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Literary study profits from dirtying its hands in the dirt of origins before it sanitizes them

with the soap of abstractions.  A global perspective too often minimizes the importance

of the local as presented in Ferris’s collection of voices.

 

 

Books by Jerry W. Ward  Jr.

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

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China II Report

 June 4-19, 2010

By Jerry W. Ward  Jr.

 

We would talk very differently about international affairs if the history of the world were told from the perspective of China.  A trip from Wuhan to Warsaw would land one in the wild Far West not in Eastern Europe or a trip from Nanjing to Los Angeles would be a journey to the Far East.  Perhaps so radical a reorientation might help us to understand why the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is poised to become the world’s leading Communist capitalist nation and to provide us with a forecast of how the twenty-first century shall be an age of permanent contradictions.   It is doubtful that any of the nominal democracies of the world will absorb the lessons China is teaching.  It is my impression, however, that the world will learn to respect both China’s achievements and its inevitable mistakes.

I deliberately did not write a China I report about my visit to Wuhan, December 15-20, 2009, because it would have been a naïve exercise. Then I knew only one person in the PRC, and my purpose was limited to seeing how an ancient country was becoming ultramodern.  Knowing now more Chinese colleagues from various universities and having a definite purpose for having conversations with them, I can be less romantic and more dispassionate.  My purpose in June 2010 was to have face-to-face exchanges regarding the history and continuing developments in African American literature and culture, because these explorations of knowledge can be mutually rewarding.  The Chinese intellectuals could use the information I might offer to wipe away illusions about African American culture and the myth of the post-racial; likewise, I could acquire more knowledge about diversity among the Chinese people and the tensions between the new and the old in Chinese society.  The second visit was an opportunity to see a bittersweet future.

Some of my American friends ask: “What do the Chinese think of black people?”  I have not made a rigorous study of attitudes about race in China and, therefore, have insufficient grounds for an answer.   I resort to the disingenuous and irony-laden reply: “If they think of black people at all, they think less of them than do white Americans.” The English-speaking Chinese with whom I have had exceptionally satisfying conversations about African American cultures treated me with great respect and courtesy.  They may have profound disdain for people of African descent, including Chinese citizens who have one African or African American parent, because globalization has made racism endemic.  Chinese neo-colonial enterprises in various African countries may sponsor an increase in outbursts of racism.  At the personal level, I have experienced no more racism in Wuhan, Nanjing, and Beijing than I encounter in New Orleans, Boston, and Portland, Oregon.  Obviously, I can’t hear in Chinese what makes me angry in English. My dealings with the Chinese focus on the acquisition of knowledge and scholarly collaboration rather than exclusively on the problematic of ethnicity and race.  If I were Jonathan Swift’s character Gulliver, I would affirm that my dealings with the Chinese are more civil than my dealings with my fellow Americans.

During my first visit in December 2009, I presented a keynote address—“On the Study of African American Literature: The Obligation of Literary History”—for the Symposium on African American Literature at Central China Normal University (CCNU).  The rich series of follow-up emails with my Chinese colleagues and requests from some of them to write commentary on their works-in-progress inspired me to strengthen my links with people who are studying African American literature. I gladly accepted invitations from CCNU (Wuhan), Nanjing University and Nanjing University of Telecommunications and Post, and Beijing International Studies University to visit in June 2010.  I prepared four special lectures (See Appendix A) and flew to Wuhan on June 4-5.

John Zheng, Professor of English, editor of Valley Voices at Mississippi Valley State University and a Fulbright Fellow, had made my December visit possible, and I took pleasure in returning to Wuhan, his birthplace.  With a population of slightly above seven million people, extraordinarily dense traffic, heavy pollution, the ubiquity of McDonald’s and KFC, bold ads for the latest sleek European fashions, and vigorous building efforts, Wuhan is a model of what rampant urbanization is bringing to modern China.  The ancient, much-beloved Yellow Crane Tower overlooks the more recent military installation (Memorial of Wucheng Uprising, 1911 Revolution), and these treasures of memory must coexist with smog-shrouded and dismal modern architecture. One senses a reenactment of the rise of the American city. There is reason to fear that Wuhan will experience an abnormal growth of urban problems.  The Chinese are not oblivious to what is happening.  They are just powerless to stop the flattening and fundamental shifts occurring world-wide.  See Thomas L. Friedman’s speculative The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006) for enlightening comments.

As I traveled in various parts of Wuhan, I felt very uneasy about environmental disaster and the embrace of many Western habits by the young Chinese.  I felt less unease in Nanjing, because the urban planners there seem to exercise moderation, a better management of growth.  In Beijing, one of the world’s megacities, I was so overwhelmed by its wealth, its size and constant motion, and its exquisitely beautiful and exquisitely engineered ancient and modern architecture that I forgot to be dismayed. I selfishly enjoyed awe!  My dismay regarding the fate of Wuhan is tempered, however, by the more immediate concerns I have for the fate of my own city of residence, New Orleans, and of my adopted state, Louisiana, as an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico causes irreversible harm to the ecology of the Southeastern United States.  Avarice, blindness, and violence must surely be counted among our contemporary virtues.

Wherever I spoke during my two weeks in China (see Appendix B), I suggested to my audiences that it might be wise to be skeptical about progress and globalization and wiser still to recuperate and use ancient wisdom.  The immediate contexts for my admonitions were literary and cultural not environmental or overtly political. Nevertheless, I hold firm deliberately to the less than fashionable belief that one of the blessings of the entire African American literary tradition (the uncanonized and despised as well as the sainted and worshipped) is its power to provoke strong critiques of insane postures,  cooperative forms of enslavement, and life-threatening choices.  Margaret Walker’s words regarding the humanistic tradition of African American literature are still relevant and powerful, and it was the spirit of her ideas about the everyday usefulness of African American writing and other expressive forms that I was determined to share with my Chinese colleagues and their students.

It was not my intention to speak to my Chinese audiences in jargon, although many Chinese scholars have mastered the elevated abstractions of Western critical thought.  Academic languages hide more than they reveal about African American thought.  Reading and thinking in what for most of them is a second or third language, they are naturally somewhat puzzled by nuances and idioms that are taken for granted by some African American writers and thinkers, by what signifying on signifying actually does or does not signify.  The specifics of African American history in some confluence with the generalities of American history and the twisting of gender, race, class, and ethnic notions are often devilishly puzzling to them.  My objective was to help them resolve what is most confusing, or as much as can be untangled through very brief cross-cultural exchanges about literature.  The audiences seemed most pleased whenever I could refer to some item from Chinese history or literature by way of making an analogy.

Two weeks in China taught me the importance of revealing to Chinese listeners what the West, however it is defined, does not want them to know too thoroughly:  the rhythms and cycles of resistance, accommodation, capitulation, and neo-resistance in African American life and literature. As the Chinese comprehend more about those rhythms and cycles, they will appreciate more what they do have in common with African Americans. The mystery encoded in the phrase “people of color” will go up in smoke.  Chinese students do need to know the viciousness of what Charles W. Mills has rightly called the racial contract and how the nature of that contract might express its power in the name of globalization.  I merely hinted in my keynote address on June 14 for the “Ethnicity, Identity, and Contemporary Literary Studies: A Global Perspective” conference at Nanjing University what that power demands (See Appendix C).  I shall be more forthcoming in a future essay “To the Chinese Student: Thematic Study of African American Literature.”  That essay will further strengthen my commitment to helping build centers or forums for the study of African Americans at Central China Normal University, Nanjing University, and Beijing International Studies University and to having ongoing dialogues with my Chinese colleagues.  That essay will allow me to say why

Lo, Kwai-Cheung. “Invisible Neighbors: Racial Minorities and the Hong Kong Chinese Community.” Critical Zone 3: A Forum of Chinese and Western Knowledge (2008): 59-74.

is required reading for all of us.

*   *   *   *   *

Appendix A:

China Lectures, June 7-17, 2010

 

Lecture #1: THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT, 1960-1980

ABSTRACT:  Using the essays “Myth of a Negro Literature” and “Black Writing” from Home: Social Essays (1966) by LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka] as points of origin, this lecture is a brief exploration of The rejection of Eurocentric hegemony in determining the validity of a people’s creative experiences and expressions The unfinished project of describing and testing the concept of “The Black Aesthetic” The formation of critical strategies grounded in a people’s use of literature designed to intensify aesthetic consciousness.

Special attention is given to critical works by Carolyn Rodgers on poetry, Carolyn Fowler’s annotated bibliography Black Arts and Black Aesthetics (1981) and Stephen E. Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References (1972).  The rise and decline of the Black Arts Movement over a period of two decades illuminates the function of cultural and literary change in the evolving of literary traditions.

Lecture #2: Dominant Themes in African American Literature, 1746-2010

ABSTRACT:   In African American Literature from Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784) to Colson Whitehead (1969 - ), dominant themes might be grouped under two headings: human liberation (efforts to be unfettered physically and mentally) and human freedom (opportunities for creative actions).  To be sure, such a binary formation encourages reductive thinking; the trap of reductive critical thought is to be avoided by examining how dominant themes—identity, honor,  love, religion or spirituality, confrontations with nature, duty, integrity or the absence of integrity—occur in multiple combinations in African American works discussed individually or as collective elements of a tradition (e.g., women’s autobiography). 

Thus, the early championing of freedom from tyranny in Wheatley’s poetry is a thematic prelude to themes of liberation in slave narratives, oral literature usually designated folklore, and post-Civil War poetry and fiction up to the end of the Harlem Renaissance.  In writing during the 1930 and after, themes focusing on alienation, assertion of individuality, and resistance become ascendant.  In works being produced in the early years of the 21st century, the themes of freedom and dissociation from communal thinking seem to be dominant.  One might conclude very tentatively that dominant themes in African American literature are functions of situated responses.

N.B.  All works discussed in this lecture are contained in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd edition (2004).

Lecture #3: Recent African American Studies

ABSTRACT:  The concept of globalization stimulates meaningful discussions about how desirable exchanges among cultures are and will be in this century.  Reinaldo Laddaga’s article “From Work to Conversation: Writing and Citizenship in a Global Age” [PMLA 122.2 (2007): 449-463] is a valuable, sobering overview of “…conversations in which individuals from vastly different origins can develop new forms of political imagination and explore alternative ways of society making” (462).  The article does, however, send up a red flag.  We ought to use caution in embracing global perspectives that do not severely critique imagined communities and digital citizenship. 

We may minimize ethnicity in our literary studies, but we should not dismiss the historicity of ethnicity as a category for analysis; nor should we be so enthralled with fashioning ever new identities that we abandon the importance of difference in literary traditions.  This talk brings notice to a few problematic issues in globalization, global perspectives, and the study of African American literature by commenting on Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History (2009) by John Ernest, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (2009) by William Ferris, and Locating Race: Global Sites of Post-Colonial Citizenship (2009) by Malini Johar Schueller.

Lecture #4:  African American Literature’s Response to Modernity

ABSTRACT:   Modernism, as Houston A. Baker, Jr. observed at the beginning of his extended essay Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), “locks observers into a questing indecision that can end in unctuous chiasmus”(1).  As a supplement to Baker’s specifications of difference between Euro-American and African American modernisms, one might examine the always emerging modern in the early works of Ishmael Reed.  Reed’s mapping of a mindscape constitutes a valuable example of what Baker calls renaissancism, “audible signs of the human will’s resistance to tyranny and the human mind’s masterful and insistent engagement with forms and deformation” (107).

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Appendix B:

June 4-June 19: People’s Republic of China

June 7 –“The Black Arts Movement, 1960-1980,” Central China Normal University, Wuhan

June 8 –“Recent African American Studies,” Central China Normal University

June 9 –“African American Literature’s Response to Modernity,” Central China Normal University

June 10 –“Dominant Themes in African American Literature, 1746-2010,” Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications

June 11 –“African American Literature’s Response to Modernity,” Nanjing University

June 12 –“Dominant Themes in African American Literature, 1746-2010,” Nanjing University

June 14 –“Recent African American Studies”

Keynote Address, “Ethnicity, Identity and Contemporary Literary Studies: A Global Perspective” Conference, Nanjing University

June 17—“Dominant Themes in African American Literature, 1746-2010,” American Minority Literature Center, Beijing International Studies University

Videotape Interview by Xiaolin Zhu on Richard Wright, Beijing International Studies University

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Appendix C:

Recent African American Studies

 

Globalization refers at once to recent theories about cultural commerce and to transnational practices which have a much longer history.  We may know more about the theories than the practices, especially in the domain of literary study, because few of us do serious work in a comparative sociology of literature, or would undertake the daunting task of constructing a genuinely global literary history. The page count would rival the Oxford English Dictionary. We have not conducted, to my knowledge, empirical studies of cross-cultural readerships; we might be surprised how few dedicated members are within those readerships. 

We need this “missing” data to move from speculation to more precise description of globalizing dynamics in the field of literature, either in print or in other technologies.  Some information about cultural practices is protected from our inquiry by the apparatus of national security.  Despite such difficulties, we find the concept of globalization to be intriguing.  It stimulates us to have meaningful discussions about how desirable exchanges among cultures are at present and will be throughout the twenty-first century. Serious work commences with serious talk.  I take it as a given that we are engaging in serious talk.

The January 2001 issue of PMLA was devoted to the special topic “Globalizing Literary Studies,” and the lead article, Paul Jay’s “Beyond Discipline? Globalization and the Future of English,"1 merits several rereadings. The entire issue merits rereading, but Jay’s article is noteworthy for a proposal directly related to a future for the teaching of literature in English and the practice of literary study:

 

The more we emphasize the historically constructed, politically and culturally interested nature of literary studies, the easier it will be to avoid putting British or United States English at its center and to prevent it from being disconnected from the history of transnational cultural politics.  This danger can also be mitigated by a commitment to putting knowledge about the social, cultural, and political history informing global literatures in English ahead of our ingrained impulse to read them through the lens of Western theoretical and critical idioms. (43)

As a student of African American literature and as a teacher of English, which Jay speculates is “a confusing descriptive or organizing term for literary study in the United States” (43), I debate with myself whether I know enough about the local (the African American literary tradition as a combatant in our unfinished “canon wars” in the United States) to plunge into the uncertainties of the global.  I know a little about contracts in literary politics; I resist a too-quick alienation of my ethnicity and my identity or of those concepts as they obtain in African American literary history. 

Moreover, my reluctance is buttressed by Reinaldo Laddaga’s article “From Work to Conversation: Writing and Citizenship in a Global Age,"2 a most valuable and sobering overview of “…conversations in which individuals from vastly different origins can develop new forms of political imagination and explore alternative ways of society making” (462). Laddaga sends up a red flag.  We ought to use caution in embracing global perspectives that do not severely critique imagined communities and digital citizenship. 

To achieve some degree of mathematical elegance, we may minimize ethnicity in our literary studies, but we should not dismiss the historicity of ethnicity as a category for analysis.  Nor should we be so enthralled with fashioning ever new identities that we abandon the importance of difference in literary traditions.  Even as I cringe in the face of Plato’s argument for state censorship of literature in The Republic, I discern the continuing value of some discrimination between imagination and reason, between emotion and critical thought.

For the sake of anticipating from an African American literary perspective unsettling  and unsettled issues germane to discussion of ethnicity, identity, and literary study in a global perspective, I offer very brief comments on three recent scholarly books; two of them deal with local matters, and one directly addresses global matters.  Serious talk can profit from all three of them.

Origins, ethos, ethnic identity

Ferris, William.  Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Langston Hughes is the African American poet most frequently acclaimed for initiating uses of the blues (as musical form and source for lyrical content) in writing a poetry of deceptive simplicity, a poetry that rang true for people at the bottom of the social totem.  The artistic complexity of his work surfaces by virtue of scrutiny of the texts in concert with listening to the music that influenced the texts. Hughes’s extensive travel—to Mexico, Europe, the Caribbean, Russia, Africa—gives some evidence of his global vision; at the level of texts, his migration from blues to jazz forms, especially in Ask Your Mama, repeats and refracts the move from blues to jazz in the history of black music. 

Tony Bolden identifies the migration as an epistrophy: the performance of cultural (re) memory, “a unique African American style of cultural production that is both vernacular and sophisticated” (57).3 The importance of the vernacular as language and action is expertly demonstrated in the poetry of one of Hughes’s heirs, Sterling D. Plumpp, who helps us to discover “how to get two shifts out of the mind’s factory for the price of one” (36).4

In its presentation of evidence (interviews) from Mississippi Delta blues musicians, William Ferris’s Give My Poor Heart Ease is a meaningful intervention that provides insights about blues ethos and vernacular identity that must be used in dealing with literary works that claim to be blues-based.  Ferris focuses on the Southern (Mississippi) rural origins, reminding us by way of absence that urban origins (themselves the result of migration from the South) and experiences have to be added to our inquiry.  How could we otherwise begin to account for the blues and all other music in the grand transnational flow of cultural influence?  How, without noticing the voices of the blues, can we make sense of a blues aesthetic in global discourse on poetics?5

The language of Gussie Tobe, one of the musicians Ferris interviewed, is a rich example of what can inform the production of blues-based literature:

 

I remember the time I was plowing for fifty cents a day.  Shit.  What could you buy with it?  And when you plow for that fifty cents a day, you know what they’d do?  They’d say, “Come down to the commissary there, Gussie.”

He’d pay you half in money and the other half they’d pay you off in their money.  But you couldn’t spend it a damn place but at that store.  Have a pocketful of money, but where could you spend it?  You couldn’t go out there and buy you a beer or maybe go get you a girl and go out to a good old restful place and enjoy your life some.  You had to spend it right down there at that goddamned robbissarynot a commissary a robbissary. (Ferris 127)

Tobe articulates an economic analysis of oppression within a racialized and slightly humorous rhetoric. To be sure, there is hybridity in the language, but it is not the hybridity which “counterbalances the negative connotation of displacement and its attendant identity crisis” (7).6 Mr. Tobe’s identity is not based on uncertainty about who he is, and he faces the negativity of displacement without pleading. Literary study profits from dirtying its hands in the dirt of origins before it sanitizes them with the soap of abstractions.  A global perspective too often minimizes the importance of the local as presented in Ferris’s collection of voices.

Local chaos and the global quest

Ernest, John. Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Having been involved in such projects as Redefining American Literary History (New York: MLA, 1990) and the forthcoming The Cambridge History of African American Literature, for which John Ernest has written a chapter, I find his work in the aptly named Chaotic Justice reassuring with regard to use of the local in constructing literary historical narratives.  John Rawls’s elaboration of central doctrines in A Theory of Justice7 inspires my provisional conclusion that social justice is the fruit for which Tantalus eternally yearns. 

In contrast, Ernest’s linking the explanatory promises of chaos theory with a concern for methodology in rethinking nineteenth-century African American literature inspires provisional confidence: it is possible to be more just than we have been in our literary histories by including works currently banished for want of “literary merit, ” for not fitting into an aesthetic hierarchy of merit. “We are not in a position,” Ernest remarks, “to determine such hierarchieswe are not in a position to identify aesthetic standards the emerge from literary history unless and until we have surveyed the full range of publications and cultural conditions that influenced African American texts and textual production.”  He further notes, with admirable confidence, that “nineteenth-century African American writing is not a series of texts applying for our recognition; it is an aesthetic and discursive field that operated within a complex environment, and what we need most are ‘conversation’ that take us deeper into that environment” ( Ernest 115-116).

It is important that here Ernest speaks of African American writing rather than African American literature, because, as some of us who are associated with the Project on the History of Black Writing8 believe, the idea of writing permits examination of what the idea of literature forbids.  The original intent of constructing the Cambridge History of African American Literature (CHAAL) was to bring more attention to writing, but the motives of individual contributors ensured that the tension between literature and writing would not be obliterated.  Ernest’s use of chaos theory and Benoit Mandelbrot’s idea about the fractal geometry of nature to introduce the idea of fractal narrative is a major innovation in our discussions of African American literature. 

It urges us to deepen awareness that “race” is the formation of race (Ernest 38).  The governing logic commits us to view representation and representation of identity as integral dynamics in “the entire system of eventsideological, social, biological, and historicalinvolved in its formation” (Ernest 37).   Application of Ernest’s provocative thinking might begin, he suggests, with “the challenge of literary representation, the means by which a representation consistent with reality itself shifts the terms by which the cultural landscape, including notions of both human bondage and freedom, can be understood”( Ernest 74).  Chaotic Justice is a remarkable catalyst for intellectual migration, for rethinking procedures and motives in the making of literary histories, and for prudence in recognizing local chaos in the quest for the global.

Perspective is the Permanent Problem

Schueller, Malini Johar.  Locating Race: Global Sites of Post-Colonial Citizenship. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.

In Locating Race, Malini J. Schueller makes a pointed, exceptionally well-informed critique of the multiple constituents of globalization discourses and the retreat from race (fear of “race” as analytic category) in talk about postcoloniality.  Three chapters in her book  Chapter One: Theorizing Race, Postcoloniality, and Globalization; Chapter Two: Expunging the Politics of Location: Articulation of African Americanism in Bhabha, Appadurai, and Spivak; Chapter Six: Black Nationalism and Anti-Imperial Resistance in Assata Shakur’s Autobiography”—cast light on the unanchored positions of African American literature and culture in the global flow.  Schueller’s premise in Chapter One is that “. . . through their cognizance of imperialism and colonial difference, world system theories . . . provide a better model for understanding contemporary U.S. culture than globalization theories or general calls for transnationalism and postnationalism” (Schueller 10).

From the perspective of African American Studies and African American literary study, Schueller’s is a necessary identification of what the terms “local” and “locatedness” can mean in the pursuit of a global perspective.  These terms can be used

First, as synonyms for context in relation to race because systemic racism is necessarily tied to the juridical apparatuses of the nation-state that legislate de jure and affect de facto racism for particular raced groups; racial categories do not travel similarly across or even within nations, and might, as in the case of Hawai’ians and Puerto Ricans, also be affected by the specificities of place; second, to emphasize that raced resistances, tied to particular national or even regional communities, can often be the sites of progressive and radical resistances within the nation and to alliance beyond (Schueller 2-3). 

The terms as used by Schueller can usefully reorient thinking about the permanent status “race” (however bogus the scientific status of the concept) has in the national, experiential evolving of the United States.  Why this should be the case is provocatively clarified in such works as The Racial Contract (1997) by Charles W. Mills, The World is a Ghetto (2001) by Howard Winant, and Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (2009) by David Waldstreicher.

What I take to be the clarifying power of the local was challenged in a most interesting way when the novelist and philosopher Charles Johnson published “The End of the Black American Narrative” in 20089 and suggested the black metanarrative of victimization ought to be replaced by “new and better stories, new concepts, and new vocabularies and grammar based not on the past but on the dangerous, exciting, and unexplored present, with the understanding that each is, at best, a provisional reading of reality, a single phenomenological profile that one day is likely to be revised, if not completely overturned”(42).  One response, of course, is that the history of the old metanarrative must not be dismissed in the whirlwinds of making it new. 

Indeed, the alternative narratives of which Johnson dreams may, in some slantwise fashion, be supportive of John Ernest’s call for use of chaos theory in literary historical rewriting.  Nevertheless, we would be left with the grave danger of playing in the ideal domains of discourses that retreat from engagement with the actual materiality of racial practices in the United States.The danger of such retreating is dealt with in detail in Schueller’s second chapter as she explains how “the problematic treatment of race in the work of some postcolonial theorists, at times a denial of race as an analytical category, despite the brilliant articulations on race by Fanon, have resulted in theoretical blind spots that have made connections between the fields [postcolonial theory and African American studies] tenuous”(51).  The connection is possible in the formal strategies of such a work as Assata Shakur’ s autobiography, because the text brings to the foreground “the importance of being rooted in and formed through the historical legacy of African American slavery”(133).10

Schueller’s compelling arguments in Locating Race, like the arguments in Ernest’s  Chaotic Justice and the evidence in Ferris’s Give My Poor Heart Ease, serve as warrants both for my investment in understanding how the world’s cultures attempt to have conversations and for my resisting any global perspective that requires repudiating African American legacy (the past) as a prerequisite for agency in the conversations.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Dillard University

*   *   *   *   *


Notes

1 Jay, Paul. “Beyond Discipline? Globalization and the Future of English.” PMLA 116.1 (2001): 32-47.

2 Laddaga, Reinaldo. “From Work to Conversation: Writing and Citizenship in a Global Age.” PMLA 122.2 (2007): 449-463.

3 Bolden, Tony. Afro-Blue: Improvisation in African American Poetry and Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

4 Jess, Tyehimba. “Sterling Plumpp, Blues Mentor.” Valley Voices 9.1 (2009): 36-43. This issue of Valley Voices is devoted to critical articles on Sterling D. Plumpp is crucial for understanding Plumpp’s fidelity to the blues tradition as he produces poetic innovations and riffs.

5 See Powell, Richard J. “The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism.” The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism. Exhibit Catalog. Washington, DC: Washington Project for the Arts, 1989:19-35.  Powell’s comment on the concept of a “blues aesthetic” is instructive:  “Perhaps more than any other designation, the idea of a blues aesthetic situates the discourse squarely on: 1) art produced in our time; 2) creative expressions that emanate from artists who are empathetic with Afro-American issues and ideals; 3) work that identifies with grassroots, popular, and/or mass black American culture; 4) art that has an affinity with Afro-U.S.-derived music and/or rhythms; and 5) artists and/or artistic statements whose raison d’être is humanistic.

6 Gruesser, John Cullen. Confluences: Postcolonialism, African American Literary Studies, and the Black Atlantic. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005.

7 Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Revised edition. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

8 For information about PHBW, access http://www2.ku.edu/~phbw

9 Johnson, Charles. “The End of the Black American Narrative.” The American Scholar 77.3 (2008): 32-42.

10 Schueller’s reading of Shakur’s autobiography should considered in tandem with Kenneth Mostern’s Autobiography and Black Identity Politics: Racialization in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#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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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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Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (2009)

By David Waldstreicher

Taking on decades of received wisdom, David Waldstreicher has written the first book to recognize slavery’s place at the heart of the U.S. Constitution. Famously, the Constitution never mentions slavery. And yet, of its eighty-four clauses, six were directly concerned with slaves and the interests of their owners. Five other clauses had implications for slavery that were considered and debated by the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and the citizens of the states during ratification. This “peculiar institution” was not a moral blind spot for America’s otherwise enlightened framers, nor was it the expression of a mere economic interest. Slavery was as important to the making of the Constitution as the Constitution was to the survival of slavery.By tracing slavery from before the revolution, through the Constitution’s framing, and into the public debate that followed, Waldstreicher rigorously shows that slavery was not only actively discussed behind the closed and locked doors of the Constitutional Convention, but that it was also deftly woven into the Constitution itself.

For one thing, slavery was central to the American economy, and since the document set the stage for a national economy, the Constitution could not avoid having implications for slavery. Even more, since the government defined sovereignty over individuals, as well as property in them, discussion of sovereignty led directly to debate over slavery’s place in the new republic.Finding meaning in silences that have long been ignored, Slavery’s Constitution is a vital and sorely needed contribution to the conversation about the origins, impact, and meaning of our nation’s founding document.

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Ratification

The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly).

Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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The Prophet of Zongo Street

Stories by Mohammed Naseehu Ali

Vivid images of African life and familiar snippets of expatriate life infuse this debut collection by a Ghana-born writer and musician. On the fictional Zongo Street in Accra, young children gather around their grandmother to hear a creation story from "the time of our ancestors' ancestors' ancestors" in "The Story of Day and Night." In "Mallam Sille," a weak, 46-year-old virgin tea seller finds soulful strength in marriage to a dominant village woman. Other stories take place in and around New York City, depicting immigrants struggling with American culture and values. A Ghanaian caregiver vows not to "grow old in this country" in "Live-In," while in "The True Aryan," an African musician and an Armenian cabbie competitively compare tragic cultural histories on the ride from Manhattan to Brooklyn, achieving humanist understanding as they reach Park Slope:

"I looked into his eyes, and with a sudden deep respect said to the man, 'I'll take your pain, too.' " Several stories close in a similarly magical, almost folkloric epiphany, as when sleep becomes an attempt "to bring calm to the pulsing heart of Man" in "The Manhood Test." Ali speaks melodiously but not always provocatively in these tales of transition and emigration.Publishers Weekly

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Writings of Frank Marshall Davis

A Voice of the Black Press

Edited by John Edgar Tidwell

Frank Marshall Davis (1905-1987) was a central figure in the black press, working as reporter and editor for the Atlanta World, the Associated Negro Press, the Chicago Star, and the Honolulu Record. Writings of Frank Marshall Davis presents a selection of Davis's nonfiction, providing an unprecedented insight into one journalist's ability to reset the terms of public conversation and frame the news to open up debate among African Americans and all Americans.  During the middle of the twentieth century, Davis set forth a radical vision that challenged the status quo. His commentary on race relations, music, literature, and American culture was precise, impassioned, and engaged. At the height of World War II, Davis boldly questioned the nature of America's potential postwar relations and what they meant for African Americans and the nation. His work challenged the usefulness of race as a social construct, and he eventually disavowed the idea of race altogether. Throughout his career, he championed the struggles of African Americans for equal rights and laboring people seeking fair wages and other benefits.

In his reviews on music, he argued that blues and jazz were responses to social conditions and served as weapons of racial integration. His book reviews complemented his radical vision by commenting on how literature reshapes one's understanding of the world. Even his travel writings on Hawaii called for cultural pluralism and tolerance for racial and economic difference. Writings of Frank Marshall Davis reveals a writer in touch with the most salient issues defining his era and his desire to insert them into the public sphere. John Edgar Tidwell provides an introduction and contextual notes on each major subject area Davis explored.

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The First Emancipator

The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves

By Andrew Levy

In 1791, at a time when the nation's leaders were fervently debating the contradiction of slavery in a newly independent nation, wealthy Virginia plantation owner Robert Carter III freed more than 450 slaves. It was to be the largest emancipation until the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln. Levy offers an absorbing look at the philosophical and religious debate and the political and family struggles in which Carter engaged for years before very deliberately and systematically freeing his slaves as he attempted to provide a model for others to follow. Drawing on historic documents, including Carter's letters and painstakingly detailed accounts of plantation activities, Levy conveys the strongly held beliefs that drove Carter through the political and religious fervor of the time to arrive at a decision at odds with those of other prominent leaders and slaveholders of the time, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Levy offers a fascinating look at one man's redemption and his eventual lapse into historical obscurity despite his incredibly bold actions. Well researched and thoroughly fascinating, this forgotten history will appeal to readers interested in the complexities of American slavery.—Booklist

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Pelican Heart—An Anthology of Poems by Lasana M. Sekou

Edited by Emio Jorge Rodriguez

Passion for the Nation is what comes out of Sekou’s poems at a first glance and at a deeper reading. The book is a selection gathered from eleven of Sekou’s poetry collections between 1978 and 2010. Rodríguez is an independent Cuban academic, writer, and essayist. He has been a researcher at Casa de las Américas’s Literary Research Center and founded the literary journal Anales del Caribe (1981-2000). María Teresa Ortega translated the poems from the original English to Spanish. A critical introduction, detailed footnotes, and a useful glossary by Rodríguez are also found in the book of 428 pages. The collection has been launched at conferences in Barbados, Cuba, and Mexico.

Rodriguez’s introduction to Pelican Heart refers to Dr. Howard Fergus’s Love Labor Liberation in Lasana Sekou, which is the critical commentary to Sekou’s work that identifies three cardinal points in his poetics.

I would add as cardinal points: Belief or Driving Force of people in political processes, like his political commitment to make St. Martin independent, as the southern part of the Caribbean island is a territory of the Netherlands, while the northern part is a French Collectivité d’outre-mer; Excitement over his literary passions, which led him to found House of Nehesi Publishers at age 23; co-found the book festival of St. Martin, organized with Conscious Lyrics Foundation and to expand his culture considerably; Enthusiasm, which springs out of his eyes and words when you listen to his poetry being performed or when you speak to Sekou in person.—Sara Florian

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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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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

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