Monday, January 25, 2021

Amanda Gorman's reading raises interest in

Today, published a statement concerning how Amanda Gorman's reading on January 20, 2021, dramatically increased traffic on their site. They wrote in part
Immediately following the stirring recitation by the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, at President Biden's Inauguration on January 20, traffic to spiked dramatically, with 250% more individuals coming to the site than on the same day last year., produced by the Academy of American Poets, is one of the most visited poetry sites online. This one-day increase, which represents approximately 200,000 more individuals coming to, is the largest since the site launched twenty-five years ago.

Commentators have talked discussed how Gorman's upcoming books quickly rose to the top of bestsellers on Amazon and other sites based on pre-orders after the reading. But here, we have an organization noting how Gorman's reading also generated a tremendous number of visits to their site.


Sunday, January 24, 2021

Data storytelling and visualization

By Kenton Rambsy and Howard Rambsy II

“The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes” interactive by Andrew Kahn on Slate in June 2015, represents a powerful possibility of collecting and showcasing data. The visualization displays 315 years and 20,528 voyages, through the use of small dots, of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The two-minute interactive composition is at once compelling and troubling, for it is after all a distillation of the horrifying transportation of 10 million enslaved humans presented in two minutes.

Data storytelling, as a practice that blends numerical results, visual compositions, and narratives, makes findings concerning large bodies of information readily accessible to audiences. The production of narratives informed by data, especially large or multifaceted data, creates opportunities to communicate trends and discoveries in captivating ways. Data storytelling can involve visualizations, which stimulate ideas about information beyond standard written narratives.

“The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes” is an important data visualization and story. The project is the product of several years of research that began in the late 1960s when a group of scholars began collecting data about slave trade voyages. Subsequent scholars contributed to the expansion of the data. Today, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database provides information on more than 36,000 voyages, 91,000 people who were enslaved, and thousands of names of shipowners and ship captains.

The two-minute visualization makes the content of “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database” manageable and serves as a vital gateway into a rather massive body of information. It would take weeks, if not months, to individually trace each of the tens of thousands of documents that comprise the database. The display of so much information about the slave trade, presented in an interactive, 120-second visualization, indicate the power of innovative data management.

Of course, even a skillfully designed visualization like “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database” interactive gives us reason to pause. The use of small dots to represent slave ships and the truncation of 300 years into two minutes trivializes the horrors of enslavement. Thus, responsible creators and viewers must be prepared to consider how data visualizations can simultaneously enrich and suppress knowledge.


Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Psychedelic Literature Newsletter and uses of "Black" in 2020

Word cloud based on content of Psychedelic Literature Newsletter in 2020

The global pandemic we're experiencing created so much uncertainty, so it was refreshing that some things remained predictable. And one constant in 2020 was C. Liegh McInnis's newsletter Psychedelic Literature (background on the newsletter here). 

I've recently been working with my younger brother Kenton Rambsy to explore text mining projects with DH, so I decided to use Voyant -- a free text analysis tool -- in order to take a look at a full year of McInnis's Psychedelic Literature newsletter. 

From January - December 2020, McInnis published forty-four installments of his newsletter. The issues totaled 282,971words with 10,031 unique words. Perhaps not surprisingly given McInnis's geographic base and interests, "Mississippi" and "black" were the two most repeated words across a year of newsletter entries. 

Voyant includes a tool that identifies words used in close proximity to other words. I was most fascinated by the words that appeared new "black" in McInnis's newsletter. I had perhaps taken his usage for granted while reading, so text mining proved to be helpful for thinking about major trends in his writing. 

This image shows four words -- "folks," "power," "lives, and "arts" -- that appear in close proximity to "black" throughout the body of McInnis's newsletters in 2020. The use of "black folks" (72 times) makes sense, as McInnis writes casually and with a connectedness to the people. 

I was intrigued that he regularly used "Black Lives" (47 times), as it demonstrated that he was including events focusing on "Black Lives Matter," and he was also offering commentary on the strengths and limits of movements associated with "black lives." In 2020, he spent some time really working through the subject of whether "black lives only matter to black folks when they are taken by white hands," as he noted on August 15, 2020. 

The frequency of "Black Power" throughout the dataset was based on the list of announcements that McInnis includes in every issue. There were several events related to the "Black Power Movement." The list also regularly mentioned a book with "Black Power" in the title. The book was particularly important since it focused on the 1970 killings at Jackson State University (this is the same university where McInnis works). 

The above images shows additional words -- history, culture, men, matter, people -- that appeared in close proximity to "black" in the newsletter in 2020. McInnis is an active and prolific cultural worker, so it's perhaps no surprise that he often mentioned "black history" and "black culture" in relation to "black people." 

It turns out that McInnis mentioned "black men" and "black women" (23 times each) throughout 2020. A close look revealed that he was generously citing my book Bad Men when he spoke of uttered the phrase "black men." So it turns out that text mining McInnis's newsletter reminded me of yet another debt I owe him.    

While McInnis regularly addresses "white supremacy" (mentioned 77 times) and "racism" (mentioned 100 times), he also addresses problems within African American communities and actions of Black people. As far back as 2015, I noticed that McInnis was using this term "ineptitude" to reference what he viewed as poor and troubling decision-making as well as viewpoints. At one point in 2019, he noted that "white supremacy plus Negro ineptitude equates to perpetual black dysfunction and second-class citizenship." 

In 2020, the phrase "black ineptitude" (mentioned 19 times) was a recurring and distinct phrasing in McInnis's newsletter. The formulation of the term emerges from a writer playing with or working through ideas concerning African American subjects and concerns. On the one hand, he discusses familiar phrasings like black history, black culture, black folks, and so forth. At the same time, he shows a willingness to come up with new, unique terms. 

This semester in my African American literature course, my students and I have been thinking through the questions, "what is Black writing?" and "what do Black writers do?" McInnis provides me with some answers. Among other things, he demonstrates that in his case at least, Black writing involves prolific and creative engagements with "black."   


Background on the Psychedelic Literature Newsletter

C. Liegh McInnis began on an announcement list in 1996 as part of the Mississippi Vibes poetry readings in Jackson, Mississippi. McInnis was producing the poetry readings with his poet-collaborators David Brian Williams, Jolivette Anderson, Ken Stiggers, and Derrick Johnson. Initially, the point was to simply create a list to inform people about upcoming readings and book releases. 

McInnis eventually became the moderator of the list, and over the years, it became known as the Psychedelic Literature newsletter. McInnis modeled the list-turned-newsletter on Kalamu ya Salaam's E-Drum--a listserv providing information and commentary on the arts and Black writers. 

The newsletter issues usually follows a recurring format. McInnis opens with commentary on current topics, which can range from the arts, local or national politics, a major event in entertainment, the passing of a beloved figure, and so forth. Then, he presents a list, often with links, announcing upcoming arts and culture events as well as notable publications. 


Friday, January 22, 2021

Amanda Gorman and the worlds of Black Poetry


Amanda Gorman's inauguration poem has been rightly receiving enthusiastic praise in various media outlets and publications, including The New York Times, CNN, The LA Times, NPR, and Good Morning America. Commentators have yet to speak of Gorman and her poem in the context of African American literary art, yet she and her work connect to many worlds of Black poetry.  

For one, Gorman joins Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander, who delivered inaugural poems in 1993 and 2009, respectively. In this regard, Angelou, Alexander, and now Gorman reside in a rare position. It is unusual for Black poets to receive such a tremendous platform for a reading. By and large, poetry readings are organized by and for people within poetry or literary communities. 

The modes of delivery, including rhymes, language of empowerment, and facial expressions, linked Gorman to spoken word communities. Those communities include poets from a range of backgrounds, and African American poets have been central to that creative domain for decades now. Spoken word is poetry, but then it is apart from the print-based poetry that many people encounter in English classrooms.  

Gorman's use of rhyme in the poem link her to an older generation of established poets, some contemporary spoken word poets, and the large community of rap artists, who are, depending on one's perspective, defined as poets. The use of rhyme fell out of favor with many contemporary print-based poets, but Gorman's use of rhyme and alliteration showed her interest in the aural qualities of verse.   

Gorman is often described as an activist, so she joins a tradition of activist-poets that include Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, and Tony Medina, to note just a few. Contemporary emergent poets are sometimes advised to avoid politics in verse, as Tracy K. Smith has noted. But that has not been the case with Gorman.  

Given the large numbers of noted literary artists, the designation of "young poet" constitutes a key category for Gorman. She was, after all, awarded the title of the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017. That designation was the result of Gorman winning a competition, where she vied and won against other poets.

Her debut volume The Hill We Climb will be released in September 2021. After her reading at the inauguration, pre-orders for the book pushed it to the top of the bestseller on Amazon. In September, Gorman will belong to the world of contemporary volumes of poetry by African Americans.  

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and the Underground

These days, it's quite possible to take courses on African American literature, cover writers like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, and yet hear relatively little about their involvement with leftist politics and their publishing activities with Communist papers. Their distinct politics represent a kind of underground -- something hiding in plain sight but still not on the main airwaves or formal channels.

Hughes, Wright, and Ellison met based on their shared interests and links to common political networks. In his 1973 biography The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, Michel Fabre pointed out that Wright's career as a writer began "as a revolutionary poet" (98). In June 1934, the communist magazine New Masses published the poem "I Have Seen Black Hands" by a then twenty-five-year-old Wright. 

After reading the poem, a more well-established poet, Langston Hughes, became interested in meeting Wright. So when Hughes visited Chicago in late 1935 and early 1936, he sought out the younger poet. Hazel Rowel describes Hughes and Wright meeting in her biography, Richard Wright: The Life and Times (2001): when the two writers met, "Hughes liked [Wright] immediately. As well as their writing, he and Wright had left-wing politics in common" (111). 

By the summer of 1936, Hughes was back in New York City. He was staying at the YMCA, and one morning in July while Hughes and Alain Locke stood in the lobby talking, a young man, Ralph Ellison, approach them. He had recently arrived to New York from Tuskegee, Alabama, and he was staying at the Y as well. Going up to the two men proved consequential for Ellison.  

"Meeting Langston Hughes would change [Ellison's] life forever, " observed Arnold Rampersad in his 2007 biography of Ellison (82). Hughes served as a guide as Ellison began learning about New York City, leftist politics, and leftist literature. Moreover, when Hughes learned that Wright was moving to New York City, he made him aware that Ellison wanted to meet him. 

Soon after, Ellison received a postcard that read: "Dear Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes tells me that you're interested in meeting me. I will be in New York..." The postcard was signed by Wright (Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, 665). Wright moved to New York in the summer of 1937, and when he and Ellison met, they became friends. 

In June 1937, they both attended the Second American Writers' Congress, an association of writers sponsored by the League of American Writers, which was formed by the Communist Party USA. By the way, all of this was before Wright became a well-known novelist. It was Wright the poet who first attracted Hughes and then Ellison. And it was their varied affiliations with communist ideas that brought them together in interrelated networks. 

Put another way, Hughes, Wright, and Ellison met underground. 


Friday, January 8, 2021

MF Doom, Richard Wright, and the Underground

Last week when news began circulating that rapper MF Doom had died, articles rightly referred to him as a "legendary underground rapper," "a formidable underground hip-hop presence," "
an underground superstar," and so forth. As an underground legend, MF Doom's songs were not familiar to casual listeners. But to the faithful? The New York Times pointed out that MF Doom built "a lasting underground fan base." 

In addition to being known for his intricate word-play, MF Doom (born as Daniel Dumile) was known for wearing a mask in the spirit of comic book supervillain Doctor Doom. 

"Underground" rap is a term folks have been using since at least the late 1980s as rap became mainstream. The term signaled music and culture that were not on official and popular airwaves. The work did not always adhere to formal standards; it was on the lower frequencies, hence underground. Doom really began establishing himself in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and became something of an underground legend. 

"In an era when clarity and simplicity were the keys to a hit record, DOOM dealt in riddles fans would unpack for years," explained Craig Jenkins. "You could luxuriate in the surface-level trappings for a lifetime, studying the interplay between ’60s horror and comic-book references, ’70s and ’80s soul music, and intricate New York City lore, or you could listen past it and commiserate with the hard living and loving that DOOM’s beats and puns gave cover for."

In some ways, MF Doom was a man who lived underground.

Speaking of which, as the talk of "underground" kept coming up in relation to MF Doom, I had been thinking about that term in relation to the author Richard Wright. In 1944, he published an extended story entitled "The Man Who Lived Underground." It was about a Black man who literally went underground, into the sewers of New York City, as he tried to escape the police. 

Wright had initially written a full novel, but it had been shortened into a story. In April, thanks to efforts by Wright's daughter, Julia Wright, the Library of America series will publish the full version of Wright's novel. 

I sometimes think about the artistic and intellectual connections of Black men writers across generations, and notions of "underground" create an unlikely link between MF Doom and Wright. Mention "underground" to scholars of a certain age or disposition, and they'll think of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864), and later Wright's story, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), as the narrator ultimately resides in an underground room. Alright, but mention "underground" to folks immersed in hip hop, and a whole musical scene comes to mind.

For different yet related reasons, Wright and MF Doom found inspiration in the underground. For both of them, the underground signaled a special vantage place from which to view the world.   


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Coverage of The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.

I've followed Robert Jones, Jr., (known as Son of Baldwin) on Twitter for years. At some point, I started noticing that he had authored a novel, and it would be released today. Here's a roundup of coverage for his book. 

• Jan. 6: ‘The Prophets’ is a Stunning Debut of Queer Black Love - Noah Berlatsky - Observer 
• Jan. 5: The Prophets - Anita Felicelli - San Francisco Chronicle Datebook
• Jan. 4: The Best New Books to Read in 2021 - Real Simple
• Jan. 4: The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.  – outstanding debut - Holly Williams - The Guardian
• Jan. 4: The Prophets, lives of enslaved people, epic love story of two men - Naomi Jackson - Washington Post
 Jan. 3: The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr - The Reader's Room
 Jan. 2: From The Prophets - Robert Jones, Jr. - Literary Hub
• Jan. 2: The Prophets - Peter Donnelly - The Reading Desk
• Jan. 2: 5 books not to miss - Barbara VanDenburgh - USA Today
 Jan: The Prophets - Carole V. Bell - BookPage

 Dec. 31: 'The Prophets,' by Robert Jones Jr. - Claude Peck - Star Tribune
 Dec. 30: Robert Jones Jr. Is Son of Baldwin, and More - Lauren Christensen - New York Times
 Dec. 29: A striking debut novel imagines two enslaved men in love - Rigoberto Gonzalez - LA Times
 Dec. 28: Homosexuality and slavery intersect in ‘The Prophets’ - Latria Graham - Atlanta Journal Constitution 
• Dec. 27: The Prophets - Helen Phillips - Book of the Month
 Dec. 22: Here are the 10 Books You Should Read in January - Annabel Gutterman - TIME
 Dec. 20: The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. - Kinzie Things
 Dec. 18: The Prophets showcases big love and big pain - David Canfield - EW
 Dec. 16: Q & A with Robert Jones, Jr. - Emily Behnke - American Booksellers Association
 Aug. 27: The Prophets - Edmund White - Publishers Weekly
 Aug. 4: The Prophets - Kirkus Reviews
 Aug. 1: The Prophets - Stephen Schmidt - Library Journal