Autobiography and Angles of Remembering

During the October 28, 2015 PHBW webinar, it was refreshing to hear the poet Sharon Strange mention that art bears witness. She gave voice to one angle of remembering. Contemporary memory has a very brief half-life. We need to hear what is obvious again and again.

It is fashionable of late to applaud writers who made careers of always bearing witness to something in their writings. We may downplay the fact that giving testimony in a society that seems to despise morality, especially any ethics associated with politics and art, requires more than ordinary strength. It is easier to pander to the mob and to act out the role of the court jester in the face of grave, compelling issues. Either for votes, instant fame, shock value, or money, witnesses entertain the crowd.

Thus, Strange’s comments brought us down to earth without the explicit preaching we find in John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction (1977) or William F. Lynch’s Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (1960) and by accident prepared us for a reading of
Pierce, Wendell. The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.

Acclaimed for his roles in the television series The Wire and Treme and for his work in such films as Selmaand Waiting to Exhale, Pierce is a gifted actor. He is a proud New Orleanian, grateful to “that northernmost Caribbean city, the last bohemia, which instilled in [him] a truthful culture that identifies [his] membership in that most beloved tribe that thrives in the Crescent City” (343). Pierce is an actor not a writer, but that fact does not compromise his ability to tell a free story. He is a consummate reader and interpreter of words who has great respect for art and religion as “ways of knowing, pathways to and channels of the transcendent truths of our existence”(337). What does compromise The Wind in the Reeds, and reminds us of its kinship with the genre of slave narrative, is his collaboration with Ron Dreher in the writing of the story.

How do we assign credit for the crafting of words? Or should we value the affirmative content and character of the autobiography much more than its form? As is the case with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, we have to speculate about the agency of the amanuensis. Pierce admits that Dreher cleared the path for a “journey filled with fear, uncertainty, joy, and fond memories”(343). Dreher projects himself as a reluctant collaborator (“a white boy from the Feliciana hills”) who gained “a much deeper appreciation of the African American experience”(344). Dreher’s wording alerts us that Pierce is scrupulous in revealing that his life, his journey, is an atypical example of ethnic American experiences. He is a socially conscious actor who transforms orality into writing or an actor who assumes orality is writing.

However curious we remain about Dreher’s role, we can suspend disbelief and accept Pierce’s dominant voice and historical consciousness in the narration in just the way we honor the authenticity or “truth-telling” of Malcolm X’s autobiography. Language is social property, and in collaborative autobiography it is not impossible for the subject to devise clever, coded messages that minimize the authority of the subject’s helper. Even if the codes of enslaved ancestors now wear designer clothing, they have not abandoned the awe-inspiring power of the racialized code.

Pierce offers us an autobiography that distinguishes itself from those which accommodate inane expectations of what an African American male’s life history ought to be, i.e. a confessional saga of fractured will power, sprawling identity crises, cartoon masculinity, and minimal or diminishing respect for the power of family history from slavery to freedom. In one of the most important paragraphs in the book, Pierce does not bite his tongue and extends a special angle of remembering.

The family values debate in our culture is more politicized than it ought to be. Everybody on both sides of the argument understands the value of the nuclear family. The fact is, when we had intact families, we had fewer problems. As the history of my own family demonstrates, when we African Americans held our families together, we drew from them the strength and solidarity we needed to combat the evils of racism, prejudice, and attack from the enemies of our community. (49)
This angle of remembering is not very popular in an American culture that champions the deconstruction of character and responsibility. Nevertheless, it is a signal of the superior qualities that obtain among African Americans from New Orleans who retain pride in their uniqueness, in their un-American difference and their African- and French-inflected différence avec l’aide de Dieu. Superior character as it is exemplified by Wendell Pierce is not the exclusive property of Creoles and Roman Catholics, nor does it have much to do with the production of culture for the pleasure of tourists and the strange American invaders of all colors who are gradually reshaping post-Katrina New Orleans and maximizing the vulgarity of corruption.

The play referenced in the subtitle of Pierce’s autobiography is Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It is refreshing to read Pierce’s explanations of why that particular play holds great significance for him as a Eurocentric work of art that motivated him to make an Afrocentric contribution to post-Katrina resurrection culture in his childhood neighborhood of Pontchartain Park and why he chose in 2007 to produce that play in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward.

Page after page of The Wind in the Reeds is informed Pierce’s unfaltering belief in the value of art to motivate civic responsibility and to negotiate with the unguaranteed future of New Orleans without excuses and lamentations. Like the novels of Ernest Gaines, Pierce’s autobiography is noteworthy for affirming the Crescent City wisdom of holding fast to black angles of remembering.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. November 10, 2015