Black South literature: before day annotations (for Blyden Jackson).
Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.
It is possible to escape the yoke Hurston fashioned in the second paragraph by turning to the haunting stories in Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children (1938), stories that remember everything we must not forget. The escape, however, is rather an instance of jumping from the frying pan into the kettle, because one intriguing gloss on Hurston's illusion of forgetting and Wright's verifiable remembering issued from the lips of an ex-slave who problematized the South whence the fictions emerged. It appears in Booker T. Washington's "An Address Delivered at the Opening of the Cotton Stated Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, September, 1895":
A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, "Water, water, we die of thirst!" The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back: "Cast down your bucket where you are."
In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.
Washington's dream pertained to the the coming "into our beloved South a new heaven and a new earth." Washington resigned in 1915, and the 1930s mocked his dream in double measure, sending the plague of the Depression and challenges to (his)(story) by way of Wright's depiction of how the old hell prevailed in history and Hurston's disputation with the emotional truth of history in (her)(story).
Move from Washington's pre-future gloss to the contemporary paratext of Hurston's review of Uncle Tom's Children. Wright's stories are "so grim that the Dismal Swamp of race hatred must be where they live." And although she admits Wright's collection "contains some beautiful writing," she hopes he "will find in Negro life a vehicle for his talents." He had found the vehicle, but it was necessary to move the children out of Mrs. Stowe's cabin so they would not be enslaved to the long dream of the new heaven on the muck! Such is the vicious modernism of intertextuality to be given to some alien Other who asks about the intimacy of Black South literature.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's "Songs for the People" was published in 1895; Harper's poem is echoed thematically and given specification in Margaret Walker's iconic "For My People." The way out of the kettle and of dealing with essential Black South tensions (Washington /Du Bois and Wright/Hurston) is to turn to the legacy of Margaret Walker's vision.
For My People. New Haven: Yale UP, 1942.
Asserting directly the desire Toomer hinted at in Cane (1923), Margaret Walker's first published poem "I Want to Write" (Crisis May 1934) begins:
I want to write I want to write the songs of my people. I want to hear them singing melodies in the dark. I want to catch the List floathing strains from their sob-torn throats.
Eight years later, Walker proved how genuine her intent was with the publication of the award-winning volume For My People. From the beginning, as Eleanor Traylor has written, Walker "mine[d] the depth of heritage: music (melos), memory (ethos), and community (epos)."
Shortly after the publication of Margaret Walker's first book, Louis Untermeyer wrote in the Yale Review (Winter 1943):
Margaret Walker's "For My People" has a double distinction: it is this year's selection in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and it is the first volume by a Negro to win the competitive honor. The title is not only apt but more than ordinarily expressive. These are poems which reflect the individual and a race, poems in which the body and spirit of a great group of people are revealed with vigor and undeviating integrity. The book is by no means flawless. The sonnets in the third section are loosely rhetorical and, for the most part, commonplace. The dialect verses which compose the second section are faltering imitations of gutter blues, swaggering ballads, and hearty folk-stuff; they read like nothing so much as Langston Hughes turned soft or Paul Laurence Dunbar turned sour.
The universally respected test of time has proven Untermeyer right about the vigor and integrity of the book and shortsighted in his ignoring what Stephen Vincent Benet said about Walker's having "made living and passionate speech" and about the writing of "her own kind of sonnet" in his foreword to the volume. Hindsight might suggest For My People is a bridge between the world of the Harlem Renaissance and the '30s, and the new world order that emerged with the end of World War II and the '50s.
Fifty years after its publication, the book is a permanent element in the African American canon. It is Margaret Walker's definitive signature of intimacy between orality and literacy under the sign of Nommo.
Some of the most perceptive critical attention to For My People is to be found in R. Baxter Miller's "The 'Etched Flame' of Margaret Walker: Biblical and Literary Re-Creation in Southern History," Tennessee Studies in Literature 26 (1981): 157-72 [rpt. in Black Southern Voices, 591-604]; Eugenia Collier's "Fields Watered with Blood: Myth and Ritual in the Poetry of Margaret Walker," Black Women Writers (1950-1980), ed. Mari Evans (Garden City: Anchor, 1984),499-510; and Richard Barksdale's "Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical Prophecy," Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960, ed. R. Baxter Miller (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986),104-17. Jubilee. Boston: Houghton, 1966.
"There's a difference," Margaret Walker remarked to Claudia Tate in an interview, "between writing about something and living through it. I did both. I think I was meant to write Jubilee." Published on September 26, 1966, Jubilee was the result of thirty years of work. It won a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award, has been translated into seven languages, and has enjoyed widespread critical and popular success. Among historical novels, Jubilee has special importance. It is indebted not only to the slave narratives generally but also to an ancestor's slave narrative, because the novel is the story of Walker's great-grandmother. It is a tribute to the strength of family, to ancestral memory, to the will to name and control one's place in history. Considered within the context of women's writing, Jubilee is prototypical in its handling of slavery and the Civil War, because it casts a strong light on the human agency at work in the creation of history. In that sense, it exposed some of the limits of "official" history and opened new space for the activity of (re)memorying that is realized in Toni Morrison's Beloved. Jubilee is at once confirming, affirmative, and cathartic.
The opera Jubilee, with music by Ulysses Kay and libretto by Donald Dorr, based on Walker's novel, had its world premiere in Jackson, Mississippi on November 19, 1977.
For useful analyses of this historical novel see Phyllis Klotman's" 'Oh Freedom' - Women and History in Margaret Walker's Jubilee," Black American Literature Forum 11 (1977): 139-45; Minrose Gwin's "Jubilee: The Black Woman's Celebration of Human Community," Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985), 132-50; Bernard W. Bell's The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987), 285-90; and Melissa Walker's Down from the Mountaintop: Black Women's Novels in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement, 1966-1989 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1991),15-26.
Prophets for a New Day. Detroit:
In the first collection of poems to appear since the publication of For My People, Walker wrote with love and passion about the Civil Rights Movement and the people who corrected the course of history with moral imperatives, frequently paying the cost with their lives. Walker again makes special use of African American heritage, appropriating Biblical history to figure forth those heroes who are the prophets of our new day. Such poems as "For Malcolm X," "Jeremiah," "Joel," and "Micah" are poignant reminders that much of the strength in Walker's poetry has to do with her stalwart Christian faith as well as her profound knowledge of African consciousness.
See B. Dilla Buckner's "Folkloric Elements in Margaret Walker's Poetry," CLA Journal 33 (1990): 367-77.
How I Wrote Jubilee. Chicago: Third World, 1972.
"How can an artist take a fact of history, make it pulse with the genius, excitement, and suspense of great fiction, and at the same time keep veri-similar the work's major concern?" asked Gloria Wade-Gayles. The historical novel in question was Jubilee. Margaret Walker's detailed account of the long creative odyssey from her grandmother's story about Vyry and Randall Ware and the facts of slavery to her own embodiment of "the naked truth" was the answer. The staff of the Institute of the Black World noted that the special importance of this account is its revelation of "the creative ways in which methods and materials of the social science scholar may be joined with the craft and viewpoint of the poet/novelist to create authentic black literature."
October Journey. Detroit: Broadside, 1973.
The poems in Walker's third collection celebrate some of the people who had special meaning in her life and thought - her father Sigismund C. Walker, Langston Hughes, Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks, and the multitudes of dark people who must now and in the future make their own "October Journey." The final lines of "Dear Are The Names That Charmed Me In My Youth" provide a hint about the fortitude that has sustained Walker throughout her career as an intellectual writer, and teacher:
I cannot blame another for my fate nor cry a cropper full of tears and glee. Why should I burgeon memories with hate? I have no right, and no necessity.
A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker. Washington: Howard UP, 1974.
These intense conversations between two generations of black women, Louis Dollarhide noted in his Jackson Daily News review of May 26,1974, are "almost shattering in ... intensity and revelation." What seems most shattering, as one reads them from a distance of almost two decades, is the sense that the thorough integration of ethos and art that informs this dialogue is too often missing from more recent theoretically and politically correct feminist discourse. This book reminds us that, however much Walker and Giovanni agreed or disagreed on a broad range of topics - poetic temperament, the Vietnam War, racial struggles, the changing significance of gender, the philosophy of literature, violence - they did not have to wear the mask when they spoke to one another. This book is an important reminder for those on the margins of deconstructive poststructuralism that real human communication has lasting value.
Richard Wright. Daemonic Genius. New York: Warner, 1988.
There are as many ways of writing biography as there are lives to be written about. In this study of Richard Wright's life and work, Walker concentrates on the development of ideas. She is very much aware, as she reveals in the preface, that Wright's "intellectual development and his Welt-an-schauung, or worldview, place him in the forefront of twentieth-century life and culture, and it is in this area that this book seeks to break ground." Walker makes us aware also that Wright's primary conception of the world began in Mississippi. It is impossible to understand Wright unless one understands the crucial role of his earliest environment in shaping his life and his thinking about the function of writing. The importance of the South as a point of origin is implicit in Walker's assertion about the threefold purpose of her book: "to define Richard Wright, to analyze and assess his work, and to show the correlation between the man and his work." As she adds, "Wright is too important to be lost in the confusion of race and politics and racist literary history and criticism so evident in the twentieth century." In short, the critical biography must be devastatingly honest about the psychology of its subject and all the forces that went into making the subject who he was, including the force of his own creations.
As a writer and scholar, Walker blends artistry and the careful sifting of relevant data into a very readable book. Here an artist portrays an artist, using the resources of scholarship to set a man's life and work in context. Whether one is a Wright scholar or someone who knows little about Wright, this biography provides crucial information. When one reads the book from dedication and epigram all the way through to Walker's keynote speech for the International Symposium on Richard Wright (1985), one then understands that "the real significance of Richard Wright is in the world of his ideas placed in the context of his times, and his human condition."
In accounting for the fifty-two years of Wright's life, Walker provides a provocative discussion of the essentials in Wright's unfinished quest. Wright's journey was necessitated by his daemonic genius or compulsive intelligence and his anger in the face of the world's absurd injustices. Exploring Wright's psychosexual spectrum, Walker does in biography what a physicist would do in making a spectrographic analysis: She exposes the quality and quantity of parts. By exploring Wright's "psychic wound of racism," Walker reveals a great deal about the interior world of Wright's thought; she gives us a plausible explanation of how anger, ambivalence, and alienation inform his works. The biography also provides grounds for new inquiry about Wright's aesthetics; his relation to Marxism, Pan-Africanism, and existentialism; and his ability to synthesize the great ideas of the twentieth century. The book is a remarkable resource for serious study of Mississippi's native son, complementing the previous biographical investigations.
Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius is written from the inside of African American/Black South culture. As I asserted my response to a strong critique of the biography from the perspective of European culture,(1) "Walker's book is an innovation that exposes the problematics of genre. In writing a biography, Walker exposes the productive tension between the self-contained view of the individual that is dominant in Euroamerican thought and the ensembled view of individualism which is germane to African-American culture." This engaging book bespeaks the urgency of reclaiming Wright's legacy, a task it may be impossible to accomplish without pride and prejudice.
This is My Century: New and Collected Poems. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1989.
This volume brings together one hundred of Walker's poems. In addition to For My People, the volume includes Prophets for a New Day, October Journey, and thirty-seven previously uncollected poems.
The most brilliant commentary to date on this volume is Eleanor W. Traylor's" 'Bolder Measures Crashing Through': Margaret Walker's Poem of the Century," Callaloo 10 (1988): 570-95.
How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature. New York: Feminist, 1990.
Amiri Baraka has predicted that this collection of Walker's speeches and essays will be required reading for American intellectuals, and his judgment reinforces a point that Maryemma Graham makes in her introduction to the book. The collection "illuminates Walker's importance to the history of ideas that has been reflected in Black writing in America for half a century and to contemporary developments in literary and social thought. In commenting upon the culture of America and the ideas so central to it - religion, family, racial consciousness, the role of women - these essays serve as a useful introduction to Margaret Walker's thought." Besides the invaluable testimony about Walker's historical method in How I Wrote Jubilee, the collection includes such seminal essays as "Rediscovering Black Women Writers in the Mecca of the New Negro," "Some Aspects of the Black Aesthetic," and "The Humanistic Tradition of Afro-American Literature." One very important essay, "Religion, Poetry and History: Foundations for a New Educational System," originally published in The Black Seventies, edited by Floyd B. Barbour (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1970), is not reprinted here. This book provides some of the material we need in our effort to assess how for a period of fifty years Margaret Walker's transcendent imagination has indeed been a gift for her people.
A Digression on Directions
some black boys go deep south chiseling attitudes, rise to recognition up north, somewhere, somewhere up north the compass cannot read.
some black boys stay deep south, battling the cobwebs of a long and lonely dream, making something somewhere somehow out of nothing.
and then, some black boys know deep south and only be.
Almost two decades ago, I was a panelist on the "Firing Line" program; the subject was "The Southern Imagination." Eudora Welty and Walker Percy were eloquent and profound. In fact, William Buckley's Socratic posturing seemed decidedly out of place against the sterling common sense of Percy and Welty. Gordon Weaver, then director of the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, sat to my right, and Dan Hise of the English department at Millsaps sat to my left. I was centered like a volcano on the verge of eruption. When Buckley got around to asking the panel for questions, I put my displeasure on record:
Buckley: Professor Jerry Ward of the English Department of Tougaloo College.
Ward: Yes, Mr. Buckley, perhaps this was an oversight in programming, but as we try to find what are the sources of the Southern imagination, it seems to me that we should have considered the black writers from the South.
Buckley: Well, two of them were mentioned.
Ward: Now, we did mention Ellison and we did mention Richard Wright. We said nothing about Margaret Walker Alexander, for example, or Ernest Gaines or Alice Walker, who is from Georgia. It seems that if we are looking for something in the South that is new, a group of writers who have not decided that the South is really dead and who are still trying to find something there to hang on to, something that they can develop in their writing, it would be coming from the younger black writers and some of the older ones. Now there is something that Miss Welty uses quite a bit in her work that a lot of the black writers have been using and are trying to develop in a new way, and that is folklore - a feeling for the people, a feeling for those things that have been closest to the hearts of the people although they might not have received any kind of academic recognition. (Transcript of the "Firing Line" program taped at WMAA in Jackson, Mississippi, on December 12, 1972, and originally telecast on PBS on December 24, 1972, p. 9)
In my mind twenty years ago was the conviction that one touchstone of Southern literature and imagination is a very fine feeling for human being, and that acute sensitivity to human variety is not a product of politically correct color-blindness. The Southern imagination spoke a multicultural language because it was multicultural by nature rather than by theory in the passe compose of intellocrats.
Between the "Firing Line" program and now, the academic world in which I labor has been affected and infected by the deconstructive virus of the post-modern and compelling interests in difference, otherness, absence, and gender, particularly in the study of literature(s) and culture(s). With regard to the matter of Southern literature, the assault on traditionally constituted humanistic values has not been deadly. Challenging certainly, but not death-making. Academic uncertainty obligates us to ask once more what Southern literature is, while the common sense of Southern living tells us the answer win be a long time coming. The question discovers a response in elaborated descriptions of family resemblance, not in any single assertion. In light of what is currently fashionable in literary study, there is cause for wanting to reconnect the human being with language and to explore a portion of the vast territory called Southern literature. In defiance of fashion and in defense of literature and literacy, there is much to be gained from speculating on what new directions in the study of Black Southern literature might reveal.
My interest in such speculation has two points of origin: (1) the autobiographical perspectives of a person who writes poetry and critical prose and (2) the NEH Institutes on Black Southern Culture I taught at Spelman College in the summers of 1981 and 1982, my direction of an NEH Summer Seminar for College Teachers ("Black South: Opening the Text") in 1984, and my recently finishing the job of editing Black Southern Voices, an anthology originally conceptualized by John Oliver Killens. Somewhere in the mix is my fascination with socially located aesthetic responses, especially our varied responses to literary texts.
The first point of origin is implicated with the very concept of the Black South as a place or a frame of mind. It is based on what Lerone Bennett once called "parahistory," the possibility that African Americans and other Americans occupied the same space but that their perceptions of time and its significance were fundamentally different. Within this conceptual context, literature is Black South by virtue of its place of origin and its direct or indirect response to historical circumstances that existed or exist only in the South. Of course, there is the theoretical possibility that "place of origin" might be identified as a person (Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker are called Southern writers) who is under no obligation to respond to the limits of Southern history. We have to confess that our boundaries are sometimes arbitrary, leading to pragmatic rather than precise descriptions.
The first book in the University of Chicago Press "Black Literature and Culture" series bears the interesting title Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s. As one might expect, several essays in the collection are concerned with canonizing the works that will represent African American literary tradition. Commenting specifically on fiction and the idea of a saintly body of texts, Richard Yarborough wrote:
Although the apparently inevitable process of canonization is shaped by many forces - economic, political, and otherwise - over which, to be frank, most scholars have little control, what we can and should effect is the preparation of the ground upon which the canon is to be constructed. That is, we cannot be content merely to scrape the topsoil off buried - and because unseen, unheard - fictional texts by black American authors. We must continually attempt to resuscitate these materials through careful interpretation and judicious contextualization so that the stifled voices ring clearly once more.
Yarborough's remarks catch the attention. What might be done to let the voices of Black South writing speak clearly once more?
John Oliver Killens insisted that Black Southern Voices should include so-called established writers as well as "new Black Southern writers ... with new perceptions and perspectives." The anthology, Killens felt, was necessary because "a people cannot transcend its history unless it first faces its history squarely and truthfully, which is the essence of what the Black Southern literary tradition is all about." Facing history and literature/writing squarely is fundamental in any study of Black South literature in and beyond its germinal culture(s). Study has to be undertaken with a broader base of knowledge than we may currently possess. Yarborough thus echoes Killens. Resuscitation is a necessary beginning, a literary act with political implications.
Rediscovering the territory may begin with the presupposition that literature is functional within a culture. We can argue about the nature of function later. The literature I have in mind is not usually counted as canon fodder by fashionable theory and criticism. Black South literature (writing) as I might reconfigure it would embrace works that are the least likely candidates for sainthood - popular fiction, self-published writing, "literary" works that appear in newspapers and magazines, propaganda broadsides, journals that have very short lives, histories and autobiographies, playscripts that sometimes get produced but not published, reviews and commentaries that appear in places not designated "literary." In Black Southern Voices, for example, material often counted non-literary (Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail"; autobiographical writing by Amelia Platts Boynton Robinson, Joyce Ladner, and Angela Davis; and Jack O'Dell's notes on the Civil Rights Movement) is side by side with traditionally defined poetry, fiction, and drama. So, anyone reading the anthology has the chance to shift between the literary and the "non-literary"; in short, to compare how diverse kinds of writing influence sense and sensibility, our tastes, our actions, and our knowledge. New directions in the study of Black Southern literature tend to be radical armed with (1) documentation of writing and orature and with (2) historically-conscious questions about the functions of writing. The new directions take us away from study of literature in the codes and jargon of the clergy into the study of what may be literary in the domain of literacy.
My modest proposal is that careful reading and theorizing about Black South literature be cultivated - including projects like those sketched out by Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, projects of comparative study with White South literature - so that ultimately literature comes to be understood more as enabling items in the lives of human beings and less as museum objects of an individual author's brilliance. And only when we have cut through to the core of how language is used will we be prepared to articulate how the Southern imagination is put together and refracted in Southern literature. Otherwise, we will perpetuate lies, myths, and academic practices that dull the edges of reason and imagination.
New directions begin with bibliography in a new key - not the usual neat arrangement of entries on published materials (fiction, drama, poetry, nonfiction) alone. Print and non-print materials have to be listed, but there is also importance in documenting the existence of unpublished work (for the sake of the whole record of how literacy got used). For example, the Southern Black Cultural Alliance, a federation of people interested in community theatre and other art forms in the South, had a collection of over 200 playscripts in Miami. There is no checklist of these plays, and with the unfortunate death in 1991 of the SBCA director, it's unlikely there'll be one soon. Preparing an annotated checklist of those plays would be somebody's worthwhile project. The end of such work is not the production of another bibliography - we are flooded with bibliography for bibliography's sake - or even the useful discovery of the dominant themes in drama by Black South playwrights for a particular period. The bibliography should be a way of documenting what SBCA had been about for the seventeen years of its existence, the initial step in examining what groups and individuals participated in its yearly meetings and what sense of artistic community the group managed to keep alive in the Black South. The director, Wendell Narcisse, did keep records of the group's activities, (playbills, programs, memoranda), so the person doing the checklist or a later explorer would find out a great deal about Black South cultural networking. What has all this to do with any understanding of Charlie Braxton's Bluesman in Volume IV of Mississippi Writers or of Kalamu ya Salaam's Somewhere in the World in Black Southern Voices? It would provide a firmer grasp of these playwrights' use of literacy in the context of a particular Southern literary history, a firmer grip on driving forces.
So much depends on how the questions get born. The documentation of SBCA would prompt questions that are not exclusively of a literary nature. It begets questions about the production of literature, and it sends us back to the Free Southern Theatre (founded in Mississippi in 1964), to the revival of interest in the revolutionary potential of drama urged by the need for art in the center of the Civil Rights Movement. And further back to the dramatic presentations which took place in churhes (some Sunday worship services are the purest drama) and forward to why gospel musicals seem to be enjoying some popularity at present, and back again in quest for dramatic materials written by Black South playwrights in the early twentieth century. The questions may have something to do with history, but they have more to do with establishing the fact that the absence of community or commercial theater in much of the Black South is no indicator that drama is and was not present. The odd behavior of the questioner moves us into consideration of playwrights who have not been damned by fame: Alice Lovelace and Pearl Cleage in Atlanta; Tom Dent, Monroe Bean, Sharon Stockard Martin, Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Sybil Kein, Norbert Davidson, John O'Neal, and Kalamu ya Salaam in Louisiana; Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Charlie Braxton, Sterling Plumpp, Angela Jackson, and Billie Jean Young in or from Mississippi Levi Frazier in Memphis; and others in the catalog awaiting construction.
New directions in study necessarily involve new ways of reading, along with the excavation of new information. Consider what remarkable differences might emerge from giving more attention to the less commercialized Black South voices in comparison with those that get advertised as major attractions. Consider what might occur from reading Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder (1936), Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1967), and John Oliver Killens's Great Gittin' Up Morning: The Story of Denmark Vesey (1972), against Alex Haley's Roots (1976), Gloria Naylor's Mama Day (1988), Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose (1986), and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987). No, these books are not all Black South by any definition. What is important, however, is that these works of fiction (or faction, in the case of Haley over a span of fifty years incorporate some aspects of slavery as theme. It matters a great deal that we would have to deal with female and male imaginations and discourses (which may tell us something about gender-determined language); it matters that, if there are any unique Black South features in fiction-making, they should manifest themselves under inspection. Which among these books can best help us to make sense of a Black Southern historical past, help us to break through the slave narratives of the Others' histories into a more active mode of thinking in ourstory, help us to rediscover with Frederick Douglass that mastery of literacy initiates the inscription of emancipatory narratives?
To prevent complete entrapment in the gridlock of canon (even the emerging African American canon), we would do well to inspect a body of fiction that needs to be heard as the Black South voices engage in a great conversation with the world. Lance Jeffers's Witherspoon and Arthenia Bates Millican's Seeds Beneath the Snow, Linda Brown's Rainbow Round Mah Shoulder and Gloree Rogers' Love, or a Reasonable Facsimile; Kiarri T.-H. Cheatwood's Seeds of Consistency, Fruits of Life, C. Eric Lincoln's The Avenue and Clayton City, and Albert Murray's Train Whistle Guitar and The Spyglass Tree. And the fiction that appears in such magazines as Catalyst, Callaloo, African American Review (formerly (Black American Literature Forum), and OBSIDIAN II.
The deep motives of opening the territory of literary/literacy study are located in that desire for reconnecting the human being and language, of fulfilling obligations that fashion and commerce would have us forget or minimize. We have an obligation to study and teach in our universities the work of the ancients and moderns - Hermes Trismegistos and Homer, Aristotle and Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Plato, William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston, Herman Melville and Jane Austen, Shakespeare and George Eliot, Ernest Gaines and Dante, Amixi Baraka and Saint Augustine and all the other voices of the planet worth our ears. At the same time, we have an obligation to persuade young people (and some old ones) that literature is not an inacessible thing, that it can be talked about in ordinary language, and that people very like ourselves do write well. I was pleased as punch a few years ago when one of my students announced that he wanted to write a paper on a book entitled Blackberry Juice from Blues Bones (Salt-Works Press, 1988). It just so happened that the author of the book was David Patrick Bickham, one of Mississippi's talented young poets, and it just happened that Bickham was one of my student's classmates.
Perhaps the new directions can lead to a renewed interest in the poetry of Julia Fields, Sarah Webster Fabio, Sterling Plumpp, Angela Jackson, Gloria T. Hull, and Sterling Brown; Alvin Aubert, Elma Stuckey, Pinkie Gordon Lane, and Gloria Wade-Gayles; Lance Jeffers, Etheridge Knight, Bob Kaufman, Al Young, and Otis Williams. And to what Brenda Marie Osbey and Sybil Kein are trying to preserve in writing poetry immersed in the contours of Louisiana Creole. The new directions may come in the form of essays on underread poets or such innovative studies as Julius Thompson's "The Role of the Black Press as an Outlet for the Work of Contemporary Black Poets: The Case of Mississippi and the Jackson Advocate, 1980-1985" (Jackson State University Researcher 14.3 [1992-93]: 41-57). Or they may take a turn as did my article on "Southern Black Aesthetics: The Case of Nkombo Magazine" (Mississippi Quarterly 44.2 (1991): 143-50) to look at the poetics of a short-lived magazine. Certainly, study of Black South poetry will be indebted to the pioneering work of Stephen E. Henderson, a Black South intellectual of the first order, in Understanding the New Black Poetry (New York: Morrow, 1973). This book provides a model for investigating how poetry manipulates speech, music, and performance. The model can be extended by incorporating the insights of Carolyn M. Rodgers' "Black Poetry - Where It's At," Negro Digest 18.11 (1969): 7-16, and Geneva Smitherman's Talkin' and Testifyin' (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1977 (Boston: Houghton, 1977).
From every angle, the new directions in the study of Black Southern literature must be informed by ideas of positioning and situatedness: language; time; the poet/writer, the text (inert and activated, print, sometimes electronic, and sometimes oral/aural); a referential world, more visual than oral/aural perhaps, in which the authority of something is admitted, and a reader (the common reader, commentator, critic). There is also the presupposition of symbol systems that filter information between the interior and the exterior - the requisite for literacy. The new directions push into recognition public poetry, as in the lyrics of songs, as in the blues and rap; and into recognition how photographs and other visual art forms (as contents of memory) influence our reading of narrative (fiction) and how exposure to television influences our abilities to read or be spectators for drama. And the new directions will give a great deal of attention to autobiography, which from slave/emancipatory narrative to Clifton L. Taulbert's Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored and The Last Train North, is the biotext wherein the self maximizes the possibility of self-possession. And as literacy and literature continue the search for the Southern imagination, they will tell you of the "Theft of Hours That Belong to Sleep/ 'Poor Hetty' as related by Mary Prince, 1831":
Ole massa he was, lawd save us, he was of a powerful terrifying passion and poor Hetty he stripped quite naked and she but twenty and five months pregnant and he ordered her tied up to a magnolia tree
Poor Hetty, he flogged her like her was a dog and hard as he could lick both with cow-skin and whip and she, poor Hetty, was all over streaming with blood and her poor chap screaming in the belly
Ole massa he, devil damn him, rest his arm and then beat her again and again and again like stubborn mule, her back all chopped up flesh and blood and she but twenty, you know, and five months pregnant and her shrieks, them was terrible
and the comeout were that poor Hetty be brought to bed before her time and delivery up a dead child
and poor Hetty, she seemed to recover out of labor but her and him, massa and missus flog Hetty afterwards and Hetty body not strong 'fore long and her body, it and her limbs swell up big and she lay on a mat in the kitchen till the water break out of her body. She died.
All the slave say death was a good thing for poor Hetty, but me, I cried for her death. And so full of horror I could not stand to think about it, but it would not go away and is present to my mind everyday.
Such is the Black South humanism of intratextuality.
(1) My "Open Letter to Michel Fabre," Mississippi Quarterly 43.2 (1990):235-36 was composed in respose to Michel Fabre's "Margaret Walker's Richard Wright: A Wrong Righted or Wright Wronged?" Mississippi Quarterly 42.4 (1989):429-50.
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|Title Annotation:||Black South Fiction, Art, Culture|
|Author:||Ward, Jerry W., Jr.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1993|
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