ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
The narratives I hope to have a small part in making will never leave behind the painful history
of slavery and its consequences, will never lend credibility to cultural amnesia that can be fatal.
Books by Jerry W. Ward Jr.
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The Narrative Does Not End
A Response to The End of the Black American Narrative
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Q: Mirror, mirror on the floor,
How can we lock the racial door?
A. Sorry. Race is always an open house.
This is an annus mirabilis. The discussions which energize the presidential election year are sometimes serious but more often wild. Rising food and gas prices portend a declining economy in the United States of America, and a significant redistribution of wealth in a few second world countries. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish what is news from what is entertainment. Journalism has adopted the ethical stance of a trickster. Growing disbelief that the idea of absolute truth has any legitimacy contaminates what was once called the Sea of Faith. Yes, American money does still proclaim, IN GOD WE TRUST, and propaganda regarding democracy and terrorism still assures people that their God is on their side.
Anticipate deep remorse in January 2009 when Americans recognize, much too late, their failure to insist that the Republican and the Democratic presidential candidates address the changes in the social contract authorized by the USA Patriot Act. We can be assured in this unusual year that race, however much some Americans would make it trivial, occupies a central position in American thought. CNN did not miss a beat when it served up narratives of victimization in July by way of the banquet series Black in America. And the novelist and philosopher Charles R. Johnson has provided a pièce de résistance with his essay The End of the Black American Narrative.” This philosophical and theoretical essay ponders the link between the traditional use of race in narratives of historical identity and the speculation that the twenty-first century demands raceless and indeterminate American narratives. It is a wonderful example of optimistic discourse about the power of narratives. Anyone familiar with Johnsons book Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 (1988) might recognize the essay as an elaboration of his earlier point of view about race and human existence. We can categorize the book as his phenomenological examination of assumptions in the field of fiction, but the essay is closer to a meditation on the function of fiction in everyday life a la Michel de Certeau. The shift suggests that more than fiction is at issue, for we are not exactly free to think that social science fictions are identical with novels. Shot through with implications about the role of narrative in social construction, the essay can foreclose both aesthetic and cognitive distance.
Although Johnson does warn against the pitfalls of following scripture, there is a faint odor of the jeremiad in his rhetoric. And some of his readers, as Frederick Douglass famously put it in his 1845 narrative, shall find themselves within the circle and handicapped in efforts to witness as those without might see and hear. Whether one is within or without, it is crucial to be aware that Johnson can only partially write himself outside the circle of Americas post-Enlightenment heritage. It may be ironic that Johnson, so firmly possessed of the notion in Being and Race that art is not useful in the sense that a commodity is useful(23), now proposes a crafting of new identity narratives that would ultimately prove to be pragmatic and utilitarian commodities in cultural and political commerce. Beneath the surface of the essay silent theories about mans life in language flow, theories that resonate language games and Ludwig Wittgensteins ponderings in Philosophical Investigations (1953) and that alert us to take seriously certain of Noam Chomskys warnings about linguistics and current affairs in Language and Responsibility (1979). If we remember that language is sometimes an emperor who is aware of his nudity, we cling to the wisdom of the phrase caveat emptor. As readers we may tend to interpret the surface of Johnsons essay rather than its hidden dimensions. We ought to be especially attentive to the shape of his argument. He begins with an admission of his indebtedness as a writer and a person to a narrative which emphasizes the experience of victimization. In Johnsons telling the narrative begins with violence in the 17th-century slave forts in West Africa. The alternative point of origin would be the much earlier violations in the Arab slave trade. He notes carefully that the nominal end of slavery as an American institution did not inaugurate real freedom and inclusion for the formerly enslaved. The end resulted in American apartheid.
Johnson justly acknowledges and honors the sacrifices made by people in the long history of struggles for civil rights, but he questions the truth and usefulness of the traditional black American narrative of victimization that was strategically crucial in those struggles. Convinced that the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. has recently morphed into reality, Johnson champions the view that Black Americans are now full-fledged Americans, subject to all the opportunities, slings, foibles, entitlements, and arrows that the state apparatus provides. For him, Black Americans are now as culturally complex and as free as their fellow citizens who are pigeonholed as Asian or European. Whether we like or detest Johnsons ideas, they do provoke grave questions about the ontology of the American social contract. In seeking to answer those questions we encounter what I would call the epistemological trap in Johnsons line of reasoning. The trap involves our confusing what we think reality is the actuality of which it is a pale copy. The trap is quite Platonic. It would be unkind to accuse Johnson of deliberately setting this trap. It is more just to explain it as an accident of philosophy, especially an accident of philosophy in association with narratology.
Falling into the trap would force us to have a debate about what is necessarily historical and is wastefully ahistorical. The debate has no resolution, no ending point. It exists in the realm of ideologies and is the kind of ideology that, in the words Johnson quotes from Susan Griffin, begins to destroy the self and self-knowledge. Our inability to know to what or to whom Johnson refers in using the pronoun we as he argues that we can not assume the legitimacy in 2008 of a destiny based on color in which the meaning of ones life is thinghood, created even before one is born. Americans are positioned within a dynamic social contract that nurtures its character as a racial contract, despite our best efforts to bring the Janus-face of the contract to the bar of justice. This position is eloquently explained in The Racial Contract (1999) by Charles W. Mills. It is simply beyond the power of narratives old or new to guarantee transcendence. Johnson tries to extricate himself and his readers from an epistemological trap by deflecting attention to Ralph Ellisons idea about invisibility and to the possibility that endless repetition and interpretation of a narrative can short-circuit direct perception of the specific phenomenon before us. The gesture only sends us on a search for the necessary and sufficient grounds for believing that what is before us (namely the various ways Black Americans have created and used narratives) is specific rather than diffuse and remarkably inventive and receptive to change.
Johnson is right in suggesting that the essence of a persons life is not located in her or his victimization, and it is unlikely that large numbers of black Americans have ever believed any victimization they might have suffered was essential. As far as I know, we do not have significant empirical evidence to make such a case. If Johnson seems to be making that case slantwise as he argues that the old black American narrative has outlived its usefulness as a tool of interpretation, I would offer the counter-argument or hypothesis that the narrative has long been more genuinely a tool of critique rather than one of interpretation or hermeneutics. The End of the Black American Narrative provokes me to stand in complete but friendly opposition to Johnsons idea that we embrace the making of narratives that do not claim to be absolute truth, but instead more humbly present themselves as a very tentative thesis that must be tested every day in the depths of our own experience . At this point I speak only for myself and not for any other Americans of whatever color. The narratives I hope to have a small part in making will never leave behind the painful history of slavery and its consequences, will never lend credibility to cultural amnesia that can be fatal.
Richard Lanham in The Motives of Eloquence (1976) invited us to think that writers and thinkers can be either homo rhetoricus or homo seriosus. I choose to be the latter, to preserve the possibility of having an irreducible identity. In my writing and in my discussions with undergraduates at my university I try never to tap-dance on quicksand. My narratives allow me to acknowledge the presence of plurality and change in the process of human histories without dissolving my identity and buying into the fashionable but infelicitous trends of the twenty-first century in America. My refusal to embrace narratives of rupture more than narratives of critical continuity is historical.August 1, 2008
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The conflict of this story is first slavery, then segregation and legal disenfranchisement. The meaning of the story is group victimization, and every black person is the storys protagonist. This specific story was not about ending racism, which would be a wonderful thing; but ending racism entirely is probably as impossible for human beings as ending crime, or as quixotic as President Bushs war on terror. No, the black American story was not as vague as that. The American Scholar
Jerry, the rushed to conclusion of Charles Johnson’s essay”what King dreamed . . . whether we like it or not, that moment is now”forced me to rush back to the above statement. Johnson has stated in a rather convoluted way what many neo-conservatives have been saying for years on Race in America. That is, the majority of black people in America are still living in the past. To raise the question of racism in America today is to “play the race card,” which is something like having bad manners.
Johnson theorizes that “racism” is as natural as crime and believes that American slavery and the hundred years of Jim Crow in its aftermath can be disassociated from the apparatus of race as created here in the Americas. The possibility that there can be a third phase of racism is altogether discounted, even though facts and events abound. For instance,
The highest rates of poverty are among children, especially children of color. The poverty rate for white children is 10 percent, while it is 28 percent for Latino children, 27 percent for Native-American children, and 33 percent for African-American children.
African Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans are about three times as likely to live in poverty as are whites. While the poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites is 8 percent, the rate for African Americans is 24.1 percent, for Hispanics, 21.8 percent, and for Native Americans, 23.2 percent.
The most extreme poverty in the United States is concentrated in specific geographical areas such as the urban cores of major cities and Native American reservations. These areas of concentrated poverty are the result of decades of policies that confined the impoverished to these economically isolated areas.
Finally, we also noted the stark racial disparity in the distribution of wealth in the United States. White families not only have on average 10 times the net worth of families of color, but also between 1998 and 2001, their wealth grew by 20 percent, while the net worth of African American households actually declined during that same period. CatholicCharitiesUSA
Johnson bases his conclusion on the presence of a critical mass of a “new black middle class,” which includes black billionaires and high black federal officials as proof sufficient that MLK’s Dream is now. But are we really at the end of the black narrative, when it comes to the bottom half of the sprawling black masses, or have we just passed into a new and yet unnamed chapter. We may want to name this new chapter, “The Era of Denial.”
What is blaring in the essay is that Johnson contradicts himself and thus misinterprets the essence of MLK’s dream speech, which has as its problematic racism: “Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed . . . a day would come when men and women were judged not by the color of their skin, but instead by their individual deeds and actions, and the content of their character.” To say that that day, that that reality exists presently is startling outrageous when we have 1 in 9 young Black men in prison.
So we have two problems in Johnsons essay 1) over-emphasis of the meaning of the presence of a new black middle class” and 2) the dissociation of racism from the apparatus that made American slavery and Jim Crow possible and thus his accompanying claim that racism is as natural as crime. I assume Professor Johnson’s essay will become the unofficial position of an Obama administration. Such a position is what many of us feared, a conservative, reactionary response to race oppression and black misery; that is, blacks are no longer singled out as a group for exclusion or for police repression, only as what is merited individually.Rudy
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Losing the NarrativeGlenn LouryI also know that, as I write this, one million young black men are under the physical control of the state; a third of black children live in poverty, and, the Southside of Chicago, with more than one-half million black residents, is one of the most massive, racially segregated urban enclaves ever to have been created in the history of the modern world. . . .These things are a reflection of social, cultural, economic and political forces deeply enmeshed in the structure of American society. They are not merely the consequence of attitudes embraced by some more or less well-meaning but benighted black and white personsattitudes which can be thrown-off if only we were to become determined, under the inspiring and inspired leadership of the junior senator from Illinois, to work together to solve our common problems, etc.
I cant get past the fact that Obama was negotiating with the American public on behalf of MY people in Philadelphia last week. In the process, he presumed to instruct a generation of angry black men as to how they ought to construe their lives. I am not really sure that Barack Obama has earned the right to do either of those things. How the Senators negotiations will ultimately shake outin terms of American attitudes about the nations responsibility to act so as to reduce racial inequalityis something I’m not very confident that anyone can predict.
Advocates of the interest of black people have to consider what hand well be left to play, should he be defeated in November. The narrative-defining moves that Obama is making now, in the heat of a political campaign and in the service of his own ambitions, must be critically examined as to what impact they will have on the deep structures of American civic obligation, for generations to come.
At bottom, what is at stake here is a fight over the American historical narrative. Obama, a self-identifying black man running for the most powerful office on earth, does threaten some aspects of the conventional “white” narrative. But, he also threatens the “black” narrativeand powerfully so. In effect, he wants to put an end to (transcend, move beyond, overcome…) the anger, the disappointment and the subversive critique of America that arises from the painful experience of black people in this country. TPM Cafe
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26 March 2010
National Black Writers Conference
Patrick Oliver, Kalamu ya Salaam, Dorothea Smartt, Frank Wilderson discuss the use of literature to promote political causes and instigate change and transformation. The event is at the Medgar Evers College at the City University of New York. C-Span Archives
26 March 2010
National Black Writers Conference
Herb Boyd, Thomas Bradshaw, Charles Edison and Major Owens discuss how current events are reflected in the writings of African Americans. The event is at the Medgar Evers College at the City University of New York. C-Span Archives
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The Katrina Papers is not your average memoir. It is a fusion of many kinds of writing, including intellectual autobiography, personal narrative, political/cultural analysis, spiritual journal, literary history, and poetry. Though it is the record of one man’s experience of Hurricane Katrina, it is a record that is fully a part of his life and work as a scholar, political activist, and professor. The Katrina Papers provides space not only for the traumatic events but also for ruminations on authors such as Richard Wright and theorists like Deleuze and Guattarri. The result is a complex though thoroughly accessible book. The struggle with formthe search for a medium proper to the complex social, personal, and political ramifications of an event unprecedented in this scholar’s life and in American social historylies at the very heart of The Katrina Papers . It depicts an enigmatic and multi-stranded world view which takes the local as its nexus for understanding the global. It resists the temptation to simplify or clarify when simplification and clarification are not possible. Ward’s narrative is, at times, very direct, but he always refuses to simplify the complex emotional and spiritual volatility of the process and the historical moment that he is witnessing. The end result is an honesty that is both pedagogical and inspiring.Hank Lazer
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The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008) is a marvelous resource! It’s not like any encyclopedia I’ve seen before. Already, I have spent hours reading through the various entries. So much is there: people, themes, issues, events, bibliographies, etc., related to Wright. Yours is a monumental contribution! The more I read Wright (and about him), the more I am amazed at the depth and breadth of his work and its impact on the worlds of literature, philosophy, politics, sociology, history, psychology, etc. He was formidable! Floyd W. Hayes
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The State of African Education (April 200)
Dr Asa Hilliard III speaks on the assault of academia on Africans writing and accounting for their own history.
Dr Hilliard is A teacher, psychologist, and historian.
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Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”
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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 2 August 2008