Black Writing: A New Orleans Example

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 [by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Seldom is the interrelated difference of black writing and black literature a topic of conversation or a point of sustained discussion in undergraduate and graduate courses. Black writing in the United States of America includes the sounds and visual combinations (graphology) that represent the contours and nuances of African American thought. Black literature is the body of work squeezed from black writing, filtered and otherwise processed by scholarship and criticism, poured into anthologies, and offered up to Culture as a consecrated wine. Black writing is free from the rituals and niceties of wine-tasting. It is just the robust wine that it is.

In everyday life, black writing is more widely read than black literature. It might be argued that writing has greater practical value than literature. It tends to be reader-friendly. It rarely offers obtuse apologies for being didactic. There is, of course, much back-and-forth slippage between literature and writing. For the sake of cultivating literacy, this phenomenon of instability is a good thing.

One instance of black writing for a local scene that can appeal to a global audience is Keith Weldon Medley‘s Black Life in Old New Orleans (2014).

The book is informed by a more intimate, personal vision of  historiography than such works as John W. Blassingame’s Black New Orleans, 1860-1880 (1973) and Lawrence N. Powell’s The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (2012). Read against Blassingame’s and Powell’s use of a full arsenal of scholarly devices to give persuasiveness and heft to their theses, Medley’s use of scholarship is skeletal. He is not a neophyte in doing archival research and selecting visual evidence to buttress his assertions, so one must seek elsewhere to account for what severe readers might conclude is the book’s “thin” discussion of cause and effect.

Aware of audience and purpose, Medley chose not to construct a dispassionate, profound, closed narrative of black presence in the making of New Orleans. His story-telling is open and deliberately episodic; it puts into motion authorial call and reader response; it evokes the shared authority that is a standard feature of oral history. Medley does not hesitate to locate his family’s history and himself in a meditation on space, time and place which bespeaks community.

In his first book, We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson (2003), Medley demonstrated his command of “academic” notions of what history as story should be. In the introduction for his most recent book, Medley’s purpose and aims are transparent:

The purpose of Black Life in Old New Orleans is to explore different eras of black New Orleans by focusing on specific institutions, social movements, and individuals.  Each chapter is self-contained. When read cover to cover, the book provides a timeline of black New Orleans. […] This book seeks to highlight the history of black New Orleans and recognize those who survived and achieved in spite of social and racial obstacles.  Thus, the book is inspirational as well as historically enlightening (12-13).

Medley is forthright about his populist intentions, and a reader is not misled into believing she or he understands the history of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. A reader understands the unfinished work of understanding the lived experiences of Africans and African Americans between the 1790s and the 2000s in a place named Nouvelle-Orléans. Natives of the place as well as the newly arrived–especially those tempted to gentrify the place in their own potentially ahistorical images–can learn the discipline that history demands, the discipline employed yearly by Mardi Gras Indians in the tradition of making a new suit.

Medley’s writing is a crucial blueprint for young New Orleans citizens who desire to grasp the painful beauty of heritage, legacies, and traditions, as well as the forking paths of DNA and ancestry.  Medley has written a noteworthy guide for acquiring authentic education. His book is a godsend for older citizens who want to strengthen their command of the art of memory and (re)membering. It is a document of importance for local and global participants in history as an unpredictable process.

As lagniappe, Black Life in Old New Orleans reveals that black writing and black literature are symbiotic.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
December 30, 2014

Editor’s Note: Dr. Ward wishes to note that HBW Founder Maryemma Graham’s 2012 essay “‘Black is Gold’: African American Literature and New Literacies,” published in Contemporary Theory and Pedagogy in African American Literature (Lovalerie King and Shirley Moody, eds.), makes a similar point regarding the areas of distinctiveness and overlap in black writing and black literature.