Monday, December 07, 2009


When C.L.R. James was teaching at Federal City College in Washington, D.C., he always entered the classroom bearing an armload of books, each bristling with pieces of paper marking the passages he wanted to reference in the course of that day's class. Often these were simply his copies of the books we were reading from the syllabus, but he also tended to bring in works none of us had ever heard of. I quickly learned to make a note when this happened and to try to follow up by reading the book. That was how I first became aware of Nancy Cunard's NEGRO ANTHOLOGY, a text I still marvel at and share with my own students.

Another I always wanted to read but only recently managed to acquire was THE SEARCH FOR THE TASSILI FRESCOES. This book was first published in 1958, with an English language edition the following year, and James was still excited by the prospects the text offered. The volume is Henri Lhote's account of the discovery of prehistoric paintings in the central Sahara, some as old as eight thousand years. Not only did these discoveries demonstrate that this area had once been fertile, but they established the complexity and sophistication of the cultures that had inhabited the area, including, as the book's publisher puts it, "the earliest examples of Negro art we possess."

When I hear, as I still too often do, critics claiming that James was overly Eurocentric, I recall those class periods spent poring over this book and weighing its significance. I first saw this book, after all, in a course James offered on African Intellectual History.

This work, and others like it, remain largely unreferenced in contemporary discussions, even in this post-BLACK ATHENA world of discourse.

I think even these illustrations I have reproduced will give a sense of why C.L.R. James wanted his students to have access to this information.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


from Al Filreis

Vachel Lindsay podcast

From left to right, Aldon Nielsen, Michelle Taransky, Charles Bernstein in my office recently for the recording of the 26th episode of PoemTalk. This is one is about Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo." Go to the PoemTalk page for much more and a link to the podcast audio.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


While the century is still young, this gets us off to a good start:

These pre-c.c. posts stream to us from some point “prior to predication.” It’s a place Tyrone Williams has been exploring on our behalf for a good, long time, beamed up, as it were, from some Ohio of the spirit, sending his missives back to us here on planet Grammar, a place of our own constant care and making where “meanwhile means dissent.” These are poems that teach us how to read them, or rather, teach us the deep structures that we didn’t know we knew. Take, for just one instance, the perfectly rhymed, perfectly logical line, “X nee YHWH.” The here unaccented “nee”-sayer marks the places the vowels should go, the Xed out spot the tongue should find in history, the unspeakable languages of our own territorial claims. That’s a lot of work for one line to do, but that’s in the nature of scripture. Tyrone Williams has been hard on the case on our behalf. We owe him at the least a collective thank-you post-it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


When I was in Ottawa for the C.L.R. James conference in October, a frequent topic in our discussions was the Critical Inquiry essay by Susan Buck-Morss on Hegel and Haiti. Like many others, I had first known of Buck-Morss by way of her intriguing work on Benjamin, particularly her book on the Arcades Project. I'd followed with interest her turn to other subjects in political philosophy, evidenced in such work as Thinking Past Terror, but was still surprised to see her take up the place of Haiti in the evolution of modernity, a subject of interest to me since the days I used to pursue the topic in undergraduate history classes taught by C.L.R. James.

Now "Hegel and Haiti" has been conjoined to a new essay, "Universal History," and published as a book by the University of Pittsburgh Press. [Find the Amazon page for the book here.] Buck-Morss picks up on the arguments that James and DuBois were advancing in the 1930s, the point I was explicating in my chapter for the Geomodernism collection:

"The Haitian experience was not a modern phenomenon too, but first."

That argument appears in the new "Universal History" addition, and no matter what you may think of the disputes about the possibilities of the universal, or the propsects of some "new humanism," the book is well worth reading on that score alone. Still, it has much more to recommend it.

Friday, November 27, 2009


The African American Literature and Culture Society invites submissions for abstracts or papers for multiple sessions at this year's ALA in San Francisco, CA. The society will consider papers or panels on any aspects of African American life and letters. Proposals should be sent electronically to William R. Nash, program coordinator ( Deadline for submission is 3 January, 2010; notification of acceptance by 30 January 2010.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Will Alexander's Loxodrome

For those who have never seen it before, that's Will Alexander's own artwork on the cover of his new book from New Directions. This piece, which shares a title with the book, is characteristic of Will's drawings and paintings. I first saw one of these back in 1993 when he had come to my Los Angeles apartment to record an interview for the radio program I was producing at KSJS FM in those days. That interview, which includes a fair portion of Alexander reading from his work, is now available via my pages at Penn Sound, and can be found by clicking here. On his way out the door, Will handed me a packet that included his current book manuscript and one of his entangling drawings.

"I feel perpetual"
--Will Alexander


Congratulations to Keith Waldrop, who last night received the National Book Award for Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy, published by the University of California Press.

And while you're celebrating, look back to the April 17 HEATSTRINGS blog for an entry on Waldrop's SEVERAL GRAVITIES.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Hambone, Hambone, where you been . . . ?

Hambone 19 is just out, with this stunning art work by Rachel Griffiths. The new issue includes the transcription of a Berkeley lecture by Sun Ra from that odd period when he was in fact teaching for the University of California. (One of the more intriguing things in the Baraka papers at Howard University is a copy of the reference letter Baraka wrote in support of Sun Ra's getting the professorial appointment.) Another wonder is a selection of poems from Lloyd Addison, original UMBRA poet. You'll also find new work from Lyn Hejinian, Will Alexander, Fred Moten, Ed Roberson, Dawn Lundy Martin, Peter Gizzi and many others.

Monday, November 09, 2009


The first panel I got to at this year's ASA presented me with a pleasant surprise. I walked into the room to find poets Brenda Marie Osbey and Kalamu ya Salaam taking their positions at the podium. Admittedly this would have been less of a surprise had I inspected the conference program before leaving home. (It's no longer mailed out in hard copy, and frankly, I hadn't thought to donwload it to my Kindle.)

The poetic occasion was a special session on post-Katrina arts in New Orleans. A post-Katrina baby was on hand to add his verse. Later I was talking with Meta Jones about the paucity of poetry at ASA. Meta was there as part of a panel on Hip Hop Poetics. I went off to dinner with that group after their session, asserting my position as senior citizen who had in fact been listening to the radio when the first raps came across the air waves.

Other panels I got to this year included a superb session on the Canadian/Caribbean axis. Having just come from Ottawa, where I spent much time in conversation with David Austin, it was good to see scholars in the USA taking up the important history of Caribbean activism in Canada and the multitude of connections to US social and arts movements. That panel also featured Carter Mathes on Peter Tosh, and Jeremy Glick speaking on C.L.R. James's play featuring a performance by Paul Robeson. There was a quite good session on Soul, in the course of which Gayle Wald gave a talk on the television show "Soul" that aired for several years on PBS back in the years when the system featured lots of exciting original programs and had not yet resorted to 26 part adaptations of Trollope novels. At the panel chaired by Wahneema Lubianao, Evie Shockley, who had just been at Penn State's novel conference, spoke on the subject of Anne Spencer's poetry. That was also the panel where I learned of Sam Milai's work as an editorial cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Courier. Visit this link for an overview of Milai's work.

At the dawn session on Sunday I joined an avid band of bitter enders for a discussion of developments in digital humanities.

It was just as well I was in a news-free zone and didn't hear what the Democrats were doing to our health care reform.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


[image by Nadia Wilson]

The final day of the conference on the contemporary African American novel began at 0-dark-hundred, as we used to say, with a very early morning lecture on pedagogical issues offered up by Maryemma Graham, whose talk was itself a model of good teaching technique. That lecture was paired up with a panel later in the morning that furthered the work done in the "post-soul" issue of African American Review. The morning also saw novelist Mat Johnson reading selections from his riotous forthcoming novel Pym.

Professorial supertrio Lovalerie King, Linda Selzer and Shirley Moody put all this together, with considerable help from Penn State's talented grad students and staff. Our visiting scholars were excitedly talking about having more such conferences. Our plans at Penn State are, if all goes well, that we will in future host a repeating conference on African American literature.

Thanks to all our guest speakers -- we look forward to seeing you again soon.


The second day of Penn State's conference on the African American Novel since 1988 began with the first keynote speaker, Houston A. Baker, Jr. Here is the introduction I provided for the address:


An abstract overcoat

Concealing laws

Which (in themselves)

Are abstractions.

The word seeking finitude,

The spirit loving space –

And we spin and spin and spin to catch

The outsider/ourselves.

“Where to begin; where to begin?” so asked Houston A. Baker, Jr., about a third of the way into a talk at the Modern language Association many years ago. I’ve chosen to begin with these words from his 1982 volume Spirit Run because they seem to me a sort of spirit catcher, a mode of traversing space and finitude I think characteristic of his life’s work, and because, characteristically for me, I suspect he has never before heard these words read back to him in an introduction to one of his lectures.

Another place to begin might be Louisville, Kentucky, where his writing life commenced, he reports, with his “inscribing melodramatic vignettes on the back of church programs during Sunday services.” That conjoining of the sacred and the secular, the vernacular and the liturgical, the melodramatic and the analytic has been, in my reading, at the heart of all his work ever since.

Another place to begin might be Howard University, a place that very nearly became a Baker family enterprise at one point, a place he seemed guided to by his life in Louisville. There was the father, who told his sons he had simply found the desire for college, as though sipping it from the air, and whose departure for college Baker describes as “a willed act of resistance to white America’s expectations . . . “ There was Louisville Western Public Branch Library, which set him on his course of study in English at Howard and Graduate school at UCLA.

Baker has written that “No matter where you travel, You still be black.” No matter where you begin in his narrative, you come to the same remarkable list of field-altering books. Following his brief detour into British Literature, Baker published Long Black Song, Singers of Daybreak, The Journey Back, Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature, Afro-American Poetics, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Workings of the Spirit, Black Studies, Rap and the Academy, I Don’t Hate the South and Betrayal. In his academic career he has traveled to the University of Virginia, Yale, The University of Pennsylvania, Duke University and Vanderbilt. His work has garnered the more familiar awards, Guggenheim, Whitney, Rockefeller, but he has also been recognized by his peers in writing, most recently with the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation, an award also presented in recent years to two members of our Penn State Faculty.

Baker begins Black Studies, Rap and the Academy with the impish suggestion that while nobody can ever be certain what is happening at Duke, everyone knows the familiar story of Black Studies. Readers of his poetry will catch that nuance at once. It is the familiar story of Black Studies that everyone knows, and therein lies the problem, the problem that led in the closing years of the twentieth century to the discipline’s “relegation . . . to the briefest possible space in the encyclopedia of postmodern American academics,” as Baker tells us. That this familiar and wholly apocryphal story has proved so appealing to the encyclopedists of American literary studies was all too predictable. But thanks to the efforts of poet/scholars such as Houston A. Baker, Jr., there is an ever elongating print trail we can follow to set the record straight, to make a way out our shocked response to that apocryphal tale of Black Studies’ evolution, “no way.”

This is a new century and new volumes of the encyclopedia are being written as we gather. Houston A. Baker is nothing if not voluminous. Years ago at the Georgetown University conference on Theory, Baker, one of the keynote speakers, approached the podium brandishing a manuscript encyclopedic in girth, if not in subject. Noting the looks on the faces of his audience, Baker flipped through the pages, smiled, and reported what his family had said when looking at his “paper.” “It’s got chapters and everything.”

We are fortunate to hear the next chapter this morning. Please join me in welcoming to Penn State, professor Houston A. Baker, Jr.

Another feature of Day 2 was the presentation of the Stephen Henderson Award to Loretta G. Woodard, the immediate past President of the African American Literature and Culture Society.