[by Howard Rambsy]
|Dr. Rambsy is an associate professor of English
at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville
By the time I met my undergraduate professor Jerry W. Ward, Jr. in the mid 1990s, he had been studying Richard Wright for about 30 years. And when I met my graduate school professor William J. Harris in 1999, he had been studying Amiri Baraka for nearly 40 years. Today in 2015, in other words, Professor Ward and Professor Harris have been studying Wright and Baraka for more than 50 years.
Those are some serious commitments.
Our society has names for black men who abandon responsibilities. Okay, fair enough. But what do you call guys who devote five decades to the literary art of black authors? Or, more broadly, what do you call guys who devote that much time, that many decades to actively engaging the “works” of black men?
The focus on time, by the way, is all me. You won’t catch Professor Ward calculating the years he’s studied Wright. Professor Harris never mentions how long he’s studied Baraka. You only pick up on the time span in the margins or in the footnotes of some conversation.
You’ll remember that, buried in a letter or email, Professor Ward noted in passing that he read Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children during his senior year at Tougaloo College, which was 1963-64. You know he wrote his dissertation on Wright during the 1970s. You noticed that in a recent article in the Boston Review on Baraka that Preface to a Twenty Suicide Note (1961), “came out when I was in my late teens,” noted Professor Harris, “and helped me to find my direction as a young poet.” They leave it to you to figure out how long they’ve been reading, thinking, conversing, and writing about Wright and Baraka.
They could, if asked, talk about what it was like to study Wright or Baraka in the 1960s or the 1970s or the 1980s or the 1990s or 10 years ago. But that’s only if you pressed the point. If they’re directing the conversation, then they’re mostly going to mention where Wright Studies and Baraka Studies could head next.
Notably, the focus on these two select authors has not prevented broader conversations on various other writers and topics. Just the opposite, in fact. For Ward, Wright is one of many southern writers he wants you to consider; for Ward, Wright is one among dozens of global writers he wants you to consider. Ward advocates for Wright, and at the same time, he advocates for studying countless writers he feels have been overlooked.
A conversation with Harris about Baraka turns into a conversation about Beats writers. A conversation about Baraka turns into talking and thinking about the Black Arts Movement; the conversation turns to Ishmael Reed and August Wilson; the conversation turns to Monk and Trane.
It matters that Wright and Baraka were “difficult” men. Wright’s Bigger is “controversial,” for instance. And Baraka’s, well–Baraka’s Baraka is controversial. You learn a lot observing Ward and Harris navigating the controversies related to those two authors. You learn something watching them pointing out missteps of figures that they deeply admire.
I know of many, many scholars who value the works of Toni Morrison. I know of many who value James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston and Frederick Douglass and Alice Walker and Lucille Clifton. But what’s rare about Ward and Harris is the extent to which they display intellectual and artistic kinship with their subjects. Recall, for example, that at a formative moment in his life, Professor Harris received “direction” from Baraka’s works.
Ward on Wright and Harris on Baraka are crucial counterpoints to arguments I’ve made about studying major authors. Ward’s and Harris’s own works confirm that it’s possible to focus on major authors and various other figures. Their serious commitments have been anything but provincial.
During the processes of teaching about Wright and Baraka, Professor Ward and Professor Harris were conveying, absorbing, rejecting, and constantly revising a broad range of ideas. They were transmitting invaluable lessons well beyond realms of literature. That they’ve done these things while focusing on two recurring subjects for over half a century now is outstanding. It is, in the end, the nature of Jerry W. Ward, Jr.’s and William J. Harris’s serious commitments.