Thursday, January 18, 2018

A notebook on the receptions of Ta-Nehisi Coates & Colson Whitehead: a presentation at Eastern Illinois University

On Thursday, January 18, I'll give a presentation at Eastern Illinois University on the remarkable receptions of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Colson Whitehead. I've followed their careers for over a decade now, and tracing their increased popularity in recent years has been especially intriguing.

The presentation will concentrate on:
• the extraordinary responses to Coates's and Whitehead's recent works
• the implications of outlier black writers receiving remarkable receptions
• the reality of widespread indifference to publications
• histories of receptions to black writers
Below, I provide links to various aspects of my presentation.

Highlights in the history of remarkable reception of black writers
• Publishing and indifference (coming soon)

Noations on Whitehead's work
The Coverage of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead and the New York Times
A print-only excerpt from Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad in the New York Times

Notations on Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Toni Morrison's mutally beneficial endorsements
Common Read Projects and Between the World and Me
Coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Between the World and Me

A Notebook on Ta-Nehisi Coates
A Notebook on Colson Whitehead

Highlights in the history of remarkable reception of black writers

My presentation at Eastern Illinois University on remarkable receptions concentrates on Ta-Nehisi Coates and Colson Whitehead. However, I've taken note of unusually expansive feedback to a few other select authors over the years. Here's a brief, though hardly exhaustive checklist.

1940: The publication of his Richard Wright's Native Son was crucial in making him one of the most critically acclaimed black writers of all time. Keneth Kinnamon's A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary, 1933-1982 (1988) and Richard Wright: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism and Commentary, 1983-2003 (2005) together contain more than 21,000 annotated items on Wright.

1952: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man also made him and his work prominent subjects in American literature.

1960: Although Frederick Douglass's book The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was first published in 1845, the book's frequent reprinting beginning in 1960 and on to the present has been vital to the popular reception that the book has enjoyed for nearly 60 years now.

1965: The development of concerted efforts among poets, editors, illustrators, musicians, and others during the 1960s led to what is known as the Black Arts Movement, one of the most widely discussed moments and enterprises in African American literary history.

1970s: Although Zora Neale Hurston first published her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937, beginning in the mid-1970s, the book and author gained renewed interest and has remained exceptionally popular among audiences.

1985: The film adaption of Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982) greatly expanded interest in her and her work, and assisted in advancing interest in the transformation of African American novels into films.

1987: Toni Morrison published Beloved, and in January 1988, a group of black writers produced a strong public statement supporting her work. In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and shortly thereafter, she became and has remained our most critically acclaimed black writer.

Late 1990s - present: Over the last 20 years, an increasing number of African American poets have won prestigious honors for their works. While there have always been exceptionally talented black poets, there has never been a moment with so many securing such a large number of awards, fellowships, and important academic appointments.

2012: Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow was first published in 2010, and the book became widely popular in 2012, after the paperback version was published was frequently read and discussed in various communities.    

2014-present: The publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates's "The Case for Reparations" (2014), Between the World and Me (2015), the Black Panther comic book series (2016-present), and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017), along with the extensive related commentary, made him one of the most prominent writers in the country.

2016: Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, which was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and earned the author a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize and many glowing reviews, greatly increased the author's national and international visibility.

A notebook on the receptions of Ta-Nehisi Coates & Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead and the New York Times

The big story when Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad (2016) was published was that the work was an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection. That story was, no doubt, important, and it may have overshadowed some other fascinating story lines associated with the promotion of Whitehead's novel. In particular, less than a week after Winfrey's announcement of The Underground Railroad as a selection, the New York Times published a print-only, stand-alone, 16,000-world excerpt from the novel.

The production was an extraordinary production, especially during our current age of digital productions. Devoting so much attention to an individual author and his work was remarkable.

From a page of the New York Times print-only, stand-alone excerpt of The Underground Railroad

The Times has provided longstanding coverage of Whitehead and his books. All of his novels and his two nonfiction works were reviewed in the newspaper. In addition, the Times has provided additional coverage on Whitehead and published his reviews and essays.

The special stand-alone excerpt from The Underground Railroad was, in some respects, an extension of the previous support that the paper had offered the novelist for more over a decade and a half.

A notebook on the receptions of Ta-Nehisi Coates & Colson Whitehead

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Toni Morrison's mutally beneficial endorsements

Shortly before the release of Between the World and Me in 2015, the book's publisher released a book blurb by Toni Morrison about Coates and his book. She praised Coates's work and linked him to James Baldwin. Morrison's assessment of Coates would stick,, particularly her suggestion that Coates was filling "the intellectual void" left for her after Baldwin's 1987 death.

As arguably the most critically acclaimed living novelist, Morrison hardly needs endorsements from younger writers. However, her support for Coates, whose fame quickly rose, also ensured that Morrison would benefit in some ways from the association. A large body of commentary was being produced on Coates, and Morrison was regularly mentioned. The blurb placed Morrison in the conversation about one of the most widely discussed books in 2015.

When Morrison published The Origin of Others (2017), who was selected to write the foreword? Well, naturally one of the foremost African American writers in the world -- Ta-Nehisi Coates.

A notebook on the receptions of Ta-Nehisi Coates & Colson Whitehead

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

What about black students in African American literary studies?

Black students working on tablets for activity in an African American literature course

It's possible to spend more than a decade reading scholarly articles on African American literature and see relatively little mention of black students. Scholars will offer in-depth analyses of works by Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and others. We will write about the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement. We'll discuss feminism, intersectionality, anti-black racism, and other key concepts. Yet, concentrated attention to black students is harder to come by. If you're ever interested in looking.

There are many reasons why we have little discussion of black students in the scholarly discourse. For one, scholars think of themselves as being in conversation with other scholars, which thus diminishes the impulse to write about the interests of, say, African American undergraduates, whose interests might not be thought of as advanced by comparison. Second, with so few models writing about experiences working with African American undergraduates, scholars are less inclined to do so.

And there's more. Many professors who are positioned to attend literature conferences and publish scholarship have relatively few black students, even in their African American literature courses. Professors at elite or well-resourced institutions often have lighter teaching loads and fewer African American students than professors at teaching-intensive institutions. By contrast, professors who have heavy teaching loads and work with large numbers of black students tend to have less time and resources to attend conferences and produce scholarly works. (Of course, the template established in the scholarly discourse would not prompt them or anyone to write much about working with black students).

Those are just a few reasons. I suspect there are many more reasons why we haven't seen much writing about what professors are learning and thinking with respect to black students in African American literature classrooms. Yet, we should also consider benefits.

Off the top, we could better serve the students we have and will have in the future if we had more information on what folks (professors and students) have experienced over the last approximately 40 years as courses on African American literature began to appear. We could gain a more complex sense of the field if we had more ideas about how black student interests on canonical texts diverge from the focal subjects of scholars. Over the last 25 years, for instance, we now know that scholars have been especially interested in Toni Morrison's Beloved, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Richard Wright's Native Son, and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Are those works the consensus choice of our students?

African American literature courses first began being offered with regularly after the push for Black Studies courses and programs on college campuses beginning in the late 1960s. That is to say, black students were central to the rise African American literature courses. It seems ironic, if not unfortunate, that those of us teaching African American literature are devoting so little research and writing to the experiences of black students in our classrooms.

A Notebook on Collegiate Students

Friday, January 12, 2018

Rise of the Black Panther #1: a creative approach imagining history

There was a time when discussions of "Africa" permeated African American literary studies perhaps a lot more than today. Sure, people seem to have always discussed Countee Cullen's poem "Heritage," which contained the famous refrain, "What is Africa to me?," and in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Langston Hughes ruminated on those essential rivers: the Congo and the Nile. Where Africa began to really appear, though, with regularly and prominence was in the creative imaginings of black American writers during the 1960s and 1970s.

There was a resurgence of black consciousness during the late 1980s and early 1990s, facilitated largely by hip hop culture, when folks sported African medallions and channeled other aspects of the continent through lyrics, fashion, and a variety of symbols.

I was thinking about the shifts in representations of Africa in African American creative and intellectual history as I read The Rise of the Black Panther #1, written by Evan Narcisse, drawn by Paul Renaud, and colored by Stephane Paitreau. Narcisse is presenting a kind of origin story to Black Panther title written by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Narcisse's and Coates's works are both set in Wakanda, the fictional African nation that is home to Black Panther. Whereas Coates's writing constitutes a kind of present-day Black Panther, Narcisse's origin story comes off as more of a history. He's imagining a past for Wakanda, while also working within the context of the Marvel universe.  

The Rise of the Black Panther does really important work extending views of the people of this most famous fictional African nation. For one, unlike the many wonderful poems and novels on Africa, the comic book form presents visual representations that complement  words. And unlike the many arresting stand-alone images of the continent, the comic book facilitates extended written narratives with a variety of characters.

Narcisse, Renaud, and Paitreau are making the most of the mixed elements of the comic book form by presenting us with so many looks and musings of a Wakandan past. In addition to seeing T'Chaka, the father of current Black Panther, T'Challa, Narcisse presents the chief scientist of Wakanda, Queen N'Yami, who was the first wife of King T'Chaka. N'Yami is T'Challa's mother, but she dies shortly after giving birth. Still, we get a chance to consider her expertise as a scientist and one of Wakanda's key dreamers.

Narcisse does something fascinating with the setup of his narrative as well. The story is narrated from the perspectives, journal entries in fact, of Queen N'Yami and then Queen Ramonda, second wife of King T'Chaka. Their entries are addressed to T'Challa. Narcisse takes us in a unique direction by centering the perspectives of those African women, who in turn inform Black Panther about his familial and national histories. In other words, Narcisse empowers us to gain knowledge about Wakanda the way T'Challa does--through the writings of his mothers.

I'm excited to witness this creative approach to imagining a fictional and powerful African history.

Coverage on another, different run of the Black Panther
A Notebook on Comic Books

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

From Amiri Baraka and Greg Tate to a generation of black men writers

People often talk about the connection between Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin. That makes sense given the epistolary setup of Coates's Between the World and Me, which was designed to echo the frame of Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. Nonetheless, one of the shortcomings in discussions of Coates's work, even in positive discussions, concerns the limited amount of attention that we give to other writers whose contributions may have led us to a figure like Coates.

In this case, we could definitely do more to acknowledge the writings about music by Amiri Baraka and Greg Tate. Their works contribute to a whole network of works by black men, including Mark Anthony Neal, Kevin Young, Colson Whitehead, Brent Hayes Edwards, Coates, and many others. (There are, no doubt, a large number of non-black men who write about music as well).

When Baraka died in 2014, Tate wrote an obituary where he mentioned Baraka's book Black Music. According to Tate,
Black Music introduced superheroic otherworldly entities calling themselves Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Pharaoh Sanders. And did so deploying a style that was as incandescent, indelible and whiplash smarting as the music itself. Laid down like grammatical law in Black Music is the mandate that music journalism seem as possessed by furies as The Music. Count this reporter among those writers who owe their adult vocation to being swept up by Baraka’s elegant prose juju at a tender, volatile age.

Consider this black music journalism genealogy. Tate, who's influenced untold readers and emergent writers, was in turn greatly influenced by Baraka. Beyond his journalism, Baraka's verse placed him at the forefront of what's known as jazz poetry. Moreover, it's not uncommon to hear his work discussed in the realm of blues poetry.

Baraka's writings about jazz in verse and prose provided a blueprint for a blueprint for what Tate did in hip hop journalism for The Village Voice. Like Baraka, Tate was perpetually blending the rules of so-called proper English, utilizing unconventional spellings, deploying vernacular terminology, and referencing aspects of vibrant black expressive traditions.

Before publishing his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, Coates was making pitches to publish a history of hip hop. He was among many black men interested in writing the histories of hip hop. The editor Chris Jackson rejected Coates's idea, but eventually suggested that Coates write about a book about his life and father. The Beautiful Struggle is still in some respects a book about a black boy's relationship with black music.

Coates was one of many black men writers who turned to black music as a point of reference and as an art form that inspired a sense of consciousness and awareness about African American conditions. Those writings stretch to Baraka's Blues People (1963) and Blues Music (1968), up through Tate's writing for The Village Voice.

Writing about the music has been a way of reflecting on and demonstrating African American creativity and consciousness for a large number of black men. Baraka and Tate remain crucial gateways for the expansive body of work that black men have produced about black music.    

A Notebook on Black Boys, Black Men & Creativity
Amiri Baraka

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Reading Baldwin Using Google Trends

By Kenton Rambsy

My time at the Dallas Institute teaching “Reading James Baldwin in the Digital Age” has made me consider how online resources play a vital role in shaping conversations about the late literary figure. In my last class, I discussed Baldwin’s online presence and used Google Trends to track the frequency at which people did internet searches for the writer.

Around February 2016, there was a spike in Google searches on Baldwin. That spike coincided with the release of the film I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck that focused on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember this House, about slain civil rights activists Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

After pointing out this observation, many attendees in the audience noted how after seeing the movie, they were encouraged to go and read Baldwin’s essays. In short, the movie stirred an interest in Baldwin. I was not surprised by this revelation. Movies have played a significant role introducing wider audiences to black writers. The film The Color Purple certainly raised the visibility of Alice Walker and her work, and adaptations of A Lesson Before Dying and Their Eyes Were Watching God prompted additional interest in Ernest Gaines and Zora Neale Hurston, respectively.

I used Google Trends to reveal the top 5 related searches and queries related to Baldwin. Many of the search returns reflect people’s interest in the movie. In the related topics, “Documentary film” is the top searched item and in the related queries, “i am not your negro” ranks as number one.

Some people were surprised to see contemporary writer “Ta-Nehisi Coates” rank second among the most searched topics. I noted to audience, however, that that Toni Morrison had provided a blurb, which circulated widely, for Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015). The blurb linked Coates to Baldwin, as Morrison wrote: “I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.”

Another finding that stood out was the fifth “related query.” The phrase “buckley baldwin debate” references one of Baldwin’s most popular YouTube videos. The 1965 debate has received over 1.2 million views since being posted 5 years ago. This past February, I created a post where I highlighted 10 James Baldwin speeches and interviews on YouTube.

Like many entertainers, celebrity personalities, and politicians, YouTube has also played a pivotal role in bringing attention to writers such as Baldwin. The fact that we have so many videos that showcase Baldwin’s personality contributes to his online popularity. Moreover, these videos have introduced younger generations to Baldwin.

Overall, I used Google Trends to provide a glimpse of how online sources might influence our current conceptions of Baldwin. This last class gave participants an indication of how the internet might influence how we understand, search for, and consume the works of major writers.

Reading James Baldwin in the Digital Age