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Archive for the 'African American Studies' Category

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Whose Identity? Which Politics?

Desegregating the Past

“Even when museums like the NMAAHC explore into painful content like racial violence and terrorism, it is seen as delving for the purpose of presenting a resilient identity narrative. And they do. But so does the National Museum of American History in its presentation of Americana, from Dorothy’s ruby red slippers to the two hundred year-old flag from the American Revolution. The relegation of museums like the NMAAHC to the stuff of identity politics neutralizes those driven by white nostalgia.” — Robyn Autry

The following is an excerpt from an article by Robyn Autry, author of Desegregating the Past: The Public Life of Memory in the United States and South Africa, originally posted at the Huffington Post.

Whose Identity? Which Politics?
By Robyn Autry

In the weeks following the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in late September, a historic presidency ended, and then hundreds of thousands of people converged on the National Mall as another shocking one began. The NMAAHC hosted a widely popular alternative inauguration organized by Busboys and Poets, increasing its symbolic power as a place of resistance and celebration. How can we make sense of the throngs of people still flocking to the Mall to visit that nation’s first black history museum in a political climate openly hostile to so-called identity politics?

The NMAAH is not an identity museum per se. Neither is the National Museum of the American Indian, nor the Latino and Asian Pacific history museums also under consideration. Or, at least they are no more driven by the desire to celebrate identity than the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum or the National Museum of American History, or even the National Air & Space Museum. In fact, all historical products, whether they be national museums or history textbooks, contain facts and fictions about who we are, or dream of being in relation to lives already lived and lost and those still in the making. In effect, they all offer different interpretations of how great America was (or wasn’t) and how we can all do better.

While there is nothing wrong with projects aiming to interpret or represent collective identities, ‘identity-driven’ is a label used to distinguish them from those museums viewed as more objective or less biased. Museums dedicated to representing the lives and cultures of people of color are seen as self-affirming celebrations that some see as divisive and fixated on what makes us different. Critics also charge that these museums offer less historical context and material evidence or artifacts, relying instead on personal testimonies, multimedia displays, and sweeping summaries. In short, they are thought to be touchy-feely. Even when museums like the NMAAHC explore into painful content like racial violence and terrorism, it is seen as delving for the purpose of presenting a resilient identity narrative. And they do. But so does the National Museum of American History in its presentation of Americana, from Dorothy’s ruby red slippers to the two hundred year-old flag from the American Revolution. The relegation of museums like the NMAAHC to the stuff of identity politics neutralizes those driven by white nostalgia.

After decades of political maneuvering, fundraising, and development, the NMAAHC opened on September 24, 2016. Televised and streamed online, the extraordinary occasion was marked by heartfelt words from President Obama, Congressperson John Lewis, Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith, and musical performances of Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle and Angélique Kidjo. Even more noteworthy, were the 30,000 ordinary people who visited the first weekend, and the tens of thousands who have followed them. With lines circling the building, the museum has been so popular that timed-passes are still being used to manage crows and to allow more people to traverse the 350,000 square foot museum. The passes available online are booked through June 2017, with a limited number being offered for same-day visitors.

How can we account for such keen interest in the museum, from the millions of dollars raised to the thousands of people clamoring to get inside? It’s as much about an insistence that identity is indeed political, as it is about collective yearnings to see that which has been kept off limits, to venture into those spaces that unsettle official accounts and expose the social fissures we already fully know exist.

Read the article in full at the Huffington Post.

Friday, June 10th, 2016

A Media Roundup for “Black Gods of the Asphalt”

Black Gods of the Asphalt

“Black men’s bodies are overdetermined by racism and poverty on the court, but to stop there is to strip ballplayers of agency and to overlook their lived experiences of the games. In a twist of irony that rivals the sleight of hand of a crossover dribble, social scientists have attempted to explain black basketball by setting aside the subjective experiences the players have of it. In their desire to remain objective and to adhere to disciplinary boundaries, scholars have reduced basketball to a set of rules predetermined by external conditions.” — Onaje X. O. Woodbine

This week, our featured book is Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, by Onaje X. O. Woodbine. For our final post of the week, we’ve collected a number of the best articles and interviews on and with Onaje X. O. Woodbine looking at his new book.

First, at Killing the Buddha, read an excerpt on the 2013 Fathers Are Champions Too basketball tournament and other streetball tournaments from Black Gods of the Asphalt:

Black men’s bodies are overdetermined by racism and poverty on the court, but to stop there is to strip ballplayers of agency and to overlook their lived experiences of the games. In a twist of irony that rivals the sleight of hand of a crossover dribble, social scientists have attempted to explain black basketball by setting aside the subjective experiences the players have of it. In their desire to remain objective and to adhere to disciplinary boundaries, scholars have reduced basketball to a set of rules predetermined by external conditions. The powerful socioeconomic forces of poverty, racism, and mascu­line role constrain black male bodies, push­ing them toward limited definitions of self as ballplayers, gang­sters, and hustlers. This “symbolic violence,” as Bourdieu refers to it, is often embodied and internalized by the players. But to stop there is to leave us with only a thin sense for the human and lived dimensions of these games. The experience of the court as a vehicle of self-emancipation is stripped away. The living dimension of this urban religion is lost.

Woodbine was interviewed twice at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station. First, listen to Woodbine discuss how his desire to tell the stories that come up in his book led him to take Black Gods of the Asphalt to the stage.

“It was storytelling,” Woodbine says. “This was inner-city, street-level storytelling. And I thought, ‘Why not actually, consciously, do this on the stage and create a conscious, ritual space in the theater? And so, I wrote a script with my father and my wife to try to tell these stories in a way that can impact audience beyond the streets.”


Thursday, June 9th, 2016

The Creation of “Black Gods of the Asphalt”

Black Gods of the Asphalt

“I want the book to elevate the conversation on black masculinity and sports…. I want people to recognize that you can find religion in strange places, that this community has its own innate healers, its own innate capacity to heal, that these young men have agency, and that there is freedom within this community in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find it.” — Onaje X. O. Woodbine

This week, our featured book is Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, by Onaje X. O. Woodbine. Today, we have excerpted part of an interview with Onaje X. O. Woodbine, conducted by Matthew Reed Baker, that originally appeared in Boston Magazine, in which Woodbine discusses his creative process and what he hopes the book will achieve.

At any point did you think that nobody could’ve written this book but you? It seems like the perfect match of author and book.

Howard Thurman, one of my favorite scholars and thinkers, has this phrase that we all have a “working paper.” The best scholarship is autobiographical. I’ve always viewed scholarship as a deeply personal project. In some ways, I do agree with you that only I could have written this particular project, but in other ways, part of the insight I learned from writing the book is that my self is made up of other selves. And so, if you dig deep enough within, you come out on the other side, you recognize the social world. Some of the best scholarship recognizes that society and the person are not mutually exclusive.

I think the experiences that are happening in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan are happening across other cities because the social context is very similar. There may be some changes in style and variation in the way that it is expressed, but they’re dealing with societal challenges and poverty, and these basketball courts are spaces of refuge, especially for young black men who don’t have access to traditional buffers against structural violence. They don’t go to church as much anymore, they don’t have access to quality therapy, and as you can see in the book, the family is largely fragmented.

Black men have always been linked to the physical, so the myth has been that black men are bound in body but not in mind. Sports dramatize that myth in such a powerful way that many black men in inner cities are attracted to it. They may be attracted to it because they’re pushed by race or poverty or social narrative, but when they get on the court, the lived experience of running up and down the court, rubbing your body next to your brother, and expressing your pain…it transcends the reasons why you got there in the first place. It’s deeply personal and deeply social at the same time.

There’s such a weaving of style and form in this book. What was your approach?

I wanted to mirror the culture in my scholarship, but I didn’t want to strip the community of its language. In the history of African American culture, different genres of self-expression have always been complementary. During the Harlem Renaissance, jazz and basketball often were performed on the same stage on the same night. In the hip-hop generation, it was b-boy/b-girl dancing and rap music, while basketball was performed in the same park at the same time, and you’d have the boombox out there. So it was a confluence of different forms of African American self expression.

It was a labor of love, and I wanted it to be in a language that the academy and general public could understand, but also that the community would recognize as authentic. That required an interdisciplinary approach. On one hand I had to use social theory, the theory of masculinity and race to recognize the objectifications of the black male body. On the other hand I needed poetry. I needed religious studies. I needed the first-person account to call into question those things. You need all of those tools. That as the hardest obstacle I faced. It took a few years to really find the tools, understand how to apply them, and there was a lot of grappling in the dark.

When a book mixes ideas and genres well, it’s seamless. How do you do it?

When I read it for the first time in full after all those years of work, you know what was the metaphor I had in my head? A basketball. [Laughs] It really felt round. The book itself, it felt like there were no corners, nothing stuck out. It felt like a cohesive unit. I kept thinking of a ball, a basketball. I kid you not.

You mention in the book that you had to leave your community in order to write about it.

This book was also born out of personal trauma of experiencing the violence of the inner city. I myself embody the pain of living in a racialized and poverty-stricken community, and with growing up, I constantly felt as if my life was in danger. I’d walk out of my house, and there was a gang right on the corner in front of my door. I went through this. I was depressed for a while growing up. I had very low self-esteem. I wondered—because I was in the METCO program—why the students I went to school with out in the suburbs had nice homes and we didn’t. I also wondered about my past. I wondered if I really was just a slave or a descendent of a slave, if there was nothing prior to that.

When we’re born into that kind of world, you internalize it, you take it for granted, and often you turn the pain inward. You blame yourself or the people around you. And you can’t necessarily prove how the larger society, mainstream society, and dominant culture has created a society in which you are meant to feel that way. I needed to leave that environment to heal. I needed to see other people who looked like me, who weren’t angry all the time, or weren’t part of a gang, or weren’t depressed, or weren’t smoking drugs because something had happened in their life. I needed to see that I could be something else.

But at the same time, once I got to Yale and into university culture, I also didn’t fit in there. I realized there was a tremendous loss associated with being out there. On the one hand, I was safe, I wasn’t constantly worried about violence. But on the other hand, I had to leave all the people I cared for behind, and my culture. Living in two worlds and being in that middle space, in some ways, was a privilege. I see myself as a bridge and I’m very thankful. And yet you feel like you’re always an exile, you’re always homeless.

What do you want this book to achieve once it comes out?

I want the book to elevate the conversation on black masculinity and sports. I think that the old messages of trying to solve structural racism are important, but need to be expanded upon. Particularly unconscious bias, and the kind of racism and bias that lives in our bodies. My question is: How do you transform people’s consciousness, that both they and others are human beings? I think that requires getting into your body and recognizing the trauma and the history that lives within us. I want people to recognize that you can find religion in strange places, that this community has its own innate healers, its own innate capacity to heal, that these young men have agency, and that there is freedom within this community in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find it. The standard view in literature on sports and race is that these young men are determined by a desire for social mobility and socioeconomic status, and that’s why they’re on the court. Part of what I want to do is challenge that narrative and say, “No, there are deeper human reasons why they are on the court in predominant numbers.”

Read the interview and accompanying article at the Boston Magazine website.

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Listen to Onaje X. O. Woodbine on All Things Considered

Black Gods of the Asphalt

“What [often] gets missed is the level of meaning and feeling that is experienced in the game itself. And the feeling of freedom and transcendence can’t be really captured in social scientific language. You need religious studies, you need poetry, you need music to really understand how these young men are creating meaning in this space.” — Onaje X. O. Woodbine

This week, our featured book is Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, by Onaje X. O. Woodbine. Today. we are happy to present a fantastic interview with Onaje X. O. Woodbine on NPR’s All Things Considered on the new book, Woodbine’s history, and why we need religious studies, poetry, and music to understand how young black men create meaning through basketball and other sports.

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

Introducing Black Gods of the Asphalt

Black Gods of the Asphalt

“Everyone possessed a unique way of dancing on the blacktop, but there was no mistake that it was a beautifully choreographed dance. And in the flow of the game we could discover a feeling of worth that the larger society would not afford us.” — Onaje X. O. Woodbine

This week, our featured book is Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, by Onaje X. O. Woodbine. To start the week’s feature, we are happy to share an excerpt from the introduction.

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball

Black Gods of the Asphalt

“This narrative is more than academic prose; it is a deeply personal and poetic travel through the author’s own story of racial struggle and the survival tactics of the players he befriends…. In this majestic study of basketball as ritual, religion, and culture, Woodbine plunges into the courts of Boston with an insider’s savvy to catalogue the urban sport’s pulsating (and potentially transcendent) dialogue.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

This week, our featured book is Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, by Onaje X. O. Woodbine. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Black Gods of the Asphalt. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, June 10th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Man-O-Manischewitz — Roger Horowitz on Kosher Wine and Its Popularity among African Americans

Sammy Davis, Kosher USA

With Passover beginning tomorrow and with people starting to break out the Seder wine, we thought we’d share an excerpt from Roger Horowitz’s chapter “Man-O-Manischewitz,” from Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food. In this excerpt, Horowitz recounts the story behind the surprising popularity of Manischewitz and other Kosher wines among African Americans during the twentieth century. As Horowitz explains, the sweetness of Kosher wine was comparable to the homemade wines that many African Americans made. He also looks at how the wine companies began to market their products directly to African American consumers.

In addition to the excerpt below, here is a clip of Sammy Davis Jr. pitching Manischewitz Almonetta Wine:

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

James Davis on the Life and Work of Harlem Renaissance Writer Eric Walrond

Eric Walrond

The always worthwhile New Books Network recently posted a fascinating interview with James Davis about his new book Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean.

In the interview with Alejandra Bronfman , Davis discusses the mystery of Eric Walrond as a writer who was very much in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance but had been somewhat forgotten by history. In addition to reinstating Walrond as a pivotal figure in the development of the Harlem Renaissance, Davis also discusses the transnational nature of his life and work as he worked and lived in Guyana, Barbados, Panama, Harlem, Paris, and London. Davis and Bronfman also consider the exceptional and distinctive nature of Walrond’s writing and its mixture of modernist techniques with Caribbean dialogue and locales.

Their discussion also provided a compelling look at the challenges of writing a biography and transforming an archive into a gripping narrative. Davis also considers the ways in which Walrond’s writing reveals aspects of his life.

You can listen to the full interview here and for more on the book, here is an excerpt from the book:

Friday, December 11th, 2015

Mary Helen Washington Receives Honorable Mention for MLA Award

Congratulations to Mary Helen Washington, whose book The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, received an honorable mention for the competition for the Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize for an Outstanding Scholarly Study of Black American Literature.

In praising the book, the prize committee wrote:

Elegantly written and richly historical, The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s is Mary Helen Washington’s long-awaited study of the left’s impact on the intellectual and political lives of African American writers during the 1950s. Washington eloquently reconstitutes the Black Popular Front, a fascinating case of how the Communist Party and other leftist associations informed literary and political discourses on race relations in the United States. She probes the aesthetic strategies and racial-political networks belonging to canonical authors such as Gwendolyn Brooks and to lesser-known writers such as Lloyd L. Brown, Alice Childress, and Frank London Brown. The Other Blacklist is a crowning achievement in Washington’s long-standing quest to put the black left at the center of African American literary history.

And for more on the book, here is a video of a talk between Mary Helen Washington and Farah Jasmine Griffin from earlier this year at the Schomburg Center:

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Becoming Way Too Cool: How Neoliberalism Alters How We Feel

Way Too Cool

The following is a guest post by Shannon Winnubst, author of Way Too Cool: Selling Out Race and Ethics.

Becoming Way Too Cool
(How Neoliberalism Alters How We Feel)
Shannon Winnubst

I remember when my grandmother learned to use the word “cool.” It must have been about 1982 and, at 83 years old, she spryly pronounced my new shirt was “cool.” Stopped short, I caught the twinkle in her eye and proudly agreed. Little did we both know that we were in the grips of the rapidly ascendant neoliberal marketing machine.

“Cool” has been big business for a long time now. Pilfered from black culture by the men’s clothing advertising industry in the late 1970s, “cool” has packaged just about every commodity on the market at one time or another—and still continues to do so. Youth culture, especially, seems never to lose its connection with this heartbeat of energy. “Cool” has become a kind of naturalized constant in 21st century marketing cultures: we are so drawn to it that we cannot imagine otherwise. The quest to be “so cool” seems never to die.

But “cool” didn’t always refer to the latest, hippest thing. In the U.S., “cool” was born in post-World War II aesthetics of black culture, especially jazz. It captured and galvanized the kind of ironic detachment that enabled black folks to persevere in the face of systematic, persistent racism and its everyday violence. It energized black folks not only to survive, but to create and believe in something better. When Miles Davis stood up to racist cops and bigoted television show hosts, he was enacting the essence of cool: the kind of strong, determined detachment from racist mainstream culture that enabled intense creativity and the strength to flourish. This kind of “cool” is what bell hooks identifies in black leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. as the strength to “alchemically change pain into gold.” The birth of “cool” was the birth of an ethical detachment from the hostility and violence of a racist world that carved the space for a better, more just world. (more…)

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Two Early Chicago Films Heading to Blu-Ray

The following post is by Michael Smith, co-author with Adam Selzer of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry

In the introduction to Flickering Empire, Adam Selzer and I quote film scholar Susan Doll who said that it is Chicago’s “best kept secret” that it served as the nation’s filmmaking capital prior to the rise of Hollywood. That the vast majority of the films made in Chicago prior to 1920 have been either lost, destroyed or are otherwise difficult to see partly accounts for Chicago’s neglected status in the official film histories. Fortunately, the two most important Chicago-made silent films discussed in our book have both been recently restored and will receive re-releases on home video in HD in the next year. These releases will hopefully go some way towards giving Chicago the credit it deserves for the important role it played in our nation’s film history. The two films in question are:

His New Job—The one and only film Charlie Chaplin made in Chicago is this delightful 20-minute comedy short, the first he made for Essanay Studios (before fulfilling the rest of his contract at the company’s California branch). The plot sees Chaplin’s familiar “Little Tramp” character showing up to audition for a part in a movie at “Lodestone Studios.” The interior stages at Essanay in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood essentially play themselves as Lodestone and the movie thus becomes a fascinating peak into the process of silent moviemaking, at times achieving a near-documentary quality. The Tramp gets a job first as Production Assistant, then as a carpenter and finally as an extra in what appears to be a prestigious “period” film set in 19th century Russia. Of course, he wreaks havoc on the set and the entire production soon devolves into a state of slapstick anarchy. His New Job will be released on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley in Summer 2015. In the meantime, you can watch an unrestored version of the film here:

Within Our Gates—The earliest surviving feature film directed by an African American is this incendiary drama by the legendary Oscar Micheaux. Evelyn Preer plays Sylvia Landry, a young black woman from Chicago who tries to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the north and south as well as the past and the present in order to generate a suspenseful climax — a lengthy flashback to the events that led to Sylvia’s adoptive parents being lynched by an angry mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where a villainous middle-aged white man attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. The clever intercutting of this climax intentionally unpacks the racist ideology of the climax of D.W. Griffith’s similarly constructed The Birth of a Nation. Within Our Gates will be released on Blu-ray by Kino/Lorber in February 2016. In the meantime, you can watch an unrestored version of the film here:

Friday, March 13th, 2015

The Legacy of Eric Walrond: The Caribbean, Harlem, and Europe

Eric Walrond and Shirley Graham DuBois
(Shirley Graham Du Bois and Eric Walrond, Paris, 1930)

In the following excerpt from the postscript to Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean, James Davis explores some of the ways in which Walrond, and, specifically, his life spent moving from the Caribbean to the United States and then to Europe reflect questions of blackness and identity in today’s world:

One can see the ways in which Walrond’s world—the struggles and communities in which he participated—was a precursor to our own; it is more difficult to grasp its difference, its inscrutability, the possibilities that sprang into being but have since been foreclosed…. Even as we recognize in Eric Walrond incipient forms of familiar contemporary identities and communities, we should also consider the “historical mutilation” of the anticolonial struggles, transnational periodical formations, aesthetic movements, and political solidarities that animated Walrond’s work. We are ourselves the victims of their truncation. It may defy comprehension that a celebrated Harlem author would leave the United States, sabotaging his career at the height of the New Negro movement. It may seem unintelligible for a cosmopolitan Caribbean intellectual to spend twelve years as the only “Negro” in an English village….

Walrond forged a precarious career by crossing borders, none of which he crossed completely. From the “West Indian Circles” column of Pana­ma’s Star & Herald, to his work on Garvey’s journals in New York and London, to his Caribbean efforts at Opportunity and his Wiltshire essays about colonialism and the “colour bar,” his journalism was, like his fic­tion, an exercise in cultural translation. But borders are rarely neutral. They often presuppose or enforce privilege, and Walrond’s translations challenged the privileges attending the borders he crossed. Even within New York, the unofficial border he straddled between white and black Manhattan occasioned a Caribbean challenge to monolithic notions of Harlem’s blackness and a “Cabaret School” challenge to the prevailing discourse of respectability and “Negro” uplift. He benefited from his mobility and suffered for it, too.


Thursday, March 12th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: James Davis on the Writing of Eric Walrond

Eric Walrond, James Davis

For our Thursday Fiction Corner, we asked James Davis, author of Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean, to discuss what makes the fiction and journalism of Walrond so distinctive.

All of Eric Walrond’s writing has a kind of restless quality, a turbulence that is a bit disturbing yet intensely compelling.

Besides Tropic Death, which I enjoy for these sensory appeals as much as its critique of colonial relations, I really like Walrond’s story “Miss Kenny’s Marriage” and his essay “White Man, What Now?” The first is a sly trickster tale set among Brooklyn’s early 20th century black bourgeoisie. It’s shrewd and hilarious, published originally in 1923 in The Smart Set, a New York magazine edited at the time by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. A sendup of the social pretensions of the “strivers” of the race, the story chronicles the rise and fall of a pompous Atlantic Avenue hairdresser—or as Miss Kenny puts it, “not a hairdresser at all, but a beauty culturist.” Day and night she’s in the shop, coiffing “girls and old women, spinsters and preacher’s wives, scrubwomen and colored ladies of gentility,” and saving bundles of cash. But despite her work ethic and churchgoing ways, she is arrogant and her striving for respectability involves deep prejudices. “I am not like a lot of these new niggers you see floating around here,” she tells a client, “A few hundred dollars don’t frighten me. Only we used-to-nothing cullud folks lose our heads and stick out our chests at sight of a few red pennies.” No, she adds, “there ain’t none of the nigger in me, honey.”

Walrond delivers her comeuppance in the form of Elias Ramsey, a prominent young lawyer, member of Brooklyn’s “olive-skinned aristocracy,” twenty-three years her junior. Courting Miss Kenny with professions of love and adulation, he absconds soon after their wedding with all her hard-earned savings. Although the story is just a lark, it exhibits Walrond’s flair for code switching, alternating idiomatic registers between Southern migrant characters, black New Yorkers, and his own wry narrative voice. A twenty-four year old writer only a few years removed from the Caribbean, Walrond’s performance in “Miss Kenny’s Marriage” is a kind of masquerade, a way of becoming a New Negro author by writing like an American. The story also stages a theatrical punishment for its title character because she commits the cardinal sin of harboring contempt for less respectable members of her race.


Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Interview with James Davis, author of “Eric Walrond,” Part 2

James Davis, Eric Walrond

The following is the second half of our article with James Davis, author of Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean. You can read part 1 here.

Question: One of the more fascinating aspects of your biography are your descriptions of Walrond’s youth in Panama during the building of the canal. How did this episode shape Walrond and how does the Panama of this period fit in with the larger story of the Transatlantic Caribbean in the first half of the twentieth-century?

James Davis: Walrond described himself as “spiritually a native of Panama,” despite having spent his childhood in Guyana and Barbados. Panama during the construction of the Canal (1904-1914) was at once a new frontier for a United States eager to consolidate power in the hemisphere and an extraordinarily diverse contact zone in which laborers and their families from the entire Caribbean region converged. Panama attracted people from other parts of the world, to be sure, but economic precariousness in the Caribbean led to emigration in large numbers.

The U.S. occupation imported to the Canal Zone a Jim Crow form of racial segregation, which introduced an acute form of race consciousness many West Indians had not felt previously, despite living in European colonies with perceptible hierarchies of color. Walrond was among those for whom life in Panama compelled a new self-understanding as a West Indian (rather than, more parochially, a Barbadian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, etc.) and as a Negro. Recall that outside of the United States, the most successful branches of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association emerged in Panama, where the imprint of white command was stark, and in neighboring Costa Rica, where the United Fruit Corporation, a North American concern, effectively ran things. Despite segregation in the Canal Zone, however, Walrond was inspired by Panama’s tremendous ethnic diversity; it provoked the cultural tensions, collaborations, and hybridity that always intrigued him.

Q: Jumping ahead to later in Walrond’s life, is it fair to characterize his time in England as a letdown from the promise he showed as a writer during his time in Harlem?

JD: I struggled with this exact question while writing the biography. The record is clearly stacked against Walrond’s later career; he published much less after leaving the U.S. and didn’t publish another book, despite having composed several. It’s also hard to tell the story of someone who committed himself to a mental hospital for five years late in life as anything other than a tragedy. So from a certain empirical standpoint there’s no question that Walrond’s post-Harlem career was a letdown; he felt it acutely himself.

Nevertheless, the one-hit wonder label that affixed itself to Walrond distorts the real story. Very little of Walrond’s post-Harlem writing was available to readers until recently, with Louis Parascandola’s two collections, so any assessment of promise fulfilled or unfulfilled must attend to this work. Examining it closely, placing it in context, one realizes some things that complicate the idea that his career simply declined. First, although Tropic Death contains much of Walrond’s best fiction, some of the stories he wrote in England equal or surpass its quality, and some of his non-fiction prose in England definitely rivals his work for Negro World, Opportunity, and the mainstream publications for which he wrote in the mid-1920s. It just crackles with anti-colonial militancy and acerbic wit.

Second, we should recognize that while writing by non-white Americans was published in book form with increasing frequency after World War I, it would not be until the 1950s that writing by non-white Britons – or by colonial subjects in England – appeared in book form with any regularity. Exceptions occurred but they were few and far between. The real cultural action in black letters in England was in periodicals, and here Walrond was, if not prolific, then quite present. So I don’t dispute the idea that Walrond disappointed expectations, nor do I explain away his shortcomings, but I definitely revisit the criteria by which we judge matters of success and failure and offer a sustained analysis of what his later work represents when considered on its own terms.


Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

An Interview with James Davis, Author of “Eric Walrond”

James Davis, author of Eric Walrond

The following is part 1 of our interview with James Davis, author of Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean

Question: As you describe in your book, Walrond was very much at the center of the Harlem Renaissance at the time but history has largely forgotten him at least until recently. What explains his disappearance?

James Davis: Walrond’s departure from the United States partly explains his disappearance. After 1929, he lived the rest of his life in France and England, and he did not make a great effort to maintain ties with the Harlem community. Several people who sought to contact him had trouble locating him, so there is a sense in which Walrond was responsible for his own obscurity.

He was also estranged from his family, so no one was taking care that papers and manuscripts were preserved. But there are other important factors. Remember, many writers we think of as prominent New Negroes were actually “rediscovered” after protracted neglect. The poet Countée Cullen was for much of the twentieth century not well known or admired, the novelist Nella Larsen sank into obscurity, the work of Claude McKay and Jean Toomer was neglected, as were the careers of several black women poets, and perhaps most famously, the extraordinary talent of Zora Neale Hurston was only recuperated through the efforts of Alice Walker and others. It was only a matter of time before someone reassessed Walrond’s career and writing, and in fact, that process really began in the 1980’s with Robert Bone, a scholar of African American literature. His efforts to collect Walrond’s essays, articles, and stories and to reconstruct his career led in turn to Louis Parascandola’s publication of two anthologies of Walrond’s writings.

Q: Likewise, why do you think there’s been a resurgence of interest evident not only by your book but by the recent reissue of Tropic Death?

JD: I think two overlapping developments contributed to the resurgence of interest. One is the so-called transnational turn in American studies, an effort to revise the way we talk about literary and cultural history by situating the U.S. in the context of the plural Americas. The effect of this shift has been pronounced with respect to accounts of the Harlem Renaissance, which by now everyone knows was never strictly a New York phenomenon anyway. U.S. scholars have written brilliantly in recent years on the Caribbean dimensions of the Harlem Renaissance, including Michelle Ann Stephens, Brent Edwards, Winston James, and Lara Putnam. As well, Caribbean literary studies has enjoyed a kind of renaissance of its own, not only in the U.S. but also and especially in the U.K. and the Caribbean itself. Because Walrond’s best-known work, Tropic Death, is set entirely in the Caribbean, where he was born and raised, an argument can be made for his place in the region’s rich literary history.

Q: How does Walrond’s life and writing change the way we think about the history and character of the Harlem Renaissance?

JD: Some of our conventional wisdom about the Harlem Renaissance is reinforced by Walrond’s life and writing, including the emphasis placed on racial pride and expressions of militancy and the faith in the arts as a vehicle for social change. But Walrond also challenges some received ideas about the era. His work reminds us, first of all, that nearly one-fourth of the population of black New York in the 1920s was foreign-born. This is a striking fact, since we tend to think of the Harlem Renaissance involving African American migration from the rural South to pursue economic opportunities up North, bringing their cultural practices to new urban contexts and transforming the race in the process.

Accurate as far as it goes, this is nevertheless an incomplete account of the people and forces that created black Harlem and shaped the “New Negro” movement. Even W.E.B. Du Bois, among the most astute chroniclers of black history, suppressed the Caribbean dimensions of the movement, not because he despised the foreign-born (in fact, he praised what he saw as the thrift and industry of West Indians), but because the political commitments of certain Caribbean newcomers were antithetical to the vision of race progress he formulated with the NAACP. These included Marcus Garvey, most famously, but also lesser-known Caribbean immigrants such as Hubert Harrison, W.A. Domingo, and Cyril Briggs, whose radical activism and writing departed from the ideals that Du Bois and others advocated. Both migrants and immigrants alike contributed to the “New Negro” movement, Walrond’s career reminds us, sometimes struggling over its principles and direction, but also yielding an extraordinary diversity of voices and political perspectives, some of which has been lost in the “domestication” of Harlem Renaissance history.


Monday, March 9th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Eric Walrond, A New Biography of a Major Harlem Renaissance Figure

This week our featured book is Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean by James Davis.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Eric Walrond to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, March 13th at 1:00 pm.

“Eric Walrond, handsome, cosmopolitan, and beguilingly enigmatic, may have been the most promising literary talent of the Harlem Renaissance…. James Davis’s finely written, beautifully paced Eric Walrond is a major biography of a fascinating figure, a triumph of archival sleuthing that reintroduces readers to almost everybody known to his peripatetic protagonist.”—David Levering Lewis, New York University

For more on the book, you can read an excerpt from the introduction:

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Mary Helen Washington at the Schomburg Center on Wednesday

On Wednesday night, Mary Helen Washington will discuss her new book The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s at the Schomburg Center. Washington will be in conversation with Farah Jasmine Griffin.

As a preview for the event, here is Mary Helen Washington explaining how her Catholic upbringing in the 1950s led to an interest in the relationship between African Americans and the Communist Party. She describes how Communist newspaper in the United States became one of the few venues to provide serious discussions and coverage of African American literature during the 1950s. She also talks about her desire to see the work of radical African American artists and writers from this period become part of the canon:

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

The Other Blacklist — An Interview with Mary Helen Washington

Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist

“I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of ‘integration’ but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.”—Mary Helen Washington

As part of our series of posts for Black History Month, we’re re-posting our interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s:

Question: Why did you choose to focus on the 1950s?

Mary Helen Washington: I came of age in the early 1950s in Catholic schools in Cleveland, Ohio, fed on a steady diet of anticommunism at school, and, at home, a steady diet of integration, but both of those prescribed lessons—anticommunism and integration—separated me from the story of radical civil rights activity. While the black left of the 1950s was protesting discrimination on every front, from residential segregation to unions and factories, we black kids were being taught that integration meant blacks becoming acceptable to the white mainstream. When the left-leaning National Negro Labor Congress (NNLC) came to Cleveland for their 1952 conference, they staged a protest downtown against the airlines for refusing to hire blacks. Since stories like these were blacklisted by the anticommunists as well as the integrationists, black kids grew up in the 1950s with no access to a critical discourse on race. Radicals used terms like white supremacy and racial justice, not integration, while black kids were learning that we should dress, act, and speak a certain way as a marker of acceptability, radicals were defining integration as claiming the rights of citizenship—as you can see from the NNLC poster featuring the Statue of Liberty as a black woman.

Q: Why did you call the book The Other Blacklist?

MHW: Most of what we know about the McCarthy era focuses on the white left. Communism is seen as a white left radicalism, though black civil rights activists were deeply involved in radical movements in the 1940s and 1950s. People who were investigated by J. Edgar Hoover for being communists were routinely asked if they were involved interracially because civil rights activity was considered radical. This is a very powerful and commendable radicalism that black people don’t get credit for. They weren’t the Hollywood Ten, but they were the New York/Chicago 100. There’s a fine documentary on screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo and his admirable resistance to HUAC, but there’s no documentary on black radicals like Alice Childress, Lloyd Brown, Julian Mayfield, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett or Lorraine Hansberry [some of the figures in my book], who also paid a price for their radicalism. I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of “integration” but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.

Q: You have a chapter called “Spycraft and the Black Literary Left.” Can you talk about the connection between government agencies, politics, and art?

MHW: Keep in mind that the Left and the Communist Party supported black artists when no one in white mainstream culture (with the exception of J. Edgar Hoover) showed any interest in black culture. They came to the defense of black culture because they saw art as a means to effect social and political change. One critic Willliam Maxwell says that Hoover should be considered an important historian of black culture because he always took black literary production seriously. The FBI files are thus a mixed blessing—a gold mine for biographical material because the FBI kept close track of the activities of radicals, and also a record of governmental abuse of artists and intellectuals. There’s a current play on Broadway about the life of Lyndon Johnson called All the Way that shows how relevant these issues still are. The character playing J. Edgar Hoover asks LBJ to justify his relationship with Martin Luther King because, Hoover claims, King is being advised by communists. The government, particularly in the age of McCarthy and Hoover, created the tradition of demonizing the Left that is still with us and that has resulted in the dismissal of an entire generation of black intellectuals and artists.

Q: Why is radicalism of the 1950s still relevant?

MHW: We’re grappling with the same issues today but without that radical perspective. I’m thinking about Rachel Jeantel in the Trayvon Martin case and all the discussion that was generated about Jeantel’s appearance and speech—the way she looked rather than the case itself. Another example is Paul Ryan saying “inner city” people live in a culture that doesn’t value work or doesn’t have a work ethic. And here we see how “inner city” becomes a code for “black.” The jurors from the Jordan Davis case in Florida, one white and one black, said that the Davis case, in which a black man was shot and killed because a white man thought his black music was too loud, was not about race. This kind of political illiteracy shows how and why we need what I call a critical racial discourse. As Boston Governor Deval Patrick said—“words matter.” Even more than words, the radical left—and, yes, I include communists– gave us examples of a powerful resistance. The Rosa Ingram case and the Trenton Six—which were also about racial violence inflicted on blacks– were fought in the courts, in the streets, and in African American artistic production. When Rosa Ingram was sentenced to death along with her two sons for killing a man she claimed had violently assaulted her, the left and civil rights groups organized the protests that eventually freed them, and, as part of that protest, artist Charles White made the Ingram case the subject of his 1949 drawing.


Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Eric Walrond, Harlem Renaissance Forgotten Giant — James Davis

Eric Walrond

In celebration of Black History Month, we continue our focus on recent titles in African-American studies. Today, we look at Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean, by James Davis, which was recently featured in the Daily News.

In the article, Davis explains Walrond’s important role in the Harlem Renaissance, who was friends with such figures as Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Walrond was best-known for Tropic of Death, his book of short stories, which offered one of the first portrayals of Caribbean characters in American literature. However, after achieving recognition for Tropic of Death, Walrond left New York City and faded into obscurity.

In praising the book, David Levering-Lewis says ““It’s a gorgeous book, and it’s detective work that is really exceptional.” Walrond was born in Guyana and his role in the Harlem Renaissance reflects the important place Caribbean-Americans have had in the history of Harlem.

For more on the book, we’re very excited about an event with James Davis to celebrate the book’s launch at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, on Monday, February 23rd.

And here’s an excerpt from the book:

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Interview with Houston Baker and K. Merinda Simmons, editors of The Trouble with Post-Blackness

The Trouble with Post-Blackness

“To declare oneself “post-black” is essentially to demand of a radiant tradition that it stops talking, archiving, and producing knowledge and specific forms of art, sport, and knowledge spanning millennia.”—Houston Baker and K. Merinda Simmons

Throughout this week, we’ll be featuring books relating to Black History Month. In the following post, we interview Houston Baker and K. Merinda Simmons, the co-editors of The Trouble with Post-Blackness:

Question: Your book was prepared around the time of the Trayvon Martin shooting and it serves as a point of discourse several times throughout. Do you feel that the discussion would have been radically changed had it been prepared after the Michael Brown and Eric Garner murders?

Houston Baker and K. Merinda Simmons: I am not certain the temper of the brilliant essays and reflections collected in the book would have been radically changed. The galvanizing effects of the murder of Trayvon Martin were enough in themselves to set off a cacophony of anger and events not seen in United States and global activism for an extended stretch of time. It was as though the murder of Trayvon Martin was a horrific wake up call from the ambient, narcissistic sleep of “Post-Blackness” and excessive celebrations of the second Obama presidential election. If a trajectory of disillusionment with the euphoria of Barack Obama’s double presidency is drawn, surely its major break was the murder of Trayvon Martin. Every person’s death diminishes us all. This we know. The addition of recent murders of so many other African American men, women, and children in the United States—especially from within sanctioned institutional and authoritative structures such as the police—goes beyond diminishment to devastation. Post-Blackness’s self-regarding call to seize a putative American Dream “beyond blackness” seems delusional of course in light of the brutal deaths of so many.

Q: What do you believe the election of Obama means within the context of Black history? To what extent should we categorize it as a progressive milestone, versus a symbolic achievement during a lack of significant developments in the Black experience? For instance, how do we reconcile the post-election celebrations centered on racial progress, in light of recent events in which the notion of post-blackness seems to be suffering?

HB and KMS: This is a complex question because it articulates and juxtaposes a number of shorthand terms such as “progressive milestone” and “symbolic achievement.” Milestones are always only what we make of them in symbolic systems such as “Black history” and “development” discourse. The elections of Barack Obama to the United States presidency are permanent markers of a shifted American context of presidential politics. Obama’s successful bids for the presidency were full of centrist (as opposed to “progressive”), vague, and almost speechlessly exorbitant financing. “Blackness”—in the existential sense coded in a tradition of creative resistance, militant refusal of subjugation, and studied attention to black impoverishment—had nothing to do with the presidential victories of Barack Obama. However, in this long line of coded black resistance against insuperable odds, even a day off or a small lottery win from a vending machine in a supermarket can seem like miraculous good fortune. And if it has never happened before in one’s known history it seems like the Fourth of July! There were volumes of black critique, reservation, and resistance to even the notion that Barack Obama represented a “new black messiah” come to redeem the United States and rid it of racism and black despair. But such counter-celebratory critique was ineffective at producing in-depth perspectives on Obama the candidate or the resonant inefficacy for the black majority of his run up to the election.