Literature is part of a historical process of reflecting prevailing attitudes as well

as personal visions; literature is an integral part of the practice of everyday life.

Books by Richard Wright

 Richard Wright: Early Works  / Black Boy  / Native Son  / Uncle Tom’s Children / 12 Million Black Voices  / Richard Wright: Later Works

The Outsider  /  Pagan Spain Black Power  /  White Man Listen!  / The Color Curtain Savage Holiday / The Long Dream

Eight Men: Short Stories  / Haiku / American Hunger /  Lawd Today!

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Books by Jerry W. Ward  Jr.

Trouble the Water (1997) / Black Southern Voices (1992) / The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)  / The Katrina Papers

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A Brief Defense of Richard Wright and Other Writers

By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Robert Lashley, whom one might call an angry critic, wrote a blistering review of Richard Wright’s Lawd Today (1963) and posted it on his blog [A Literary Thug’s Art] on July 18, 2005. Had the review not been attached to another blog located on NOLA, it might have remained relatively unknown.

The review, however, now circulates in the public sphere. It must be treated as an item in the reassessment of Wright prior to celebration of the Wright Centennial in 2008. Lawd Today does not satisfy Lashley’s aesthetic expectations; the novel contains structural flaws. That is a fair judgment made on the basis of taste.

What is unfair in the review is Lashley‘s poorly nuanced and racially problematic flagellation of Wright’s misogyny without any mention of Wright’s critique of misogyny in Savage Holiday (1954). Even more unfair is Lashley’s excoriating other male writers, who may share some of Wright’s assumptions about the functions of art, for bringing dishonor to African American literary tradition.

As a critic, Robert Lashley must bear the onus of dishonor, because his vision of our literary history is at best myopic. He is a critic who has not been violated by scholarship. Had he acknowledged that the manuscript of Lawd Today was originally entitled “Cesspool” (c. 1934-35), he would perhaps have understood the folkloric and psychological accuracy of Wright’s unflattering portrayal of Jake Jackson. Such an admission would not have changed Lashley’s aesthetic conclusions; it would have moderated his passion for hasty generalizations that insult cultural literacy.

Lashley’s diatribe fails to acknowledge that our literature is more than the expression of individual talent or the lack thereof. Literature is part of a historical process of reflecting prevailing attitudes as well as personal visions; literature is an integral part of the practice of everyday life. Our responses to what we believe literature represents may often reveal more about our personal desires than about our genuine concern that literature continue to delight and instruct us. By our use of literature and literary figures shall we be known.

Lashley has perfected the art of writing rants, and rants sometimes do deserve a reaction. His negations (or spoors of self-hatred) are such that I surfed the Internet to discover more about him. I did find some of his remarkable postings on http://www.beatrice.com

In response to Ron Hogan’s “Stanley Crouch Is a Punk,” Lashley wrote on July 21, 2004 that Crouch has “been coning and getting over on people by kicking Black artists [sic] ass since 1979.” He ended his posting with “Sorry for the rant, I just hate Crouch.”

He thought that Crouch is the contemporary version of George Schuyler and announced in a separate posting that after Schuyler’s initial success as an iconoclast, his credibility was diminished when a “more liberal generation came along and saw that George was completely full of shit.” On July 23, 2004, Lashley provided more commentary on Crouch along with remarks about Charles Johnson, Ellison, Bellow, Morrison, and Baraka. Lashley was truly on a roll.

We find a posting from July 29, 2004 in which he rants about sexism in literature, replete with a spleen-flavored remark about Ishmael Reed: “I have never seen a male writer turn into a babbling incoherent sociopath in the prescence [sic] of strong women as I have seen Reed.” And he ends his outburst with “Sorry for the rant, I just fucking hate Reed.”

Lashley’s railing is quintessentially post-reason rather than post-modern. His use of the Anglo-Saxon profane as grace notes should warn us of something, and I think the warning has much to do with Lashley’s refusal to recognize that he is in the tradition of speech acts committed by Schuyler and Crouch in deodorized English. He has fashioned his critical persona as the hip-hop reincarnation of Schuyler.

In other postings on his own blog, Lashley generalizes about writers, literature, and music to the max. It is his right to do so. Like Candide, he has the right to cultivate his garden. He has the right to distribute toxic commentary on everyone, but he should also expect that his commentary might be greeted by some readers, especially those from New Orleans, with spore remediation.

I would offer Lashley’s review to my students as one example of how poverty-stricken criticism can be without scholarly information. If Lashley wants to persuade his readers that “Wright’s worst aesthetic flaw” is “his tendency to pad a story for length’s sake,” he should note that one of Wright’s probable models for writing the story of Jake Jackson is James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel that is stuffed with padding.

Wright’s failure is that of the young writer who is still in the apprentice stage of his career, and Lawd Today is one of the touchstones we might use to measure the failure or success of early twenty century efforts to adapt modernism in the African American novel. Lashley’s own flaw is his demonizing of Wright and other black male writers without necessary and sufficient cause, his ranting. A rant is to genuine cultural criticism what a matchstick is to a blowtorch.

Lashley is most annoying in the penultimate paragraph of his review. He finds “incoherence and downright evil “ in the work of Chester Himes, “crass sexual and racist realpolitik” in the work of John Oliver Killens and John A. Williams, and “maddeningly brutal misogyny “ in the work of Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Cecil Brown.

Lashley speaks ex-cathedra as he puts all of these writers under his “dark cloud of animosity.” These men are neither saints nor demons. We cannot ask them to be more perfect than we are. They are writers, who for whatever faults they possess, have struggled with the situated necessities of African American and American literatures and with how language constantly resists our efforts to utter a “truth.”

They are not, to borrow a phrase from Countee Cullen, “immune to catechism.” They are, like Richard Wright, significant players in the game of literature, bearers of various parts of our cultural memories and re/memberings. They deserve better than Lashley’s reductive hysteria and his hatred.

What I suspect Lashley hates is the discovery that more than one grain of truth is contained in literature and that literature is often a brutal mirroring of who and how we black males are as we participate in endless and unrelenting historical processes.

posted 22 February 2006

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Other Responses

What the f!&$k??? Who is this Robert Lashley? I just sent this out to some other black writers and are curious to hear there response. But – holy Jesus (and I never say holy Jesus) – this is beyond an attack on Wright, as you warned, its an attack on Black Literature – period.

Someone is definitely looking for an ass-whupping. I am not a pacifist – although I hope one day I will be.  I don’t like guns and I don’t believe in murder, but I do believe in a good brawl. It seems to me – that it is one of the lost art-rituals of our time: just punching your opponents – real and honest. Sometimes a little blow flow re-aligns the senses. And sometimes a good old-fashioned beating does wonders for the brain.

I have never read something such a ridiculously open-lynching piece of literary “criticism” in my entire life.  Lashley has major problems within himself and his bigotry has the same feel of Anne Coulter’s and there is something chillingly alarming that Lashley feels so “free” to write and piss all over such great artists.  I hope he welcomes the responses. I need to pull myself together and think about what I could write, I am bad at this type of thing…Keep me posted. Damn. In the struggle, Dennis 

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Rudy, I did a quick google search on this cat ’cause I just knew that I read him before. He’s a blogger, does his thing at Literary Thug http://theliterarythug.blogspot.com/. From what I gather he’s around 27 years old, a self-described pragmatic conservative. Sometimes defined as moderate. Some of his stuff is circulating on the web. I think Jon could probably hand out one well of an ass whoopin’ whenever he got the chance. Peace, Rodney D. Foxworth, Jr., Associate Editor, LiP magazine

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I hope this dude never gets hold of my book.

I think he makes a few good points, but he is extremely harsh, and includes writers I would consider worthy of praise, not scorn.  James W. Coleman, author of Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Caliban (Caliban, a Shakespeare character portrayed in his work The Tempest, is a black, ignorant slave who lusted after his master’s daughter, and was a general threat to civilization), says that “As contemporary black male fiction writers have tried to free their subjects and themselves from this legacy to tell a story of liberation, they often unconsciously retell the story, making their heroes into modern-day Calibans.”

Wright in my opinion has created more than a few “Calibans” in his lifetime, but it is also necessary to respect our elders, ancestors and all those involved in telling our story whether you agree with them or not.  Because Lashley has not, his strident tone distracts from any cogent points he might have made.  J. Everett Prewitt, Author Snake Walkers

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The Katrina Papers, by Jerry W. Ward, Jr. $18.95  The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)

update 4 March 2012