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 offering literary criticism on Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and creative writing entries.
Our tradition of black writing is coterminous with the tradition of black literature; whether we speak of literature or of writing depends on how we choose to the position our necessary and creative acts of expression. Writing refers to specific uses of verbal literacy either in script (handwriting) or print (mechanical reproduction). On the other hand, literature (which embraces a dimension named orature or oral literature) refers to deliberately isolated instances of writing. Typical examples of writing are emails or letters between friends, captions linked to images, folklore, personal statements attached to applications, blogs and legal documents. Literature is constituted by fiction and non-fiction, play scripts and screenplays, poems, the sound-crafting of lyrics by Billie Holiday, Alberta Hunter, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone or Marvin Gaye, and blurred genres in want of adequate description. Our rich, robust traditions cause problems in the conduct of everyday life, not because they are arbitrary but because we make them interchangeable in varying degrees.
My critical thinking about writing and literature and my stance of being post-nothing and pre-future were shaped by the yoking of the cultural and the political in struggles for human and civil rights, for agency, and for conflicting values implicit in Black Arts/Black Aesthetic projects. Although belief in the wonderful illusion of “the black community” and its solidarity in America has given way to accepting the contentious realities of intra-ethnic fragmentation (diasporic sprawl), I refuse to abandon selected core, ancestral values always present in the unfinished enterprise labeled the Black Aesthetic. What does it profit a person to perform intellectual minstrelsy for the delight of academic and theoretical idols? As Ann duCille remarked in Skin Trade (1996), we do live in “ a country where ethnic rivalry, race hatred, bigotry, anti-Semitism, sexism, heterosexism, and even neo-Nazism are on the rise” (172), and “the best thing we can do for ourselves and our country…is exactly to deromanticize it” (173). In my work with literature, writing, and people I find duCille’s insights are pragmatic, consonant with my chosen obligations as an African American Southern male and my penchant for deromanticizing things in the spirit of David Walker and Richard Wright. BAM values guide my behavior in the combat zones created by calls to abandon our history in the miasma of post-racialism or to cast our expressive traditions prematurely into the suspect question-machine of Kenneth W. Warren’s What Was African American Literature? (2011).