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I bring Crummell and Wright together partially because both were expatriates and

both made visits to Africa. Wright's was limited to months; Crummell's lasted 20 years.



Sensualization of Pain

By Rudolph Lewis



Richard Wright & Alexander Crummell

I have been off and on meditating on Richard Wright's essay, "The Literature of the Negro in the United States," found in his White Man Listen!  (1957). I began to type it up for distribution on the internet—on ChickenBones and through e-mail. But I type with two fingers and it has been an unenviable task. In several writings, I have however made reference to Wright’s two major concepts in his discourse on Afro-American writing from Phillis Wheatley up until his present:

Entity, men integrated with their culture, and identity, men who are at odds with their culture, striving for personal identification.

Okonkwo, the lead character of Achebe's Things Fall Apart, had entity at the beginning of the novel. By the end of the novel he had become a man less than whole, fragmented, and unable to return to that wholeness he knew—he hanged himself from a tree.

As far as Afro-American writers, Wright identifies only Phyllis Wheatley, "who wrote revolutionary poetry though her skin was black and she was born in Africa," as a poet who possessed "entity." "She "was at one with her culture." He also points out the Russuan writer Alexander Pushkin and the French writer Alexander Dumas as writers who were "one" with their culture. He goes on to look at the poetry of 19th and 20th century Afro-American writers. Theirs he identifies as "Negro writing." He clarifies what he means by "Negro":

Being a Negro has to do with the American scene, with race hate, rejection, ignorance, segregation, discrimination, slavery, murder, fiery crosses, and fear.

Wright uses this definition to point out these qualities in the poems of Afro-American writers from George Moses Horton onward. Here I am not so much concerned with those critiques. They are rather successful within the parameters Wright has set up for analysis. From the first reading of this essay Wright makes what he sees as a rather self-evident criticism of Negro folk culture; that is, that which is centered among the Christian slaves of the Southland and the inheritance of the freedmen who were more or less re-enslaved by the Southern sharecropper system, which basically did not end until about the mid-1960s, when most farms became fully mechanized.

Wright sets up this early stratification of Negro culture by dividing Negro expression into two "tendencies" or "streams." One he calls the "Narcissistic Level" and the other he named more fancifully, as "The Forms of Things Unknown." The Narcissistic Level existed among middle-class Negroes, who "were in every respect the equal of whites; they were valid examples of personality types of Western culture; but they lived in a land where even insane white people were counted above them." This level Wright might have concluded produces bizarre individuals like Clarence Thomas or Anatole Broyard.

Maybe I carry his intentions too far in naming names. I mention that level only in passing. My interest or focus is more on Wright's second "tendency" among Negroes, namely, "The Forms of Things Unknown," which he describes as follows:

It can be said there were Negroes who naively accepted what their lives were, lived more or less unthinkingly in their environment, mean as they found it, and sought escape either in religion, migration, alcohol, or in what I've called a sensualization of their sufferings in the form of jazz and blues and work songs. . . . There are two pools of this black folk expression: The sacred and the secular.

This expression "sensualization of their sufferings" has stuck in my brain for sometime and I have not quite known what to do with it. Should I just dismiss it as a bias of a rationalist? It has pressed more upon my thinking since I began my reading of Wilson J. Moses' biography Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent (1992). If I had Wilson's mastery of 19th century African-American intellectual thought, I would probably have less trouble figuring out the philosophical and theological dilemma that Wright sketches out in this essay and its relevance to our contemporary times.

I bring Crummell and Wright together partially because both were expatriates and both made visits to Africa. Wright's was limited to months; Crummell's lasted 20 years. (Moses says it was actually about 16 years.) More importantly they both responded to slave culture (sacred and secular) and African tribal culture in a similar derisive manner. Philosophically, they approached the question of culture from different ideological places. Crummell was a preacher, a theologian, a priest of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Wright was a Marxist and a historical materialist—a novelist, poet, and left-wing political activist. They both viewed the Enlightenment as one of the significant periods in human history.

They both had a certain high praise for European culture, though Crummell limited his praise to English culture, to Anglo-Saxon Civilization. Maybe one might say that Wright was more partial to French Civilization. Wright was not a Civilizationist but certainly Crummell believed that English Christianity was the avenue by which the African the Ethiopian would stretch his hand out to God and eventually rule the world. Wright was much more critical of European civilization.

But neither believed that Negro slave culture or African tribal culture would be the means by which the Negro would rise from his low rank in the estimation of the white world. That is, one could not build a Civilization on Negro slave culture (or as Wright called it "The Forms of Things Unknown" or the "sensualization of sufferings”) or tribal cultures. Maybe Wright was not as absolute in this matter of culture as Crummell, for Wright was surely aware of modern anthropology’s relativist view of cultures.

According to Moses, Crummell believed "The English language was the language of freedom, and in it was enshrined 'those great charters of liberty which are essential elements of free governments, and the main guarantees of personal liberty'." Wright would have never gone that far. Wright would probably not have made Crummell's negative critique of African languages, which he believed contained a "predominance of animal propensities." But they probably would have both agreed that "obeah" and other religious practices found in slave culture as well as African tribal cultures should be suppressed or obliterated.

Yet the tribal African was a whole man, from Wright's perspective, though incapable of competing in the modern world of technological gadgets and organization. But he had entity, wholeness. The educated African, however, was a fragmented man, though skilled and capable of competing in the modern world. Yet he was wholly neither European nor African, thus suffering an "identity" crisis, a spiritual malaise. He was alienated from his tribal past and was not allowed to be fully European. He was an Other from the perspective of whites as well as from his illiterate tribesmen. In a way one could say the same of Alexander Crummell, the African nationalist, emigrationist, colonialist. He knew that he would never be accepted as an equal by the best of his white friends and benefactors, upon whom he was dependent financially and spiritually, and thus the source of his African nationalist stance, and his bitterness. I'm uncertain how to fit Wright into this scheme.

My interest is elsewhere—I return to the notion of the "sensualization of pain" as a main aspect or mode of so-called African American culture. In the 60s it was referred to by some as a "culture of poverty." Of course it had become as well somewhat mixed with numerous historical myths derived from the Bible and classical sources, and now it’s rather over laden with an unsystematic  transference of some African tribal cultural elements, as in libations, African names, elders, and ancestors, and African like tribal rituals. So one may ask, as Crummell may have asked, can a civilization be built on such a culture?

Now I consider these matters under the education criticisms of black conservatives as Orlando Patterson, John Ogbu, Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, as well as Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint. At some point, all have mentioned that an excessive number of black students view academic learning as “white” or “acting white.” Dr. Ogbu, in his study of Shaker Heights students, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement, argued that it is not merely a “culture of poverty” among black students that causes black academic failure.

For he discovered in the better white schools rich black high school students are also “disengaged”—the children of doctors, lawyers, judges, and insurance brokers. From the recent writings on Clarence Thomas at Yale in his bib overalls and heavy black boots, he too was rather “disengaged” and performed on a rather average level, though he stuck it out and received his degree. Thomas seems to suggest that Negro culture as represented in his grandfather was a retardant force in his educational success. In these cases, one must ask whether Wright’s “sensualization of sufferings” played/play a role in the response of black students to academic settings. Recall Wright says, the Negro seeks to “escape [the psychic pain of his existence] either in religion, migration, alcohol” or his folk music, which today we might include hip hop, and/or in sexuality and drugs.

As conservatives love to say, African Americans are not a monolith. Or put another way we all do not come into the world with equal talents, abilities, and intellectual gifts. Nor do black parents even if well off, for economic reasons or because of an economic past do not have the wherewithal to provide emotional, intellectual, and identity supports in helping their children deal with today’s academic classroom or educational curriculums or philosophies. They have too much confidence in teachers and educational institutions.

There is indeed little in these classrooms to sustain a black male’s struggle for identity or as Wright puts it his “striving for personal identification.” In a recent e-correspondence, Liz Aaronsohn, Ed.D., Teacher Education, Central CT State University, speaks to the cultural issue at Shaker Heights:

that school is a white institution, with dominant culture expectations, styles, language, etc.—to which Black students have to accommodate in order to succeed, while white kids are raised from these at home, and so have an advantage. He [Ogbu] also hears plenty of Black student and parent voices, and records them, that point to at least unconscious if not overt racism on the part of teachers and some white families.

I know this classroom resistance mind intimately by multiple experiences as a “dropout” or as a “quitter” in Negro as well as white schools. There is a great psychic pain experienced by American black males in white classrooms and on white jobs. This experience of being "driven out" or allowing oneself to be "driven out" of classrooms and institutions is all too prevalent and we have yet to find ways to counter this phenomena in black experience.

Ogbu and other make complain about “historical baggage”—the slave past, the Jim Crow past, the present police and economic repression as part of the psychic reality of today’s black male student—but this is their black history, with all its negations of wholeness! Their black present. And one cannot be just flippant about this hurtful and burdensome experience. Our young scholars do not have a Teflon sense of history privileged with a white skin or a white certificate of acceptance; they do not have a Teflon sensibility. That is to expect too much of these young black men and women—to be like whites when there is a lack of sharing of any sensibility of their burdens from either their peers or their teachers.

As Wright speaks of the spirituals, the work songs, the blues, and jazz and their practical cultural utility in Negro survival techniques, hip hop culture not only “sensualizes” that psychic pain of today's black youth and their black male reality, but it is also a conscious culture of resistance to racist objectification and commodification. It’s similar to Wright’s educated African unaccepted as fully equal to his European colleague or the black Yale law school graduate unable to find a preferred position with a large law firm. This consciousness also leads to a despair that cannot be so flippantly cast off by the will, as some educators suggest.

The American Negro knows sensually a three-century experience that he is not going to be accepted as an equal; yet he does not know a third route to take to become whole. His horns are locked with his enemy. The identity struggle persists by necessity. The weight on such young men and a growing number of females grows heavier. And their non-participation or grudging acquiescence in status quo venues that deny their reality, experience, perceptions, and offer no way out of their cultural dilemma in an "American scene, with race hate, rejection, ignorance, segregation, discrimination, slavery, murder, fiery crosses, and fear” will produce yet another book like that of Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint's Come on People on the Path from Victims to Victors (2007).  As long as these human denials remain, our youth will continue their resistance until they can discover some confidence of full acceptance in a receptive American civilization.

A civilization might not be able to be built on the components of African American culture. Yet they will not just disappear because of an accumulation of wealth. Moreover, many of these components have become so integrated into the larger culture that they have become invisible and their ethnic origins are not openly recognized—Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture.. Surely no peace will be had in an American Civilization that denies unfairly Negro culture being mirrored within the larger American culture and its valid representation of the dignity of black humanity. Black students cannot merely discard their “striving for personal [and group] identification” as if it were mere “baggage.”  They are targets as individuals within and of a group that is despised or depreciated in numerous socio-political settings and legislation. The resistance will continue and blood spilling will be part of that rebellion (including black on black muder), which one must conclude is also an aspect of Wright's “sensualization of sufferings.”

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Scapegoat Criticism—Hip hop vs. Black Churches

“The enemy—namely the bad guys in the gangsta rap industry and their white enablers—is calling this a culture.”  Bill Cosby

My choice scapegoat for the failure of mind and will among our young people are the Negro churches that emphasize feelings and emotional worship and their subservient preachers. They seem to me as blameworthy with their otherworldly religions for the drop out rates and the other moral maladies of which Cosby, Patterson, McWhorter and others speak.

Many of these churches exist within these communities of despair and they lack the will, the character, and the message to service these "dropouts" and "quitters." Instead of sending missions to Africa, they should send educators and missionaries right around the corner or into the alleys where these children, young men and women can be found, languishing in spiritual squalor.

These churches and their style of worship are definitely far more influential among the mothers of these children than Nas or 50 cent, though they are rapping too in the churches as well and dancing too. Alexander Crummell would be appalled at the character of  worship occurring in today's Baptist and Methodist and other enthusiastic dominations to which Negro women flock. You can easily find representations of these evangelical inspired worshippers on cable TV, every Sunday, and at times during the work week. There are just as many women users (haters) among the Negro clergy as there are among the so called gangsta rappers and probably just as many homophobes, as well.  Is this news? How did Cosby and Poussaint overlook this disastrous and moral situation?

Are they or are we just afraid to speak up, because of the idolization of black cultural components or because so many of these enthusiastic reverend cheerleaders wear the ornaments of success, derived in large part from the misuse of black women. These seminary-trained leaders of Negro churches and other church leaders are no more educated or moral than Nas and no less ostentatious than 50 cent. There is a scandal a week in black churches.

There are lots of places where one can bring down the bludgeon of blame for the lack of social progress among the black poor and working classes. Why just settle on the hip hop industry? Isn't there something wrong, Crummell may ask, with the overall Negro culture that exists in America, and not just in the music industry. The tendency of his day to reach down and pull up has been lost in selfishness and greed. In the era of the gospel of success, there is just as much gross sinning among churchgoers and the unchurched.

In fairness, we must point our immoralities throughout American society and not just those within black communities. What about the deportations of hundreds of thousands from their homes and the refusal to let them return to their homes in New Orleans? What about the slaughter going on in Iraq, American style? What about the turning of the back on the poor and the refusal to raise the minimum wage for a decade? What about the police brutality that goes on daily within our communities against the poor and on the basis of color? What about the outrageous numerous of arrests and outrageous sentences?

To suggest that black kids only learn immoralities and inappropriate behavior from hip hop CDs  & DVDs seems highly incredulous to me. I'm not for being open-minded and loose with respect to moral guidelines in behavior. I agree that's a problem. But I am not about being close-minded, either. I do not want to participate in propagating another set of stereotypes and harmful myths about black life and culture.

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

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American Creation

Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic

By Joseph J. Ellis

This subtle, brilliant examination of the period between the War of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase puts Pulitzer-winner Ellis (Founding Brothers) among the finest of America's narrative historians. Six stories, each centering on a significant creative achievement or failure, combine to portray often flawed men and their efforts to lay the republic's foundation. Set against the extraordinary establishment of the most liberal nation-state in the history of Western Civilization... in the most extensive and richly endowed plot of ground on the planet are the terrible costs of victory, including the perpetuation of slavery and the cruel oppression of Native Americans. Ellis blames the founders' failures on their decision to opt for an evolutionary revolution, not a risky severance with tradition (as would happen, murderously, in France, which necessitated compromises, like retaining slavery). Despite the injustices and brutalities that resulted, Ellis argues, this deferral strategy was a profound insight rooted in a realistic appraisal of how enduring social change best happens. Ellis's lucid, illuminating and ironic prose will make this a holiday season hit.— Publishers Weekly /  American Creation (Joseph Ellis interview)

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The Revolution: A Manifesto

By Ron Paul

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King of the Mountain

The Nature of Political Leadership

By Arnold M. Ludwig

“People may choose to ignore their animal heritage by interpreting their behavior as divinely inspired, socially purposeful, or even self-serving, all of which they attribute to being human, but they masticate, fornicate, and procreate, much as chimps and apes do, so they should have little cause to get upset if they learn that they act like other primates when they politically agitate, debate, abdicate, placate, and administrate, too."—from the book King of the Mountain presents the startling findings of Arnold M. Ludwig's eighteen-year investigation into why people want to rule. The answer may seem obvious—power, privilege, and perks—but any adequate answer also needs to explain why so many rulers cling to power even when they are miserable, trust nobody, feel besieged, and face almost certain death. Ludwig's results suggest that leaders of nations tend to act remarkably like monkeys and apes in the way they come to power, govern, and rule. Profiling every ruler of a recognized country in the twentieth century—over 1,900 people in all­­, Ludwig establishes how rulers came to power, how they lost power, the dangers they faced, and the odds of their being assassinated, committing suicide, or dying a natural death. Then, concentrating on a smaller sub-set of 377 rulers for whom more extensive personal information was available, he compares six different kinds of leaders, examining their characteristics, their childhoods, and their mental stability or instability to identify the main predictors of later political success. Ludwig's penetrating observations, though presented in a lighthearted and entertaining way, offer important insight into why humans have engaged in war throughout recorded history as well as suggesting how they might live together in peace.

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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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posted 23 October 2007 / update 30 January 2012




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Related files: Okonkwo's Curse  Why Africa is not Israel   Sensualization of Pain  Bearing the Owners Names