ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



One very smart kid said that Mozart and DaPonte’s

adaptation of Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, did

not probe the darker  side of human passions “because opera

is concerned only with beautiful ideas.” 



Books by Wilson Jeremiah Moses

Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (1988)  / The Wings of Ethiopia  (1990)

 Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent (1992)  / Destiny & Race: Selected Writings, 1840-1898  (1992) 

 Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth (1993)

Liberian Dreams: Back-to-Africa Narratives from the 1850s  / Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History (2002)

Creative Conflict in African American Thought (2004)

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Knowledge and Ignorance: Two Barriers to LearningBy Wilson J. MosesParis Bastille Day, 2007


Yesterday in French class the subject of conversation was “complaining,” and the teacher asked how we might react to a train’s being late.   I offered an anecdote, relating how many years ago, having boarded a train in Rome, I waited twenty minutes for the train to leave the station, and how throughout the carriage, one could hear people from many different nations, impatiently invoking the name of Mussolini.  As I said in French, “It is legendaire that in the time of Mussolini the Italian trains were always ponctuel.”  But it was clear that only the teacher understood what I had said.  After class, I told the story again in English to two fellows in their twenties who “speak English,” but neither of them understood, because they did not know the words “legendary” or “punctual” in French or in English.  In fact the guy from Sri Lanka, had no idea of what I meant by Mussolini, but as the Arab guy explained to him, “Mussolini was a guy.”  Most of the ability to communicate in any language is dependent on sharing cultural literacy and historical sense.  I was at a Paris street bookstall on July 11, 2007, and on the first page of a two volume work on the relationship between Voltaire and Frederick II of Prussia.   My current book project touches on the intellectual kinship between Thomas Jefferson and Frederick II.   I came upon a funny line in which Voltaire, at the table of Alexander Pope, referred (figuratively) to being “sodomized by the Jesuits,” and I burst out laughing.  The street vendor a 6’4″ tall very black and husky African of around 40 looked at me, so I showed him the line.  From his attitude of anger and embarrassment, it occurred to me that the man might be illiterate.  A book dealer, who has no interest in books!  His spoken French is probably inferior to mine, but he probably understands the quotidien, the vernaculaire better.  I have difficulty communicating in English with women in their early twenties in Pennsylvania, because the major things on their minds are whether they should get their first tattoo, or wondering if their boyfriend knows they have been cheating.  Their minds are not able to grasp any concept that requires two consecutive steps of logic.   The typical American college student is interested in talking about is how “oh-mi-god,” somebody got drunk and puked in the piano.  

Last week, I overheard an American girl on a crowded Paris street telling her friend in Valley-Girl-English how she had unprotected sex with somebody.   And this is why 75% of my students have difficulty with my examinations.  Even the brightest ones can be disappointing.  

One very smart kid said that Mozart and DaPonte’s adaptation of Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, did not probe the darker side of human passions “because opera is concerned only with beautiful ideas.”  She said this after sitting with apparent interest through a lecture in which I discussed how the entire opera, and the play on which it was based, were protests against the sexual exploitation of women.  I spent an entire lecture on this theme, relating Mozart’s opera to Jefferson’s presumable relationship with Sally Hemings, and I can predict with certainty that some students would nonetheless criticize my course as not addressing feminist ideas.  Regardless of what language people are speaking, they cannot learn anything if they are incapacitated by the twin evils of ignorance and knowledge.   Nobody can’t understand an anecdote about Mussolini, if they are ignorant of the fact that “Mussolini was a guy.”  Nobody can grasp the satirical attack in an opera by Mozart if they have the knowledge that opera is concerned “only with beautiful ideas.” 

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Communicating Knowledge and Ignorance

By Rudolph Lewis


I have been reading over and over “Knowledge and Ignorance: Two Barriers to Effective Teaching.” It is filled with extraordinary insights into the problem of communication between individuals. The first that struck me and won’t let me go is, “Most of the ability to communicate in any language is dependent on sharing cultural literacy and historical sense.” 

And then you end with, “Regardless of what language people are speaking, they cannot learn anything if they are incapacitated by the twin evils of ignorance and knowledge.” In between these two statements I was captivated by the unique ironical cases drawn from your experience as student and teacher. I deem the whole composition as truths I too have experienced. They are at once ironic and tragic.

My consciousness was raised initially to the awareness that if communication is impossible, that is, if you cannot “talk” to the guy or girl and make yourself and intentions understood, anguish and pain are inevitable. Your commentary on “complaining” (whether in English or French) with regard to the complaints of Italian train commuters evoking the memory of Mussolini was an extraordinary complex statement filled with such mental appeals as irony and paradox.

Even if all your classmates knew that Mussolini (was not a vegetable or meat; or a way of walking; or a unique color, but) was a former Italian head of state and knew “punctual” as a time referent, your barbed social critique on “complaining” still might have fallen short and unappreciated. I suspect more often power rather than knowledge is sought.

That was indeed the case at the street bookstall. You tried to share a humorous moment with the “street vendor, a 6’4″ tall very black and husky African of around 40”  by having him to read a Voltairean witticism about sodomy and Jesuits in one of  his books. As you perceptively became aware, the African street vendor was no intellectual, barely literate for he responded with an “attitude of anger and embarrassment.” Though he was skilled in French, he did not understand Voltaire’s figure and exchange with Alexander Pope. The African knew the language but he did not know Voltaire, the philosopher and satirist.

Your classmates did not know you or your ironical intent, or Mussolini as one who expressed disagreeable political philosophies adverse to democratic freedoms. The Italian commuters you observed in Rome seemingly were willing to trade in their present freedoms, won with the spillage of Italian blood, for trains that leave the station on a punctual schedule. They myth had a greater sustaining reality than the actual suffering.

All these instances lay the ground for unintentional misunderstandings and conflicts. Some of us are on a satisfying downward course to the literal, the mundane, and the trivial. While others of us at the same time make strenuous efforts to move ourselves upward (bringing others along) into the thin, exhilarating air—thinking, hoping, believing there might indeed be a better and more just world, for all of us. Some (nay many) struggle against such a course. It is too rigorous and demanding, lacking humility and tolerance. And I might add willing to murder to sustain that ignorance.

I saw an extraordinary event last evening on Bill Moyer’s Journal: a “conservative” and a “liberal” in agreement on the necessity of impeaching President Bush. The conservative had drafted the perjury resolution for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, a fellow named Fine, as I recall. I was more struck by his passionate erudition than I of the liberal. Both proclaimed the sacredness and wisdom of the Constitution in guarding against “royalism” and they both pointed out the self-evident “high crimes and misdemeanors” of the Bush administration.

The conservative was filled with a “conviction” often associated with the religious zealot, that he believed was necessary to sustain the Republic. Both liberal and conservative discounted the perceived punitive aspects of impeachment and rather emphasized the necessity of upholding the rule of law contained in the Constitution. Both suggested that the President’s lawyer, a Ms Myers, and his Attorney General confess a greater loyalty to the Man than to the Constitution. Both believed they have violated their oaths to defend the Constitution. Maybe both have the difficulty of the African book vendor, whose primary interests are making money and seeking out Parisian pleasures.

Of course most of us Americans and most viewers of Moyers’ program (I suspect) are unable to view this historical document from the intellectual plane of these two constitutional scholars, although the polls rise (45% in favor) for impeachment proceedings to begin in Congress. Both men believe we lack statesmen and that party has become more important than the Constitution itself. Nancy Pelosi’s delaying tactics were looked on unfavorably. I doubt it was a gender criticism. Feminists might disagree.

What indeed are the “major things” on the minds of Americans? The purity of the Republic, I doubt, has approached the ladder of American concerns. The constitutional scholars conjectured that our leaders treat us like children and we the citizens actually prefer the role of children. But is not that part of the subtext of the Constitution they adore and part of the id thinking of the Founding Fathers despite their self-perceived sacred duty and wisdom? My questions are filled with a suggestiveness that cannot be determined with certainty because of my ignorance of both the Constitution and depth psychology.

Tattoos, unprotected sex, and drunken weekend bashes puking into pianos and the morning banter in the aftermath probably occupy a great deal of youthful mental activity, male and female. I am not altogether unfamiliar with such youthful exuberance. We probably can conjecture with some accuracy that among their more serious moments they are concerned with how to get that grade, that degree, that professional job that will allow them to continue such juvenile activities into middle age and beyond.

I met Yevtushenko, the great Soviet poet, once, in New Orleans, where he came to celebrate Louis Armstrong’s birthday, and heard him read a poem in which he noted the sweat-filled insights of a man who came from the other side of town. He gave the impression that art but especially poetry made a more vital connection with the Russian working man than it does with the American working man, despite his awareness of Louie’s conquests. Maybe his comments were defensive, filled by necessity with a mixture of ethnic chauvinism and true report. Whether Yevgeny’s artistic insight continues to hold in capitalist Russia, I’m uncertain. I’m certainly unclear of the role that the arts play in connection to social realities in America.  

There is good news from arts promoters in Cleveland, however.  Terrence Spivey has revived the Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, the nation’s oldest black theatre, founded in 1915 by two white social workers Russell and Rowena Jelliffe. Under Spivey’s leadership the selection of plays are more thought provoking, with plays by Shange, Walcott, George C. Wolfe, and Thomas Gibbons. The seats are filled and the critics think the acting has improved. Whether the themes of these plays are relevant to the present Constitutional crisis I cannot say. My ignorance is profound with regard to these well-known playwrights.

For what reasons Americans attend operas and plays in America are also unknown to me. Do they look for inspiration to change and improve society and their conditions as was the case with former Soviet workers? Or are American artistic productions divorced from all of that in the minds of the spectators who have paid their 40 or 100 dollars for the evening’s entertainment?

Maybe they like one of your female students are looking for “beautiful ideas” to go with their evening’s beautiful and costly gowns, accessories, and jewels. I deem myself as ignorant of the minds of American theatre goers as you of the African street vendor when you tried to share a moment of humor in a world seemingly set on fixing global misery as the crowning ornament of capitalist civilization.

I am thankful you have shared with me “Knowledge and Ignorance: Two Barriers to Effective Teaching.” You have brought to consciousness a painful and anguished awareness that a peaceful and a just world is a near impossibility, even among those with high morals and ethics. For our words are ever present to betray us.

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



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Life on Mars

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 accept—or at least endure—the 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 book’s 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.

The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection. Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.

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Allah, Liberty, and Love

The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom

By Irshad Manji

In Allah, Liberty and Love, Irshad Manji paves a path for Muslims and non-Muslims to transcend the fears that stop so many of us from living with honest-to-God integrity: the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning our own communities. Since publishing her international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji has moved from anger to aspiration. She shows how any of us can reconcile faith with freedom and thus discover the Allah of liberty and love—the universal God that loves us enough to give us choices and the capacity to make them. Among the most visible Muslim reformers of our era, Manji draws on her experience in the trenches to share stories that are deeply poignant, frequently funny and always revealing about these morally confused times. What prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from expressing their need for religious reinterpretation?

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Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000

By Adam Fairclough

Better Day Coming is intended, in author Adam Fairclough’s words, as “neither a textbook nor a survey, but an interpretation” (p. xiv) of the circuitous struggle for racial equality pursued by African Americans and their occasional allies between 1890 and 2000. Chronologically organized, the narrative moves from an evaluation of the hard-pressed, contending forces vying for ascendancy in the black South at the nadir to the interwar period and well beyond, into the urban cauldron of the northern ghettoes at the high point of the Black Power movement. Fairclough brings to his project a fluent understanding of the shifting institutional configurations of opposition to Jim Crow and a keen sensitivity to the ways in which the efforts of those who fought it were hampered, circumscribed, and occasionally crushed by the pressures of operating in a society formally committed—for most of the period under discussion—to aggressive defense of the racial status quo.

Fairclough’s “basic argument” seems at first glance uncontroversial: that “although blacks differed . . . about the most appropriate tactics in the struggle for equality, they were united in rejecting allegations of racial inferiority and in aspiring to a society where men and women would be judged on merit rather than by race or color” (p. xii).

But his ultimate aim is more ambitious: he sets out to rehabilitate the accommodationist tradition represented by Booker T. Washington which, though “apparently unheroic,” in the author’s view “laid the groundwork for the militant confrontation of the Civil Rights Movement” (p. xiii).—h-net

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 9 July 2012




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