Saturday, May 23, 2020

1987 as a starting point for Contemporary African American Lit?

I was recently writing about the lack of updates for periodizing contemporary African American literature. I'm still thinking through things, but if I had to designate a key year for new developments in black literary history, I'd say 1987.

That's the year that Toni Morrison's Beloved was published, a book that has become arguably the most critically acclaimed artistic work in American literature. Morrison's novel was nominated for a National Book Award. But in early 1988, a group of forty-eight black writers offered a major public letter of support for Morrison and her work, and in April, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Also in 1987, Rita Dove won the Pulitzer for Poetry for her volume Thomas and Beulah (1986). As many commentators noted, Dove was only the second black winner of the prize after Gwendolyn Brooks's win in 1950. Dove's win inspired several emergent poets, including Natashsa Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and Kevin Young. 

James Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, which marked an end, yes, but also new beginnings. Inspired by the eulogy that Amiri Baraka gave at Badlwin's funeral, poets Sharan Strange and Thomas Sayers Ellis cofounded the Dark Room Collective.

In 1989, Alexander's poem "The Venus Hottentot" appeared in Callaloo, and in 1990, her volume The Venus Hottentot was published, signaling new developments. Her poem anticipated extended persona projects that would flourish in the twenty-first century. Also in 1990, Charles Johnson won the National Book Award for Fiction for his novel Middle Passage. It was the second time a black person had won the award since 1953, when Ralph Ellison was the recipient for Invisible Man.

So these are some crucial moments that lead me to view 1987 or more broadly, the late 1980s and early 1990s as crucial markers for a new literary period in African American literature.

When does contemporary African American literature begin?

An Inspiring Book on Mark Twain

I enjoyed reading Susan K. Harris's book Mark Twain, the World, and Me: Following the Equator, Then and Now (2020). It's a combination of literary criticism, cultural history, travel writing, and memoir. Those combinations, not to mention the good writing, make the book a rewarding read.

From the beginning, Harris's book is really inspiring. She abandons her initial plan to pursue conventional archival work in favor of worldly explorations. "Suddenly library research looked tiresome," she wrote. "I didn't want to spend my three weeks in musty archives. I was in Australia; I wanted to learn about the country, not about a few individuals' conversations with an American visitor a hundred years ago" (2). From there, we're off following Harris as she follows Twain to Australia, India, and South Africa.

Quick background on how I arrived at this book.

Some years back, one of my former professors, William J. Harris, posted photos on Facebook from far-flung places he was traveling to with his wife, Susan. People would ask what he was doing in India and South Africa, and he mentioned that he was tagging along with Susan Harris as she worked on a project on Mark Twain, who had done a world lecture tour in 1895-1896.

I've usually thought of Susan Harris as writing in a much different area of literary study than me, but the photos from around the globe intrigued me. The idea of an American literary scholar tracing someone's steps across multiple countries piqued my curiosity. So in 2019, when I saw announcements that the book would be released in 2020, I put it on my list of books to read.

Harris opens her book in Sydney, Australia. Then, she provides chapters as she moves around India, sometimes with William Harris joining her. After that, she discusses her travels in Tasmania. Later, she ends in South Africa.

Throughout the chapters, she retraces Twain's steps and writing. He traveled down the Ganges river. So does Harris. He visited the Tasmanian Museum. So does she. Twain closely observed animals during his trip. Harris does too. And so forth. She considers the ways that the countries and sites within changed since Twain's time over during the late nineteenth century.

The book motivates me to think about new possibilities for pursuing work in the field of literature. What if literary criticism involves going way out there in the world? What if it means paying closer attention to museums as Harris does in her book? She also confirms the importance of studying following an author over the course of more than three decades.

Harris is a Twain Scholar, and she remains cognizant of the author's shortcomings throughout the book. "Twain believed he wasn't a racist," Harris points out at one moment, "but his public and private writings all demonstrate that he held a set of racial and ethnic preconceptions that color his writings about most of the nonwhite peoples he encountered" (57). Her willingness to engage with the good and bad, the commendable and deplorable, the very difficulty of aspects of Twain's writing and thought processes give the book its complexity.

The endeavor of following Twain also leads Harris to new areas of study. "I not only had to the traveling," she writes, "but also had to learn how to think about animal venues, their histories, ownerships, and missions, and later to teach myselg something about the history of hunting and of conservation theory and to read the literature about animals and the human gaze" (99).For Harris, following is this engaging, intellectual, learning, immersive, and worldly endeavor.

When I say the book is inspiring, I'm noting that it's prompts you to want to go out traveling and observing like she does. She'll encourage you to think about palces as they are now and how they were hundred years ago.

Mark Twain and the generative power of difficult men
Susan Harris's recruitment letter: How I got to Penn State

Susan Harris's recruitment letter: How I got to Penn State

In the fall of 1998, during my senior year at Tougaloo College, I was trying to decide on graduate schools where I might apply. I was an English and history major. One day, while talking through my grad school dilemma, one of my history professors asked if I had ever considered the English program at Pennsylvania State University. I had not.

My professor then showed me a letter that had been sent to an administrator at Tougaloo and then distributed among various professors. The letter was from Susan Harris, director of graduate studies in English, and she was encouraging administrators and professors to make students aware that Penn State was recuriting for its graduate programs.

That letter, which wouldn't have even reached me if that history professor had not mentioned it, was the first time I had thought about attending graduate school in Pennsylavania. I mentioned the letter to another professor, Jerry W. Ward, Jr., and he noted that Bernard W. Bell and William J. Harris were at Penn State. I followed up with Susan Harris, and she arranged for me to visit in early spring.

I made the visit, which went well. At the end of my time at Penn State, Susan Harris asked me if I was going to accept the department's offer. I said, "let me think about it." Shortly after our conversation, I boarded my flight and returned to Tougaloo.

The next morning a little after 7:00 am, the phone rang in my dorm room. I picked it up and said, "hello."
"Hello. This is Susan Harris. Have you thought about it?" she asked.

That's how I ended up at Penn State for graduate school.

An Inspiring Book on Mark Twain
Mark Twain and the generative power of difficult men

Mark Twain and the generative power of difficult men

As I was reading Susan Harris's new book Mark Twain, the World, and Me: Following the Equator, Then and Now (2020), I couldn't help but think of the research that I done for my own book Bad Men: Creative Touchstones of Black Writers. Although my book focuses on how black writers are inspired by bad black men figures, I began my work by thinking about the idea of difficult, not just bad, black and white men and how they motivate a range of feedback from audiences and remarkable productions from creators.

[Related: An Inspiring Book on Mark Twain]

As I read Harris's take on Twain, I realized that he was a generative and difficult figure. His difficulty may have faciliated expansive responses. Twain's positive gifts and troubling positions combined to give Harris quite a bit to consider. There are aspects of Twain's work, Harris explains, "that upset and anger me, places where Twain attachs rather than explores the cultures he visits, place where he bares his prejudices in ways that I wish he wouldn't" (14).

Later, she's discussing additional troubling sections of Twain's book Following the Equator. "These chapters," she notes, "offend Hindus and frustrate Twain scholars like me who want to promote Twain's better side." She goes further pointing out that "This is another of the places where my relationship to Twain gets edgy--there are thimes when being a Mark Twain scholar is a lot like having an uncle with a penchant for politically incorrect jokes. You love him but avoid introducing him to your friends because you're afraid he will say something really insulting" (24).

Twain's problems and badness end up, I think, benefitting the overall creativity of Harris's thinking and writing. Her mindfulness that Twain missed things and wrote with a troubling sense of white superiority leads her to look well beyond him and constantly question what he may have overlooked in his travels around the world.

What Harris is exploring with Twain is useful for me, a scholar of African American literature. I sometimes worry that folks in our field downplay difficult or less pleasant sides of our favorite black writers. I understand why: we are sometimes nervous that we could open our subjects to unnecessary criticism in a world where black subjects are already under-valued.

So that all makes sense. Still, reading Harris expressing admiration and frustration with Twain reminded me why dealing with bad or difficult men leads to the production of really creative works. The multiple questions that we raise or the problem finding that we do in relation to cultural figures that have problems lead us in all kinds of  uncahrted territories, which in turns empowers us to produce original works. 

Susan Harris's recruitment letter: How I got to Penn State
An Inspiring Book on Mark Twain

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A book list for black boys

A friend of mine asked me for a reading list for a group of black boys. What follows are twenty-five books to get us started.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). By Malcolm X and Alex Haley. This one remains a classic.
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). By Frederick Douglass. Another classic. 
Between the World and Me (2015). by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Moving letter to son with deep cultural history.
Decoded (2010). By Jay-Z. A fun, informative read. Contains variety of cool images.
Black Boy (1945). By Richard Wright. Stands as a classic alongside Malcolm and Frederick Douglass.
The Beautiful Struggle (2008). By Ta-Nehisi Coates. Moving story of a black boy growing up in Baltimore.

Patternmaster (1976). By Octavia Butler. Powerful, fascinating science fiction narrative.
The Nickel Boys (2019). By Colson Whitehead. Moving story about black boys held at a troubline reform school.
The Underground Railroad (2016). By Colson Whitehead.  Pathbreaking take on slavery & escape.
Things Fall Apart (1958). By Chinua Achebe. Classic novel about life, onset of colonliasm in Nigeria
Middle Passage (1990). By Charles Johnson. Captivating narrative about slavery and more.

Fiction -- young adult novels
Miles Morales: Spider-Man (A Marvel YA Novel) (2017). by Jason Reynolds.
• When I Was the Greatest (2014). By Jason Reynolds.

Vintage Hughes (004). By Langston Hughes. Large selections of poems from one of our major figures.
The Big Smoke (2013). By Adrian Matejka. Narrative in poems about heavyweight boxing champ, Jack Johnson.
Long Way Down (2017). By Jason Reynolds. Young adult novel told in poems about gun violence.

• Black Panther Volume 1 (2017). By Ta-Nehisi Coates and others. Compelling tale, brilliantly drawn.
• Batman and the Outsiders Vol. 1 (2020). By Bryan Hill and others. Good story featuring Black Lightning, others.
Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther (2015). By Reginald Hudlin. Good narrative about T'Challa and the folks.
A Right to Be Hostile (2003). By Aaron McGruder. Comical story arcs about Huey Freeman and his brother.
Farmhand Vol 1 (2019). By Rob Guillory. Funny and bizarre narrative, written & drawn by Guillory
Quincredible Vol. 1: Quest to Be the Best! (2019). By Rodney Barnes and others. Exciting black teenage hero.

Outliers: The Story of Success (2008). By Malcolm Gladwell. A good, intriguing read.
The New Jim Crow (2010). By Michelle Alexander. A tough, important book on mass incarceration.
• The Warmth of Other Suns (2010). By Isabel Wilkerson. Expansive, interrelated narratives about Great Migration.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Risky Natures, Collegiate Black Men, and Skateboards

"The adventurer's racial and gender identity play key roles in how individuals map and navigate this risky terrain." --Kristin Jackbonson
When I began reading Kristin Jacobson's book The American Adrenaline Narrative, I knew I was going to be especially interested in her chapter "Risky Natures." It's because the subject of risk or danger comes up in a class that I teach every fall comprised of first-year collegiate black men. At least one or two of the guys ride skateboards or long boards, and I have to warn them about the risk of this notorious hill on our campus.

Now, Jacobson doesn't have extreme sports in mind when she's writing about adrenaline narratives. She's focusing on rafting, deep-sea diving, polar explorations, mountaineering, hiking, etc., which often takes place in wilderness areas. Still, there are some correlations with her explorations and what the guys I work with encounter.

The majority of my black students are from Chicago and then some from St. Louis. For them, a campus like Edwardsville is something of a wilderness. They are initially unsettled by how sparse it is in comparison to their home cities. The guys mention feeling perfectly safe to wander around late at night on campus in ways that would be unthinkable and silly to do in their hometowns.

I make it a point to let the guys know how much gender privilege they have when they mention their fearlessness moving around campus late into the night. "Why do you think women feel less free and comfortable than you do to move around campus at night," I ask. This question and recognition of differences give them pause.

Jacobson mentions "gendered risk regimes" in her book. She discusses the issues that women adventurers contend with as they navigate wilderness areas alone and with men. Still, she offers ample evidence that many women take on the risks. "Despite the dangers and their fears," writes Jacobson, "these women risk physical and emotional hard because the benefits for solo self-discovery outweigh the potential dangers and discomforts" (191).

When does contemporary African American literature begin?

I've been thinking about when contemporary African American literature begins for quite some time now. As a graduate student in the early 2000s, I was examining literature anthologies, and I was curious about the challenges faced by anthologies during the 1970s when pinpointing contemporary authors and works.

I was also thinking about surveys of African American literature as I prepared to begin and then began my career as a professor. I was teaching survey courses, and I wondered how we might label the current era. There were names for previous moments like the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But what were labels for moments after that?

The first edition of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1996) close with a section entitled "Literature Since 1970," and the second edition of the Norton, published in 2003, revised the closing section as "Literature Since 1975." The 2014 edition is now entitled "The Contemporary Period."

The suggestion is still that the contemporary moment begins in the 1970s. I don't fully buy that. While I do think that there was a shift during the mid to late 1970s with the decline of the Black Arts Movement, I don't think it has been continuous from that time until to now. That is, I don't view 1976 - 2020 as a single historical era in African American literature.

I think that major events in the field have occurred that make the 1970s and 1980s distinct from the 1990s and twenty-first century. But how do we periodize or mark the beginning and close dates of these moments? It's worth giving the subject some thought.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Discovering Jericho Brown in 2008 (and then reading more)

At some point in 2008, I received an email from my friend, the scholar Kalenda Eaton. She was informing a group of us that one of her former undergraduate classmates was releasing a volume of poetry, and she encouraged us to pick up a copy.

His name is Jericho Brown, she said, and his volume of poetry is entitled Please.

I was immediately interested for a couple of reasons. For one, I was committed to charting developments with contemporary black poetry. And second, I was aware that among the many volumes that people informed me about, only a few were by authors who attended HBCUs. 

After reading Brown's poems in Please and in other venues, I felt like I had known him forever. We were both southern, attended black colleges, and several of his poems revealed that we had witnessed and retained some of the same things from black culture.

I finally met him in person in 2012. My friend Treasure Redmond invited me to a gathering of poets at her place, and there was Jericho. He had one of those wonderful, big southern laughs that fills a room. At one point, folks at the gathering read their poems.

Here's the thing: I don't remember what writing Jericho shared, but I do remember how vocally supportive he was of everyone else who read. He gave the loudest shouts of affirmation after every reader. I'm not sure if I had ever seen the most widely known poet in a room be the most vocal supporter of everyone else.   

Back in 2008, I took note to follow Brown's subsequent works. Two years after meeting him in at Treasure's gathering, I got my hands on his second volume The New Testament (2014). The second book further confirmed our overlapping cultural links. But he was doing more than that. I noticed an even more experienced poet, playing with forms and ideas.

A poetic trilogy: Brown's The New Testament, Laurentiis's Boy with Thorn, Williams's Their in the Interior 

Too, The New Testament was my gateway to some other poets, including Rickey Laurentiis's Boy with Thorn (2015) and Phillip B. Williams's Thief in the Interior (2016).

In 2019, the folks at Copper Canyon Press sent me an advance copy of Brown's The Tradition. I really enjoyed reading and blogging about this, his third volume. He was building on his previous work, and clearly moving in new directions, developing a new form, and highlighting the vulnerability of black bodies.

In early 2020, Cynthia Spence from Spelman College and director of the UNCF/Mellon programs gave a presentation on our campus. At one point, she was mentioning various former Mellon Fellows. She asked the audience, "do you know of the poet Jericho Brown? If not, you will. He's doing really wonderful things." In retrospect, it's like she was predicting his Pulitzer Prize win.

A Notebook on Jericho Brown