African American Impact on Classic American Literature

Posted Posted in HBW
[By: Jerry W. Ward]
 
Over the next five weeks, we shall have video lectures by Arnold Weinstein on works by Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison and my comments on the authors, which may differ in some degree those Weinstein has chosen to make.  Each of the works has to be thought of with reference to the institution of slavery and the psychological impact of enslavement on the slaver and the enslaved, the master and the slave. 
 
Today’s handout on Frederick Douglass’ novella The Heroic Slave (1853) introduces the thematic dimensions that are important for understanding Melville’s parallel novella Benito Cereno (1855) and mutiny and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which transformed one of her primary sources — Josiah Henson’s life story — into a sentimental novel teeming with stereotypes.  Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1885 ) is the boy’s adventure book to be sure, but it is also very much adventure as criticism of American culture and the moral quandary occasioned by being complicit in a person’s enslavement.  Ellison’s Invisible Man(1953) brings remarkable visibility to  some consequences of America’s history of slavery; Morrison’s Beloved (1987) examines the emotional costs and the moral problems of enslavement from a woman’s perspective. 

“American Gothic,” Gordon Parks 1942
 
With these works we have the 19th century having a conversation with the 20th century for the benefit of our 21st century pondering of what significance this angling of history and fiction might have in our lives as Americans. We have a challenge.
I want to frame that challenge by way of selective quotation from D. H. Lawrence’s 1923 book Studies in Classic American Literature and Toni Morrison’s lectures published as Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992).
 

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Implacable Violence, Part One

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[By: Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

The death of Senator John McCain quickens our  interest in how to deal with contemporary  narratives of life history.  McCain’s touchstone story pertains to American conservative values, the consequences of trauma,  military and public service, violence, and  a sense of honor.  Barack Obama’s differently remarkable narratives direct attention to the absence of military service, class and caste violence, the audacity of hope, centralist values, and diversity in the history of “race.”  Narratives about McCain and Obama stand in noteworthy contrast to future narratives about Donald Trump, stories that may place ego in the foreground as they unfold tales of sexism, constipated values,   inadvertent racism, the violence of capitalism, sleight of mouth, and avoidance of military service.  Ego, self-fashioning, and boldness are apparent in the three sets of narrative, but excess lynches the Trump set. Violence is a common denominator in recuperating, analyzing, and interpreting the biographies of these public figures.  Degrees of pathology are also powerful factors for which we ought to account.  As we —all of us who deal with the mind and its expressions —- venture into dealing with these history-drenched narratives, we must bring  to our work an admission regarding the limits of knowing. Perhaps the most we can say about “reality” is that we habitually refute and revise one iteration in order to establish the hegemony of another iteration.

What we champion as knowledge is quite more subjective than the intellectual commerce of criticism is willing to admit, unless our premises of purpose, our  ideologies and methodologies, and our time-bound historiographies become the objects of scrutiny.  We seem to be more predisposed to use rhetorical deflection than to risk plain talk about uncertainty.   Thus, a tantalizing question arises. Do we need to become slightly more honest by  using a combination of traditional methods of scholarship and close reading, psychoanalysis, and the findings of neuroscience/ neuroforensics to locate fictive and non-fiction narratives in literary and cultural histories? Access newspaper articles on violence at The Washington Post and The Advocate.

Make a response to the question.

If we choose to limit our inquiries to the matter of African American male life histories and the genres of autobiography, memoir, and biography, we must prepare to deal ruthlessly with the systemic nature of American violence, trauma, and domesticated terrorism.  We can find no sanctuary from the grotesque aspects and affects/effects of implacable violence, and we need not fool ourselves into thinking that the interventions of critical cultural study will yield consensus or anything more than “symbolic” resolutions.

 


 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of English at Dillard University, Honorary Professor at Central China Normal University, and HBW Board Member (Emeritus).

Keeping the Faith: A Tribute Reginald Martin

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[By: Dr. Maryemma Graham]

Reginald Martin 1956-2018

Poet, novelist, professor, scholar, editor, mentor, musician, and boxing enthusiast, Reginald Martin became a household name early in his career, not because he played by the rules, but because he did not. Awarded tenure at 35, the youngest for anyone at the University of Memphis, Martin was among those younger scholars who elected to remain in his native South, where he could be strange and familiar, and establish a reputation for challenging conventions and initiating new ones. His study of Ishmael Reed, the dissertation that turned into book, Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics (1988) remains one of the most important critical studies of the author.  Like Reed himself, Martin refused to be boxed in.

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Martin was one of the original authors of the landmark publication Erotique Noir/Black Erotica (with Miriam DaCosta Willis and Roseanne Pope Bell, 1992). He continued to explore gender and sexuality in several additional anthologies, Dark Eros: Black Erotic Writings (1997) and A Deeper Shade of Sex: The Best of Black Erotic Writing (2006).  But he found to time to write poetry, Southern Secrets, (1996) and fiction, Dysfunction Junction (1996); and Everybody Knows what Time it is: No One Can Stop the Clock (2000). As a southern writer, he joined that exclusive club that puts the South the holder of the record in literary production.

Click to go to detail page for Dark Eros: Black Erotic Writings

Click for more detail about A Deeper Shade of Sex: The Best in Black Erotic Writing by Reginald Martin

As a critic and scholar, Martin was a comfortable presence in the field of Southern literature, with a special emphasis upon William Faulkner, but he became best known for mapping the field of African literary history, criticism, and theory.  Nearly two decades ago, he served as guest editor for the special issue of College English.His introductory essay, “Current Thought in African American Literary Criticism,” a fin de siècle projection, which provided a balanced assessment of a field. Nearly twenty years later, the essay hasn’t lost its relevance in prioritizing what matters the most: enlarging our critical tool kit, avoiding prescriptive readings that either undertheorize or oversaturate with theory, placing a high value on pedagogy and teaching. The essay and subsequent ones established his reputation as one consistently challenging exclusionary practices of white and black scholars alike. Equally valuable are his reassements of major literary periods, like the Harlem (New Negro) Renaissance.  Indeed, essential reading for old and new scholars alike.

Martin’s extraordinary productivity never prevented his active relationship with a huge following of students and young scholars inside and outside the classroom. Revered for his support of young writers, he nurtured their talent and cared deeply about them, serving as editor, promoter, and at times, agent. One of those he mentored, C.Liegh McInnis, called him “transcultural and transmodern,”someone who “was always paying attention to the literary elements as to the commentary on humanity.” In a time when everyone keeps a steady count on the number of books articles, and accolades of one sort or another, Martin simply did the work.  His love of learning earned him five degrees; his passion for exposition and a uniquely creative mind resulted not only in the nine books but more than 200 articles and other publications.

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An Open Letter to Chancellor Girod

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[By: Alysha Griffin]

Dear Chancellor Girod,

I write to expose a glaring contradiction with the agreement to remove Josephine Meckseper’s “Untitled (Flag 2)”—what Gov. Jeff Colyer calls a “desecrated American flag”– from the grounds of Spooner Hall. To be clear, I have no investment in the display of this particular piece. Also, I firmly believe that the American people gain nothing by conflating the sacrifices of our military to any material object. I have family and close friends who have—and continue– to serve our country, so I do not need a reminder of their importance. I write to express my concerns as a student and instructor at the University of Kansas.

It is unclear how you reconcile the flag’s function as an art piece and, at the same time, recognize KU as a place of intellectual and artistic production. How can attention to America’s centuries-long social division so easily offend you, Gov. Colyer, or Secretary Kobach? Are you all so greatly offended by the verbal, physical, and emotional violence occurring on your campuses and in your state? I ask because I have not seen evidence of such.

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On the Relativity of Freedom in the Free State

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[By: Dr. Maryemma Graham]

Toni Morrison is the greatest novelist of our times, but more and more, I find myself drawn to the wisdom in her essays, like those in Playing in the Dark or earlier works like The Site of Memory and the brutal honesty revealed in “Unspeakable Things Unspoken.” The Origin of Others is her latest testament to the truth of our time, reaffirming her unique ability to read the current moment and to respond appropriately to it.  It is for that reason that I turned to Morrison recently in an effort to understand what it means when the concept of the “other” begins to center our being, when we become strangers to one another, forced into formulaic behaviors and actions at the hands of aggressive, insensitive leaders, whether in our national politics, international relations, or bringing it closer to home, on a university campus in the 21stcentury.

I live and work in what was once regarded highly as the “Free State,” where that mini-civil war known as Bleeding Kansas foreshadowed the intense debates making a marriage of ethics and politics.  In the end, two geographically connected states, Missouri and Kansas, became deeply divided over the issue of slavery.  Kansas did not follow Missouri, its neighbor’s example, and entered the union as a state without slavery.  Today, John Brown’s courageous challenge to the system of slavery is memorialized in a state house mural. Kansas artist John Steuart Curry’s rendering of that remarkable event sends a message that has been passed down through the ages. Freedom from oppression, the founding principle that gave birth to what became our part of the Americas, united a nation as much as it tore it asunder. That the mural remains in the capital tells us that we Kansans take our free state status seriously, or at least we did at one time.

“Tragic Prelude,” John Steuart Curry, 1937

There is a long tradition of that in Kansas: the use of artistic expression to broaden knowledge. When Kansas has forgotten its own roots, art has helped to sustain, if not reclaim it. Langston Hughes who wrote his autobiographical novel Not Without Laughter about his childhood in Lawrence, once dubbed his school experience the “Jim Crow Row.”  In “Merry Go Round,” Hughes elaborates on the concept that became a national symbol of segregation. In 1954, the Brown family joined other families challenging the segregated school system in Topeka in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.  Known familiarly as the Brown Decision, school segregation was abolished – in theory.

Langston Hughes’ work has continued to serve as inspiration for artists on Kansas soil.  Cheryl Willis Hudson, for example, is one of many quilt artists building on the Jim Crow theme, now on exhibit as part of the 2018 National African American Quilt Convention.

“Beautiful are the Souls of My People,” Cheryl Willis Hudson. Credit: Marla’s Quilt Museum

Kansas native Gordon Parks, who spent his early years in Ft. Scott, experienced the harshness of rural poverty, but took from it the inspiration for his life’s work as a photographer.  Showing America itself through the camera’s eye, Parks earned his stripes with timeless classics like American Gothic.  While working for the photography unit of the Farm Security Administration, Parks met Ella Watson. In the legendary photograph, we see Ella Watson’s image in stark relief against the American flag, a foremost symbol of “land of the free.” Watson’s story was brutal:  her father had been murdered by a lynch mob and her husband shot to death. Fully aware of Grant Wood’s 1930s painting by the same name, Parks felt compelled to point the sharp contrast to Woods’ image of classic America.  His photograph captured the reality of Watson’s life that was not easily reconciled with the land of the free. Parks, like Hughes, would also use his Kansas childhood as the basis for an autographical novel, The Learning Tree.  In a most unusual move, when the book was optioned for a film, Parks convinced his Hollywood backers to film on location in the very place where his story had begun. In 1968, the film crew, actors, and the Ft. Scott community learned their own lessons in a desegregated Ft Scott, which served as the backdrop for the fictional “Cherokee Flats,” of Parks’ childhood.

“American Gothic,” Gordon Parks 1942

One does not have to dig very far into Kansas history to discover the pull the free state had for untold numbers who came as pioneers, homesteaders, and after Emancipation, as newly freed people, all in search of a new life.  They came, even though for many that freedom did not match the reality of their subsequent experience.  Author and educator, Carmaletta Williams puts it well, “free did not mean welcome,” she explains in her family’s story of migration to Kansas in mid-1879 as part of the Exoduster Movement lead by Pap Singleton. “Those freed folks escaping a neo-slavery in Tennessee came to Kansas believing in the promise implied in the appellation ‘free state.’”

It is most unfortunate that a legacy so vital to the state’s history and shaping its culture means nothing to our state leaders, especially our Governor, who poses the greatest threat to the free state in our own time.  Josephine Meckseper’s contribution to the “Pledges of Allegiance” exhibit at KU was a defamation of the American flag, he declared, giving the most rabidly conservative wing of our citizenry and state leadership free license to create a climate of fear.

 

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Op-Ed: The Failings of the Flag

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[By: Jennifer M. Wilmot]

Recently, KU became embroiled in a public debate over free speech and public art when Governor Jeff Colyer demanded an art installation at The Commons (Spooner Hall) be removed, which Chancellor Douglas Girod then complied. The piece “Untitled (Flag 2)” by German-born, New York-based artist Josephine Meckseper, was met with fierce and swift backlash from conservative politicians across the state. Proclaiming the piece disrespected the American flag and military personnel, critics transformed the critical discourse surrounding the original piece into some false babble about patriotism.

When we consider Meckseper’s own words about the art’s meaning, contrasted with the conservative response, it becomes painfully clear that Trump’s America has officially taken the helm of the University of Kansas. Meckseper’s describes “Untitled (Flag 2)” as “a collage of an American flag and one of [her] dripped paintings which resembles the contours of the United States.” She continues, “I divided the shape of the country in two for the flag design to reflect a deeply polarized country in which a president has openly bragged about harassing women and is withdrawing from the Kyoto protocol and UN Human Rights Council… The black and white sock on my flag takes on a new symbolic meaning in light of the recent imprisonment of immigrant children at the border.”

“Untitled (Flag 2)”

Citing “the conversation around [the] display” generating “safety concerns,” the flag was ostensibly removed by Chancellor Girod after Kansas politicians complained to him. Ironic, right? An altered American flag, or really the conversation around an altered American flag, not an unattended loaded gun in Wescoe Hall or 20 spent shell casings outside of Strong Hall sparked safety concerns and prompted immediate action. Congressional candidate Steve Watkins, one of the earliest outspoken opponents of “Untitled (Flag 2)”, stated “to those who would trample, burn, or deface the flag, thank a soldier. It hurts me to see a defaced flag fly at the University of Kansas.” I assume that Mr. Watkins has forgotten all of the military veterans dating back to WWII (especially Black ones) are still waiting on their “thanks.” Or, the 200-plus homeless veterans right here in Kansas that need more than a “thanks.” Our vets are facing high unemployment rates, battling PTSD, lacking access to quality healthcare, and face failure at every turn by our elected officials. But let’s “thank a soldier.”

“Untitled (Flag 2)” whose intent was to magnify our differences all in an effort to call for unity, has instead been molested and reduced to a prop of white supremacist thought. This isn’t about the flag, patriotism, or our men and women in service. In the age of Trump, this debacle is nothing more than white supremacy– and anti-blackness,– masquerading as free speech draped in the American flag. When we tether ourselves to a cloth used as frequently to defend the rights of select natural-born citizens, as it is to kill and maim other natural-born citizens of darker hues, we have already failed to understand how we deface our flag time and time again. We need only to look at the 2,300-plus children we’ve separated from their parents at the border to see our most recent defacement of the flag.  

Edel Rodriguez for TIME (August 2017)

This entire controversy erupting so close to the Fourth of July holiday, prompts me to revisit the words of Frederick Douglass. On July 5, 1852 in a packed auditorium in Rochester, NY, Douglass made clear his feelings about a polarized nation:

The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

Douglass, like artist Josephine Meckseper, reminds us that the “united” in the United States is highly subjective; our country rests on the duality of freedom and oppression, of being unified and divided. So, in a state that prides itself on being free soil, in a town that prides itself on its liberalism, and on a campus that is public, we’ve stood by and allowed ourselves to be governed by dictators who sit on a hill in Topeka.

Shame on Chancellor Girod and interim provost Carl Lejuez who pandered to conservative threats, putting the interests of whiteness ahead of the rights of the KU students, faculty, and staff they are here to protect.

Shame on The Commons and the Hall Center for the Humanities for their paltry and hollow responses to the controversy. There is no amount of programming, conversations, or poetry that can unravel white supremacist thought when you are clearly afraid to disrupt the very institutions upholding it.    

And shame on anyone else, myself included, who have not demanded that power concede itself in this situation. We have failed each other and we have failed our American flag.  

… lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival…” – Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852.

“The Soiling of Old Glory” by Stanley Forman

 


 

Jennifer M. Wilmot is a third-year PhD student in the School of Education at KU and the Project Coordinator for HBW.