ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Home (Books, DVDs, Music) www.nathanielturner.com
My job is to share knowledge about African American literature and cultures
with my Chinese colleagues and the students who take courses in the School
of Foreign Languages. I try to clarify for them (and for myself) the historical
contradictions of capitalist desire.
Books by Jerry W. Ward Jr.
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China IV Report
Most of the people of China live on low land near the sea and near great rivers .
Tea plants grow in the hilly parts of China.Alexis Everett Frye, First Course in Geography (1907)
Each trip to China is a teachable moment, an illumination of puzzles,
a sojourn in a land where ancient and contemporary poetry is treasured.
Q: Is East Lake more beautiful than West Lake?
A: Both are quite beautiful. Neither is as beautiful as the lake of the Jade Emperor.Yu Di
As an overseas professor at Huazhong Normal University (Central China Normal University) in Wuhan, I have deep interest in exchanges between the Peoples Republic of China and the United States of America, in promoting the mutual destruction of stereotypes. For remarkably different reasons, both nations manufacture disinformation to protect their roles in world affairs and to protect their citizens against the destructive power of TRUTH. As both nations move unequally toward becoming models for the future of humanity, the idea of a future exposes the despair we ought to avoid.
My job is to share knowledge about African American literature and cultures with my Chinese colleagues and the students who take courses in the School of Foreign Languages. I try to clarify for them (and for myself) the historical contradictions of capitalist desire. In return, the Chinese provide diverse examples of dangers associated with rapid modernization and insufficient attention to sustainability and the ecological and psychological dimensions of growth. Yes, the Chinese are far ahead of most of the world in the use of wind power as an alternative to fossil fuels; on the other hand, their efforts to make Wuhan a world-class industrial center may eventually make the city unfit for human habitation. Excessive pollution may decimate people as overpopulation drives them to urban madness, the bane of Western cities.
My fourth trip to China deepened my sense of political and ethical differences; of how an uncritical embrace of the myth-dripping West might oil a path to a state of being post-human; of the power and relentless determination of antizens; of how the inhumane neo-colonial imperatives of both the East and the West poison dreams of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on the continent of Africa; of Richard Wrights foresight in suggesting in White Man Listen! that the West is ethically dubious when it urges upon Asians and Africans concepts or principles that the West discovered only accidentally and under conditions far different from those that obtain in Asia and Africa; of why both the Chinese and the Americans need to absorb the dialectics of Frantz Fanon.
Looking west from the Yellow Crane Tower in Wuchang [town of Wuhan]. The First Bridge over the Yangtze, and the Tortoise Hill in Hanyang, with its TV tower, are in the background.
Yellow Crane Tower
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Lectures in China
To address the growing interest in African American literature and culture at Chinese universities, I have given lectures since 2009. Chinese auditors, however astute and savvy they are, may be easily confused by the literary critical games played in the West. Often they do not understand the cultural dynamics of academic trends. Why do Western critics so dread the absolute, the essential, and the certain? The reasons, of course, are at once philosophical, racial, and political. One must exercise care in explaining that the universal is not universal but merely a smokescreen for intellectual hegemony, that deconstruction can too often be a weapon of massive destruction.
During May and June 2012, I presented nine lectures designed to plant seeds for critical growth. The listing includes a post-delivery comment for each of them.
Trickster Criticism: Kenneth Warrens What Was African American Literature?In international forums for literary study, it is necessary to have a critique of Warrens tendentious misreading of African American literary history and culture and its probable consequences of such misreading in a future of African American literary study. I am indebted to Maryemma Graham for drawing my attention, after I returned to America, to an important example of a consequence: Gruesz, Kirsten Silva. What Was Latino Literature? PMLA 127.2 (2012):335-341.
The Poetry of Natasha TretheweyTretheweys strategies for recovering history in Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, and Native Guards are aesthetic warnings against post-racial delusions. To put Tretheweys being named Poet Laureate of the United States in proper perspective, one must read Honorée Fanonne Jefferss brilliant essay The Subjective Briar Patch: Contemporary American Poetry. Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring 2012): 97-106.
The Cambridge History of African American Literature and the Limits of Literary HistoryThis commentary seeks to explain the inevitable absence in literary historical narratives of writers who are of equal merit with and sometimes of greater importance than those who are discussed.
On Reginald Martins Idea of Transcultural TheoryThis discussion of Martins appropriation of transcultural theory as a method of reading texts foregrounds the need to make clear distinctions among theory, methodology, and method.
The Tonal Drawings of Asili Ya Nadhiri: Temporality and MusicalityGiven the absence of critical attention to how Nadhiri uses oral/aural memory, grammatical innovations regarding tense, ideas about music and art, and some problems of time and being dealt with in theoretical physics in a conceptual poetic genre, this lecture acknowledges his unique contribution to African American poetry.
Ishmael Reed and MulticulturalismA discussion of Reeds sustained efforts since the late 1960s to promote real rather than lip-service multiculturalism in the literature of the United States, this lecture suggests that Reed has provided a rich matrix for the delayed conversation on what it means to be an American.
Acknowledgement: The Contact/Combat ZoneA meditation on the function of the literary critic in the 21st century, this lecture argues that warfare is the dominant but rarely acknowledged trope in discussions of the literature of the United States.
Richard Wright and Twenty-first Century QuestionsThe purpose of this lecture is to argue that significant research questions and making of transcendent connections (imaginative reflection) can be derived from close reading of Richard Wrights Blueprint for Negro Writing and his novella The Man Who Lived Underground.
American Literature and Digital HumanitiesThis lecture involves a series of speculations on how new technologies may change the study and teaching of literature, especially of African American literature.
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I have little interest in fashionable academic games, efforts to avoid telling a truth about the essential complexity of African American literature and its continuing evolution, or rhetorical lies about the existence of shared values among diverse citizens of the United States or Europe. To promote honest exchanges among Chinese and American intellectual communities, I embrace an unfashionable humanism that minimizes post-human dominance. I want my Chinese colleagues to have more options for making conclusions about truth.
I do want them to grasp what the following blog on Toni Morrisons most recent novel does not say. I want them to understand why Morrison rather than Jesmyn Ward or Tina McElroy Ansa or Tayari Jones is the target of commentary:
Morrison, Toni. Home. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
The Nobel Prize in Literature is the most prestigious award the West offers to writers, but one might ponder whether it is a curse or a blessing for those who earn it. Does a writers creative powers decline or hibernate after she or he receives the award? No. The prize is not meant to cripple the human spirit. Reasons for strong difference in quality must be sought elsewhere.
Judgment is so privatized and relative in the twenty-first century that it matters very little if a reader says Yes or No. Value is a pragmatic commodity. It has the stability of a theorized subatomic particle. Only a statistically insignificant portion of the worlds population gives more than a few seconds of thought to the growth or stasis or decline of the writers imagination. No writer can maintain stellar performances over several decades of doing things with words.
But prizes create unreasonable expectations. Writers who possess them are often more harshly judged than their peers who create excellent works in oblivion.
Such is the case with Toni Morrison since she won the ultimate literary prize in 1993. Not even the protective circle of the Toni Morrison Society can deflect barbs of disappointment, the weird neutrality one feels after reading Home (2012). When you compare it with earlier novels
, you think the early works have the signature richness and depth of songs by Etta James, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Sarah Vaughn.
, Love, A Mercy, and Home are good. They are attractive explorations of what is cruel. They are not, however, overwhelmingly exciting novels. They are like the singer who scored number one on last weeks pop chart. You are disappointed that these later works do not light your fire.
Bernard Bell aptly claimed in The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition that Morrisons fiction was marked by poetic realism. In Home, realism has been displaced by some ironies of postmodern poetry. Its plot is recognizable but thin. Morrison indulges her entitlement to grieve in an opaque fashion. The narrators language floats above the storys engagement with obscene racism, because Morrison contemplates her cleverness in the use of language more than she uses language to provoke consciousness of Americas social and cultural filthsystemic brutalization of black sensibility, medical experimentation on black bodies worthy of a Nazi doctor. Its examination of manhood in post-Korean War America focuses on the fragility of male subjectivity, while its portrayal of boyhood displays remarkable strengths. Superb imbalance.
The protagonist Frank Money nurtures too much grief and self-pity. In Frank Moneys empty space real money glittered (84). He is truly not some enthusiastic hero (84). When the language of the novel is not laughing at the reader, it is sweating the reader. It invites hostility and displeasure. In other words, reading Home requires admitting the validity of a remark made by Joan Zhang, a Chinese graduate student, about Alice Walkers The Color Purple: . . . it is only through removing the mask of the feminine mystique that female blacks can achieve their growth; it is only after female blacks growth that male blacks growth becomes possible; it is only with the growth on both sides that males and females can live harmoniously, which is the essence of Walkers womanism .
We should have respect for Morrisons achievements. Scholars are obligated by literary history to read her writingsall of them. But scholars, like casual readers, do not have to like all of her work. They are free not to tarry in the new home she has constructed.
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Learning and Teaching: The Core of Cultural Exchanges
It is relatively easy to present lectures in China, especially if one maximizes the conversational mode. Speak plainly. Explain fully. Avoid jargon and convoluted sentences. For a foreigner, teaching in China can be a remarkable challenge.
During the eight weeks of teaching twentieth-century American literature to graduate students, I had to modify my style of teaching. In America, many graduate students delight in being vocal, in displaying their opinions, and in provoking their teachers. Engagement with the instructor is commonplace. In China, most graduate students are disarmingly respectful and silent. Yes, they will ask questions after a class session, but they are very content to listen carefully and take notes.
The professors authority is beyond challenge. Such behavior is ideal if the professor thinks a lecture is the best way to impart knowledge. My teaching style is discussion-driven, because I do not want to be the only voice in the room. I need to know if students are confused by some of my statements. I need evidence that my students are thinking critically about the subject matter. Are they resisting propositions about various pieces of literature? I found the absence of rich conversational exchange to be annoying. I was forced to lecture.
I discovered the traditional method of Chinese teaching can have good results. My students were required to submit a 4-5 page essay on Joyce Carol Oates story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? on June 29. To increase the probability that students would make the best use of the work they do in their concentrationsliterature, linguistics, or translationI gave them three options.
Option A: Translation students will write an essay on the difficulties of translating selected passages from the story.
Option B: Linguistics students will write an essay on the function of grammar, syntax, and diction in the narration of the story.
Option C: Literature students will write an essay on how the use of symbolism in the story creates a selective vision of American society in the 1960s.
The translation and linguistics students produced the best papers, because they used the theories from their sub-disciplines to focus their thinking. On the other hand, many of the literature students found it difficult to focus on how symbols might function. I got the impression they had inadequate training in how to write about literature according to Western criteria. I chose not to penalize them for what they had not been taught about avoiding plagiarism by carefully documenting all sources they used.
In the future, I will make use of what my friend John Zheng, an alumnus of CCNU and a professor at Mississippi Valley State University, advises:
Students at CCNU need to be told before class what they are supposed to do and they will have to speak or participate in exchanging ideas. Or next time you tell them that discussion takes a big percentage of their grade. They like to listen, but you may not know what they think. They may be shy or afraid to be laughed at by peers. When I was there I forced them to talk, to participate and to make oral presentations. And I also found two heavily plagiarized the Internet essays. Maybe assign a piece to each and come to talk about it in class. I also said each reading will be tested so everyone had to read.
(Email from Zheng, July 11, 2012)
In the future, I will concentrate on creating an atmosphere for discussion-rich class sessions and on teaching critical thinking about literature. In the future I will draw upon the very pleasant experiences I had in my seminar for Ph.D. candidates as we discussed how to conceptualize and do research for their dissertations. We talked about James Fenimore Coopers sea fictions, the novels of Ernest J. Gaines, Gish Jen, John Edgar Wideman, Alice Walker and Ishmael Reed, Richard Wrights quest for a conversational path beyond races and cultures, and the dramas created by Suzan-Lori Parks. It is a blessing (a slice of blissful meat) to talk with Chinese Ph.D. candidates who force me to remember virtually everything I have ever learned.
Much of my future work will be dedicated to helping Professor Luo Lianggong to develop a distinguished program for the study of African American literature and culture within the School of Foreign Languages at CCNU. He and I have already begun discussing how to lay the groundwork for such a program, one that must give a great deal of attention to pedagogyteaching post-graduate (master’s level) and Ph.D. candidates how to acquire the necessary historical background information for making astute interpretations of African American literature and how to grasp the nuances (linguistic aspects and implications of speech act theory) that secure the distinctive difference of African American literature. Having had direct experience with teaching students in a foreign language (English), I am convinced that pedagogy is crucial. It is pedagogy that will be central in what I do at CCNU in the spring of 2013. Lectures, small conferences and workshops for Chinese teachers, exhibits and musical performances will eventually be incorporated, but having African American texts (books, videos, and so forth) available for teachers and students in Wuhan is more important. My informal assessment of CCNU library holdings suggests that we must try to acquire more African American primary and secondary texts. Three examples: 1) One student is determined to write her dissertation on Sonia Sanchez, but she has no way of accessing Sonia’s earliest publications; 2) I want to teach a special seminar on Richard Wright, but the library does not have copies of the Library of America early and later works; 3) if someone gave a lecture on the Harlem Renaissance and the novels of Wallace Thurman, it would require a major effort to make it possible for students to do a follow-up reading of Thurman’s Infants of the Spring against Carl Van Vechten‘s Nigger Heaven. I stress these practical issues to illuminate the importance of balancing the acquisition of materials with the teaching of African American literature and culture. My work as a Famous Overseas Professor is unofficially an outreach effort of the Project on the History of Black Writing, and I shall be asking many of my American colleagues for assistance with acquiring books. My very wise and energetic friend Maryemma Graham, of course, provides the much needed support to keep me focused on my commitments.
My very satisfying experiences with my Chinese colleagues will help to shape my future as an independent scholar, now that I have retired from Dillard University. The future has begun with almost daily correspondence with these colleagues and fulfilling their requests for information or advice about their projects or for letters of recommendation. The future involves my circulating emails to build new bridges between Chinese and American scholars and students. The following is an example of what I shall broadcast in the future.
July 22, 2012
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Dear Friends, My colleague Zuyou Wang, editor of the bimonthly Shandong Foreign Language Teaching Journal, requested that I ask you to consider sending articles to his journal. He also suggested that my article on Wright, which appeared in a recent issue, be used as a model of submissions. I have pasted it below. When I wrote the article, I struggled (1) to make the ideas rather uncomplicated for the Chinese readers who are interested in teaching American and African American materials and (2) to provide ideas that can be translated into research projects or used in the classroom. As some of you already know, I am devoting time to promoting greater interest in African American literature and culture in China. I am grateful to Professor Wang for helping me with that undertaking. It is a good move for more of us to participate in critical exchange with Chinese teachers and scholars. Thus, if you have a relatively brief article that you deem appropriate, please send it to Professor Wang at firstname.lastname@example.org With all best wishes, Jerry W. Ward, Jr. Famous Overseas Professor Central China Normal University
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For Shandong Journal of Foreign Language Teaching
Directions in the Study of Richard Wright
By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Contemporary studies in languages and literatures are marked by varying degrees of anxiety. The impact of new technologies on the uses of language can be noted in the alacrity with which many people engage one another in social networks. Users, particularly in the United States, instant message, tweet, text-message, or post items on Facebook in forms that contrast dramatically with traditional uses of standard American English. People who have been trained to attend carefully to spelling, grammar, syntax, coherence, and unity of ideas may find themselves either amused or dismayed or confused by the new forms of communicating.
On the other hand, people who have little regard for accuracy or nuances in communication willingly embrace what might be called rhetoric of carelessness. They seem to be convinced that playful inventiveness is the future, that linguistic conventions are arbitrary, and that minimal representation of thought is the ideal. Thus, it is to be expected that some scholars and teachers fear that new habits of writing and reading will undermine the desire or ability of younger generations to make critical judgments about literature. These new habits eschew the discipline and patience necessary for analysis and interpretation of literature. They cannot be dismissed as trivial, because they are fundamental in changing what counts as knowledge.
Anxiety about literature and language is intensified by ambivalence regarding the changes that accompany the progress of globalization. Those changes influence how we speak of a large range of topics: emerging world orders, ecology, biocultural transformations (including shifts in the cognitive functions of the brain), and the cultural studies that have displaced or subsumed what was once called literary theory and criticism. Even if we try to be empirical and scientific in our approaches to the study of literature, we still have the onus of being uncertain in efforts to generate appropriate questions for our investigations of twentieth-century American writers.
We are overwhelmed by our options; we choke on our wealth of information. We are frustrated by global theories that dismiss the importance of nations and national boundaries (which are also cultural boundaries) that have been so critical in the growth of American, or to be more accurate, United States literature. Much depends on how one conceptualizes globalization in the study of literature, or answers the question: what is globalization?i
Is globalization primarily a way of thinking about historical processes, or is it a conviction that post-modernity has succeeded in compromising our ability to locate ourselves and our cultural expressions in a history that can be verified? These questions do not have simple answers. Theory notwithstanding, we can be sure that twentieth-century literature is indelibly marked by national origins. It is unethical to pretend that older works can or should be read as if they were written under the conditions of electronic revolutions.
Globalization may make us sensitive to the metaphor of the uncertainty principle, but it neither can nor should erase historical consciousness in literary and cultural studies. Historical consciousness existed to prior any newfangled global consciousness. Cautionary hypotheses ought to govern directions in the study of the literature of the United States or of any nation-state. Awareness of the limits of knowledge is crucial, for example, in the study of Richard Wright (1908-1960).
It is remarkable that many contemporary studies of Wrights works tend to recycle old ideas about universal themes, naturalism, modernism, the writers ideology and political intentions, and the much overworked notion of double consciousness as an innate feature of African American thought. The more progressive or future-oriented studies, however, attempt to be interdisciplinary. They may adapt some version of intersectionality research, which is defined principally by its focus on the simultaneous and interactive effects of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and national origin as categories of difference in the United States and beyond(185).ii
Studies that borrow from intersectionality theory have the potential of making us more discriminating in our investigations of Wrights works. They can assist us in distinguishing between which of his works have immediate productive relevance (the potential to provoke synchronic thinking about contemporary human issues) and those which have reflective relevance (the potential to invite diachronic thinking about change). For example, Wrights novella Down by the Riverside provokes thought about human behavior in the aftermath of natural or man-made disasters; in contrast, Native Son and 12 Million Black Voices may invite thought about the historical consequences of migration and urbanization, whereas Black Power may urge us to ponder the vexed outcomes of twentieth-century liberation struggles in the post-colonial African nation of Ghana.
It is reasonable to argue that future studies of Richard Wright and other American writers of his generation should examine both the writers and the readers assumptions about the function of literature in his or her own time. It is illuminating to know whether harmony or discord is more prominent. Otherwise, we shall only compound anxiety and confusion about what makes literature relevant in the contexts of globalization.
Directions in the study of Wright are most valuable when they are aligned with questions about what his works reveal or seem to predict about human beings and change. For what revolutions in human thought do Wrights works continue to be germane? Does the impact Wright wanted his fiction and nonfiction to have still affect us? Will continuing study keep interest alive?
Explorations associated with the 2008 Richard Wright Centennial allow us to sketch how Wright scholars have begun to reposition their engagements with his published and unpublished works and how those works may assume new significance for readers and thinkers. The celebration of Richard Wright as an internationally honored citizen of the republic of American letters and culture did not officially conclude, at least for those who respected the wishes of the Richard Wright Estate, until November 28, 2010, the fiftieth anniversary of his death.
This conclusion, however, was a resumption of efforts to secure memory of Wrights significance beyond his writing the classic texts Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), staples of American cultural literacy in schools where censorship is not tolerated. New directions point to Wrights presence or absence in the reorientations of the Barack Obama Era, which is especially marked by post-racial claims that paradoxically co-exist with an increasing significance of race.
It is noteworthy, for example, that Mark Brachers How to Teach for Social Justice: Lessons from Uncle Toms Cabin and Cognitive Scienceiii provides a remarkable footnote on the philosophical and psychological qualities of Native Son which can provoke a recognition that entails, for all white readers, the further recognition that we are ultimately responsible for all the Biggers (white and black) and their horrific and brutal actions (384). Perhaps Bracher unintentionally reifies a black/white binary formation, forgetting that some of the Biggers among us in the second decade of the 21stcentury are Hispanic or Asian-Americans or as mixed-race as a Tiger Woods.
In the context of the Centennial, Brachers idea is a red flag. If Bigger Thomas and other characters from Wrights fictions are used as sociological icons without rigorous qualifications, we risk intellectual impoverishment; we miss or dismiss the importance of the salient points Wright made in the essay How Bigger Was Born regarding the origins of fictions and the No Mans Land which the common people of America never talk of but take for granted.iv One of the more valuable lessons of Centennial activities was how lack of skepticism about limits promotes blindness rather than insight. For just such a reason, new directions entail remembering.
David A. Taylors Soul of a People: The WPA Writers Project Uncovers Depression American (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley& Sons, 2009) and Brian Dolinars The Illinois Writers Project Essays: Introduction, Southern Quarterly 46.2 (2009): 84-90 bid us to examine Wrights use of ethnography more closely than did Carla Cappettis book Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). Rereading of Wrights 1930s proletarian poems (only Between the World and Me seems to get notice for its lynching theme) and stories (Uncle Tom’s Children ) will beget re-examination of Lawd Today! and the topic of spousal abuse and fresh examination of domestic workers and organized labor in the unpublished novel Black Hope (based in part on Wrights extensive interviewing of domestic workers in New York).
James A. Millers excellent chapter Richard Wrights Scottsboro of the Imagination in Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) creates a fine opportunity to investigate Wrights perspectives on the American criminal legal system in Native Son, Rite of Passage (1994), The Long Dream (1958), and A Fathers Law (2008). Indeed, Wrights importance in critical discussions of race, law, and legal ethics has yet to be tapped. David Taylors article Literary Cubs, Canceling Out Each Others Reticence, The American Scholar (Summer 2009):136-141 provides new information regarding Wrights correspondence with Nelson Algren, and we should go to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Yale University) to discover more about Wrights correspondence with Joe C. Brown and others. Despite the biographical attention that has been given to Wright by Constance Webb, Michel Fabre, John A. Williams, Margaret Walker, Addison Gayle, and Hazel Rowley, much about the full extent of Wrights intelligence and analytic imagination has not been engaged.
We should want to learn from the applications of cutting-edge theory in W. Lawrence Hogues Can the Subaltern Speak? A Postcolonial, Existential Reading of Richard Wrights Native Son, The Southern Quarterly 46.2 (2009): 9-39 and Mikko Tuhkanens Queer Guerillas: On Richard Wrights and Frantz Fanons Dissembling Revolutionaries, Mississippi Quarterly 61.4 (2008): 615-642. Both articles put Native Son and Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1956), and White Man Listen! (1957) in the present space of terrorism, suggesting which kinds of international theory might enable contemporary readers to absorb and digest Wrights 20th century perspectives. Likewise, Richard Wright: New Readings in the 21st Century (2011), edited by Alice Mikal Craven and William E. Dow, contains fresh essays that bid us to consider how the transnational qualities of Wrights works might necessitate some use of transcultural theory.
Wrights uncanny intelligence and imagination, we should remember, enabled him to warn us in The Color Curtain that
It is not difficult to imagine Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, and Shintoists launching vast crusades, armed with modern weapons, to make the world safe for their mystical notions (218)v
Ongoing re-examination of Wrights works may yet reveal other warnings that have been ignored.
On Third Consciousness in the Fiction of Richard Wright, The Black Scholar 39.1-2 (2009): 40-45 is a welcomed Eastern challenge from Professor Chen Xu (Hangzhou Dianzi University) to the adequacy of W. E. B. Du Boiss thoroughly Western idea of double-consciousness. If we embrace the probable effectiveness of third consciousness in marking a certain uniqueness in African American literary traditions, we may better understand the historical silence of double-consciousness (or playing in the dark) in scholarly considerations of American literatures as multicultural.
We are enlightened by Howard Rambsys pioneering investigations of the visual packaging, [Re-presenting Black Boy: The Evolving Packaging History of Richard Wrights Autobiography, The Southern Quarterly 64.2 (2009): 71-83] for these investigations open vistas on the dynamics of motive and power in marketplace politics used to manage African American literature as well as on the dominance of visual popular culture. Our interest in Wrights use of the photograph is deepened by John Lowes sustained critique of Pagan Spain,vi[The Transnational Vision of Richard Wrights Pagan Spain, The Southern Quarterly 46.3 (2009)] just as Nancy Dixons questioning of what Wright got wrong or right about Spanish culture in Did Richard Wright Get It Wrong?: A Spanish Look at Pagan Spain, Mississippi Quarterly 61.4 (2008): 581-591 reopens speculation about Wrights readings of African and Asian cultures.
The examinations of Wrights haiku by Toru Kiuchi, Jianqing Zheng, Meta Schettler, Lee Gurga, and Richard Iadonisi in Valley Voices: A Literary Review 8.2 (2008) and The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku (2011), edited by Jianqin Zheng, create yearning for fresh commentaries on Wrights early poetry and the poetry of his prose. We now have stronger reasons, by virtue of the testimonials provided by Howard Rambsy, Tara Green, and Candice Love Jackson in Papers on Language & Literature 44.4 (2008) and Mark Madigan and Toru Kiuchi in The Black Scholar 39.1-2 (2009), for asking why and how we read or teach Wrights works, for testing the outcomes of using those works in efforts to increase literacy (functional, visual, cultural, political, and rhetorical) in postmodern, technology-dependent societies.
My own anxiety begins to be replaced by optimism when I wager that new directions in the study of Richard Wright shall arm us for our battles with a future of globalization, that they will help us balance the rhetoric of carelessness with a rhetoric of genuine concern. The scholarship, criticism, and theorizing that is emerging call for remembering Wrights optimism of the brilliant one-sentence paragraph that ends the 1945 edition of Black Boy.
With ever watchful eyes and bearing scars, visible and invisible, I headed North, full of a hazy notion that life could be lived with dignity, that the personalities of other should not be violated, that men should be able to confront other men without fear or shame, and that if men were lucky in their living on earth they might win some redeeming meaning for their having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars.
i A good starting point for answering the question is the January 2001 issue of PMLA, which dealt with the special topic: Globalizing Literary Studies.
ii Evelyn M. Simien and Ange-Marie Hancock, Mini-Symposium: Intersectionality Research. Political Research Quarterly 64.1 (2011): 185.
iii College English 71.4 (2009): 363-388.
iv Richard Wright, How Bigger Was Born, Richard Wright: Early Works (New York: Library of America, 1991), 871.
v Richard Wright. The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1956).
vi It is unfortunate that difficulties in obtaining permission to reproduce Wrights photographs for Pagan Spain precluded their use to enhance Lowes remarkable commentary.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
1928 Gentilly Blvd.
New Orleans, LA 70119-2002
July 24, 2012
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#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
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By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection’s “lyric brilliance” and “political impulses [that] never falter.” A New York Times review stated, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to acceptor at least endurethe universe’s mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the books first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant.” Life on Mars follows Smith’s 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.
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Edited by Jianqin Zheng
The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku reveals Richard Wright’s poetic vision toward the human world. Through the minimal form of haiku, Wright (1908-1960) found his poetic connection to nature. This sensibility displays not only the change in him as a writer but also the tenderness in him as a human being. These essays open up a new territory in Wright studies by tracing the development of Wright’s aesthetic and its relationship to African and Japanese cultures. The book tells how haiku offered a therapeutic outlet for Wright in his final two years of life in Paris, explores the influence of Zen Buddhism on Wright’s haiku, and delivers a thematic analysis of Wright’s haiku. The collection also gives us a focused examination of how Wright’s haiku reveal a conflict between nature and culture, how women are exploited for labor and sex by the culture at-large, and how the South in Wright’s haiku symbolizes a place full of dreams, memories, hardships, and loneliness with his images of cotton, freight trains, croaking frogs, magnolia trees, and hog-killing.
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Edited by Maryemma Graham and Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
The first major twenty-first century history of four hundred years of black writing, The Cambridge History of African American Literature presents a comprehensive overview of the literary traditions, oral and print, of African-descended peoples in the United States. Expert contributors, drawn from the United States and beyond, emphasize the dual nature of each text discussed as a work of art created by an individual and as a response to unfolding events in American cultural, political, and social history. Unprecedented in scope, sophistication and accessibility, the volume draws together current scholarship in the field. It also looks ahead to suggest new approaches, new areas of study, and as yet undervalued writers and works. The Cambridge History of African American Literature is a major achievement both as a work of reference and as a compelling narrative and will remain essential reading for scholars and students in years to come.
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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 James A. Miller
In 1931, nine black youths were charged with raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama. Despite meager and contradictory evidence, all nine were found guilty and eight of the defendants were sentenced to death–making Scottsboro one of the worst travesties of justice to take place in the post-Reconstruction South. Remembering Scottsboro explores how this case has embedded itself into the fabric of American memory and become a lens for perceptions of race, class, sexual politics, and justice. James Miller draws upon the archives of the Communist International and NAACP, contemporary journalistic accounts, as well as poetry, drama, fiction, and film, to document the impact of Scottsboro on American culture.
The book reveals how the Communist Party, NAACP, and media shaped early images of Scottsboro, looks at how the case influenced authors including Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Harper Lee, and
shows how politicians and Hollywood filmmakers invoked the case in the ensuing decades
Remembering Scottsboro examines the defiant, sensitive, and savvy correspondence of Haywood Patterson
one of the accused, who fled the Alabama justice system. Miller considers how Scottsboro persists as a point of reference in contemporary American life and suggests that the Civil Rights movement begins much earlier than the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.
demonstrates how one compelling, provocative, and tragic case still haunts the American racial imagination.
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens.
Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake.
She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
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By David A. Taylor
Soul of a People is about a handful of people who were on the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s and a glimpse of America at a turning point. This particular handful of characters went from poverty to great things later, and included John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Studs Terkel. In the 1930s they were all caught up in an effort to describe America in a series of WPA guides. Through striking images and firsthand accounts, the book reveals their experiences and the most vivid excerpts from selected guides and interviews: Harlem schoolchildren, truckers, Chicago fishmongers, Cuban cigar makers, a Florida midwife, Nebraskan meatpackers, and blind musicians. Drawing on new discoveries from personal collections, archives, and recent biographies, a new picture has emerged in the last decade of how the participants’ individual dramas intersected with the larger picture of their subjects.
This book illuminates what it felt like to live that experience, how going from joblessness to reporting on their own communities affected artists with varied visions, as well as what feelings such a passage involved: shame humiliation, anger, excitement, nostalgia, and adventure. Also revealed is how the WPA writers anticipated, and perhaps paved the way for, the political movements of the following decades, including the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Right movement, and the Native American rights movement.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 26 July 2012