Saturday, February 25, 2017

Black writers and high productivity

In the last 18 months of his life, Richard Wright composed 4,000 haiku, which is to say, 12,000 lines of poetry. Between 1976 and 1984, Octavia Butler published 6 novels.  From 1990 through 1997, Walter Mosley published 7 novels and a collection of short stories. From April 1999 to March 2006, Aaron McGruder produced The Boondocks, which contained about 2,500 multi-panel strips. From August 2008 through August 2009, Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his first year of blogging for The Atlantic, published more than 2,000 blog entries.

At some point, we should say more about high productivity and black writers.  

Many of the scholarly articles on African American literature in our field concentrate on one or two works at a time. Scholars tend to focus on the quality of a select work by an author as opposed to the quantity of works some writers produce. Why has that been the focus for so long? Is it because of the auras associated with "best" and "masterpiece," considerations more well-suited for studying a single work as opposed to a body of works?

There's also the issue of "close reading," a longstanding, revered practice among literary scholars of carefully examining a minute aspect of a text. Close reading often privileges the trees, or more accurately, the leaf of a single tree over the forest.  

There's far more conversation and scholarly treatments of Butler's Kindred (1979) as opposed to her 5-novel Patternist series (1976 - 1984). Why? Well, digesting and talking through a full series requires some different kinds of commitments and ways of looking into the literature from us. But at some point, maybe we need more of that.

I enjoyed Colson Whitehead's newest book The Underground Railroad (2016), and I suspect part of my enjoyment emerges from thinking about that book in the context of his other novels. But again, talking through all of the works require something a little different than focusing on one.  

We'll definitely have to re-adjust if we plan to break out of and beyond the one-at-a-time, masterpiece paradigm. 

• May 29: Black men writers and creativity, 1995 - 2016
• May 27: The greatest 25 years in African American women's writing?
A notebook on black boys, black men & creativity

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Cross gender play in black persona poetry

Langston Hughes and Margaret Walker

There's a long history of black poetry taking on the persona of others in their poems. Of course, one of the leading writers in this regard was our guy Langston Hughes. Back in the 1940s, Hughes took on the persona of this fictive character Madam Alberta K. Johnson.

Here's a link to a sampling of those poems:
Madam’s Past History
Madam and the Phone Bill 
Madam and Her Madam
Madam and the Census Man
Madam And The Rent Man
Madam's Calling Cards
Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad has noted  "an assertive, brassy Harlem heroine."

So Hughes pretends to be or plays with the persona of a black woman type. In 1975, Smithsonian Folkways produced a recording of poet Margaret Walker giving readings of Hughes's Alberta K. Johnson poems. In essence, Walker was performing Hughes's black woman character. Or put another way, Walker was taking on Hughes who had taken on the persona of a black woman.  That sent me to wondering about film: what if Viola Davis took on Tyler Perry's persona of Madea? I know it's unlikely to happen.

Black women rarely play black men on screen.  Black men, however, often play the roles of women. Eddie Murphy as Mama Anna Klump, Martin Lawrence as Sheneneh Jenkins and Edna Payne, Jamie Foxx as Wanda,  and most profitably, Perry as Madea.

In poetry, however, women frequently take up the personas of men. Evie Shockley has written in the persona of Frederick Douglass. Opal Palmer Adisa has written as Nat Turner. Elizabeth Alexander has taken on the persona of Muhammad Ali. Patricia Smith has taken on the persona of a skinhead. At the same time, men poets have taken on the roles of women. Robert Hayden took on the persona of Phillis Wheatley. Kevin Young takes up the character of Delilah Redbone in his volume Black Maria. Tyehimba Jess takes on the personas of women in the life of Leadbelly, and Adrian Matejka takes on the personas of women in the life of Jack Johnson.

The late poet Ai crossed racial and gender lines in her poetry more than anyone. Nearly her entire body of work was written in personas of various people.

The tones of Hughes's Madam Alberta K. Johnson poems are more playful than many contemporary cross gender persona poems. Hughes's character was such an outspoken, snarky character that the poems evoke amusement. The representation of Madam Alberta K. Johnson, though, is not as outrageous (and problematic) as some of the antics portrayed by Perry, Foxx, and Lawrence.

Persona poems

African American literary studies, public programming & the Age of Trump

What is the value of public programming and educational projects related to African American literature? Well, it’s a question we’ll likely want to start responding to more deliberately in the Age of Trump, as funding possibilities for the humanities are under threat.

Over the last 30 years, scholars of African American literature have done a good job of highlighting the importance of individual black writers. There are literally thousands of articles accurately extolling the significance of literary art by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, and other writers. Also, award agencies have increasingly bestowed honors on individual black writers, especially novelists and poets. But what about public programming and even courses on African American literature?

You'll struggle to get your hands on a sustained body of scholarship that provides detailed analyses or even general results on how distinct populations benefited from programming and educational activities featuring African American literary art. A large number of us teach African American literature courses. Relatively few of us, though, have produced or been encouraged to produce book-length studies and articles discussing what the writers and literary art means in the lives of the many students we've encountered in classrooms.

In passing conversation, we mention books and authors our students enjoy. That's about it. Yet, how might we measure their enjoyment and struggles with the literature? Why do we write so little about student readers of black writing? And what about general audience encounters with black artistic works?      

Poetry readings are perhaps the most common, out-of-class events that showcase African American literary art. Some years ago, Nikki Giovanni joked that poets respond to nearly any and all situations with a poetry reading. She could be on her death bed, gasping her last breaths, and poets would respond, she said, by saying "Hey, let's help her out by giving a reading."  All jokes aside, there are no shortages of poetry readings. There is, however, a shortage of information on the intellectual benefits and challenges of poetry readings for attendees, especially non-poet attendees.

So far, the coverage of impending arts and humanities budget cuts have not concentrated on African American literary studies and programming. The fields of African American literature, history, and culture have received considerable funding support from major agencies over the years, but such fields nonetheless make up a relatively small share of fields and institutions that receive funding. We are more likely to read news articles about how budget cuts affect opera houses, symphonies, theaters, and museums.

Nonetheless, the challenge and opportunity to expound on the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits of audiences reading or experiencing African American literary art is before us. 

Coverage of the Humanities conversation   (2013)
The presence of poetry awards and the absence of programming (2015)

Roundup of coverage concerning potential arts and humanities budget cuts

Here's a roundup of several articles addressing the potential budget cuts to the arts and humanities by the Trump administration.

• Feb. 23: Eliminating arts funding programs will save Donald Trump just 0.0625% of budget - Christopher Hooton - Independent
• Feb. 22: Trump says he wants to fix our divisions. But he may gut an institution that does exactly that. - Danielle Allen - Washington Post
• Feb. 21: Gillibrand to Trump: Keep funding for NEA, NEH - Robert Harding - Auburnpub
• Feb. 20: NEA, NEH, PBS on the chopping block once again - Michael Barnes - Austin360
• Feb. 19: Arts Groups Draft Battle Plans as Trump Funding Cuts Loom - Michael Cooper et. al - NY Times
• Feb. 17: Popular Domestic Programs Face Ax Under First Trump Budget - LaFraniere and Rappeport - NY Times
• Feb. 15: Save some anger: Chicago loses out if Trump defunds arts, humanities endowments - John Warner - Chicago Tribune
• Feb. 15: Is Indy arts and culture on the chopping block? - Dan Grossman - NUVO
• Feb. 13: The Irony of Trump's Attack on the National Endowment for the Arts - Henry Godinez - Truthout
• Jan. 30: What if Trump Really Does End Money for the Arts? - Graham Bowley - NY Times
• Jan. 26: Here’s What You Can Do To Protect National Arts And Culture Funding - Claire Fallon - Huffington Post
• Jan. 19: Trump team prepares dramatic cuts - Alexander Bolton - The Hill

Coverage of books, authors & special topics 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Elizabeth Alexander, the history, and the rise of African American poetry

When and if we're writing the histories of contemporary black poetry, we might start all the way back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Rita Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987. The Dark Room Collective formed in the late 1980s. Spoken word poetry was moving in new, important directions. And of course there was the emergence of Elizabeth Alexander.

Her poem "The Venus Hottentot" was published in Callaloo in 1989, and then her book of the same title was published in 1990 as "Volume 9" in the Callaloo Poetry Series by the University Press of Virginia. The Venus Hottentot was reviewed in The New York Times, giving the book a level of attention that was fairly uncommon for a volume of poetry by a black writer.

That was almost 27 years ago. Alexander remains one of our most important connectors, a key figure between previous groups of black poetry and and later emergent ones. Her writings about black history,  black music, including a poem on John Coltrane, in The Venus Hottentot echo the creative output of the Black Arts era. At the same time, her poems about painters like Romare Bearden and Frida Kahlo and the photographer James Van DerZee  anticipated a now recurring interest among 21st century poets, who write about painters and artwork.

Elizabeth Alexander
Blog entries about black women poets 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Histories of highly intelligent black males in fictional representations

I was recently re-reading Mark Anthony Neal's book Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013). In particular, I was checking out his writing on The Wire, where he's writing about Stringer Bell, a  cerebral though problematic leader for an illegal drug enterprise. Thinking about Bell had me thinking about the histories of highly intelligent black males in fictional representations.

A shortlist of such characters in novels would include Richard Wright’s Cross Damon from The Outsider (1953), Ishmael Reed’s Raven Quickskill from Flight to Canada (1976), Charles Johnson’s Rutherford Calhoun from Middle Passage (1990), Paul Beatty’s Gunnar Kaufman from The White Boy Shuffle (1996), Colson Whitehead’s James Fulton from The Intuitionist (1999), and Mat Johnson's Chris Jaynes from Pym (2011). Ok, over in comic strips, you'd of course have to note the widely read, 10-year-old black studies scholar Huey Freeman from Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks.

And now, in comic books we have T’Challa and Changamire from Ta-Nehisi Coates's run on Black Panther. The presentations of the wise professor Changamire regularly present him in his library surrounded by and discussing books. The representations of a highly literate black man also appear in Luke Cage on Netflix, where the lead character is shown reading and discussing books a few different times. In poetry, I often think of Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination (2001) and Adrian Matejka's The Big Smoke, where we have these really smart and perceptive lead black male characters ruminating on various subjects.

What are all these black men writers up to by presenting us with these highly intelligent black male characters? In some ways, the writers need those characters in order to explore certain philosophical ideas (especially Wright, Charles Johnson, and Whitehead) and intellectual histories. In addition, life of the mind activities were integral to the personal and professional experiences of those writers, so it's not surprising that they would devise characters and place them in similar situations. (I should quickly add though that there are many writers who have formal academic training who choose not to render such representations).

Finally, some, if not all, of those writers are offering counterarguments to pervasive representations of unintelligent black men in society. The portrayals of simple-minded and foolish black male characters have such long, ongoing histories that people have a hard time deciphering or believing the existence of more complex renderings. Thus, those fictional writers participate in processes, to channel Neal, of making seemingly illegible black male characters legible.

A notebook on black boys, black men & creativity
Black men writers and creativity, 1995 - 2016

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Clint Smith, Contemporary Poetry, and Black History

Poet Clint Smith addresses American presidents

I've enjoyed listening to poet Clint Smith's historical piece "Letter to five of the presidents who owned slaves while they were in office." Or, how about this?I've enjoyed listening to historian Clint Smith's poem "Letter to five of the presidents who owned slaves while they were in office." Take your pick.

Smith's a poet and historian, two facts that are evident based on his "letter" addressing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson. You hear Smith referencing specific details from the lives of the presidents, details that one would acquire by closely consulting the historical record.

"George Washington," Smith opens, "when you won the revolution, how many of your soldiers did you send from a battlefield to the cotton field?" Then later, he goes, "Thomas Jefferson, when you told Sally Hemings that you would free her children if she remained your mistress, did you think there was honor in your ultimatum?" And still later, he has queries James Monroe: "when you proposed sending slaves back to Africa, did black bodies feel like rented tools?" He has questions for James Madison and Andrew Jackson as well.

Troubling facts about these typically revered men are delivered to us by way of a poem. A poem that passes for a letter. A letter operating as a history lesson. A history lesson performing black history. Black history clapping back at great (white) men, interrogating them on their questionable actions. In short, the poem draws from multiple domains and takes on multiple forms. Taking note of the poet (or historian) covering those various realms is part of what makes the letter (history lesson or critique) enjoyable.     

Smith is an experienced spoken word artist, an award-winning performer of verse in fact. One of the more notable instances of his verbal artistry occurs as he quickly addresses one president immediately after finishing a question to another one. It's a kind of enjambment; in this case, it's an acceleration to the next line of critique. That acceleration is a clever, innovative addition that we might not consider if we only had access to a printed version of the poem.  

Situating the bold & bodacious poetic voice of Mahogany L. Browne
Digital Creativity: Tyehimba Jess's "Another Man Done"