late, very American projections of haiku---I think the quality of aesthetic experience for the audience depended overmuch on how little or how much people knew about Richard Wright, how little or how much people knew about a kind of Japanese poetry that is internationally very popular and only lately getting critical notice in Wright studies by way of such books as The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku (2011), edited by Jianqing Zheng and Yoshinobu Hakutani’s Richard Wright and Haiku (2014).  Already Zheng and Hakutani have been challenged in Dean Anthony Brink’s article on Wright’s search for a counter-hegemonic genre in Textual Practice 28.6 (2014) for giving insufficient attention to Wright’s use of anamorphic possibilities in writing haiku.  The performance at Xavier was a very rich exposition of the problems of anamorphism, but the audience did not have an opportunity to begin exploring that topic.
I applaud Dr.Ross Louis and the student performers for their genuine effort to pay tribute to a portion of Richard Wright’s legacy to world literature.  I had a great experience because I know Wright’s works well.  I do know that one other spectator had a less felicitous experience in following the spaced arrangement of the project’s content. I must insist, in light of that fact , that the Xavier Performance Studies Laboratory have a public discussion of exactly what it performed in it “This Other World” presentation. It is not perverse to ask, borrowing language from DeFrantz and Gonzalez, whether Xavier’s quite specific “experimentation with form and ingenuity” is “part of what has been called ‘the black aesthetic’ (10). It is likely that Richard Wright would urge us to have just that discussion in order to grasp the ineluctable complexity of everyday multicultural phenomena in New Orleans and to determine why his works, haiku and all, are such powerful tools for shaping critical consciousness of everyday life.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.     March 27, 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Alvin Aubert's Birthday

Alvin Aubert: Literature, History, Ethnicity II
March 12, 2015
Xavier University

Alvin Aubert would have been 85 years old today, and we gather to give a breathing dimension to words he wrote on June 21, 1978:
I will be in language when I am gone in the flesh.    (AAP, Box 41, Journal November 30, 1977-April 20, 1978)
I quote Aubert’s words  from the end of Professor Ronald Dorris’ article “Alvin Aubert: Framing South Louisiana.” La Créole 7.1 (2014):16-21 to illustrate one pathway of scholarship -----the transmission of Aubert’s words from a journal to Dorris’ article and my repeating them (confident in the accuracy of what Dorris transferred from the source) in my typescript and then uttering them (oral repetition)  a few seconds ago.  The trope of immortality only functions if someone remembers particular words that were written or typed by someone else in the vast duration we call time.

My remarks are titled “Alvin Aubert: Literature, History, Ethnicity II” as a reminder that we are dealing with another transmission of words, namely my interview with Aubert that was published in Xavier Review 7.2(1987): 1-12.  Part of that interview was conducted through correspondence in March 1986 (typed) and part by way of my taping Aubert’s words at Wayne State University on March 4, 1988.  The correspondence is most likely in my papers at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History; the tape with Aubert’s voice and my own has long since disappeared.  Hurricane Katrina borrowed the tape and failed to return it.
 I am suggesting the centrality of archives and archival work in assisting us to remember things about people, the body of writing we call literature, the narratives of time that we call history which are actually narratives of a process, and the prevailing importance of ethnicity as identification and classification.  Being in language when one is gone in the flesh is not as simple as the words that transmit such an idea.
It is wonderful that the Alvin Aubert Papers are a part of the archives of Xavier University of Louisiana, that a major portion of his legacy to American and African American literature and literary history is preserved here. It is equally wonderful that the Tom Dent Papers are preserved at the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, and the Marcus B. Christian Papers are in the Special Collections at the University of New Orleans and the Richard Wright Papers are deposited in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.  But wonderfulness is of little meaning if students, teachers, and scholars do not use the sources of wonderfulness (the archives) to do critical thinking  and  then make  choices  regarding the flesh (our living and breathing).
 In 2015, a most troubled and troubling year, and in a future, it is productive use of the Alvin Aubert Papers that can transform mere wonderfulness into meaningful education, into understanding of Aubert’s lasting contributions to the Black Arts Movement by way of his writing and his publishing of OBSIDIAN magazine, and into some grasping of how ethnicity is a permanent, vexed feature of social and cultural existence in the United States of America.  I make a special note that Aubert is not mentioned in what to date is the leading study of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic phenomenon, James Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005); that he is mentioned only once (page 16) in the important reference book The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011); that his name appears only on pages 34 and 35 of Howard Rambsy’s The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (2011). Only those who are as blind as the proverbial bat fail to understand that Aubert contributed as much to enterprise and production of Black writing as Mari Evans, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Hoyt Fuller, or Naomi Long Madgett.  He worked assiduously without desire for fanfare.  Use of the Alvin Aubert Papers is crucial if we are to fill the informational gaps and atone for our sins of omissions. As co-editor of the CHAAL, I must say “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
 We can take for granted that Aubert is worthy of attention with regard to the history of black/American poetry and black/American publishing (print culture). That is a basic fact.  What we cannot take for granted is that people who can profit from remembering Alvin Aubert will do so. Thus, Irwin Lachoff, the Associate Archivist at Xavier University, Ronald Dorris, Alumni Class of ’58 Professor of Liberal Arts, African American and Diaspora Studies and English, and I agreed to begin a public conversation and direct attention to Aubert’s papers.
I shall refer to three comments Aubert made in the interview about literature, history, and ethnicity and reserve my own comments for the conversation with Mr. Lachoff, Dr. Dorris and the audience.
W. In your 1986 interview you said, “Art, for me, is not the absence of social and political consciousness; rather, it is the presence of an aesthetic quality, and that aesthetic quality can come from one’s social and political consciousness.”  Would you clarify what you mean by “aesthetic quality?”
A.  I thought you’d ask me about the “absence” –“presence” bit.  I’m glad you didn’t.  As an Afro-American poet I would have to say that the aesthetics of a work of art, of a poem or a story, say, derives from the writer’s milieu, his cultural matrix.  This has to do with whatever in the poem the reader finds appealing.  Appealing in an entertaining, instructive and informing way as well as in a structural sense --- realizing that as operational categories these are not necessarily exclusive in a given literary discourse.  What I’m talking about here touches on Stephen Henderson’s concept of “saturation.”  In reading works of black American poets you discover a great deal of affective material --  material that moves you in various ways because you recognize it as coming from the culture you belong to, as having to do with your life in some way, whether it refers to the kind of music you enjoy – blues, spirituals, jazz, gospel, and so forth  ---  or jokes you have heard told or the way people talk or tell stories or move about or dance or the kind of food that’s eaten or a peculiar way of suffering and endurance and so forth.  You recognize such things, cultural counters, as they are, and your spirit responds “That’s good” and you enjoy the poem, smiling to yourself a long time after reading it, entertaining good thoughts about yourself and your people.  That is the basis of the Black aesthetic, a basically humanistic, celebratory standard of literary appreciation that comes out of Black life.  From the poet’s point of view, you recognize in all of this a commitment.

HISTORY --- pages 9 and 10
W. We entertain the notion that the past is completed.
A.  Well, the Euro-American sense of history encourages that, not the African, in which past, present and future are coterminous, humanistically so:  the ancestors who are always with us, as are the living and the yet to be born.  The ideal is of continuity rather than completion, and of satisfaction in living with people in the present rather than a fretting about the past or a yearning for the future.  But I’m not African, I’m African-American and must live and write out of that complexity.

ETHNICITY---pages 11-12
W. Denial of ethnicity is a strategy for self-murder.  In a larger sense, genocide.
A. Those who would undo you begin by chipping away at your ethnicity.  What we need in the U.S. is more mutual respect, ethnically, among people of different ethnic backgrounds.  If I’m African-American and you are Italian-American, we relate to one another in terms of our differences, first, then in terms of our common humanity.  Ultimately it is the common humanity that prevails, hopefully.  I know this is all very, very complex, involving politics and economics – especially economics – as it does.  Differences  among people are not incidental, as some would have it, but essential.  Essential incidental, if that’s philosophically tenable.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

50 Years after Selma


The film Selma has done part of the work for all of us.  It provides fact and fiction for remembering. It emphasizes the before and after of March 7, 1965 on Edmund Pettus Bridge.  For a small number of viewers, the film may suggest what the work of the present might entail.
I recall that we are still breathing fifty years after the dramatic clash of KKK and CORE in Bogalusa, Louisiana; after the deaths of Malcolm X, Viola Liuzzo, and  Jonathan Daniels; after the barely remembered fact that Wharlest Jackson was murdered in Natchez, Mississippi after he was promoted to a job reserved  whites; after demonstrations of outrage in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago; after James M. Nabrit, Jr. was appointed United States Ambassador to the United Nations and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. For a few of us, remembering is an invitation to act.
I am moved to become involved in sponsoring out-of-school learning activities for young people in New Orleans after reading a few sentences from Donald P. Stone’s Fallen Prince: William James Edwards (1990):
Selma had been of paramount importance to the Confederate war effort.  An ordnance manufacturing depot located, hard upon the banks of the Alabama River, made it a strategic shipping center.  Benjamin S. Turner, the Afro-American Reconstruction Congressman who served in the 42nd Congress, was from Selma.  Edmund Pettus, U.S. Senator from 1896-1907 also hailed from Selma.  Pettus proved a great obstruction to the democratic aspiration of Afro-Americans.  In his view the “Negro is unfit for government.”  In 1902 when Pettus was reelected to the Senate, Edwards wrote: “No hope for colored schools.  Senator Pettus reelected.”  (47-48)
The heirs of Edmund Pettus now control the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Their unfiltered hatred for the American President guides their efforts to minimize democratic aspiration and to become killers of such American dreams that young African Americans might wish to embrace. I feel obligated to teach these young people that they are fit for government and fit to govern themselves and others. I must be active in efforts to help young people do battle with all the forces that tell them their lives count for naught in the American body politic. Perhaps I should begin with helping them to make a critical analysis of John  Balaban’s poem “After The Inauguration, 2013” (NYRB, March 19, 2015, p. 29), especially of its epigraph ---“Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins” (Hebrews, 9:22).  Fifty years after Selma, the battle to free the mind so that the body might be free continues.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    March 5, 2015  

poem for a day

Diamond-dust Ice Cream Sonnet

The Holy Mammon Empire wanted a clown,
A court jester of substantial means,
A distraction to keep the bitch pimps
Bemused and bling-bling brilliant blind.

Where jesus-juice fails, demon-wine succeeds.

Maimed to please, he played the bird
In the burning cage.  His stone face spread
Deaf jam from an ill jar on the bread
And drank the bleeding water of foolish reason.

Where jesus-juice fails, demon-wine succeeds.

As good as everything everybody
Can never have dreamed,
He came, he saw, he squat- squawked
His father for his son, his mother for his ghostly hawk.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

March 5, 2015

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tribute to Alvin Aubert

On March 12, 2015 the Xavier University Library, the Program in African American & Diaspora Studies and the
Louisiana Creole Research Association will sponsor in the Xavier library, third floor, from 6:00-8:00 pm a program
featuring the archival holding of the Alvin Aubert Papers.  In 1997 Professor Aubert donated to Xavier his personal papers,
the papers of Obsidian--the journal which he founded, and 2,500 books in African American & Diaspora Studies
from his private library.  The presenters will be Mr. Irwin Lachoff, Dr. Ronald Dorris and Dr. Jerry Ward.  The
public is invited to attend.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Richard Wright and Margaret Walker

Genius and Daemonic Genius: Crafting a Biography of Richard Wright

Crafting a biography of Richard Wright places special demands on a biographer.  Wright was a genius, a man who embodied profound intelligence and creative vision, but Mississippi in the early twentieth century wasn’t the place for nurturing his kind of genius.  Gertrude Stein seems to have appreciated the irony that blooms when a native daughter and a native son share the status of exile.  There was something surpassing mere hyperbole when, after reading Black Boy, Stein wrote to Wright:  “Dear Richard, It is obvious that you and I are the only two geniuses of this era.” (Constance Webb, Richard Wright 248) Stein’s words constitute a sophisticated joke, because genius manifests itself in many forms which cannot be reduced to comedy (Stein’s maximum playfulness) and tragedy (Wright’s maximum seriousness).  Margaret Walker, the native daughter who did not choose exile, anatomized the facets of genius  in how she wrote about the dreams she and Wright dared to come true.
All of Wright’s major biographers -- Constance Webb, Michel Fabre, Addison Gayle, Margaret Walker, and Hazel Rowley  --have had to deal with his genius, with what his writings published and unpublished suggest can be said about the evolving of his innate brilliance and consciousness.  Herself a genius, Walker brought first-hand experience and knowledge of language, psychology, and environments to the job of crafting Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, A Critical Look at His Work (New York: Warner, 1988). The keywords in the title of the biography are not arbitrary.
There are as many ways of writing biography as there are lives to be written about.  The approach Margaret Walker used in her critical study opened Wright’s life, work, and ideas for reflection and reconsideration.  To the extent that writing is an act of opening and discovering, Walker also opened herself.  Some of Richard Wright’s most orthodox critics are unnerved by Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius.  They are ill-equipped to grasp or decidedly hostile to the symbiosis Walker made of biographical portrait and autobiographical confession.  Even in today’s world where everything and anything is permitted, some people cannot endure the awesome fire of genius that smolders in the biography that Walker built. To play a riff on one of the most enigmatic sentences in Native Son ---“What I killed for I am.”, one might say that what Walker wrote for she was. We shall return to this point shortly in a brief remark about the awesome qualities of daemonic genius.
Walker was aware, as she told us in the biography’s preface, that Wright’s “intellectual development and his Weltanschauung, or worldview, place him in the forefront of twentieth-century life and culture….”  The biography sought to break ground in this area.  Walker was also aware that Wright’s primary conception of the world began in Mississippi.  It is difficult to understand Richard Wright unless one understands the crucial role of his earliest environment in shaping his life and his thinking about the function of writing in the world.  The primal role of the South is implicit in Walker’s assertion that the threefold purpose of the biography is “to define Richard Wright, to analyze and assess his work, and to show the correlation between the man and his work.”  “Wright is too important,” she added, “to be lost in the confusion of race and politics and racist literary history and criticism so evident in the twentieth century.”  Walker subjected herself to the stern discipline of making an innovative critical biography.  Such a book has to be devastatingly honest about the psychology of the subject and all the forces that went into making the subject who he was, including the force of his own creations.  Although historically determined gender differences must be accounted for, what was true about Wright as the subject was true about Walker as the biographer.
Walker blended artistry and relevant data into a very readable book.  The biography is the kind of text in which one genius portrays another genius by using creative scholarship.  When one reads Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius from dedication and epigram all the way through to Walker’s keynote speech for the International Symposium on Richard Wright (University of Mississippi, November 22, 1985), one more deeply appreciates how “the real significance of Richard Wright is in the world of his ideas placed in the context of his times, and his human condition” ( Daemonic Genius 404).
Walker divided Wright’s life span into five phases: the Southern years (1908-1927); the Chicago years (1927-1937); the New York years (1937-1947), the Paris years (1947-1957), and the final years (1957-1960).  In accounting for what Wright thought, felt, suffered, and wrote about during those fifty-two years, Walker provided a quite challenging discussion of the essentials in what Michel Fabre called Wright’s  “unfinished quest.”  The quest was necessitated by Wright’s compulsive intelligence and his anger in the face of the world’s absurd injustices.  As Walker brought her own brand of psychoanalysis to the task of writing, she explored Wright’s psychosexual spectrum and unmasked, in a small degree, her own psychosexuality.  She imitated in biography what a physicist would do in making a spectrographic analysis; she exposed the quality and quantity of parts. If the portrait of Wright that emerges from the biography is not pretty, it is at least a genuine depiction of what Walker saw of Wright’s life in her own mind.
Walker’s study of Wright rests on an elaborate premise about what is to be accounted for in biography. The beginning is Wright’s suffering “the psychic wound of racism, that irrational world of race prejudice and class bigotry, of religious fanaticism and sexual confusion, inversion and revulsion….This neurotic anger and fear grew in Wright from a pit to a peak of rage, but it was part of his unconscious, which he could never understand though he constantly sought to express it.  Out of these two angers a daemonic genius of great creative strength and power was born, his tremendous creative drive to write and to express himself, his daemonic demi-urges, his deepest and most suffering self”(Daemonic Genius 43-44).
Like earlier studies of Wright, Walker’s biography drew attention to his anger, ambivalence, and alienation, to his complex personality. She provided grounds , which are still powerful, for continuing inquiry  about his aesthetics, his relationship to Marxism, Pan-Africanism, and existential philosophy; for continuing inquiry about Wright’s ability to synthesize the great ideas of the twentieth century in his writing and to have an uncanny vision of what human beings are giving birth to in the twenty-first century.  Daemonic Genius is truly a foundational work.
Walker had a special advantage over other Wright scholars.  She was one of his contemporaries and knew him during some of his most formative years.  Second, she grew up in the South and knew from experience the impact of its sociopolitical climate on the sensitive intelligence of the artist.  She wrote about Wright with incontrovertible authority, and her writing was fueled by her own daemonic genius.
Walker did provide a clear blueprint for the crafting of Wright’s biography in her keynote address for the 1985 International Wright Symposium, but in a 1982 interview with Claudia Tate, Walker made some decidedly Margaret Walker statements about genius.  These are exceptionally important, because Tate caught Walker in unguarded moments.
Walker got some ideas about Wright’s anger from Allison Davis in 1971 as he
 “talked about the neurotic anger that Wright could neither understand nor control.  He said nobody can tell what the wellsprings of any man’s creativity are.  You can only guess.  The more I thought about it, being a creative person myself, the more I understood.  That’s why I selected the title, The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright.  There are different kinds of geniuses: demonic, intuitive, brooding, and orphic.  Perhaps Faulkner had all four.  Wright was definitely demonic.  It’s more than an idea of devils. It’s the idea of creativity coming out of anger, madness, out of frustration, rage. Creativity comes out of the madness that borders on lunacy and genius” (Conversations with Margaret Walker 65)
Earlier in this interview, Walker said something that psychoanalysis would allow us to connect with a seven page, single-spaced letter she wrote to Richard Wright on Wednesday, June 7, 1939 (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale, JWJ MSS 3, Box 107, Folder 1667). Walker said to Tate in 1982:
“I felt Wright wanted me to write his biography because nobody is going to be more sympathetic and understanding than I. I was in love with him, and he knew it.  He could not marry me.  I was not what he could marry.  That’s the whole truth of that.  You can’t say he didn’t love me: I know he did.” (Conversations 62).
In 1939, Walker’s love of talking let words fly from her mouth that deeply wounded Wright and led him to terminate their warm and sympathetic friendship.  Walker’s June 7th letter to Wright was a poignant apology as well as an explanatory defense of her integrity.   Walker sang a sorrow song when she wrote that she had to believe in Wright in order to believe in herself. The letter has many clues about just what kind of love compelled Walker to craft a biography which casts much light on Wright’s genius.
If Richard Wright created out of anger, Margaret Walker created out of frustration.  If his genius was daemonic, hers was brooding and orphic.  The four kinds of genius Walker mentioned to Tate and several kinds she didn’t catalogue are embedded in Walker’s crafting of Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius.  The biography is a labor of critical love.  In the book we find an intellectual unification of biography and autobiography.  Walker’s writing of Wright’s biography is an exploration of literary history; Wright’s biography is a discovery moment for reflection on Walker’s unfinished autobiography.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
February 24, 2015

Sunday, February 22, 2015

On Poetry

Literature is no parasitic language game. It is discourse designed to inform, persuade, incite, reassure, and so forth. Many new black poets wrote with just such aims in mind and with the understanding that they and the acts (poems) they performed had consequences. They regarded their use of language as serious, and it was a serious condition of good faith that the author’s “fiction” be commensurate with “fact.” So in theory, and in fact, the new black poetry intensified the normal illocutionary forces.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr., “Illocutionary Dimensions of Poetry: Lee’s ‘A Poem to Complement Other Poems,’” The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, ed. Joanne V. Gabbin (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1999), 138.

•Poetry as a sign and a signified event activates something, even if the something is a consciousness of nothing. As a pre-future writer, reader and critic of poetry, I maintain that poetry is a making and using of languages for purposes of entanglement in the scientific understanding of how particles and motions of life are constantly interrelated. Poetry is a unique paradox, liberating and enslaving the desire for nowness and historicity, our penchant for remembering and forgetting.

Sound is the core of poetry; it is the material state with which we struggle to derive meaning (s) from structures and linguistic units that we agree represent content. The less we talk about poetry, the better. Our greatest profit from poetry is living in and learning from a poem.