Provocative Fictions

Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Professor of English at Dillard University, is the author of The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO Press, 2008). Professor Ward has been a faithful guest blogger for the HBW 

QUESTION: When you read the title “YOU A BaddDDD SISTAH” in the table of contents for James E. Cherry’s Honoring the Ancestors (Third World Press, 2008), what enables you to know the poem is about Sonia Sanchez?

ANSWER: Cultural literacy and ability to read visual allusions.

Still A Man and Other Stories (Willow Books/Aquarius Press, 2011), the title of James Cherry’s most recent collection of fiction, requires use of cultural literacy to discern its kinship with “The Man Who Saw the Flood.”  Use of the 1938 lithograph “Negro Worker” by James L. Wells on the cover of Still a Man activates visual literacy and literary memory of “Man of All Work.”  What Cherry demands of us is a signal that he writes from a position of situated necessity.

The fifteen stories in Still a Man may be addressed primarily to a generation of  readers who need to explore The Black Male Handbook (2008) edited by Kevin Powell, Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (2010) by Thabiti Lewis, Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010),  Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010) by Reginald Dwayne Betts and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). While the lithograph may speak in a special way to older readers who treasure such films as Home of the Brave and Nothing But A Man and invite them to sample Cherry’s fictions, all readers can profit and learn much from how Cherry uses clean, surgical prose to create masculine fictions that are neither sexist nor homophobic nor overbearingly strident.The stories “Code of Honor,” “Home,” and “Missing Mama” are, for me, transparent instances of Cherry’s skill in dealing with class and gender, desire and  yearning, race and  homophobia, tolerance and hypocrisy —all of these being plagues in the twenty-first century American and Western mindscapes.

Like the stories in I Got Somebody in Staunton by William Henry Lewis and Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, Cherry’s stories are brutally realistic refusals to mourn what is most deplorable in life in the United States from African American male perspectives. They are, in the words of Keith Clark from Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson (2004), “diverse artistic strategies and multifaceted portraitures” which open “a discursive space for more expansive fictive and critical praxes” (9). The less-is-more aesthetic informing Still a Man compels a reader to ponder extensively.

It has been proposed in The Cambridge History of African American Literature, with reference to Cherry’s first novel Shadow of Light (2008), that he is “one of the newer voices of black detective fiction” (664). Nevertheless, in reading Cherry, one must consider as Stephen Soitos does in The Blues Detective (1996), that vernacular detection defies imprisonment in Western jails of genre.  In this regard, Chester Himes, Ishmael Reed, and Walter Mosley are exemplary outlaws.  Cherry’s vernacular detection comes from a tradition where a simple story pulls a reader into a vortex of thematic complexity.  Still a Man is a powerful book that speaks convincingly of intersectionality, of the inter- and intra-ethnic confluences wherein readers dwell.