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Black Writing, Culture and Memory

[By Jerry W. Ward]

To focus on black writing rather than black literature, it
might be argued, is to attend with greater passion to dynamics of literacy
within our culture.  As theories of
modernism and globalization lead to camps of blissful forgetting, there is some
urgency in ordinary instances of black writing. Obviously, a young person
walking down a sidewalk on the way to somewhere as she or he practices “rapping
skills” is creating pre-conditions for literature.  That young person may one day be viral on
YouTube or have work published in a best-selling anthology.

Pre-conditions for literature also exist in commonplace
email messages.  They can inform us about
our vibrant culture and certain uses of memory, of cooperation as an act of
resisting the contemporary individualism that is quite the rage. Writers who
are not selfishly worshipping their own 
egos do seek to help other writers. 
In the antiquity of classic African American culture, cooperation was
simply a matter of being “in the tradition.”
Keenan Norris, author of the forthcoming and psychologically
provocative novel Brother and the Dancer,
was “in the tradition” when he sent out the following email on April 4,
2013.  I quote the email with his
permission.
Hi everyone,
I’m writing on behalf
of Lynel Gardner and his debut book, BEAST: The Destruction of Charles
“Sonny” Liston
. Lynel is looking for a publisher and for leads to
publishers. I’ve also included a bio about Lynel, whose life and work have been
both dramatic and inspirational. Lynel’s work on the life of Liston will be
profiled on an upcoming ABC Sports show.
Lynel has an agent and
is working through his agent to find a publisher. However, he’s also looking to
work through all other available channels as well. I figure this is as good a
forum as any to see if my virtual community of fellow writers and artists might
have connections with editors and publishers that would be appropriate for
Lynel’s work. Lynel can be reached at lynel_gardner@yahoo.com
Below is his bio and a
synopsis of BEAST.
Thanks,
Keenan
Bio: Lynel Gardner
is a performance artist, novelist and playwright. His work with the Hittite
Empire Performance Art Group started in 1989. They toured the country and the
UK doing work based on black male silence. An all-male performance art group,
they focused on issues of the day: the “wilding incident”, the Central Park
rape case in New York and the LA riots. He has written a play called Stories I Never Told My Father about
growing up with a pimp for a father, how he survived, and found God in the
process of trying to find his father before he died. The life experiences of
Lynel’s uncle (and several other family members) served as the basis for the
movie The Mack.
Lynel’s debut book is based on the life of his grandfather,
heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston. The book dispells many of the popular
misconceptions about Liston. Lynel is the founder of Theater as Prevention and
frequently speaks to inmates in the California prison system about fatherhood and
reform.
Partial Synopsis:
When Muhammad Ali explained to the world in 1965, that he
had been taught the “Anchor Punch” from Stepin Fetchit, who had learned it from
Jack Johnson, the world stood in disbelief. It would be the first time ever
that Charles “Sonny” Liston, who was trying to regain his title, would be
knocked to the canvas, in his professional career. Muhammad Ali had indeed
“Shook up the world” in their first championship fight together and in their
second contest, he would boggle the mind. And from that point on, boxing, and
its fans, would never be the same. The Liston Family, the Ali family and the
Palermo family would forever be remembered, for being a part of some elaborate
conspiracy, fix, and or “Phantom Punch.” Sonny Liston would go to his grave,
never to be forgiven, by the public at large, for what had happened in those
two fights. And even though Muhammad Ali would one day go down in history as
“The Greatest” boxer of all time, the public would forever hold him suspect;
marking him with a “Scarlet Letter” for somehow being partly responsible, for
what is still believed to be, one of the greatest hoaxes, of the twentieth
century.
It struck me that BEAST:
The Destruction of Charles “Sonny” Liston
had a no-nonsense title akin to
some made famous by Holloway House, and I suggested to Norris that Gardner
should explore the possibility of being published by that firm. Holloway House
was willing to give attention to core black culture well before academic
guardians of African American culture (including noted Black Arts Movement
critics) were willing to acknowledge the little people, the core that Langston
Hughes celebrated in poetry and fiction. From what Norris mentioned about the
projected ABC sports special, it was apparent that Gardner might get offers
from more powerful publishers who would want to cash in on a hot topic.
Nevertheless, racial wisdom teaches us to cover all bases, to leave little to
chance or accidents of fortune.
What Norris mentioned in the biographical sketch on Lynel
Gardner and in the synopsis set my ideas flowing.  Gardner has ancestral motives for wanting to
tell his grandfather’s story (and his grandmother’s) in a culture that feeds on
mass media’s stew of confusions.  His
efforts to tell a story that rescues Charles “Sonny” Liston from the shadows
cast by Muhammad Ali are like those of writers who rescue the real soldiers of
the Civil Rights Movement from the shadows cast by Martin Luther King, Jr.  There is, as the poet Sterling D. Plumpp has
reminded us, a story always untold, a story that should be told within the
boundaries of African American literature but often is destroyed by literary
politics.  I applaud the cultural
authenticity of Gardner’s efforts to broadcast “a truth.”
My applause is all the louder as a result of having read
Thabiti Lewis’s Ballers of the New
School: Race and Sports in America
(2010) and his claims regarding the
desperation of mythologizing White masculinity in fiction and film. Referring
to the Rocky films, Lewis indicts
Stallone for culling “portions of real fights —along with the real
personalities of Frazier, Liston, Foreman, and Ali —to write the four
installments of the Rocky industry”
(211). 
Appropriation is a two-way street.  Recall Charles Johnson’s deformation of
Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” in the neo-slave novel Middle Passage. In the reclamation of Liston’s story, Gardner is
quite on point about race, sport, and the power of re-enacting  Puritan uses of the scarlet letter in
contemporary American culture. And he only has to appropriate his family’s
history.  He is promoting one of the key
functions of black writing: the correction of misrepresentations or absences
that induce cultural amnesia about the being-in-this-world of African
Americans. Despite endless attempts to devalue it in favor of black literature,
black writing continues to be one of our strongest weapons in the post-whatever
combat/contact zone.
We should support Norris and Gardner as affirmative writers
who use their talents wisely in trouble-saturated times. They affirm the nexus
of writing, culture, and memory.