[By: Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]
Q: Should one give critical attention to a stylistically and rhetorically flawed book by a self-proclaimed left-wing Conservative?
A: If the book tries to examine reasons for “mass incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” from a black Republican or independently conservative point of view, it merits attention rather than self-righteous silence. The book’s failure to meet the intellectual standards established in The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life (New York: Atria Books, 2008), edited by Kevin Powell, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow ( New York: The New Press, 2010) is instructive. A negative touchstone has value. Dealing with that touchstone by way of constructive criticism can be a habit of the heart.
Q: Are you guilty of special pleading because the author of the book is African American?
A: Yes, very definitely. Attention to an imperfect example of black socio-cultural analysis as black writing is consonant with the broad aims of the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW). The project is catholic.
Q: Do you dare to skate on the thin ice of what you believe to be honest? Would you give equal attention to a flawed book by a Caucasian, a Chinese American, or a Mohawk?
A: Yes. I inhale and exhale the miasma of American dilemmas and nightmares without fear. My motives, however, for criticizing a book by a non-Black thinker would be remote from criticizing Daryl Hubbard’s The Decarceration of Black America: Systemic Analyses and Strategic Plans for Our Future (Jackson, TN: Black Consciousness Series, 2017). ISBN 2370000399625.
Daryl Hubbad is the City Court Clerk for the City of Jackson, Tennessee. As an elected official, he sees “firsthand the damning effect that America’s criminal justice labyrinth has on the poor and ignorant” (149), and as a concerned citizen he has intervened by writing a book. Official duties allow him to gather information, to produce ideas which can be used in analyses of the history and dynamics of incarceration in America. Apparently, he has read widely. His book contains quotations from and/or references to many people —Carter G. Woodson, Frances Cress Welsing, Fanon, Walter Mosley, Frederick Douglass, Gore Vidal, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Samuel Yette, Sista Souljah, David Walker, Michelle Alexander, John Potash, James Baldwin, and a dozen or so others. His excessive quoting, without providing the appropriate documentation, begets a devastating question: Has he read wisely? Given his indebtedness to Michelle Alexander, has he examined why her sentences are effective and her paragraphs are coherent and how skillfully she avoids inadvertent plagiarism? Has he given up a lunch hour to read The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, a book that helps many a writer to avoid egregious errors? And given his hope that readers will find his book “a sort of catalyst for a mental and social revolution in the country, bearing in mind that you cannot spell revolution with the letters L O V E “(13), does he know what argumentum ad amicitiamis?
His book is a catalyst, but it may be one that decimates his two-fold purpose:
- To sound an alarm akin to Paul Revere’s ride to black folk to alert them that the prisons are coming.
- To remind white folk that too many years of colonialism, racism, dehumanization, discrimination, lynching, violence, prejudice and apartheid have traumatized Black America, but despite all of these seen and unseen forces, our people have somehow managed to survive and find ways to transcend such a terrible beginning in this country. (7-8)
He has too many objectives and too little mastery of the art of writing to fulfill them persuasively. He wants to deal with the crisis of incarceration “in a profound and intellectual fashion” and to amplify a main theme of “how to keep our young people from not only continuing to murder each other, but to also keep them educated and out of the grips of our current prison industrial complex” (12). He sketches attractive intentions for his eight chapters. He promises to (1) “examine an American educational system that has allowed the malaise of mass incarceration and senseless homicide to metastasize…”; (2) “have an honest talk with our young black men” about how “they have been hoodwinked and bamboozled….”; (3) “will attempt to have an open conversation with our young women about why ghetto behaviors can contribute to the death and incarceration of their own children”; (4) “take an in-depth look at America’s criminal justice system…”; (5) deal “with white privilege” and try to explain “how the Black Lives Matter movement also needs to look in the mirror”; (6) show “in detail how the U.S. government has appeared to derail the development of true black leadership”; (7) provide “an essential reading list for all black people; (8) ask “a critical question that will hopefully serve as a road map showing how we can escape from our current cultural morass.” (12-13) When a writer attempts to accomplish mission impossible, she or he paves a highway to disappointment. She or he illuminates why black writing (whether it is vernacular or academic) that is not well-crafted deserves severe criticism. In our tradition, the tough love of criticism produces anger and resentment, stage one in the never ending process of trying to write.
A Tentative Conclusion
Daryl Hubbard needs help. A single negative review doesn’t help him enough, and a single positive review of The Decarceration of Black America would be a regrettable disservice. If no workshop for established and emerging writers exists in Jackson, Tennessee, one needs to be established posthaste. It is widely but not universally recognized that a thinker who possesses Hubbard’s insights can only become a good writer by reading wisely, sharing ideas and samples of writing with kindred spirits (face-to-face not by email or snail mail), getting critical feedback, and then returning to a room of his own to woodshed like a serious jazz musician. Daryl Hubbard needs help of the kind he proposes to give to young women and men: real-time conversations that truly matter.