Honoring the achievement of African American writers

This week in North Philly Notes, we post an excerpt from Werner Sollors’ new book, African American Writing: A Literary Approach

In a lecture on “The Literature of the Negro in the United States” Richard Wright said that the literature should be understood against the background of the global movement from traditional, rural, religiously based, and pre-individual cultures, to modern, urban, industrial, secular, and stridently individual, societies. It is for this reason that, despite all specificities and differences, “one ought to use the same concepts in discussing Negro life that one used in discussing white life.” In this context, Wright arrived at one of his most famous quips:

 The history of the Negro in America is the history of America written  in vivid and bloody terms; it is the history of Western Man writ small. It is the history of men who tried to adjust themselves to a world whose laws, customs, and instruments of force were leveled against them. The Negro is America’s metaphor.

Today’s students may find Wright’s gendered language and the very word “Negro” antiquated, if not reactionary. Yet they may be overlooking the Enlightenment legacy both of the study of black literature–that began in the wake of the French Revolution with Abbé Henri Grégoire–and of the language of the “rights of man”–that could easily be imagined to stand for men and women: even the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments spoke of “the family of man” in articulating its hope for gender equality. The term “Negro,” too, though it was disparaged by 1960s radicals and satirized by LeRoi Jones as “knee-grow,” was once a dignified term into which the hope for full equality was inscribed. For Wright, the Negro as America’s metaphor was also a mirror for white America. Near the end of his lecture, he said:

The differences between black folk and white folk are not blood or color, and the ties that bind us are deeper than those that separate us. The common road of hope which we have all traveled has brought us into a stronger kinship than any words, laws, or legal claims. Look at us and know us and you will know yourselves, for we are you, looking back at you from the dark mirror of our lives.

“Negro literature” was a global term, capacious enough to include writers anywhere in the world. In fact, from Gustavus Vassa to LeRoi Jones himself, writers most commonly employed the word “Negro” to describe themselves as well as people of African ancestry more generally. Early scholarship in the field in America, much of it written by intellectuals who had to work within the constraints of a racial segregation, supported the political strAfrican American Writing-smuggle for equality and integration. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week during the second week of February to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (1818) and of Abraham Lincoln (1809), a black man and a white man, who together symbolized the end of slavery and the promise of full equality. Woodson had pioneered in history with such classic studies as The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1915) and The History of the Negro Church (1924), and with an early focus on the history of what in the United States is called “miscegenation” (interracial sexual, marital, and family relations). Benjamin Brawley published literary histories that included The Negro Genius (1937); Eva B. Dykes demonstrated the significance of the antislavery struggle for English Romantic literature in The Negro in English Romantic Thought; or, A Study of Sympathy for the Oppressed (1941); the poet-critic Sterling A. Brown critiqued stereotypes and highlighted realistic portrayals in American writing in his Negro Poetry and Negro Drama (1937) and The Negro in American Fiction (1937); Benjamin Mays pioneered in the study of religion and published The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature (1938); the immensely productive historian John Hope Franklin offered a helpfully synthesizing textbook to complement American history textbooks, From Slavery to Freedom (1947); Frank Snowden, who in 1944 submitted his Latin dissertation “De Servis Libertisque Pompeianis,” focused in his Blacks in Antiquity (1970) and Before Color Prejudice (1983) on the role of blacks in the ancient world, a time when there were no black laws or bans on miscegenation; and Marion W. Starling (1946) and Charles H. Nichols (1948) undertook the first full-scale doctoral work on the slave narrative. Such scholarship had the effect of writing blacks into American and global history, rectifying omissions and neglect, and setting the record straight against the then dominant American scholarly opinion that slighted the importance and contributions of blacks. Perhaps the work of generations of “integrationist” scholars (and “integrationist,” once a fighting word, has also become a problematic term) deserves to be considered afresh today and to be taken as guide in rereading major works of literature and debates about the legacy of race, slavery, and segregation.

A Blueprint for the Possible

This week in North Philly Notes, Bill V. Mullen, author of Un-Americanwrites about the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois. 

Un-American was inspired by calls for social justice. In 2012, after the shooting death of Travyon Martin by George Zimmerman, a group of Chicago youth created the group “We Charge Genocide” to document police shootings of African-Americans in the city: http://wechargegenocide.org/about/. The group took its name from the 1951 petition to the United Nations, “We Charge Genocide,” co-signed by W.E.B. Du Bois. In it, Du Bois, William Patterson, Claudia Jones, Charlotta Bass, Paul Robeson, and a host of Black radicals accused the United States of state-sanctioned mass killings of African Americans. The petition was the first ever presented to an international body linking judicial killings in the U.S. to American imperialism abroad. It sutured American state violence at home to the dropping of atomic bombs overseas and the U.S. occupation of foreign lands. It called for a stop to both, and demanded that the United Nations recognize the historical grievances of African Americans as a problem demanding a global response.  Its subtitle might have been, “No Justice, No Peace.”
SoulsBlackFolksThe historical memory of Dr. Du Bois as an instigator and agitator of world-historical change is one Un-American seeks to resurrect and reconstruct. Too often, the W.E.B. presented in high school and University classrooms and in public commemoration is a genteel Dean of African American letters, an avuncular “race man” whose career is often reduced to sound bite-size passages from The Souls of Black Folk on “double consciousness,” his political thought caricatured as the frowning narrative of a village elder who drifted from civil rights dedication to blind advocate for socialism.

American exceptionalism, anti-Communism, and the Cold War have much to do with this misremembering and misrepresentation. Du Bois’s books were removed from shelves during the 1950s and 1960s owing to his statements of support for revolutions in China and the Soviet Union. Close friends, Black and White, abandon Du Bois late in life when he refused to denounce Stalin’s crimes, and continued to criticize the U.S. government as what Martin Luther King, Jr. would later call the “greatest purveyor of violence” in the modern world.

Un-American argues that remembering Dr. Du Bois accurately, and fully, requires remembering him as the rest of the world saw him and knew him. Because of his radical political commitments, Du Bois’s stature as a public intellectual and global figure rose outside the United States in inverse proportion to his shaming and blacklisting at home. Not just in the Communist world he himself embraced, but across Africa, Asia, and Europe, Du Bois by the end of his life was something like the Muhammad Ali of African American intellectuals of his time. His global reputation for international support for anti-colonial struggles, for the struggles of working-class people, for his criticism of imperialisms in all forms, also paved the way for world-wide recognition of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers who were themselves inspired by Du Bois’s global political and intellectual reach. Indeed, Du Bois was a transnational globe-trotting voice for change throughout his life, from his first, trip to Berlin as a student in 1892, to his death in Ghana in 1963.

Un-American_smUn-American then seeks to remember the “worldly” Du Bois whose embrace of and support for what the Communist International called “world revolution” is the most important vector of his political life and legacy. Recognizing this Du Bois means leaving behind not just provincial, nationalist frameworks for analysis, but appreciating the “scholar-activism” Du Bois himself set for himself as the highest bar of achievement. Put another way, writing a book about Du Bois in 2015 demands thinking through the warp and woof of theory and practice as it relates to building social movements, constructing international solidarity, conjuring transnational affiliation. It means engaging honestly and critically with the best and worst of revolutions made in the name of justice across the world in the last century, mindful of Walter Benjamin’s caution that “progress” can be both an excuse and a euphemism for brutality.

At the end of his life it was Du Bois the advocate for peace, for economic equality, for popular sovereignty, for universal health care, for women’s emancipation, for decolonization, for workers’ rights, for a nuclear-free world, that the planet grieved for in his passing. Un-American seeks to recreate a memory of that Du Bois as a way of mobilizing it and him for our own present and future.  As a current generation struggles against the same forces of police violence and racism the impelled Du Bois forward more than 70 years ago, we do well to remember that the long arc of his life and career bent not just toward justice but to political and social revolution. His life remains a blueprint for the possible.

Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon

by Michael Ezra

1923_regMichael Ezra blogs about Muhammad Ali and his inspiration for writing Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon (now available from Temple University Press).

Although I am not yet forty years old, my relationship with Muhammad Ali the literary figure spans three decades. As just another seven-year-old dragged to the flea market by his bargain-hunting father, I used my only dollar to purchase a worn copy of the book Muhammad Ali: The Holy Warrior by Don Atyeo and Felix Dennis. I didn’t really understand the book or the photo captions, but found it interesting nonetheless.
In sixth grade, when the teacher asked the class what profession we desired as adults, I answered “boxing historian.” During the summer before my senior year in college, my father and I, still searching for literary bargains (we had graduated to outlet malls by then) came upon a discount copy of Thomas Hauser’s definitive biography Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. I bought it and declared that I would write my undergraduate thesis about Ali.

Almost twenty years after I completed the thesis, Temple University Press published my book Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon. Ali was the subject of both my master’s thesis and Ph.D. dissertation. I have read countless pages about him—which makes sense because he holds the Guinness World Record as the most written about figure in history, ahead of Napoleon, Abe Lincoln, and Jesus—watched hours of videotape and spent years thinking about how to make meaning of one of the most misunderstood figures in American cultural history.

For all that is written about Ali, nobody had ever explored in depth how the economic consequences of his career affected his cultural image. The predominant narratives about Ali frame his politics—refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War, joining the Nation of Islam, remaking himself as a figure of tolerance and racial reconciliation—as paramount to how Americans have come to understand him.
Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon does not deny the importance of Ali’s politics, but also urges readers to consider how people have capitalized by spinning such narratives into allegories. Throughout Ali’s fifty years in the limelight, people have made money by framing him as an American hero, a villain, a moral force, or an all-time-great fighter. My book details how these processes have worked.

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