Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture

Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture


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For the black writer has by no means massively absorbed his folk and cultural traditions

and forms, as evidenced by the little use to which the folk sermon and

the supernatural and conjure traditions are put.



 Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture

By George Kent


George Kent’s  Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture is the first book of literary criticism by a black scholar to be published by an independent black publishing company. Several of the essays have previously appeared in the CLA Journal, while others have never been published before. Dr. Kent, a professor at the University of Chicago, has established substantial renown as a scholar of Richard Wright.

Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture includes stimulating essays on James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and William Faulkner, as well as a primer on the Harlem renaissance. As a black man and a scholar, Dr. Kent has conjured up the complex essence of black folk history and applied and analyzed that history as a creative motif for the black writer. His critical perspective is that of the Black aesthetic—viewing the black writer as only a black critic/a black man can.

—Back Cover Notes, Third World Press (Chicago, Illinois, 1972)

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Kent’s Introduction (excerpts)

High Ground Humanism

The reader, I hope, will find no rigid allegiance to traditional high ground humanism. By high ground humanism, I mean the established values implicit in white writers (whether agonized over or promoted), derived from Hebrew, Greek, and Roman traditions: the assumed triumph of the individual, the clarity of truth, the existence of transcendental beauty, the shining virtues of rationality, the glory of democratic freedom, and the range of Christian and platonic assumptions that tend to form stubborn threads in the warp and woof of white tradition as a systematic and abstract universalism.

What I’m saying is that the writer is permitted to step wherever he wills, and, as humble critic, my job is to hang loose and follow. Which means that I’ll follow him into high humanistic ground, if that’s where he leads, and stand by holding a flashlight to see what rhythms he can make visible and throbbing. And I’ll stand with him in the cool thickets in the low grounds of lonesome valleys where things go down dense and all definitions dissolve as they resolve or hold themselves together by dint of home made existence-ism clubs.

Absorbing Folk Traditions

In sum, definitions provided by folk and cultural tradition, loosely defined, on which the writer can enforce as much signification as the the definitions can be made to bear. For the black writer has by no means massively absorbed his folk and cultural traditions and forms, as evidenced by the little use to which the folk sermon and the supernatural and conjure traditions are put. These traditions offer, of course, a resource—not a prison. They are convenient passports to a Blackness beyond simple sloganeering and rhetorical assertion.

Now there are terms that today are sterile categories or shifters of the nature of reality at the very moment they attempt to make coherent statements: protest, meaning really tract or special pleading; transcending (the narrow and parochial concerns of the black experience and thus arising to the level of Man); universalism, meaning usually a validation of Western high ground versions universalism. Today these terms have revealed themselves as game names.

For example, the term protest covered Richard Wright for thirty years, concealed his depths from us, so that we are just now beginning to find out what his meaning for us is. Transcending becomes all too quickly reducing the tensions of the black experience, become faceless. And the problem of universalism is that its current use misdirects the writer and the critic, leads to vague abstractions (Man, the Human Condition), and packs concealed cultural referents. Any universalism worthy of recognition derives from its depths of exploration of the density, complexity, and variety of a people’s experience—not by transcending. . . .

The blues, which at one time was a form completely addressed to blacks and, when recognized at all, were seen largely as something quaint, are now universal. This fact indicates that an America now exists which is upset over the issue of deep communication with the self, an issue not easily escapable in black culture which the blues made a career of dealing with ages ago.

To Be or Not to Be a Black Writer

Equally foolish, it seems to me, is the energy wasted upon whether one is to be a black writer or writer (who happens to be black). the issue would hardly be worth discussing, if some important black writers had not, to their hurt, taken it so seriously as to diminish their creative powers. Now the simple fact is that whiteness is not simply skin color in America (or europe0, but a set of mythologies inherited by white writers with which they naturally interpret the universe.

Thus a William Styron, a white liberal and winner of a Pulitzer prize for his Nat Turner, could not envision a slave (Nat Turner) revolting from natural feelings, but only when his mind was unsettled by an indulgent white. When Styron was ready to show how an untampered-with Black revolts, he created the mindless and savage rapist and slaughterer Will. Now i would submit that William Styron is a white writer.

Imagine a talented Black (who was not simply putting down a fast hustle) using Styron’s mythology! Or imagine Richard Wright interpreting the South by some modified version of Faulknerian mythology. We must keep in mind here that we are talking about stances that deeply affect the interpretation of black experience. In this context, Faulkner will everywhere be seen as a white writer. . . . Now, of course, to many whites, white writer is what is meant by writer. . . .

Sensibility of the Black Writer

Now some of the adoption of white mythology is probably conscious for both Chestnut and other writers. Frantz Fanon calls the condition cultural imposition, W.E.B. DuBois in “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” The Souls of Black Folk, speaks of “double consciousness.” The latter can take interesting and subtle twists, since to escape the area of brute oppression is to acquire instruments (“education,” etc.0 that transform one’s psychic structure and enforce a greater openness to powerful and subtle mythologies that deny one’s existence.

Thus, unless one is very lucky and unusually skilled in his footwork, one effects the illusion of escape only and the loss of one’s being, or at best considerable modification. Thus, so knowing a man as Richard Wright rages against the murderous weight of the West upon the backs of Blacks, but still flashes forth the lonely posture of the Western ideal; the expression of the individual life as revolutionary will, which also bears the nagging weight of alienation from many of the rhythms of one’s own people.

So in some of the essay I’m concerned about double-consciousness and about what I call the sensibility of the black writer. The clean adjustment is hard come by, and the struggle for it is what I mean by the title of this book: Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture. It ties in with the business of being a black writer, and acknowledging it, for there are too many other forces working against one’s being to take on such silly psychic burdens as denying from the outset one’s identity. One becomes Paul Lawrence Dunbar presenting mainly the idyllic portions of a tough folk tradition, in conformity with white mythology; and Countee P. Cullen fretting because, try as he may, his Negroness keeps informing the best of his poems.

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Introduction     9

Patterns of Harlem Renaissance     17

The Soulful Way of Claude McKay     36

Langston Hughes and Afro-American Folk and Cultural Tradition    53

Richard Wright: Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture    76

On the Future of Richard Wright     98

The Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks     104

Baldwin and the Problem of Being     139

Ralph Ellison and Afro-American Folk and Cultural Traditions     152

Faulkner and the Heritage of White Racial Consciousness;

                           Notes on White Nationalism in Literature     164

Before Ideology: Reflections on Ralph Ellison and the Sensibility of Younger Black Writers    183

Index     201

George E. Kent (1920–82) was an African-American professor of literature, with a specialization in Afro-American literature. Born in Columbus, Georgia, George Kent was the youngest of four children born to Irby D. Kent, a blacksmith and Louise Austin Kent, a school teacher. Even as a child he would teach alongside his mother. He met his wife, Desiré Ash, whilst studying for his BA at Savannah State College. After serving in the 25th Infantry (1942–5), he received his MA and PhD in English from Boston University. Dr. Kent and his wife, Desire, had two children; a son Edward, now deceased, and a daughter, Sherald. . . .

He later obtained a Masters and Ph.D. from Boston University, in English Language and Literature. . . . Over a long teaching career, he held numerous positions including visiting professorships with colleges and universities such as Wesleyan University, University of Connecticut, Florida A & M University, Grambling State College, and the University of Chicago. From the 1940s through the 1960s he held positions from Professor of English to Professor and Chairman of Languages and Literature, as well as Dean of Delaware State College. He was also Professor and Chairman of English in the Division of Liberal Arts at Quinnipiac College.

The annual George E. Kent Lecture at the University of Chicago is named in his honour. His specialism was Afro-American literature. He completed the first full biography of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks just before his death from cancer in 1982.

He finished his career in education as a Professor of English, with a specialty in African-American literature and poetry at the University of Chicago from 1970 until his death in 1982. While at the University, George E. Kent is remembered as a pioneer for being among the first tenured African-American professors at the University of Chicago and as the first African-American professor of English. Dr. Kent should also be remembered as an intense scholar and intellectual dedicated to excellence in his work as well as in the expectations he had of the many students he taught and mentored.—Wikipedia

posted 15 August 2006

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update 27 December 2011




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Related File:  The Fact of Blackness (1952) By Frantz Fanon   Blackness and the Adventure of  Western Culture

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