Monday, March 31, 2008


Last Thursday, Bill Clinton appeared on our campus for an indoor rally with an impressive and enthusiastic crowd estimated at 6,000. This would not ordinarily have been any real concern to me had it not been for the fact that I knew Penn State was also scheduled to receive a visit this week from Ann Coulter, who had vowed, should John McCain emerge as the Republicans' presidential nominee, to campaign for Hillary Clinton.
So, with two such powerful advocates slotted to appear at University Park in support of the Clinton candidacy, I was naturally concerned that Penn State somehow maintain its scrupulous nonpartisan stance. It was clear to me that we needed a good spokesperson for the Barack Obama campaign.
Yesterday, such a spokesperson came to town, Senator Bob Casey -- he who did us all the very great favor of displacing the dread Rick Santorum. And for good measure, Senator Casey brought Senator Obama along with him.

The clouds and rain finally broke, and Sunday morning was beautifully sunny. It was a great family day, and it looked as though the entire extended Penn State family, Paternos and babies included, had turned out.
You may by now have seen the video of Barack bowling in Altoona, feeding a calf at our Ag school, etc. What has not been seen, apparently unfilmed, was his morning pickup game on the basketball court.
Obama was in great form by the time of the afternoon rally, and he couldn't have asked for a more receptive audience.

Said audience has been estimated at 22,000 -- more than twice the size of any audience for any earlier presidential candidate.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A.B. Spellman coming to L.A.

One of my favorite East Coast poets is coming to the West Coast next month. A.B. Spellman, whose last book, THE BEAUTIFUL DAYS, appeared many years ago with a preface by Frank O'Hara, has at long last brought out a new book, THINGS I MUST HAVE KNOWN (available from Coffee House Press). Here's a brief passage:

refuse this cold scripture of the commonplace

at your risk, tight little man, you gotta turn & turn

& turn again from those dismal arrivals

your nature insists upon & lighten up. this foaming

fake ebullience that you advertise doesn't sell &

you need a new hook.

Spellman was also the author of FOUR LIVES IN THE BE BOP BUSINESS. He will read at Cal State Los Angeles, as the poster indicates, on April 17 at 6:30. Be there for a timely new hook.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Only three days after Barack Obama's landmark speech on race in American culture, I'm driving home from work. Defensive driver that I am, I scan the driveway to my left that enters the road from my local shopping center. That's when I see him -- a man affixing two Confederate flags to his car. This in Pennsylvania, not all that far from the Gettysburg battlefield, not all that far from a station of the underground railroad, an earlier Pennsylvanian response to the traumas of American race.

On Tuesday, Obama held up two options for America in the remaining campaign season. We can continue to roil in the politics of race as spectacle, or we can begin to have the long overdue adult conversation about race that seems to have been held in abeyance ever since the highpoint of Lincoln's second inaugural address.

From what I see on my television, we have opted for the politics of race as spectacle.

In the continuing odd marriage between the inane right and the Clintonistas, the likes of Joe Scarborough, Patrick Buchanan and Lanny Davis have come completely unhinged in their shrieking and shredding attacks on Obama.

Lanny Davis asks hysterically, "If a white minister preached sermons to his congregation and had used the "N" word and used rhetoric and words similar to members of the KKK, would you support a Democratic presidential candidate who decided to continue to be a member of that congregation?"

I'm always amazed when prominent spokespersons so profoundly misconstrue things that are even at that moment widely circulating, and thus easily consulted, and yet, given the frequency with which this occurs in politics today, it must have shown itself to be a technique with real efficacy. What anybody who has seen any of the endless replays of Wirght's sermons knows is that the Reverend's use of the "N" word was centered in the claim that nobody had ever applied it to Hillary Clinton.

Now, I don't know anything about the truth value of Rev. Wright's comment. For all I know, given the frequency with which Bill Clinton is called our first black president, and given the rabid hatred of Hillary Clinton on the right, it could well be the case that somebody somehwere has called Clinton by the "N" word.

But what I do know for a certainty is that nobody would fault any white minister for using the "N" word in a way identical to Wright's rhetorical gesture. Would Lanny Davis have us believe that somebody would be called a racist for claiming that Hillary had not been called by the "N" word?

But Davis is simply playing on the well worn practice on the right of portraying black peopple as the real racists, and his ploy appears to be working even with many people who have seen the clips of Rev. Wright and know what he in fact said.

Similarly, Scarborough and Buchanan have been on program after program asserting that Wright's comments were anti-white racism. Scarborough simultaneously praises Obama's speech and says, "I'm not buying it." Alongside Buchanan, he argues endlessly that it is simply unthinkable that Obama wouldn't have immediately severed all ties to both the minister who made these remarks and the church in which he made them.

Which raises, at least in my mind, the question of how Scarborough and Buchanan might have handled similar situations in their own past. We don't have far to look.

Joe Scarborough represented Michael F. Griffin in pretrial court apperances. Griffin, you may recall, was the "Christian" terrorist who shot and killed a medical doctor as a means of advancing his "pro-life" agenda. As reported in the NEW YORK TIMES at the time, Scarborough's explanation was that the Griffins were family friends.

Got that? Barack Obama should have left the church family he had found in Chicago in protest of remarks that Rev. Wright made in his sermons. But family friendship meant that Scarborough should appear as the legal representative of a man who had murdered a doctor for ideological motives.

Buchanan, of course, neither denounced nor rejected Richard Nixon even after tapes were released documenting Nixon's routine statements of racism far beyond even what Buchanan and company accuse Obama of having countenanced in Wright. Buchanan neither denounced nor rejected Ronald Reagan after Reagan fabricated stories about welfare cadillac queens. Buchanan, so far as I have been able to determine, never denounced or rejected any who had practiced segregation in Washington as he was growing up there.

And, to nobody's surprise, neither Scarborough nor Buchanan has applied the same strict renunciation standard to any Republican candidates. Jerry Falwell, who for years preached from the pulpit to his Virginia congregation that racial segregation was God's will, joined Pat Robertson just days after 9/11 to insist that God had in fact damned America for its sinful ways. Davis, Scarborough and Buchanan condemn Obama for not cutting off all contact with Rev. Wright after he had "damned" America, but they have been loath to make the same call upon those Republicans who have repeatedly sought the embrace of Falwell and Robertson. A stop at Bob Jones University, which till recently practiced racist division of its students' social lives, has been a virtual requirement of all Republican candidates during the South Carolina primaries, again without meeting anything like the level of outrage Scarborough and Buchanan have unleashed on Obama.

It will little avail you to bring any of this up with these masters of communication, though. On the evidence of their recent television appearances, Scarborough will pronounce you "silly" and Buchanan will tell you to "shut up" [both happened on MSNBC within a week].

If we are to leave the spectacle of race behind and reclaim the moral high ground of Lincoln's second inaugural, we will first have to find some way to wrest the reins of discourse away from these media elites. We must, as the Pennsylvania Abolitionists of years past, take the reins in our own hands and steer a different course.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


[we had a request for this early lyric -- the requestor should contact us at:]

I am thinking the better part
Is this that I know always
Where everything of you is

Even when the brotherhood of breath lies still
On the slab and sleeping disarray reorients
Mine with regard to yours

The little idea that can chugs up
An inclined arm exerts itself
The nipple of night slips from my teeth

And the better part of you
Is musing

Friday, March 07, 2008


Nathaniel Mackey was one of the invited writers at this year's University of Louisville Conference on Literatures after 1900 and so I seized upon his presence for the introduction to my own plenary presentation. I began by showing a short video clip of the National Book Award ceremony last year when Mackey accepted the award for his volume of poetry SPLAY ANTHEM. The first thing Mackey had said upon arriving at the microphone that evening was, "Now We Know," which was also the title of my lecture. Here is the opening:

But what did we know, and when did we know it?

Along with the audience in New York, we knew in this moment that Nathaniel Mackey had just been awarded the National Book Award for poetry. Those of us who track such matters knew in this moment that this was only the third time in the history of the National Book Awards that a black poet had been so honored. There were no African American artists selected for the prize in the forty-nine years from its inception in 1950 to 1999, when the poet Ai was honored for her New and Selected Poems. The following year, Lucille Clifton was presented with the award, again for a volume of New and Selected Poems, and then there were no more black winners until Mackey took the stage in 2006 to receive the award for Splay Anthem, marking the first time ever that an African American poet was honored for something that was not a selection from his life’s work. And some of us noted that possessive pronoun as well; "his." It made a difference. This was the first time that any black man had ever received the National Book Award for poetry. For that matter, we’d have to look back to 1990's award in fiction to Charles Johnson to find any National Book Award in any category to any black man. Before that, there had only been the 1953 award to Ralph Ellison. There were other African Americans honored. Both Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor won in fiction, and the foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters has gone to Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, and the redoubtable Oprah Winfrey.

We knew something else as well, in that moment of the award. Despite the fact that the National Book Award for poetry had in its early years gone to William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore, despite the appearance among the lists of honorees of a John Ashbery, for the most part the judging panels have gone straight for America’s middle brow jugular. Though it would be hard to argue against the quality of the winners over the years, it would be equally difficult to justify the continued neglect of the poets who were most insistently exploring the territories outlined by Williams, Stevens and Moore, let alone Sterling Brown and Melvin B. Tolson. Mackey’s award was, then, a perfect storm of the unexpected and the overdue. It is not hard to point to various factors that lent themselves to this felicitous outcome: Splay Anthem was, unlike most of Mackey’s work, published by a venerable New York press. The judging panel for 2006 included other poets more likely than many to be conversant with and sympathetic to the adventurous and demanding aesthetic of Mackey’s serial lyric inventions. But, should we allow ourselves to admit it, there is something else we knew immediately about the rarity of Mackey’s 2006 honor.

In Paracritical Hinge, Mackey comments that "the relevance of experimentalism to African American writing and of African American writing to experimentalism needs to be insisted on and accorded its place in the discourse attending African American literature and in the discourse attending experimental writing" (243). Suffice it to say that neither the National Book Awards nor America’s literary/critical apparatus at large has shown itself to be in any hurry to meet with Mackey’s imperatives. We haven’t far to look for explanations for this phenomenon. In a year that has seen such an enthusiastic response to the candidacy of Barak Obama, our national tendency to congratulate ourselves must be leavened by the memory of the moment in which fellow Senator Joseph Biden felt obliged at the beginning of the campaign trail to point out for us that Obama is, as Biden would know, "articulate." (Robert Novak, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, felt obliged to repeat and underscore another of Biden’s observations, that regarding the cleanliness of the honorable Mr. Obama). Even a year that closed with the truly remarkable event of the release of a major feature film with Melvin B. Tolson as its subject, under the auspices of National Book Foundation honoree Oprah Winfrey, left an odd taste in the mouth. There appeared to be a strange skittishness among all those involved with the film about Tolson’s sheer intellectual force, particularly as evidenced in his poetry, which is completely absent from the film. There is a long-standing problem in America, stretching back to the day of Phillis Wheatley, to whom Thomas Jefferson refused the honorific of "poet", contending with the fact of black intelligence. In a short essay on the large subject of "black interiority," Mackey comments that American audiences have been haunted by "a fearful, grudging acknowledgment of black intelligence (the ‘hive of subtleties’ that Babo’s head is said to be in Herman Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’) (Paracritcal 202). Of course, another thing that we know is the fate of Babo. Nathaniel Mackey’s presence on the New York stage as recipient of the National Book Award for so deeply thoughtful and inventive a book as Splay Anthem was, then, belated, let’s hope not grudging, acknowledgment of something that had only rarely been apprehended, let alone celebrated, by the National Book Foundation, the figure of the black intellectual. It was, we might say, a moment of discrepant engagement on the national stage, one which threw into sharp relief a history of denials and deferrals. Mackey has written of discrepant engagement as a mode of critical action that "dislodges or seeks to dislodge homogeneous models of identity, assumption of monolithic form, purist expectation . . . " (Discrepant 189). In my time here today, I hope to perform an exercise in discrepant engagement by telling a story, one that does not share a stage with Nathaniel Mackey but participates in a certain staging of intellectual history and race.

From there, my paper launched into an itinerary that included Ornette Coleman, Jacques Derrida, and Russell Atkins's 1950s work on concepts of deconstruction.

The paper engaged in a brief fantasy built around the possibility that Derrida could have seen Atkins's essays during his first trip to the United States, some years before Derrida himself began to write of deconstruction. In the end, my paper was not really so much about Derrida's history and race as it was about us, about how we read intellectual history, about how we fail to read black participation in crucial developments in theory and philosophy, about how our understanding of ourselves and of the past might alter were we to read more fully . . . .

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


While in Louisville, I acquired this eponymously colored chapbook by Tom Orange, poet, late of D.C. now of Nashville. The book is volume 16 in the Slack Buddha Press series from Bill Howe's La Perruque Editions. You can contact the slack Buddha under his wilting bodhi tree at:

La Perruque Editions
4724 Bonham Road
Oxford, OH 45056

I had an armload (which did not make my balance any easier
to maintain.) You served my friends and I at the corner table.
You said that the nachos were the best thing there. You were
at the Kennedy Center with an older woman. I was there with
my family. We exchanged glances at intermission and a hello in the foyer. You came to the rescue in fine Mentos commercial fashion, helping to lug my Ikea bed indoors. We were both on the balcony and on the floor. You said my glasses were the coolest, and I stammered. Crazy eye contact. You kept looking
over. Wished one of us would've spoken! Should've bought
you more coffee... You called out "Happy Holidays!" My heart
went pitter-pat! You were nice enough to give me a second
chance, but I still let you slip through my fingers again. We
exchanged glances as we were both coming and going. You were
cold and I offered you my jacket to keep you warm. You were
visiting a "friend" in New Hampshire so I hesitated to ask for
your number. We talked about the cold, and I wish we could
have talked more. I hoped that you would sit next to me. You
were with a large, diverse group, sitting at 2 reserved tables to
the left of the stage. You sat next to what appeared to be your
parents and across from your sister, I think, and down the table
from a man with a cane and his significant other. We chatted
about century rides, marathons and commuting to work. You
went on to Tysons and I veered off in East Falls Church. We
talked about politics, Princeton, and the perils of holiday travel
until we were cruelly separated at Woodley Park. Got off at
Courthouse Metro wishing I lived farther west so I had time to
say "hi." You asked me if I was wearing Doc Martens, I tried to
explain where Smash was located in Georgetown. We boarded
together, you to the airport, me to Crystal City. You on way to
NYC meeting, work in D.C., home in Atlanta. Our encounter
and chat, and your amazing brown eyes left me smitten. We
held eye contact as you walked by, then we both turned around
to smile at each other.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Upcoming Symposium at Georgetown

I'm going to be at Georgetown University in April as part of this great three day symposium -- Hope some of you can make it:

APRIL 15 - 17 Amiri Baraka & Nikki Giovanni"Let Freedom Ring": Art and Democracy in the King Years, 1954-1968Lannan Symposium & Festival 2008
On the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s passing, Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni join other distinguished poets, scholars and activists to celebrate role of the arts in the Civil Rights Movement. Symposium discussions, poetry readings, and lectures will take place over three days at Georgetown.
By sweeping away legal segregation in the public sphere, and especially bysecuring the right to participate in the democratic franchise for people ofcolor, the Civil Rights Movement fundamentally changed American life. Thisstruggle for social justice has been well documented and justly honored. Lesswell-documented is how the arts helped sustain the Movement and were essentialto its successes. On the fortieth anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin LutherKing, the Lannan Literary Symposium seeks to acknowledge this legacy whilepaying special attention to the contributions of poets, writers, and artists tothe public discourse of the Movement, especially during the period TaylorBranch has called "the King Years," 1954 -1968.Readings, performances, lectures, and discussions will take place on April 15,16, & 17 at Georgetown University, in Washington, DC.
__________Amiri Baraka Sonia Sanchez Haki Madhubuti Vincent HardingMichael Eric Dyson Lawrence Guyot E. Ethelbert Miller Charles CobbEugene Redmond Askia Touré Walter Fauntroy Jabari AsimValerie Smith Eleanor Traylor Barbara Teer Joanne GabbinThulani Davis Aldon Nielsen Dorie Ladner Sandra ShannonMaurice Jackson Ivanhoe Donaldson Ruth Harris Soyica DiggsRobert Patterson Randall Kenan Angelyn Mitchell Jayne Cortez__________
S p o n s o r sLannan Literary Programs African American Studies Program Department of English Office of the College Dean Diversity Action Council
____________________ S C H E D U L E TUESDAY, APRIL 15
5:00 – 6:00 p.m. WELCOME AND PLENARY LECTURE (Copley) Title of lecture to be announced. Vincent Harding.
6:00 – 7:00 p.m. OPENING RECEPTION (Copley)
8:00 – 9:30 p.m. POETRY READING (ICC Auditorium) Reading by Amiri Baraka, Eugene Redmond, and Haki Madhubuti
9:30 – 10:00 p.m. RECEPTION AND BOOK SIGNING (ICC Auditorium)
10:00 – 11:00 p.m. OPEN MIC (Bull Dog Alley)
9:30 – 11:45 a.m. SYMPOSIUM I: Art and Democracy in the King Years and Beyond: Scholarly Assessments (Copley) Joanne Gabbin, Aldon Nielson, Sandra Shannon, Valerie Smith, EleanorTraylor. Facilitator: Jabari Asim
1:00 - 3:15p.m. SYMPOSIUM II: Creativity, Resistance, Liberation: Forms of PoliticalEngagement in the Arts of the 1960s (Copley) Sonia Sanchez, E. Ethelbert Miller, Amiri Baraka, Barbara Teer, HakiMadhubuti. Facilitator: Soyica Diggs
3:45 – 5:00 p.m. PLENARY LECTURE (Gonda) "Art as a Form of Politics." Amiri Baraka. How artists are political, andhow politics is used in art.
5:15 – 6:00 p.m. RECEPTION (Old North 205)
8:00 – 10:00 p.m. POETRY READING (Old North 205) Reading by Sonia Sanchez, E. Ethelbert Miller, Askia Toure
10:00 – 10:30 p.m. RECEPTION & BOOKSIGNING (Old North 205)
10:00 – 11:00 p.m. OPEN MIC (Bulldog Alley)
9:30 a.m.– 12:00 p.m. SYMPOSIUM III: Living History: Activists on Art and Social Justice Lawrence Guyot, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Charles Cobb, Walter Fauntroy, DorieLadner, Ruth Harris. Facilitator: Maurice Jackson
12:30 – 2:00 p.m. LUNCHEON AND PLENARY LECTURE (Copley) "Music of Struggle." Ruth Harris. Turning crowds into community by getting people to sing.
2:15 – 4:30 p.m. SYMPOSIUM IV: Advancing American Ideals: Democracy as a Goal for the Arts(Copley) Randall Kenan, Askia Toure, Thulani Davis, Eugene Redmond, Jayne Cortez. Facilitator: Robert Patterson
5:00 – 6:15 p.m. PLENARY LECTURE (Copley)"'A Change is Gonna Come'?" Michael Eric Dyson. Art and the politics of the black possible.
8:00 – 10:00 p.m. READING (ICC Auditorium) Reading by Randall Kenan, Thulani Davis, Barbara Teer, Jayne Cortez
10:00 – 10:30 p.m. RECEPTION AND BOOKSIGNING (ICC Auditorium)
10:00 – 11:00 p.m. OPEN MIC (Bulldog Alley)--
Mark McMorrisAssociate Professor, EnglishDirector, Lannan Literary ProgramsGeorgetown University