Thursday, August 10, 2017

Adrian Matejka--sampling a black interstellar history in verse

My thought, back when I first read Adrian Matejka's The Big Smoke, was that he wasn't going to have a reason to write about so many different kinds of issues -- Jack Johnson, boxing, newspapers, abuse, interracial relationships, and so on -- in a single volume. Not sure what I was thinking. Reading Matejka's newest work, Map to the Stars was a reminder that this process of sampling a variety of material is central to his work and some various other poets and writers.

In the course of this latest volume, Matejka references Jean-Michel Basquiat, George Clinton, Prince, Guion S. Bluford, Sun Ra, Lando Calrissian, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Slick Rick, Larry Holmes, EPMD, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Reggie Miller, among others. Beyond those figures, Matejka discusses several different cultural points of reference, things like basketball, video games, hairstyles, music, movies, television shows, and space travel--real and fictive. He mentions encounters with police, or more specifically efforts to steer clear of cops, because of what could happen.

There are also recurring notations of hearing white folks refer to black folks as nigger. In "Crickets, Racists," Matejka recalls a moment in his youth riding his bicycle one late night. A driver rode past and shouted out the window "Off the road, nigger!" The epithet, the driver, and car startled the young Matejka, leading him to crash his bike into a ditch. He sits there alone in dark and dirt listening to crickets, which, the poet notes, are among the sounds one would hear on the album Sounds of Earth.

Unfortunately, I've heard many recounts over the decades of folks explaining what it felt like after a white person called you "nigger." I have to say, though, Matejka describing sitting their, stunned, and then thinking of crickets and linking that to a recording floating out in space was new for me.

Those crickets, Sun Ra, Prince, movies, all those references appear as Matejka weaves together this black interstellar history in verse. The references also link Matejka to a generation of writers and other artists who were influenced by the mixing, matching, and sampling of hip hop.

Let's see. For Matejka, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kevin Young, Colson Whitehead, Aaron McGruder, Paul Beatty, really a whole generation of black men writers, there's a kind of sampling that persists in their works. I'm not saying you'll see it in the works of all black men nor am I saying it's absent in the compositions of non-black men. There are always exceptions.

Still, it's difficult to overlook the tremendous body of work these guys have put together over the last, wow, 20-plus years. We gotta add Matejka's Map to Stars to that mix. Too, it's worth noting his creativity in making stars, space travel, and interstellar ideas central to the ideas of this black boy figure growing up in Indiana at a certain moment during the 1980s.

A Notebook on Black Boys, Black Men & Creativity
Adrian Matejka

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

From the black aesthetic to black aesthetics to form

"Is more attention now given to aesthetics than to an aesthetic?" --Jerry W. Ward, Jr.*
Yes, today, we're more likely to see witness folks exploring a range of aesthetics or cultural signifies as opposed to a single one or even just two, three, or four. I think about a novel like Paul Beatty's The Sellout, where he references more than 300 African American cultural figures. All those references and the intra-racial conflicts among the black characters in the novel are suggestive about the multiplicity of African American perspectives and culture.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I really wanted to briefly reflect on aesthetic and aesthetics, and then move to a term that stands out much more: "form."

Beginning in the late 1960s, groups of black writers began advocating for and debating something known as "the Black Aesthetic." When and if you look over the writings, you'll notice that there was no one, clear-cut definition of the concept. Some folks thought there was a need to "establish a black aesthetic." Others, like Larry Neal, explained that "There is a no need to establish a ‘black aesthetic.’ Rather it is important to understand that one already exists." The conversations and debates carried on throughout the 1970s.

Many discussions about "the" or "a" black aesthetic were propelled and sustained by Black World magazine and when the periodical ceased publication in 1976, the conversation seemed to subside. At least, there were fewer powerful venues for black writers and intellectuals to discuss that term and other issues. In 1989 in the journal Callaloo, novelist Trey Ellis published an essay "The New Black Aesthetic," which became widely cited and a spur for talks about shifts taking place in African American artistic production.

But even before that, back in 1983, literary scholar Jerry W. Ward, Jr., presented an essay and mentioned the need to consider "the transformation of literature of the Black Aesthetic into literature concerned with black aesthetics." In retrospect, what Ward was saying may have anticipated Ellis's article. A number of transformations and developments in black artistic production, including film, visual art, and music, particularly hip hop, transpired and really expanded and reshaped the cultural landscape in all kinds of ways.

Ok, but one of the major shifts for current and future writers began taking place in the 1990s, when there was an incredible expansion of creative writing programs. Those programs signaled, among other things, a professionalization or credentialing that has been crucial, for better and worst, many poets will tell you, for the field. "It is not until the 1990s," explain Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, "that the idea that one should necessarily turn to higher education if one wants to become a writer becomes an idea that more than 6,000 people have each year."

During the late 1960s and 1970s, the word "aesthetic" was prevalent among several African American poets. These days, more so than "aesthetic" or "aesthetics," the word "form" appears more frequently in the contemporary discourse on poetry. It's partly a byproduct of creative writing programs and the larger writing culture, where mastery of form can suggest who and what stands out in the densely populated field of poetry. In short, formal training gives rise to interest in form.

This is not to say that form didn't matter to previous generations of African American poets. No doubt, Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, and many others were and remain greatly admired for the formal qualities of their works. Too, we know that the blues poetry, for instance, of Langston Hughes and various other poets indicates a deep interest in form, though not always formally recognized.

Having said that, you don't have to read far into contemporary African American poetry to come across sonnets, sestinas, villanelle, palindrome, Ghazals, and other poetic forms. When you talk to poets who teach in creative writing programs, they might tell you about the assignments and prompts that they give to their students related to various forms, even if they -- the teachers and students -- don't go on to deploy those forms in most of their published writing. But all of this circles back to the rise of creative writing programs. When we have 6,000 creative writers, mostly poets, earning degrees each year, then we're inevitably going to see an increase in conversations about form.

So maybe there are a convergence of things happening with respect to African American poetry. More (black) aesthetics and also more (Eurocentric) forms.  


*Note: Jerry W. Ward, Jr. recently circulated a list of several questions from 1981 that he says might need  answers in 2017. I'm using some of his questions and prompts for blog entries.

A Notebook on the Black Arts era
A Notebook on Black Intellectual Histories

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Clive Thompson on YouTube vs. Clive Thompson on Medium

Image source

Ah yes, the joys and frustrations of preparing syllabi for the upcoming semester.

Since the subject and debates about the best approaches to note-taking frequently come up in my classes, I'm definitely assigning Clive Thompson's presentation, "The Pencil and the Keyboard: How The Way You Write Changes the Way You Think," which is available on YouTube. It's a good way to get students thinking about...wait. Rather than that YouTube version, perhaps I should have students read Thompson's "The Joy of Typing: How racing along at 60 words a minute can unlock your mind," which was published on Medium.

For a couple of my classes a year or so ago, I used the YouTube version and a transcript from the talk. At the time, I was unaware of the Medium version. Since then, I caught up. Now, confronted with two discussions on the same topic by a single author, I began wondering about the one I should use.

Then...I figured, why not use both? That way, beyond the subjects of taking notes, writing, and typing, we can in addition discuss what it means to present ideas through different modes. The YouTube version will give students a clearer sense of Thompson's humor  (i.e. his side points about pencil sharpeners) as well as his interactions with an audience. The piece on Medium includes links and different visuals.

Studying alternate book covers for, say, Richard Wright's autobiography and novels by Octavia Butler has helped me nurture my interests in versions of common texts over the years. More recently, I identified different versions of poets presenting their poems, like Gwendolyn Brooks reading "We Real Cool" here, here, here, and here.

Hopefully, covering these versions of a single writer focusing on writing vs. typing will lead us to discussions about Clive Thompson vs. Clive Thompson, our presenter selves vs. our writer selves, speeches vs. essays, YouTube vids vs. blogs, and maybe even revision vs. remix.

Class notes
A Notebook on Clive Thompson's Smarter Than You Think

Class notes

What follows are entries concerning notations, plans, processes related to courses I teach.

• August 8: Clive Thompson on YouTube vs. Clive Thompson on Medium
• July 31: Assigning The Blerd Gurl in an African American literature course

• December 30: Teaching an Afr-Am lit. course with audio recordings of black women reading poetry as the basis
• Decmeber 30: Beyond Electives: Rethinking African American literature courses
• December 29: Teaching an African American Literature course on Ta-Nehisi Coates in fall 2016
• July 2: April Reign as literary artist?

• January 8: Student rappers & poets in an African American Literature course

• November 3: What scares black students in a black poetry course
• November 2: What scares white Students in a Black Poetry Course 
• October 30: The Fear of Explaining Evie Shockley's Approaches to Design 

A Notebook on Collegiate Students
African American Literature @ SIUE

Monday, August 7, 2017

Digital technologies, black pain, and its abstractions

When scholars discuss "black pain" and "trauma," they often reference slavery, including "the horrors" of the Middle Passage. Since August 2014, which is to say, since the shooting death of Michael Brown, and then various other police brutality deaths, we've heard more on black pain and black lives in those contexts. Still, in my academic worlds, I rarely come across discussions of contemporary gun violence and the associated pain and trauma.

Of course, topics concerning gun violence in black communities are tricky and tough subjects for academics. Black scholars worry about getting caught up in the quagmire of retrogressive conversations about so-called "black-on-black crime" -- an inaccurate and troubling, yet persistent phrase. The many liberal white scholars who study African American literature and culture are fearful, I suspect, when it comes to talking about violent, intra-racial black conflicts. Safer to stay on the sidelines. Plus, graduate school training prepares rising scholars to research, discuss, and write about the agonies of enslavement, but not the many contemporary cases of teenage black boys shooting other teenage black boys. Again, it's tricky, tough.

For over a decade now, I've thought and talked about gun violence in my adopted city, St. Louis, mostly with family, friends, and guys at the barbershop. When it comes to coverage though, I've most frequently read about gun violence in Chicago, in large part because of the prolific compositions by some of their journalists. The place where I began to put gun violence into broader perspectives emerged a few years back when I discovered the Baltimore Sun's Homicide page.

The site tracks homicides in Baltimore from 2007 - 2017. You can use drop down tabs to create targeted searches for, say, the number of black males, ages 18 to 25, in a given zip code, killed over the past 3 months or for all of 2017 or all of 2015 or 2005. We know, for instance, that as of August 4, 2017, there were 210 homicides in the city, with 175 of those deaths being black males.159 of those 175 homicides were shootings.

I was recently reading a  thoughtful article "New World: The Impact of Digitization on the Study of Slavery" by Britt Rusert, where she mentioned that "a growing number of digital archives, databases, and other digitization projects focused on slavery, are transforming how scholars study both the history and literature of enslavement." Rusert "reflects on conversations about slavery and the archive in light of the digital turn." Rusert is discussing the "digital turn" with respect to slavery, but the article has implications for other areas as well.

When I read the piece, I immediately thought of that Baltimore Homicide site as well as the Chicago site, which also tracks homicides. The sites are seductive in their usability. And the archives, databases, and maps central to those sites correspond to a digital turn or two, don't you think?

Of course, further, there's something abstract about knowing that 175 black males (which includes boys and men) have been killed in Baltimore, or that 380 of the 416 homicides in Chicago so far this year have been the result of shootings. When people and incidents become numbers and the numbers become increasingly large, we struggle to discuss or even grasp specific occurrences -- the violent ends of a lives -- in concrete terms.

I think about that abstraction, the problem of transforming individual people into numbers and plot points on maps. Conversely though, I consider the limits of the localized and specific conversations we have around here in St. Louis without placing things in some larger contexts. So in other words, without digital technologies, we'd struggle to conceive of the pain associated with gun violence and its abstractions, and without attention to local conversations, we'd overlook some ongoing, contemporaneous black pain.

A Notebook on gun violence

Friday, August 4, 2017

Noble and the visual storytelling of Roger Robinson, Brandon Thomas

Image source: Roger Robinson

From one perspective, comic books are comprised of written narratives about superheroes and villains and the struggles of good vs. evil. At the same time, from another perspective, a visual perspective, comic books result from a team of creators collaborating to depict an expanded sequence of events, through subtle and dramatic actions. Even though viewing is central to the practice of "reading" comics, our discussions and reviews often privilege the written narratives over the artwork.

Brandon Thomas's interest in highlighting action scenes in Noble means that he is something of a minimalist as a writer. For Thomas, "writing" includes communicating off the page with the artist Roger Robinson to represent those scenes. Accordingly, I've been inclined to think about Robinson's contributions to visual storytelling in ways that may have escaped me if Noble had been overly written with too many words.

Image source: Roger Robinson

It just so happens that Robinson provides me with guidance on how to read him as an artist via his Facebook and Twitter social media accounts, where he posts his wordless and colorless drawings. In one recent tweet, Robinson presented one of his images from the comic book and added the caption "Some fun storytelling frm #NOBLE #2. [Brandon Thomas] wrote this great scene." In another tweet, he posts an image from a scene he drew of the protagonist running. "This was a cool sequence to draw," tweeted Robinson, and he includes the hashtags, #storytelling and #drawingcomics.

For Robinson, drawing and storytelling are interrelated. In fact, drawing is a form of storytelling. Robinson's most dramatic tales so far involve what he's penciled of protagonist David Powell battling would-be captors, saving people, leaping high into the air over great distances, and moving and disassembling objects with his kinetic superpowers.

Image source: Roger Robinson 

Those are the more dramatic images. Robinson also draws close-ups of various people to signal the intensity of their emotions, and in addition, to display the diversity of people who populate Noble. One image, which Robinson tweeted about, "Shows a strong black woman" walking with a sense of purpose and determination as she seeks to "find her man."

I began paying closer attention to Robinson's drawing/storytelling in part based on Thomas's approach to writing Noble. And now, investigating Robinson's sketches presented on Twitter lead me to observe more closely the lettering and coloring contributions by Saida Temofonte and Juan Fernandez, respectively, in the finished product.

The creative, collaborative work of action scenes in Noble
Noble's cultural and geographic diversity
Coverage of Noble
A Notebook on comic books

Monday, July 31, 2017

Assigning The Blerd Gurl in an African American literature course

Image source

The inclusion of writings by the Blerd Gurl (Karama Horne) will be one of the exciting, new additions to the syllabus for one of my African American literature courses this coming semester. When it comes to black writers, literature courses usually include poets like Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and novelists such as Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, among others. I'll include those writers, but I'll expand a little by including a commentator who often writes about comic books and the industry.

I've enjoyed reading and learning from the Blerd Gurl's perspective on various topics. So why not her work with my students? I predict that the young'ins enrolled in my class will appreciate the tone of Blerd Gurl's writing style. I mean...she goes by the moniker Blerd Gurl. Seriously though, her writing has an immediate or contemporary feel that the students will value.

I'm still adjusting the course readings, but I'll likely include the Blerd Gurl's "Riri, Rhodey and Re-Skinning: How Marvel is Misunderstanding Diversity" and of course "theblerdgurl Manifesto." She has several reviews I could choose, and right now I'm leaning toward her assessment, "What’s Right and What’s Wrong with Marvel’s Infinity Gauntlet." We'll see though.

The Blerd Gurl is, by the way, an important voice among a vibrant chorus of black writers and women of color, including Jamie Broadnax of Black Girl NerdsTatiana King, Angelica Jade BastiĆ©n, and Kennedy Allen among many others, who cover popular culture and geek culture. Hopefully, we'll get the chance to talk about some of those various other writers, and identify some of their recurring and overlapping topics.

In previous years, I would assign reading selections chronologically and thus save the most contemporary writers for later in the semester. But not this time. Several years teaching has taught me that students lose steam as the semester moves forward, so why not foreground some of the more recent authors? I'm going to disrupt chronology and figure out ways to present Blerd Gurl and other contemporary writers a little earlier
in the semester.

• A Notebook on comic books
• African American Literary Studies