Posted Posted in Guest Blogger

[By: Jerry W. Ward Jr.]

Alexander, Stephon.  The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link between Music and the Structure of the Universe.  New York: Basic Books, 2016.

In her 2007 poem “In Search of Grace,” Quo Vadis Gex Breaux makes an elegant plea for an enabling virtue.  Those lines which trigger my imagination are

I pray for grace, as I

dance on life’s tabletops,

as I scale the stairs to my

mind’s attic or descend into

its dark and eerie cellar.

The well-spun metaphors have the  simplicity that Stephon Alexander associates with “the very aesthetics of doing theoretical physics research” (54) in The Jazz of Physics.  He suggests:

An elegant equation is refined, slimmed down to the bare essentials, simple and concise. An elegant equation is tastefully written in the mathematical language of numbers, letters, and symbols.  An elegant equation is superior in its ability to house within it other equations that can   be derived from it.  An elegant  equation is a beautiful thing. (55)

Alexander’s book demonstrates how grace can be a distinguishing feature in an autobiographical discourse on science and art, on the multiple crises of knowing in his own dedicated explorations of quantum physics and the stern discipline modeled by such jazz musicians as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Nicholas Peyton and Thelonious Monk.  Remarkably readable, the book invites us to abandon stereotypes.  Even if  one complains silently, as I do,  that Alexander doesn’t overtly contextualize the history of physics within a larger, less optimistic history of human struggles, one admits that his narrative is a special achievement.  Alexander  doesn’t engage some ethical failures in the practice of science, and that absence is the price a writer who focuses on craft must often pay.  But Alexander does make redemptive suggestions what can be exceptionally good in the dropping of knowledge in certain forms of hip hop intellectualism, particularly “in the form of battle rapping” (21).

It is sufficient that The Jazz of Physics excavates buried dimensions of African American genius and validates Albert Murray’s contention that “antagonistic cooperation” is responsible for the superiority of jazz. (231) Alexander ‘s conclusion is an inspiring summation of dancing, climbing, and descending:

My journey to reconcile jazz with physics serves as a living example of how a small group of physicists, in the spirit of the jazz tradition, embraced me and allowed me to improvise physics with them, while challenging me to go beyond my limits. (232)

Fair enough.  But what really needs to be transmitted to students and pondered by all of us who are frustrated by the motions of the universe is Alexander’s elegance regarding education —-

Present-day students are trained in the precise calculations bred from these ancient   philosophers —the elliptical orbits of Kepler, Newton’s gravitational laws, and Einstein’s more complex space-time calculations.  What students of the future will be studying is a complete unknown.  Education, technology, and global interconnectedness are all developing at enormous rates.  For the student to keep up, for the researcher to discover new truths, and for the professor to lend guidance and insight, it may take a combination of ideas from ancient and modern-day philosophy, as well as creativity and improvisation, with the boldness to make mistakes (84).

Yes, the quest for grace and  discipline of mind rather than applause for the gyrations of the  behind ought to fill our time and space.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            November 5, 2017

#FBF: “Bree Newsome Visits KU”

Posted Posted in Guest Blogger, HBW

[By: Anthony Boynton, III]

As the tension of the 2015 Charleston church shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal thickened the air, Bree Newsome climbed into the sky to tear down hatred’s flag. Social media and mainstream media outlets were abuzz over the activist’s act of civil disobedience and subsequent arrest. Since then, Newsome has gained national attention and has been touring the country giving talks about her work in the Black Lives Movement. She recently came to KU in an event sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, “Tearing Hate from the Sky.” This semi-autobiography tracks her journey into political consciousness and decision to act in civil disobedience on July 27, 2015 when she scaled a flag pole at the South Carolina State House in Columbia, SC to take down the Confederate flag.

At the core of Newsome’s speech was an encouraging message to KU students to step up and educate themselves in this current political moment. Students have always been in an unique position to lead political movements and she invited the audience to learn about how their lives are impacted by historical and political systems. She implored that this is the prerequisite to becoming politically aware and involved; if one wishes to be an activist they have to educate themselves. Newsome noted that her mother, an educator, was a major contributor to developing her political activist spirit, saying, “Education is the beginning and ending of many things.” A constant fervor for reading and her faith also informed her activism. 

For further reading on the intersection of politics, race, and activism, we suggest:

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

The Black Revolution on Campus by Martha Biondi

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Davis and Frank Barat

From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

God of the Oppressed by James Cone

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The Struggle for Black Equality by Harvard Sitkoff


Anthony Boynton is a scholarly blerd and PhD student in English at the University of Kansas who writes about race, representation, pop culture and Afrofuturism.

Publishing Without Walls

Posted Posted in HBW

AFRO-PWW Projects

The Jay Z Mixtape, created by Kenton Ramsby, is a Scalar open access book published through the African American Studies PWW series housed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This innovative digital humanities publication offers a brief glimpse into the creative output of the Brooklyn rapper by organizing online content into a single composition. From Tableau Public visualizations to an assortment of YouTube videos, this publication reveals the interconnectivity of Jay Z artistry across 12 solo albums through three broad categories: Language, Collaborations, and Musical Samples.

Works-in-progress include a Scalar book by Tyechia Johnson titled, Mapping City Limits: Post-1960s writings of James Baldwin, James Emanuel, and Jake Lamar. This online interactive book expands the perspective of Paris within the African-American expatriate tradition through a mapping of the city in the writings of Baldwin, Emanuel, and Lamar. Johnson maps beyond the myth of African-American inclusivity in Paris and shows how this myth is represented in their writings and/or in their lived experiences. This publication will contribute to the field of “digital humanities” through projects built on digital platforms on Google Earth/Google Maps, Neatline with Omeka, and Scalar. The project expands the field of transnational African-American literature, and creates a new cultural memory of African-American writers in Paris.


Posted Posted in Guest Blogger, HBW

[By: Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Hype matters.

In his foreword for Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), Nicholas Rich asserts that Didion’s prose has “cool majesty” as well as “an immaculacy as intimidating as Chelsea porcelain” (xi).  The assertion and the subject of the assertion invite scrutiny.  Truth be told, the sentence “Everyone in the place seemed to have been there a long time, and to know everyone else.” (29) is neither immaculate nor intimidating.  It might refer as much to several restaurants in New Orleans or a now defunct restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi where everyone used to have breakfast as to a café in downtown Biloxi in the 1970s.  Rich’s exaggeration is like a Donald J. Trump tweet, a desperate move. But its banality excites no one who knows red beans and rice about public relations in the Republic of American Letters.  Inflation is the hot air that keeps a reputation afloat. 

Didion is an iconic name in American literature, although it is less revered than Welty, Mitchell, or Lee in the white mythology of the Deep South.  As Didion admits in the “California Notes” section of South and West, she is “at home” in the West.  In the 1970s when she wrote up her notes, she was just an exotic outside agitator as far as the South is concerned. She still is.

The content rather than the prose of “Notes on the South” (5-107) might be intimidating.  It’s intimidating to know so much about the South has remained intact since Didion meandered through it nearly fifty years ago.  Rich himself feels obligated to note that “a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life” (xix).  Now that is intimidating.  Yes.  The rock of ages is still nearer than God to thee.

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

Their Eyes Were Watching God at 80: The Season for Black Love

Posted Posted in HBW

[By: Dr. Maryemma Graham]

In one of the most memorable scenes in Zora Neale Hurston’s now-classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Granny asks Janie, the child she is about to send off to marry, “Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate.” The quote is a mere 20 pages into the novel after Janie has begun to recount her life adventures to her best friend, Pheoby Watson. From that point on, we know this is a novel about growth and about love… Black love.

The brief exchange between a loving grandmother and her dutiful granddaughter is enough to make us laugh and cry. The display of love is both a confession and a foreshadowing. Granny’s days are numbered, and Janie must begin a new journey. True to the setting and the time of the novel, Janie goes from her grandmother’s bed to her husband’s bed, from girlhood to womanhood overnight.

Granny’s maternal love is transformed into the custodial love that Logan Killicks offers Janie in exchange for the back-breaking work she does on his farm. Discovering that women are indeed the “mules of the world, ” she then enters a second, different kind of marriage. “Marrying up” as it were, she gains the hand of the soon-to-be-mayor of all-black Eatonville. Second husband Joe [Jody] Starks treats her as an object, like a trophy he has received from one of his many competitions as a businessman and politician. The violence and abuse of this second marriage drives Janie away, and finally as a mature woman, she finds her own black love in Tea Cake. Though short-lived as a result of his death, this third marriage provides a mutually fulfilling love, one that teaches Janie that even the best love, like life, is not free from pain and sorrow.

In this revolutionary novel, Hurston explored the taboo subject of Black love. She paid the price for her boldness and died in poverty. The novel quickly went out of print for decades, with little mention of its author or her expansive body of work.

80 years after its original publication, this primer on Black heterosexual love, Their Eyes Were Watching God  is one of the most widely read in the literary canon. For many readers today, Hurston also liberated Black womanhood, and that was perhaps the greater reason for the subsequent silencing of the novel in the eyes of many critics.

Robert Hemenway’s timely biography, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (1980), and Alice walker’s persistent search for foremothers helped to reawaken interest in Hurston. Both contributed to the founding of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (P.E.C.) in 1987, the major organization committed to sustaining her legacy today.

I’d like to think that Hurston would be pleased to see that Black love has come of age. Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) both gave us love stories set in slavery; Morrison even drew our attention to Black love during the 1920s (Jazz, 1992) and during the period of segregation (Love, 2003). James Baldwin may not have been confident in setting his well-received 1956 novel about love between two men in the US, choosing instead to set Giovanni’s Room in Italy. Yet, same sex love had much fictional and cinematic representation in subsequent years. New scholarship and literary works have explored its meaning, as letters long buried are being recovered, and as archives are mined for marriage documents, stories of enslaved couples, literary friendships and wartime correspondence.

Can we credit part of this contemporary resurgence of interest to our 44th president Barack Obama and his wife Michele, who are undeniably a high profile symbol of Black love, one that the world had not seen before? 

I’d like to offer another possibility as a reason for growing interest in Black love. The rise in violence, both racial, ethnic and gendered, and the roll back of democratic ideals in favor of a narrow nationalist agenda make all of today’s America more like the Black America of days past. None of the deplorable conditions of our existence– whether during slavery, Jim and Jane Crow segregation, or todays’ school to prison pipeline– could and can detract from Black love. Who would not want to have the freedom that we have been consistently told did not belong to us? How else could Black love be so enduring and exuberant?  Put another way, those who are often unloved, maligned and otherwise disrespected by many, know and appreciate love the best.

Zora Neal Hurston dared to present a love story in 1937. Hers was an act of the imagination, but it was grounded in her love of Black people.  These are the stories we tell each other; they exist in every one of our families, but remain hidden from plain view.  She gave us a story to pass on. Now television and film, music, fiction and life writing have begun to claim them.  Why? The mainstream reading, viewing, and listening public needs fresh, untold stories to meet the needs of new and expanded audiences. And they are now ours to tell.

Earlier this year, The American Black Film Festival (ABFF) publicly celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Love Jones, a generation-spanning symbol of Black love. The film’s stars Nia Long and Larenz Tate were reunited and performed selected poetry from the film. BET and HBO have both showcased the evolution of Black love through the eyes of independent, diverse Black women in Being Mary Jane and Insecure. Modern-day royalty Beyoncé and Jay-Z have both publicly shared the impact Black love in their lives most recently on their albums Lemonade and 4:44 respectively. The love of Black sisterhood and brotherhood is prominently on display in blockbuster films and the importance of the Black family has been elevated in one of the most popular network series of the 2016-2017 season, Black-ish

Not surprisingly, Oprah Winfrey has also begun to test the waters of Black love first with Greenleaf, then Queen Sugar and a multitude of other dramas. She has come full circle with her most recently premiered series, calling it simply, Black Love.

But these are not the only examples. Nearly two years ago, Drs. Ayesha Hardison and Randal Maurice Jelks at the University of Kansas dared to propose a “Black Love Symposium” marking the 80th anniversary of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The appropriateness of holding the gathering at KU, where Robert Hemenway served as Chancellor, is not lost on those scheduled to attend. Scholars, cultural critics and media professionals will explore Zora’s legacy during a weekend of activities. One hopes that the scholarship and dialogue that Their Eyes Were Watching God inspires will be yet another major contribution to deepening our understanding of what is human is us all.




It is the season for Black love. And Lord knows, we need it now more than ever.




Dr. Maryemma Graham is the Founder/Director of the Project on the History of Black Writing and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Kansas.

Shut Up In My Bones: a digital poem – a remix

Posted Posted in Guest Blogger

A digital poem from HBW Alum Dr. DaMaris Hill:

Shut Up In My Bones: a digital poem – a remix from D Hill on Vimeo.

“I recently completed a poetry manuscript entitled A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing. Many of the poems detail the violent consequences black women endure while engaged in individual and collective acts of protest and resistance.

My grandmother’s picture and a poem honoring her, “Shut Up In My Bones” opens my manuscript. During her lifetime the Jane Crow styles of oppression were careful to include violence for accessing civil liberties. These forced social constraints effect one’s mental health. They incite mania, mental illness and tend to fracture a wise woman’s mind. My grandmother was an avid reader and is rumored to be the smartest of her siblings. She married at age 18 and was the only one of her siblings that didn’t attend college. This haunted her. She talked about it all the time. This digital poem, “Shut Up In My Bones”, is a remix of the original poem I wrote. This “Shut Up In My Bones” Remix is a conceptual work about my grandmother and the life we share.

  1. The first three minutes of the remixed poem are sparse. Please be patient.
  2. The second portion of the poem conceptualizes the high mental acumen my grandmother had. It is a space that relies on public discourse, memory, intergenerational collectivity, self reflection and joy.
  3. The last few minutes of the poem is a space for reflection for the “reader”. Feel free to take as little or as much time as you want with the last portion.”