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Unghosting African American Literature

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Unghosting, as the word is used in the title of Frank X. Walker’s recent collection of poems, Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers (2013), might refer to connotations of “recovery” in the work of criticism and literary history. Aware that “recovery” is a subjective action, we can strengthen our work by exploiting that subjectivity more than we normally do. Walker’s poems can be discussed in an interpretive context shaped by Michael V. William’s Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (2011) and Minrose Gwin’s Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement (2013). 

When Gwin remarks that Turn Me Loose “takes measure of these long shadows of southern history and the bifurcating forms of memory they elicit in lingering contemporary arguments” (21), we appreciate more Williams’ caution that we not deify Evers but “analyze his contributions so one might understand his overall impact on the movement for the social, political, economic, and racial equality” (11). Intensified awareness of subjectivity might sharpen critique of how William’s writing of biography, Gwin’s judgments about historiography, and Walker’s poetry cooperate in a process of unghosting.

When I recovered my review in NOBO: A Journal of African American Dialogue of Askia Muhammad Toure’s third book of poems, From the Pyramids to the Projects: Poems of Genocide and Resistance! (1990), I had a shock of remembering. I had said nothing about Toure’s liberating himself from his birth name, Roland Snellings, nor had I mentioned his membership in Umbra Workshop (1962-16), which Lorenzo Thomas and Michel Oren both recognized as a critical element in the formation of the Black Arts Movement. Had I done so, I might have said something less “book  reviewish” and more intellectually substantial. I did mention “his distinction as a leading member of the Black Arts Movement and his importance in the history of African American aesthetics.” Failure lies in my not mentioning his name change was itself an unghosting of Askia Muhammad Toure, an emperor of Songhai, a preparatory gesture I suspect for writing the poems in Songhai (1972) and Juju: Magic Songs for the Black Nation (1972). I failed to establish a “thick” context for my act of criticism. When I write in a future about the Black Arts Movement, I shall be more responsible in my use of unghosting tools to locate poetry in literary history.