Thursday, January 30, 2014

Black Studies in Japan!/tsunehiko.kato/photos

About Japan Black Studies Association since 1954
By Tsunehiko Kato
29 January 2014

Japan Black Studies Association [JBSA] was founded in 1954, the year of the Supreme Court decision in America. But it was not the founders’ intention to be timely. Rather, the establishment had its own root in Japanese context. Objectively speaking, the Association was part of newly liberated larger social and academic movements in Japan for enhancement of democracy, peace and human rights in the post-war and the emergent cold-war period. Although people were very poor, this period had liberating effects upon Japanese intellectuals after the long winter of militarism and oppression of speech. The encounter with American democracy and culture was the important part of the liberating effects.

But some intellectuals were aware that even in democratic America, there were people who had been excluded from it. It seems to be not an accident that JBSA started from Kobe where there were two kinds of U.S. military bases—that is, one for white soldiers and another for black soldiers. Those people who created JBSA were also aware that a post-colonial world was emerging in Africa as well as in Asia and Latin America. They were keen on learning from their history and experience. So JBSA had from the start an interdisciplinary approach as well as post-colonial concerns.

But the Association did not start from nothing. It had a pre-history. Some of the Japanese scholars in American literature even in pre-war days had written articles and books on black literature in America and when Richard Wright published his “Native Son” in 1940, there were people who read the Japanese translation of it the next year. So it was not quite extraordinary that JBSA was founded by scholars in American studies, however marginal they were in the mainstream academic world.

JBSA was also unique in the way it was organized. One of the founders, Prof. Nukina didn’t like the idea of hierarchy and he insisted and others followed that there should be no head of our association. So everybody was supposed to participate in the JBSA as an equal. JBSA was not established as an exclusive academic organization, but was open to ordinary citizens interested in racial issues.

Although it was objectively part of the social movements, it defined itself not as a political organization, but an academic one with study of black peoples in the world as a sole objective. Another distinguishing characteristic of JBSA is that there is no stiff or formal atmosphere often associated with Japanese academic associations. These are characteristics of this association which, I suppose, made possible the long-life it has enjoyed since its establishment.

Until now we have had 10 workshops a year, which amounted to 500 times at the time of the 50th Anniversary ten years ago. We have published an academic journal at least once a year. This year’s issue is No. 82

I would like to call the people who founded the JBSA the first generation of scholars and they were succeeded by the second generation of scholars who spent their student days during the socio-political turmoil in the late 1960s and early 1970s under the rapid economic expansion.

For those who belong to these two generations Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes were the four major figures of black literature in America. Prof. Kitajima, former President of JBSA, writes in one of the issues of JBSA magazine that the world of “Black Boy” by Richard Wright not only resembled the situation in which he found himself in as a new English teacher at a local Junior College, but it also provided him with the alternative vision to change the reality from the perspective of the socially weak and social justice. This, I think, is the vision many people of this association more or less share.

However, what distinguished the second generation from the first was their new focus on black women writers. It was the scholars from the second generation that noticed the emerging black women writers such as Toni Morison and Alice Walker from the early 1970s and worked hard to follow their creative activities and translate their works and write books and articles on them during the 1980s and 1990s.

Japan in the 1980s was entering the new stage of social maturity as a result of the economic development. With the spread of higher education, a new generation of educated women was emerging and their frustration with the male-dominated Japanese society formed a receptacle for feminism and the feminist movements in the Western world. So the works of black women writers found eager readers among pioneering young and middle aged women and men. They seemed to encourage those men and women in Japan who were committed to creating larger social and cultural spaces for democracy and human rights in Japan.

Until the arrival of black women writers, people in black literature were quite marginalized in the mainstream of American literature studies. But the drastic change happened when Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993. I always remember what happened at the American Literature Association Annual Meeting in 1993 which took place immediately after the historic event. I was a chair of a panel on Toni Morrison at that time and found the room packed with people who suddenly got interested in Toni Morrison. This seems to me a beginning of the legitimization of black studies in Japan.

Under such a new phase of black literature in Japan, the third generation of scholars appeared.

During the 90s until now, along with the interest in black women writers, there has emerged new interest in the Caribbean literature stimulated by the works of black women writers of the Caribbean descent, which led then to the interest in black British writers from the Caribbean.

Of course, there are scholars in JBSA who are interested in fields other than black literature, such as black history, music, and other contemporary issues concerning blacks in America. Among the recent young members of JBSA are people who are into Hip Hop music and culture in the US as well as in the Caribbean and in Africa.

I would like to conclude this short essay by referring to the fact that these always changing and developing academic concerns have been stimulated and encouraged by the growing trend of internationalization of academic exchanges going on since the 1980s where scholars and writers abroad were invited to JBSA conferences and JBSA members were participating in conferences abroad.

(This paper is the abridged version of the forthcoming article of mine which is to be on the March issue of Journal of Black Studies edited by Molefi Kete Asante).

Tsunehiko Kato, Ritsumeikan University and JBSA President. “I have been in Black Studies in the United States, especially the study of black women novelists such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker etc., and for the last seven years I have shifted my research interest to Black British authors such as Caryl Phillips."

* * * * *

International Exchanges
Jerry W. Ward, Jr

Professor Tsunehiko Kato’s eloquent essay on the Japan Black Studies Association (JBSA) provides relief from the glut of always already interpellations of the face (and other body parts) of the Other who occupies an interstitial transnational location in the postcolonial diasporic interrogation which is a simulacrum for academic discourses in conversation with postmodern debris of gendered desires. In Professor Kato’s essay, one hears the voice of a human being speaking to human beings about a subject that is dear to his heart and that he invites us to share.

JBSA was founded in 1954, the year Richard Wright published “Black Power” and “Savage Holiday.” Given the importance of Wright’s works for Japanese scholars prior to their having ocular proof of the fault-lines in America’s practice of democracy (e.g., segregated military bases), any future dialogue and collaboration between African American scholars and their Japanese colleagues can begin with the importance of empirical history for international exchange. Professor Kato makes it clear that the early stages of Japanese engagement of Negro literature was mediated by reading experiences which did not have to be filtered by theory. I use the term “Negro literature” for the sake of historical accuracy.

Timing is crucial. By highlighting Professor Kitajima’s response to “Black Boy,” the essay allows us to understand why Japanese literary scholars may be more in synch with African American scholars than foreign scholars who became interested in black writing after LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka challenged “the myth of Negro literature” in 1962. I surmise, for example, that Japanese intellectuals were better prepared to appreciate the experiential grounding of Wright’s response to George Padmore’s “Pan-Africanism or Communism” in “Black Power” and “The Color Curtain” (1956) than their Chinese peers who might have given greater weight to Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois as politically engaged men of letters. My ideas about the locations of literary sympathy and interpretation have to be debated in rigorous exchanges which are informed by fact rather than theory.

Professor Kato whets my appetite for such exchanges between JBSA and the Project on the History of Black Writing, because I believe African Americans can learn much from how JBSA members formulated questions over a period of sixty years. And the third generation of JBSA members can learn from PHBW why contemporary African American literature, culture, and criticism appear to create a ball of confusion.

The admirable specificity of Professor Kato’s narrative brings to the foreground, for me and perhaps for others who have taught African American literature in China, how Chinese scholarship is more strongly motivated by and mediated through what can loosely be called Eurocentric theoretical discourses. My impressions are buttressed by reading the three volumes of “Critical Zone: A Forum of Chinese and Western Knowledge” (2004, 2006, 2008), which are seminal in articulating what a global community of scholarship might be.

My concern about barnacles of misunderstanding regarding African American thought is anchored by a recent “reading” of Wright’s “Savage Holiday.” In “Abandoning the Black Hero: Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel” (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2013), John C. Charles interprets Wright’s novel “in the context of his post expatriation search for aesthetic and intellectual freedom beyond the reductive labels of mid-twentieth-century American racial and political discourse”(21).

From the exchanges I have frequently with Chinese colleagues and students, it is easy for me to imagine their not questioning a distinction between Wright’s privacy and his agency, an agency that is judiciously assessed in Claudia Tate’s “Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocol of Race” (1998) and Abdul R. Jan Mohamed’s “The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death” (2005). Professor Kato’s essay persuades me that JBSA members might question the theoretical implications of John C. Charles’ interpretation with more critical alacrity.

Professor Kato’s reflection on the history of JBSA strengthens my determination to call for establishing an online African American Research forum among African American, Chinese, American, and Japanese scholars at the 2nd International Symposium on Ethnic Literature, Central China Normal University, October 25-26, 2014. Without dismissing the virtues of theory, I am convinced that future international exchanges about African American literature(s) and culture(s) ought to be marked by greater recognition of shared historicity and production of knowledge , the kind of historicity that Professor Kato has most gracefully delineated.

29 January 2014

"I am far luckier, thank God, than 89% of my fellow New Orleanians. I have been blessed by the prayers of my relatives and friends. My fortunate circumstances strengthen my resolve to return permanently, to restore my house, to help to restore Dillard University and other educational institutions, to join Dave Brinks and others in grassroots efforts to prevent the NEW New Orleans from becoming a “corporate colony” with a minimal non-white population that is controlled by wealthy and extreme neo-conservatives. I must encourage more people to return.

The natural disasters that are now elements of a national tragedy persuade me to fight a repetition of the Reconstruction era and the nadir of African American experiences, to speak loudly against a replay of the Great Migration. Commitments must gradually erase the depression and periods of near-insanity that have afflicted me since August 29 2005. I must devote myself to the practice of civic virtue in New Orleans." (Jerry Ward, Jr.)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Freedom Summer: Making Mississippi Part of the USA

Freedom Summer
How Civil Rights Activists Braved Violence
to Challenge Racism in 1964 Mississippi
23 January 2014

Hundreds of people marched in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Day. On Jan. 22, 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights activists marched around the Forrest County Courthouse in support of black voting rights. The rally was the beginning of a historic year in Mississippi. Months later, civil rights groups launched Freedom Summer. More than 1,000 out-of-state volunteers traveled to Mississippi to help register voters and set up what they called "Freedom Schools."

Out of Freedom Summer grew the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the legitimacy of the white-only Mississippi Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The period also saw the murders of three civil rights activists—Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. Events are being held across Mississippi in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of this historic year. We are joined by Stanley Nelson, director of the new documentary, "Freedom Summer." An Emmy Award-winning MacArthur genius fellow, Nelson’s past films include "Freedom Riders" and "The Murder of Emmett Till."

* * * * *

Here at the Sundance Film Festival, a documentary entitled "Freedom Summer," directed by Stanley Nelson, has just premiered.

This is a trailer for the film.

JUDGE TOM P. BRADY: I don’t want the nigger, as I have known him and contacted him during my lifetime, to control the making of a law that controls me, to control the government under which I live.

UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t think people understand how violent Mississippi was. If black people try and vote, they can get hurt or killed.

FREEDOM SUMMER VOLUNTEER: You’re not a registered voter, you’re not a first-class citizen, man.

UNIDENTIFIED: They would say, "You’re right, boy. We should be registered to vote. But I ain’t going down there and messing with them white people."

BOB MOSES: We hope to send into Mississippi this summer upwards of 1,000 students from all around the country who will engage in Freedom Schools, voter registration activity, and open up Mississippi to the country.

GOV. ROSS BARNETT: We face absolute extinction of all we hold dear. We must be strong enough to crush the enemy.

REPORTER: The three civil rights workers who disappeared in Mississippi last Sunday night still have not been heard from.

UNIDENTIFIED: It was always in the back of everybody’s minds that bad things were going to happen. But if you cared about this country and cared about democracy, then you had to go down there.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of Freedom Summer. The film’s director, Stanley Nelson, joins us here in Park City, Utah, the Emmy Award-winning MacArthur genius fellow. His past films include Freedom Riders, The Murder of Emmett Till.

* * * * *


As remembered by Wally Roberts

I first met Mrs. Hamer in June of 1964 at the Oxford, Ohio training for the first wave of volunteers for the Mississippi Summer Project. I was one of the white volunteers, 22 years old. Having spent the previous two years as a teacher at a small private school in western Massachusetts, I was to be a coordinator at one of the Freedom Schools the project was establishing.

That week Mrs. Hamer, Cordell Reagan, Bernice Johnson and others introduced us to the power of song to quell our fears. I had never heard gospel or a cappella singing of before, and the experience was overwhelming. I was simply astounding by the power and beauty of their voices. At one point, I was so overcome by emotion, I literally could not clap my hands in time to the songs.

As things turned out, I was assigned to the Freedom School being set up in Shaw, Miss. For logistical reasons, however, we could not move into the town for a couple of weeks, so we stayed in Ruleville, Mrs. Hamers hometown. We were put up with families who were involved in the Movement, and since I was to be the Coordinator of the Shaw Freedom School, Mrs. Hamer invited me to stay at her house where the Coordinator of the Ruleville Freedom School was also staying.

The second or third night there several of the women fixed a fried chicken dinner for those of us who staying in houses in Mrs. Hamers neighborhood. We ate at Mrs. Hamers house, though neither she nor her husband, Pap, were there. It was a great dinner, and afterwards, people drifted away. Being raised to show appreciation when someone does a kindness, I started doing the dishes.

As I was finishing up, Pap came home, and when he saw me, he said angrily, "What you doin womens work for?" I started to explain but he turned his back and left.

A while later Mrs. Hamer came in, and when I explained what had happened, she said, "No matter. Pap dont have many ways left of bein a man."

I was simply stunned at the enormity of what she had said and at her compassion. At that precise moment all the abstractions about race, prejudice, bigotry were crystallized in a real person whose life was being destroyed by these evils; it was the beginning of my understanding of the degradation that must be the inevitable consequence of racism.

But it was also a moment when I realized that here was another life that had been at least equally brutalized by the same system, but she had triumphed over the anger and rage that surely had struggled to control her spirit and life. It was an epiphany for me, a moment that changed my life forever.

We moved to Shaw the following week, and I never saw Mrs. Hamer again in person, but I feel like I carry a little bit of her spirit with me. Freedom is a constant struggle. Make a joyful noise.

* * * * *

* * * * *


As Remembered by Curtis Muhammad

This conversation is so good that I have to tell a little story about Mrs. Hamer. Carl and Ann Braden had just made a tour of Mississippi including Ruleville where Mrs. Hamer lived, doing workshops on first amendment rights. After they left, a Jackson newspaper had printed an article that said Ann and Carl were communists and were down in Mississippi teaching us poor weak Negros how to be communists.

Now most of us in Mississippi knew nothing about communism and some of us hadn't even heard the word. At a mass meeting in Ruleville shortly after the article Mrs. Hamer stood up and said, "the newspaper said Ann and Carl are communist and were teaching us how to be communist, well I don't know what communism is but I know white folk don't like it so it must be good."

* * * * *

Freedom Summer
How Civil Rights Activists Braved Violence
to Challenge Racism in 1964 Mississippi
23 January 2014

FANNIE LOU HAMER: Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

Well, one of the things that was done in Freedom Summer was to register people in this new party called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And the thing about that was, all you had to do was sign your name on a piece of paper. You didn’t have to go down to the courthouse. You didn’t have to expose yourself to this violence, these repercussions that could happen from actually going to the courthouse to register.

So they formed this new political party that—where they registered 60,000 to 80,000 people to be part—because one of the things that was said was that black people didn’t want to vote. That’s why black people couldn’t vote: They didn’t want to vote. And one thing, you know, we have to understand about Mississippi that made Mississippi unique was, African Americans were 50 percent of the population in Mississippi, but only 6.7 percent were registered to vote.

So, they went down to Atlantic City—went up to Atlantic City to challenge the Democratic Party and say, you know, "We should be seated as the delegation from Mississippi, because we are integrated. There’s black people and white people in our party, in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The all-white delegation from Mississippi has not let any black people become part of the delegation. So seat us instead."

So, they did this incredible, passionate plea to be seated. And they had Martin Luther King spoke. They—Rita Schwerner, Mickey Schwerner’s wife, spoke, who was now known to be dead. But the final speaker, the big speaker, was Fannie Lou Hamer. And that’s a little bit of her speech that you saw there.—STANLEY NELSON

* * * * *

As remembered by Charlie Cobb

In late August of 1962 Mrs. Hamer and 17 or 18 others from Sunflower County, Mississippi boarded an old bus in Ruleville to go to the county seat in Indianola to make an attempt at registering to vote. Charles McLaurin, Bob Moses, Dorie Ladner, Landy McNair, maybe Dave Dennis and myself accompanied them. After allowing people in the group to enter his office one-by-one, the circuit clerk finally closed his office.

By then it was late afternoon—a time in Mississippi, I often say, when even the shadows seem dangerous. Fortunately nothing much had happened at the courthouse—a few whites shouted curses. One white man threw liquid from a cup at us. I remember fearing that it was acid—Indianola, after all, was the birthplace of the White Citizens Council.

The bus headed out of town followed by police. Just as we crossed the bridge on the edge of town the bus was stopped. The driver was placed under arrest for "driving a bus of the wrong color." The cop said the bright yellow bus—usually used for hauling day workers to cotton fields could be confused with a school bus. The fine, he said, would be $100 which we did not have.

Sunset was near. Who could drive the bus without getting arrested? Who wanted to be on that road at dark? We—us organizers—didn't have good answers for the growing fear. Then from the back of the bus this powerful voice broke out in song. I remember hearing "this little light of mine" and "ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'roun."

Bob Moses told me years later that it seemed to him that the person singing knew every church song there was. It was Mrs. Hamer, until then, just one of 17 or 18 people. That voice, of course, would be powerful enough for President Lyndon Johnson, fearful of its impact, to interrupt her testimony before the Credentials Committee at the Atlantic City Democratic Convention two years later.

With the power of her voice alone Mrs. Hamer shored up everybody on the bus. We got off the bus and explained to the policeman that since we didn't have $100 he'd better take us all to jail. And he backed down (no, I don't know why?) and reduced the fine to $30 which we did have. We paid and left town.

* * * * *


As remembered by Franklynn Peterson

Fannie Lou Hamer probably influenced me at least as much as any woman in my life. If only I could have been mature enough and wise enough to have soaked up more of her wisdom when it could have done me some good.

She came up to Brooklyn NY on one of her frequent fundraising trips, and I was living in Brooklyn at the time. She made sure I got notified of the event so I went even though I was just starting to recover from Hepatitis A. She was just recovering from a very serious illness, so when I got to the affair they sent me into a back room where Ms Hamer lying down watching TV.

She was watching “All in the Family” (the "Archie Bunker" show)!!! "Is that the best show you can find?" I asked. "I try to never miss it," she told me. "It's the only TV show that tells it like it really is!" So we sat and watched America's professional racist do his thing, and oh how she could laugh at it.

* * * * *


As remembered by Bob Zellner

I have several memories of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi. I hope I don't duplicate stories that Dottie may send in because we experienced some of these together with Mrs. Hamer.

She was always "Mrs. Hamer." I never heard a SNCC person call her anything else. She was a giant—the essence of the soul of SNCC, and she was adopted by Rose and Ralph Fishman in Boston.

Dottie was head of the New England SNCC office with offices in the basement of the Epworth Methodist Church, which was situated on the Harvard Law School campus. The church was progressive and had been pastored by Rev. Dan Whitset, a fellow dissident and friend of my father's, who had been "run out" of Alabama on account of his views on race.

Dottie often arranged for Mrs. Hamer to stay with the Fishman's because Rose adored her and would cluck over Mrs. Hamer like a mother hen, making sure she had enough to eat and was warm at night. Rose loved to shop for bargains and got clothes for Mrs. Hamer and James Forman who stayed there sometimes too. (One time Rose got Ralph to hide Jim's old raggedy shoes so he would be forced to let her buy him some new ones.)
One morning Rose asked Mrs. Hamer if she would like some peanut butter on her toast and she said she would. Next morning Rose asked the same question and Mrs. Hamer, looking all innocent like, allowed as how she would like some peanut butter. When Rose reached for the jar in the cupboard, it was empty.

"That's funny," Rose remembered saying, "I thought that jar was full yesterday."
"It was," said Mrs. Hamer sheepishly, "I ate it."

Rose was a sentimental sort. She cried when she learned Mrs. Hamer had never, in her whole life, had all the peanut butter she wanted. Mrs. Hamer said she was sorry she took advantage of Rose's good nature and had eaten up all her peanut butter.

Dottie and Maggie Knowland (Donovan) arrived at the Fishman household about that time to take Mrs. Hamer to see Cardinal Cushing on some important SNCC matter. The two and Rose and Mrs. Hamer had a quick workshop on the proper protocol to observe when meeting the Cardinal. Here are two Jewish mothers trying to tell a Black Mississippi sharecropper SNCC organizer how to act in front of a Catholic Prince of the Church. Luckily Maggie grew up Irish Catholic in Boston.

"First you curtsey, then you kiss his ring and say, 'Pleased to meet you, Your Imminence.'"

"I can't do all that," Mrs. Hamer said.

"Why not?" Maggie asked.

"Well in the first place," giving them each a baleful stare, "What is a "curtsy?"

"A curtsy," Dottie explained patiently, "Is when you put one foot back, bend both knees, and bow your head at the same time while holding your skirt up with both hands."

"Hold up my what? Kiss his what? Now that's a good example of what I'm talking about when I told you all I can't do all that stuff."

"Why not, Mrs. Hamer? Rose pleaded.

"Well first of all, can't you see, if I do that . . . what you call 'courtesy' and get down like you all said, I'll never be able to get up off the floor to kiss his . . . ring. Even if I do I'll never be able to remember what to call him. I'm afraid I'll call him 'Your enema.'"

With great relief Dottie, Maggie, and Rose reported that the meeting went well, in spite of the fact that the Cardinal claimed he couldn't help. When asked to convince President Johnson to provide more protection for civil rights workers and Black citizens attempting to register to vote, he said, "My president is dead."

* * * * *


Sally Belfrage, Freedom Summer (University of Virginia Press, 1965, reissued 1990). ISBN 978-0-8139-1299-8

Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Harvard University Press, 1981). ISBN 0-674-44726-3

Susie Erenrich, editor, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (Montgomery, AL: Black Belt Press, 1999). ISBN 1-881320-58-8

Adam Hochschild, Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels (Syracuse University Press, 1997), "Summer of Violence," pp. 140–150. ISBN 978-0815605942.

Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). ISBN 0-19-504367-7

Elizabeth Martnez, editor, Letter from Mississippi (Zephyr Press, 2002). ISBN 0-939010-71-2

Bruce Watson, Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (New York, NY: Viking, 2010). ISBN 978-0670021703

Alice in Walkerland!

Alice Walker in her garden

* * * * *

Writer/activist Alice Walker (b. Feb. 9, 1944) made history as the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her seminal novel “The Color Purple” (1982), for which she won the National Book Award.

THIRTEEN’s American Masters presents “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth,” premiering nationally Friday, February 7 at 9 p.m. on PBS in honor of Walker’s 70th birthday and Black History Month. Filmmaker Pratibha Parmar’s new documentary tells Walker’s dramatic life story with poetry and lyricism, and features new interviews with Walker, Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover, Quincy Jones, Gloria Steinem, Sapphire and the late Howard Zinn in one of his final interviews.

American Masters — “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” charts Walker’s inspiring journey from her birth into a family of sharecroppers in Eatonton, Ga. to the present. The film explores Walker’s relationship with her mother, poverty, and participation in the Civil Rights Movement, which were the formative influences on her consciousness and became the inherent themes in her writing.

Living through the violent racism and seismic social changes of mid-20th century America, Walker overcame adversity to achieve international recognition as one of the most influential — and controversial — writers of the 20th century. Delving into her personal life, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth reveals the inspiration for many of her works, including Once (1968), The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), Meridian (1976), The Color Purple (1982), In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983), Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) and Overcoming Speechlessness (2010).

Praised and pilloried, Walker has driven people to express joy as well as anger and ruthless vilification over her art, personal views and global human rights advocacy. As seen in the film, Yoko Ono awarded her the 2010 LennonOno Peace Award for her ongoing humanitarian work. American Masters analyzes these aspects of the self-confessed renegade’s life and career.

“As a filmmaker, one of the deepest desires is to engage the audience in the conversation unfolding on screen. I am thrilled to offer this in Beauty In Truth, where Alice’s openness, warmth and on-screen intimacy reflects our long history of kinship,” said Parmar. “Making Beauty In Truth has been an adventure of discovery and sheer inspiration. I’m so pleased it will have a national audience on American Masters.” Parmar’s past works include feature film Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006) and the documentary Warrior Marks (1993), based on the book of the same name that she and Walker co-authored.

“Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is a complex exploration of a pioneering artist and human rights activist that gives audiences a penetrating look at a life lived with passionate commitment,” said Stephen Segaller, vice president of programming for WNET. “Having the American Masters premiere coincide with her 70th birthday is a nice bonus.”

Launched in 1986 by series creator Susan Lacy, American Masters has earned 26 Emmy Awards — including nine for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series since 1999 and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 12 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards, and many other honors. Now in its 28th season on PBS, the series is a production of THIRTEEN. WNET is the parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21, New York’s public television stations, and operator of NJTV. For more than 50 years, THIRTEEN has been a partner with the tri-state community, using its rich resources to inform and inspire the passionate people of New York and the world to better understand and address the issues that challenge our diverse communities.

* * * * *

Alice Walker at London premier of "Beauty in Truth" Photo: Brenda Lawley

* * * * *

Alice Walker: PBS American Master
Interview with Kam Williams

Alice Walker has been defined as one of the key international writers of the 20th Century. She made history as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the National Book Award in 1983 for her novel The Color Purple — one of the few literary books to capture the popular imagination and leave a permanent imprint. The award-winning novel served as the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film and was adapted for the stage, opening at New York City’s Broadway Theatre in 2005, and capturing a Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical in 2006.

An internationally celebrated author, poet and activist, Alice’s books include seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children’s books, and volumes of essays and poetry. She has written many other best sellers, too, among them, Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), which detailed the devastating effects of female genital mutilation and led to the 1993 documentary Warrior Marks, a collaboration with the British-Indian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, with Walker as executive producer.

In 2001, Alice was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame and, in 2006, she was honored as one of the inaugural inductees into the California Hall of Fame. In 2007, her archives were opened to the public at Emory University.

In 2010, she presented the keynote address at The 11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and was awarded the Lennon/Ono Grant for Peace, in Reykjavik, Iceland. Alice donated the financial award to an orphanage for the children of AIDS victims in Kenya.

She has served as a jurist for two sessions of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, and writes a regular blog on her website: Here, she talks about her career and about the documentary “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” which premieres on PBS on Friday, February 7th at 9 p.m. ET/PT (check local listings)

Kam Williams: Hi Alice. I’m so honored to have this opportunity to interview you.
Alice Walker: Oh, I’m so glad to be talking with you, too, Kam.

Kam Williams: The only time I came close to meeting you before now was back in the Eighties one summer, when I was invited to a party out in the Hamptons that you were rumored to be attending.

Alice Walker: Oh, I did have a few friends near there, one in Montauk, another on Fire Island. But oh, that was a long time ago.

Kam Williams: I’ll be mixing in my questions with some from readers. Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: how do you feel about having the biopic coming out about you?

Alice Walker: Well, it’s very interesting because I almost never do anything for Black History Month, because I feel it’s just another way to separate us. It’s amusing to me that it would be coming out as a Black History presentation on PBS. But on the level of the film, I like it. And I love the producer [Shaheen Haq] and the filmmaker [Pratibha Parmar]. I think they were incredibly devoted. They did it on a hope and a prayer, and at one point had to rely on crowd-sourcing because of the huge expenses.

Kam Williams: I learned so much about you from the film. For instance, I was surprised to hear that Howard Zinn had been a professor of yours in college.

Alice Walker: He was already teaching at Spelman when I arrived as a freshperson. Then, I took his class the following year, because I had gone to the Soviet Union and wanted to learn more about Russia, and I think he was the only person in all of Atlanta who knew anything about Russian literature, which I loved. He was teaching Russian literature, the language, and some of the politics. We became really good friend when I took his class, but then he was fired.

Kam Williams: For doing more than just teaching.

Alice Walker: He helped us desegregate Atlanta. That was moving because he took a lot of abuse for that. He and Staughton Lynd, a fellow professor who was also from the North, stood with us. They were certainly behind us. In fact, they often stood in front of us. This had a huge impact on me. But one of the reasons I was very careful about speaking about the relationship I had with him and Staughton was because, in a racist society, if you acknowledge a deep love for and a deep debt owed to white teachers, they tend to discredit your own parents and your own community.

And I was very unhappy about that because I come from somewhere and from specific black people in the South, including my parents, who built our first school, and rebuilt it after it was burned to the ground. And they used to bake pies and cakes to raise money to keep it going. So, I learned to struggle from a very early way in a way that was truly indigenous to the South. You have to keep at it! [Chuckles]

Kam Williams: The film also left me with an appreciation of your deep connection to nature. I have that, too. I go for a walk in the woods every day. It’s very spiritual to me.

Alice Walker: The forest is the first cathedral. I felt that from the time I was a child. I credit my mother with that. I used to think it came from her Native-American side. Whichever it was, she instinctively connected with nature, and taught me that. Church just could not hold my spirit. It was a beautiful, little church, too. As sweet as could be. It was at a bend in the road, with a big, oak tree sheltering it. Still, I wandered right out the window, mentally and emotionally, got into the trees, and never left.

Kam Williams: Kate Newell says: I'm more than awestruck about this opportunity to ask you a question. How did you feel about the screen adaptation of "The Color Purple"?

Alice Walker: I was worried about the film at first, because I’d never had a movie made of any of my work on a big scale like that. There had only been a couple of small, student efforts before that. The Color Purple was so overwhelming that I actually brought a magic wand to New York City for the premiere, and pointed it at the screen in the hope that movie didn’t embarrass all of us. Lo and behold, it turned out to be a beautiful picture. The audience was so into it, gracious and emotional, laughing when they should be laughing, crying when they should be crying. I got to feel it as a living work of art, as something useful. My interest in creating anything is that it be useful. People can love the beauty of it, but they should also use it to grow, to deepen.

Kam Williams: What was it like dealing with the blowback for the next several years coming from critics who said The Color Purple was anti-black men?

Alice Walker: It actually lasted for a decade. How could you imagine that people could be mad at you for so long? I felt a great deal of weariness. But because it wasn’t the first time that I had been heavily criticized, I learned that you just keep going and turn to other things. Which I did. I went on to write “The Temple of My Familiar” which may be my favorite of my novels, because it was a miraculous gift that I had no idea how I got it. I had a dream one night that I went down into a non-existent sub-basement of my little house in Brooklyn.

There was a trap door and I went down further and found these indigenous South American people speaking Spanish and making all these incredible things. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish but I sensed that I was being guided to a new focus. And to make a long story short, I ended up going to Mexico, I learned one word, “leche,” which means milk, and I started writing this novel. So, the blowback, in a way, faced me in a new direction which was very interesting.

Kam Williams: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: What did you think of the stage version of "The Color Purple"?

Alice Walker: I so loved working with the musicians. It was just wonderful! It was great and I felt like it was such a tonic for people to see it.

Kam Williams: Dinesh Sharma says: In my new book, "The Global Obama," Professor Ali Mazrui refers to the President as a "great man of history." Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard agrees. You have written several essays about Barack Obama. How do you feel about his presidency thus far?

Alice Walker: I’m very disappointed in Obama. I was very much in support of him in the beginning, but I cannot support war. I cannot support droning. I cannot support capitulating to the banks. I cannot support his caving in to Netanyahu [Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu]. There’s a long list of this administration’s initiatives that I find unsupportable. I think many black people support him because they’re so happy to have handsome black man in the White House.

But it doesn’t make me happy if that handsome black man in the White House is betraying all of our traditional values of peace, peoplehood, caring about strangers, feeding the hungry, and not bombing children. I’m very disappointed. More than disappointed, I think I’ve actually returned to a kind of realism about how the world works. That’s helpful. Because in a way, no matter who’s in charge of the corporation that the United States is, the direction in which it is taken seems to be inexorable. So, you just get the job of being the front man for four or eight years. Now, most people realize that’s what you are.

Kam Williams: Talking about being a good or bad president is like talking about being a good or bad rapist.

Alice Walker: [LOL] That’s a very good thought.

Kam Williams: I think the black community sort of got checkmated in terms of its own agenda. And very vocal folks who try to hold Obama accountable are having their blackness questioned or their blackness revoked, like Tavis Smiley.

Alice Walker: That’s okay. It’s better to have your blackness taken away than to stand there and lie about who you actually are. That’s the trap. In fact, Cynthia McKinney just sent me a piece by somebody about how, for the first time in history, black people are supporting the wars, the military strikes on Syria, and other awful things, as if they woke up and became entirely different people. It’s totally distressing! Look at the NDAA [The National Defense Authorization Act], look at the Patriot Act, look at the NSA, and the ruthless droning of civilians. I pretty much lost it when they droned the grandmother who was teaching her grandchildren how to pick okra. It seems to me the ones who are the real threat are the ones who are in power.

Kam Williams: Film director Rel Dowdell asks: Did Danny Glover fully personify the character Mister in "The Color Purple"?

Alice Walker: No. I love Danny, and he did a good job, but no. Mister is a small man. Danny is huge! And that matters, because what I was showing was how even a small man can be a terrorist in the home because of all the patriarchal weight that he brings to any situation. That would’ve been very powerful. In a way, making Mister so big undercut that message because we’re kind of afraid of big people anyway, because they take up so much room.

I felt that at times there wasn’t enough subtlety in his abuse of Celie and her sister, Nettie, because what I’ve discovered and observed is that often it’s the subtle oppression that deeply wounds the soul. The parting for instance, which is so horrendous, where Nettie leaves, and is forced out by Mister. In the novel, that’s handled with a lot of restraint. Filmed with that restraint it would’ve been just as powerful, even with a little Mister, just by virtue of his being a man and having patriarchy as his backup.

Kam Williams: Are you interested in writing your own screenplay?

Alice Walker: At this point, no, because I have gone back to writing poetry, which I absolutely love. And I write on my blog, which I enjoy. And life being what it is, every once in a while I’ll have a book which will have developed without my actually having paid that much attention to that part of it. I’m really only interested in each day’s gift.

Kam Williams: I was struck by something you said in "Beauty in Truth": “The pain we inflict on children is the pain we later endure as a society.”

Alice Walker: Boy, is that scary, when you consider what we’re doing to children all over the planet. They’re the ones who are truly being terrorized by all the madness adults are perpetrating.

Kam Williams: Generational warfare. In the U.S., we even have it here between the prison industrial complex and the indentured servitude of the young via college loans they can never repay.

Alice Walker: They’re supposed to be slaves. And those that aren’t just slaves, can become drug addicts. And the drug addicts that are caught get put into the prison system to make a profit for the people who own the prisons. It’s all worked out.

Alice Walker with Director Pratibha Parmar and producer Shaheen Haq in Northern California. Photo credit: Trish Govoni

* * * * *

Kam Williams: Novelist and short story writer Suzan Greenberg was wondering whether you had any idea that your short story "Everyday Use" would be so widely anthologized?

Alice Walker: I did not, and I’m puzzled that it is, because it’s not the story that I would’ve picked to be anthologized so widely. I think it’s chosen partly because it reinforces some people’s notions of the Deep South, Southerners and black people. That story has its own power, but it also permits a kind of distance, as if it happened in the far past. I think that’s why people use it opposed to more gritty stories like “Advancing Luna“ or “Laurel,” which come out of the struggle in the South in the Sixties but are very modern in terms of their sense of white and black people grappling with issues of interracial rape and interracial love. I think it’s hard for people to read those stories as dispassionately.

Kam Williams: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: You have been a successful authoress for decades. Only about a dozen female laureates have won the literature Nobel Prize since its inception. Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin had to adopt the pseudonym George Sand to become a French novelist and memoirist. Historically, it has been difficult for women to thrive in the literary world and the word “writeress” has been excluded or erased from some dictionaries. How can we break the glass ceiling as authoresses and have our voices heard more?

Alice Walker: You can start by not tacking that “ess” onto the end of everything, because you’re either a poet or you’re not, and either a writer or not. You don’t have to accept someone else’s idea that you need to have a tail that shows that you’re wearing a dress. [LOL] You are what you are. If you’re an actor, you’re an actor. You don’t have to be an actress. As far as a glass ceiling, I feel that all you can do is give it your absolute best with whatever gifts the universe has given you. And if you make it in some way that other people can recognize, that’s fine. But even if you don’t quote-unquote make it, you’re fine, if you’ve given it your whole heart and soul. You’re totally in sync with your purpose and with the universe. And that’s fine.

Kam Williams: Patricia also says, you learned to read at a very young age. You were in the first grade when you were four years-old. Illiteracy is still an ongoing issue around the world. Do you think that exposing a child as early as possible to education can be a determinant in decreasing the level of illiteracy on a global scale?

Alice Walker: I know from having had a child, and from having been a child myself, that children will copy you. So, the best way to get them to read, is to read. The best way to get them to do anything is to do it yourself, and they will absolutely copy you. That way, you don’t have to worry about what’s supposedly age appropriate, a child will pick something up when the child is ready.

Kam Williams: It was heartbreaking in "Beauty in Truth" to hear you talk about being estranged from your daughter. It was very touching.

Alice Walker: Hmmm… I like hearing that it was moving, and provocative in a way, because these things do happen to us. The very thing you think will never happen to you, happens! And then you get to see, oh, that’s because life is alive! [LOL]

Kam Williams: Toni Banks says: Thanks for “Meridian.” It’s my favorite work of yours. She asks, was the novel biographical fiction?

Alice Walker: Not really. There was a young woman in SNCC [the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] whose name was Ruby Doris [Smith-Robinson]. She was someone I didn’t really know, but I heard about how she was having such a really hard time with the men in the organization. That was one of my early introductions to patriarchal behavior which undermines progress. If the men are going to try to keep the women down, everybody’s going to be stuck back there somewhere. So, she was a person I was thinking about, and I also wanted to write about the sort of spiritual and inspirational work that a lot of people in the movement were doing.

Alice Walker and Director Pratibha Parmar on location in Mexico. Photo credit: Shaheen Haq

* * * * *

Kam Williams: Reverend Florine Thompson says: Thank you for making the color purple the sacred. If there was no color purple, what other color might you drape yourself in?

Alice Walker: Well, I don’t really drape myself in purple, although people have sent me some of everything in purple. So, I get purple shawls and coats and hats and bathrobes and boots… You could pick any color, although purple is kind of rare. The point about the color purple is just that to really see a color is so remarkable! Anything that you can see that is beautiful is a gift. Blue… green… black… yellow… All these colors are amazing.

Kam Williams: Reverend Thompson also asks: What's the most important thing you've found in your mother's garden?

Alice Walker: Patience, because what gardening teaches us is that if you plant things, they’ll come up. But you have to be willing to wait for them to bear fruit because things are seasonal.

Kam Williams: Finally, Rev Thompson asks: What advice might you offer young adolescent females searching for positive self-identity?

Alice Walker: Love yourself. Just love yourself. In fact, the love of the self cures every kind of problem you have with yourself. For instance, if someone calls you nappy-headed, it rolls right off your body, if you love nappy hair.
Or if someone calls you buck-toothed or too black, that won’t be a problem if you love being buck-toothed or black. If you love it, then so what. The development of self-love cures many of the ills that people suffer from.

Kam Williams: Thanks again Alice, it’s been a privilege.

Alice Walker: Thank you, Kam

To see at trailer for "Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth," visit:

* * * * *

Until I read “By the Light of My Father's Smile,” the more superior novel, I believed, was her first “The Third Life of Grange Copeland,” a work in which the black male is much more brutal and malevolent than as he appears in any of her other works, including “The Color Purple,” technically an extraordinary piece of writing that far exceeds its cinematic representation. Stephen Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” is sentimental clap-trap, imaginatively on a level with An Imitation of Life, a real old-fashioned tear-jerker.

Disappointedly, I know that many religious fundamentalists and conservative-right politicians (black, white, etc.) would call me to task on the question of Walker's ethics. In that she is an avowed "lesbian," there are those assuredly who view her as immoral, especially in matters of sexuality. For instance, “By the Light of My Father's Smile” in its first chapter begins with an explicit (pornographic?) representation of a black lesbian (Pauline) making love to (having sex with) a bisexual married black woman (Susannah), a scene narrated by Susannah’s ghostly father!

All three characters are very middle-class, prosperous, and educated. An extremely titillating scene indeed, by any measure, yet not ethically irrelevant to the morality enmeshed in this novel and the conundrum in which we find ourselves.—Rudolph Lewis, “The Lie That Unraveled the World: The Relevance of Alice Walker, the Mundo & “By the Light of My Father's Smile”

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger: Folk Hero Singer Passes at 94

Mr. Seeger sang with fellow activists at a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee rally in Greenwood, Miss., in 1963.

* * * *

We Shall Overcome
Lyrics by Pete Seeger

We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.

We'll walk hand in hand,
We'll walk hand in hand,
We'll walk hand in hand, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.

We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.

We are not afraid,
We are not afraid,
We are not afraid, TODAY

Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.

The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around some day

Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.

* * * * *

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
Lyrics by Pete Seeger

It was back in nineteen forty-two,
I was a member of a good platoon.
We were on maneuvers in-a Loozianna,
One night by the light of the moon.
The captain told us to ford a river,
That's how it all begun.
We were -- knee deep in the Big Muddy,
But the big fool said to push on.

The Sergeant said, "Sir, are you sure,
This is the best way back to the base?"
"Sergeant, go on! I forded this river
'Bout a mile above this place.
It'll be a little soggy but just keep slogging.
We'll soon be on dry ground."
We were -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.

The Sergeant said, "Sir, with all this equipment
No man will be able to swim."
"Sergeant, don't be a Nervous Nellie,"
The Captain said to him.
"All we need is a little determination;
Men, follow me, I'll lead on."
We were -- neck deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.

All at once, the moon clouded over,
We heard a gurgling cry.
A few seconds later, the captain's helmet
Was all that floated by.
The Sergeant said, "Turn around men!
I'm in charge from now on."
And we just made it out of the Big Muddy
With the captain dead and gone.

We stripped and dived and found his body
Stuck in the old quicksand.
I guess he didn't know that the water was deeper
Than the place he'd once before been.
Another stream had joined the Big Muddy
'Bout a half mile from where we'd gone.
We were lucky to escape from the Big Muddy
When the big fool said to push on.

Well, I'm not going to point any moral;
I'll leave that for yourself
Maybe you're still walking, you're still talking
You'd like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We're -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.

* * * * *

Mr. Seeger bowed to the applause of local 610 of United Electrical Workers at a rally in North Versailles, Pa., in 1982.

* * * * *

Sailing Down My Golden River
Lyrics by Pete Seeger

Sailing down my golden river,
Sun and water all my own,
Yet I was never alone.
Sun and water, old life givers,
I'll have them where e'er I roam,
And I was not far from home.
Sunlight glancing on the water,
Life and death are all my own,
Yet I was never alone.
Life to raise my sons and daughters,
Golden sparkles in the foam,
And I was not far from home.
Sailing down this winding highway,
Travelers from near and far,
Yet I was never alone.
Exploring all the little by-ways,
Sighting all the distant stars,
And I was not far from home.

* * * *

We Shall Not Be Moved
Lyrics by Pete Seeger

We shall not, we shall not be moved, (2x)
Just like a tree that's planted by the water
We shall not be moved

We're young and old together, we shall not be moved, (2x)
Just like a tree that's planted by the water
We shall not be moved


We're women and men together, we shall not be moved, (2x)
Just like a tree that's planted by the water
We shall not be moved


here's the city and country together, we shall not be moved, (2x)
Just like a tree that's standing by the water

We shall not be moved

We're black and white together we shall not be moved, (2x)
Just like a tree that's standing by the water
We shall not be moved

yes, straight and gay together we shall not be moved, (2x)
Just like a tree that's planted by the water
We shall not be moved

well, it's no nukes is good nukes we shall not be moved, (2x)
Just like a tree that's planted by the water
We shall not be moved.

Mr. Seeger, center, joined the Occupy Wall Street movement by marching from a concert at Symphony Space, up on 95th street, to Columbus Circle, at 59th street, in New York in October 2011.

* * * * *

Peter "Pete" Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was an American folk singer. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, he also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of the Weavers, most notably their recording of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene," which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950. Members of the Weavers were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. In the 1960s, he re-emerged on the public scene as a prominent singer of protest music in support of international disarmament, civil rights, counterculture and environmental causes.

As a songwriter, he was the author or co-author of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (with Joe Hickerson), "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)" (composed with Lee Hays of the Weavers), and "Turn, Turn, Turn!", which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement and are still sung throughout the world. "Flowers" was a hit recording for the Kingston Trio (1962); Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962); and Johnny Rivers (1965). "If I Had a Hammer" was a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963), while the Byrds popularized "Turn, Turn, Turn!" in the mid-1960s, as did Judy Collins in 1964 and the Seekers in 1966.

Seeger was one of the folksingers most responsible for popularizing the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" (also recorded by Joan Baez and many other singer-activists) that became the acknowledged anthem of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement, soon after folk singer and activist Guy Carawan introduced it at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. In the PBS American Masters episode "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song," Seeger stated it was he who changed the lyric from the traditional "We will overcome" to the more singable "We shall overcome."

Where Have All the Flowers Gone
Lyrics by Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone, long time passing?
Where have all the young girls gone, long time ago?
Where have all the young girls gone?
Gone for husbands everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the husbands gone, long time passing?
Where have all the husbands gone, long time ago?
Where have all the husbands gone?
Gone for soldiers everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

* * * * *

In 1996, Mr. Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence. Arlo Guthrie, who paid tribute at the ceremony, mentioned that the Weavers’ hit “Goodnight, Irene” reached No. 1, only to add, “I can’t think of a single event in Pete’s life that is probably less important to him.” Mr. Seeger made no acceptance speech, but he did lead a singalong of “Goodnight, Irene,” flanked by Stevie Wonder, David Byrne and members of the Jefferson Airplane.
Mr. Seeger won Grammy Awards for best traditional folk album in 1997, for the album “Pete,” and in 2009, for the album “At 89.” He also won a Grammy in the children’s music category in 2011 for “Tomorrow’s Children.”

Mr. Seeger kept performing into the 21st century, despite a flagging voice; audiences happily sang along more loudly. He celebrated his 90th birthday, on May 3, 2009, at a Madison Square Garden concert — a benefit for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater — with Mr. Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Emmylou Harris and dozens of other musicians paying tribute. That August he was back in Newport for the 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival.

Mr. Seeger’s wife, Toshi, died in 2013, days before the couple’s 70th anniversary. Survivors include his son, Daniel; his daughters, Mika and Tinya; two half-sisters, Peggy, also a folk singer, and Barbara; eight grandchildren, including Mr. Jackson and the musician Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who performed with him at the Obama inaugural; and four great-grandchildren. His half-brother Mike Seeger, a folklorist and performer who founded the New Lost City Ramblers, died in 2009.
Through the years, Mr. Seeger remained determinedly optimistic. “The key to the future of the world,” he said in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

Monday, January 27, 2014

Lance Jeffers (1919-1985)

Writing Toward Balance
Excerpt By Jerry Ward

Equating the power of Lance Jeffers’ mind with intellectual passion, Eugene Redmond proclaimed in his introduction for “When I Know the Power of My Black Hand” (1974) that Jeffers was “a giant baobab tree we younger saplings lean on, because we understand that he bears witness to the power and majesty of ‘Pres, and Bird, and Hodges, and all’ “(11). In bearing witness to fabulous musicians, Jeffers left evidence in his poetry and his novel Witherspoon (1983) that the art of writing well entails finding a balance between the kind of humility to which Redmond alludes and the mastery of craft.

In an interview with Paul Austerlitz included in “Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity” (Middletown, Ct: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), Milford Graves speaks about his interest in Einstein and quantum physics. John Coltrane was also immersed in study of Einstein’s physics. In the poetry of Asili Ya Nadhiri, one discovers his indebtedness to jazz and physics, just as one finds in Jeffers’ poetry an indebtedness to the study of anatomy, jazz, and classical music. Strong poets and strong musicians are receptive to mastering their craft by making intellectual investments in disciplines which, on the surface, seem remote from their own. Assertive humility is important.

Humility may be alien in contemporary American life, but it is necessary for our respecting tradition and ourselves as saplings in need of guidance from baobabs, redwoods, and oaks. Reading all of Jeffers’ poems in “My Blackness is the Beauty of This Land” (1970), “When I Know the Power of My Black Hand," "O Africa Where I Baked My Bread” (1977) and “Grandsire” (1979) is a rewarding use of time. We learn to locate ourselves in human history. We learn that direct confrontation and battle with language is more valuable than intimacy with clich├ęs.

When I Know the Power of My Black Hands
By Lance Jeffers

I do not know the power of my hand, I do not know the power of my black hand.
I sit slumped in the conviction that I am powerless,
tolerate ceilings that make me bend.
My godly mind stoops, my ambition is crippled;
I do not know the power of my hand.
I see my children stunted,
my young men slaughtered,
I do not know the mighty power of my hand.
I see the power over my life and death in another man's hands, and sometimes I shake my woolly head and wonder:
Lord have mercy. What would it be like . . . to be free?
But when I know the mighty power of my black hand
I will snatch my freedom from the tyrant's mouth, know the first taste of freedom on my eager tongue, sing the miracle of freedom with all the force
of my lungs,
christen my black land with exuberant creation, stand independent in the hall of nations, root submission and dependence from the soil of my soul and pitch the monument of slavery from my back when I know the mighty power of my hand!

On Listening to the Spirituals
By Lance Jeffers

When the master lived a king and I a starving hutted slave beneath the lash, and

when my five-year-old son was driven at dawn to cottonfield to pick until he could no longer see the sun, and

when master called my wife to the big house when mistress was gone, took her against her will and gave her a dollar to be still, and when she turned upon her pride and cleavered it, cursed her dignity and stamped on it, came back to me with his evil on her thighs, hung her head when I condemned her with my eyes,

what broken mettle of my soul wept steel, cracked teeth in self-contempt upon my flesh, crept underground to seek new roots and secret breathing place?

When all the hatred of my bones was buried in a forgotten county of my soul,
then from beauty muscled from the degradation of my oaken bread,
I stroked on slavery soil the mighty colors of my song, a passionate heaven rose no God in heaven could create!

Dictionary of Literary Biography on Lance Jeffers

The corpus of black American literature is characterized by extraordinarily varied rhetorical forms, all devoted to articulating the real, human condition of a people who bear a unique and harassed relation to their own nation. In this corpus the poetry of Lance Jeffers is particularly significant for its individuality so squarely rooted in the traditions of black expression. In themes, images and vision, but in linguistic freedoms as well, Jeffers's poetry is securely faithful to an aesthetic whose boundaries and potentials it constantly extends and defends.

Lance Jeffers was born the only child of Henry Nelson and Dorothy may Flippin, on 28 November 1919, in Fremont, Nebraska. His mother's father, George Albert Flippin, took Jeffers from his parents when he was one year old, and reared him in Stromsburg, Nebraska. Jeffers lived with his grandfather and his wife (who was white) until the grandfather's death in May 1929. There can be no doubt that Jeffers was permanently influenced by the personality of this strong-willed and defiant black medical doctor, living in an almost exclusively white environment, with both unwilling and grateful white patients.

Jeffers's published volumes of poetry include “My Blackness Is the Beauty of This Land” (1970), “When I Know the Power of My Black Hand” (1974), “O Africa, Where I Baked My Bread” (1977), and “Grandsire” (1979). He dedicated three of the volumes to his wife Trellie, about whom he has written more than twenty poems, including the entire second section of “Grandsire,” and who served as a touchstone and constant source of inspiration to Jeffers. Other poems focus on racism, the beauty of blackness, the power of human beings to endure oppression, ancestry and homeland, topical issues such as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and global issues such as the Holocaust. Witherspoon (1983) is Jeffers's one and only novelistic venture. It is the story of a black minister who, during a racial crisis, learns the value of revolution.

A few critics have appreciated Jeffers's mastery of language and metaphor, his exquisite attention to the possibilities of linguistic expression, and his aggressive pride in blackness, but more expansive and sustained scholarly studies of his works have yet to appear.


• Lance Jeffers, “A Black Poet's Vision: An Interview with Lance Jeffers,” interview by Doris Laryea, CLA Journal 26 (June 1983): 422–433.

• David Dorsey, “Lance Jeffers,” in DLB, vol. 41, Afro-American Poets since 1955, eds. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, 1985, pp. 183–190

My Blackness Is the Beauty of This Land

My blackness is the beauty of this land,
my blackness,
tender and strong, wounded and wise,
my blackness:
I, drawing black grandmother, smile muscular and sweet,
unstraightened white hair soon to grow in earth,
work-thickened hand thoughtful and gentle on grandson’s head,
my heart is bloody-razored by a million memories’ thrall:

remembering the crook-necked cracker who spat my naked body,
remembering the splintering of my son’s spirit because he remembered to be proud
remembering the tragic eyes in my daughter’s dark face when she learned her color’s meaning,

and my own dark rage a rusty knife with teeth to gnaw my bowels,
my agony ripped loose by anguished shouts in Sunday’s humble church,
my agony rainbowed to ecstasy when my feet oversoared Montgomery’s slime,

ah, this hurt, this hate, this ecstasy before I die,
and all my love a strong cathedral!
My blackness is the beauty of this land!

Lay this against my whiteness, this land!
Lay me, young Brutus stamping hard on the cat’s tail,
gutting the Indian, gouging the nigger,
booting Little Rock’s Minniejean Brown in the buttocks and boast, my sharp white teeth derision-bared as I the conqueror crush!
Skyscraper-I, white hands burying God’s human clouds beneath the dust!
Skyscraper-I, slim blond young Empire
thrusting up my loveless bayonet to rape the sky,
then shrink all my long body with filth and in the gutter lie
as lie I will to perfume this armpit garbage,
While I here standing black beside
wrench tears from which the lies would suck the salt
to make me more American than America …
But yet my love and yet my hate shall civilize this land,
this land’s salvation.

* * * * *

I picked up the book "When I Know the Power of My Black Hand" as an undergrad at Tougaloo (Thanks Dr. Ward). It just so happened that Eugene B. Redmond wrote the introduction for the book. It's funny that Redmond and I became such good friends years later. The poetry of L. Jeffers, oh, and Dr. Ward were two of the connections.—Howard Rambsy

I remember being very happy when a young critic published "Facing Unknown Possibilities: Lance Jeffers and the Black Aesthetic" in Step into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature (2000), edited by Kevin Powell.—Jerry Ward

I still have the book that he autographed with the words "To Miriam Willis with warm regards and the very pleasantest of memories of her warm hospitality in Memphis--Lance Jeffers," when the Memphis Black Writers' Workshop gave a reception & autograph party honoring him on the publication of his novel "Witherspoon" in October 1983. He was a brilliant poet and wonderful human being.—Miriam Decosta-Willis

* * * * *

Such Agonies Suffer Our Men of War

Reading Witherspoon, one is moved by its aesthetic and its morality. Lance Jeffers does not depend on mutilation of language, allusion to the arcane, or puzzles in logic to achieve effects. He is too good and too honest an artist to engage in easy tricks. He knows, as wordsmiths have known since the pre-history of Africa, that a good story told in language the community can understand is not to be surpassed. The grace and strength of fiction are located in its ability to show us our lives with more order, insight, and clarity than we can normally obtain. Good fiction pushes us toward recognition, toward a profound, relentless honesty about ourselves and others. It forces us to make moral decisions while satisfying our penchant for narratives about man’s endless contest with the fate of being human. Because it fulfills these criteria superbly, Witherspoon is a fine, important novel. . . .

Evoking the wisdom of the spirituals (a fact apparent in the novel’s original title The Lord is a Man of War), Lance Jeffers has given us fiction that is convertive and blacktrocuting. In its affirmation that descent into the inferno of racism leads to rising like a phoenix, Witherspoon offers to us the grandeur that is ours. Witherspoon is the sorrow song of our new day, the martial song for Black men who would know the power of their hands. It is an ode to the invisible men and women whose authentic humanity must become the model of our own.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Death of Poets and Traditions

Poetry and Capitalist Cultural Entrapments
By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

The recent deaths of Wanda Coleman, Alvin Aubert, and Amiri Baraka led me to think about what we lose and what we inherit when writers die in a message

To Those Who Grieve the Death of a Poet

If you dream you are a star
More than a grain of dirt
Declare your poems to be
More than teaspoons of water
Dropped into a raving sea
You are more a fool
Than language has named you.
You worry death to death.
Your encrypted bones
Can, should you let them,
Lead you to bless the body
With the balm of love.

Recall. Spirit speaks
Echoes in the canyons of mind:
Struggle. Nothing has ended
Change. Struggle. No peace arrived.
Struggle until the end. The end
Qualifies you with death
To mourn and bury the dead.

16 January 2014

The message is a communication to an unknown addressee. I know that I intended to say we lose a unique voice when a poet dies and inherit an obligation to continue the work of rewriting the world in our own voices. Who listens? Who learns? I don’t know. Does the message only become a poem as the result of unpredictable engagements? I don’t know. If the latter is the case, I prefer that the message prevails, that it inspires a transformation of sorrow into altruism.

I remind myself that human beings are mortal particles of consciousness in our universe, necessary only for other human beings. We are at once subjects and objects to be loved or hated by human beings by virtue of what we offer in language and action. That is all. Other life forms and inert matter need neither us nor our speech acts, despite our bloated myths of human superiority and arbitrary beliefs about spiritual links with supreme powers that may or may not exist in time.

ISMs, especially planetary and cultural capitalisms, have addicted many of us to abject misery and primitive aesthetics. Flattered to embrace maximum ego and minimal reason, many particles of consciousness believe freedom is interchangeable with enslavement, that form trumps content.

I am meek enough to be tutored by poets who have departed for elsewhere. Coleman says brutal realities should be weapons. Aubert cautions that radical outbursts ought to be trimmed and nuanced. And Baraka tells me to disturb the blindness of peace until it can give birth to truth. They mentor me in traditions.

It is to Baraka’s language, Aubert’s language, Coleman’s language—all of it—that I can turn to reshape my sorrow for the death of poets into forms of literary and cultural work which do not apologize for being at once political and aesthetic. Some of that work depends greatly on my motions as a particle of consciousness.

The message ultimately is about literature in a world enthralled by capitalist cultural entrapments. By reinventing Marxism in his own image, Fredric Jameson theorized these entrapments two decades ago. Indeed, a few of his ideas about the always already changing present in “Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (1991) deal appropriately with the malaise of the 21st century: the discovery of beauty in a photograph of a starving child.

The surrealism in Jameson’s premises about the status quo inspires genuine disdain for the bad faith of elitist assumptions. An exquisitely crafted villanelle about a roach is not more important than a less pristine sonnet on rape. Capitalist cultural entrapment argues the opposite is the case.

Jameson’s insights about the cultural pathology of late capitalism fail to convince me that human beings have abandoned primal agency in some fluke of evolving. His assertions are unfortunate but legitimate examples of the pink mentality at work. Poets who still have black fire know all too well what pink mentality spawns. It is in the best interest of amoral global capitalism that the bulk of the world’s population be unable to articulate the horrors of everyday life, so stoned should they be with doses of trivia and technical entertainments.

This best interest is the bane of poetry, so cultural entrapment tantalizes the least engaged poets with trinkets of achievement. This is not Jameson’s argument, but his work does make recognition of perverted motives possible. And he speaks more honestly than some intellectuals who dress their ideas in post-post-colonial garb and post-racial footwear. He had the decency to admit that his theorizing was an experiment not a truth. Jameson is not a poet, but he does inform us about the gravity of the choices poets make.

What engaged poets have the option of rejecting are postmodern suggestions that any iteration of history breaks the chains that bind us to humanity and responsibilities. Jameson spills the beans because his own immersion in capitalism is utterly translucent and rhetorical, remarkably Western. I have lived in the West most of my life and have intimacy with its foibles and motives. Innocence is not an option.

We are responsible for the surplus of evils we manufacture, for the paucity of good we produce, for our penchant to renounce our histories. We are free to sell our souls for bitcoins; free to author our own damnation; free to deny the burdens of tradition and to lust after the bliss of absolute innovation; free to smirk at the bearing of witness by those who value humility; free to pretend truth-telling efforts are prescriptive instruments of torture.

No doubt, prayer in the tradition of George Moses Horton and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper or meditation on the outer limits of inner space “liberates” a small number of poets from slavish cultural entrapments. Blessed are those who pray, for they have epiphanies about the absurdity of being human. They may not be able to prevent "forgetting" from happening, but they do have the agency to retard its happening too rapidly. Poets who know what tradition means pray frequently.

23 January 2014

Alvin Bernard Aubert: Born March 12, 1930 in Lutcher, Louisiana, passed away on January 7, 2014.

He left school early and worked until joining the U.S. Army in 1947. He earned his GED, progressed to the rank of master sergeant, and started reading poetry seriously. Aubert earned a BA from Southern University in Baton Rouge and an MA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he was a Woodrow Wilson National Fellow. He pursued postgraduate work at the University of Illinois.

Aubert is the author of the poetry collections “Against the Blues” (1972), “Feeling Through” (1975), “A Noisesome Music” (1979), “South Louisiana: New and Selected Poems” (1985), “If Winter Come: Collected Poems 1967–1992” (1994), and “Harlem Wrestler and Other Poems” (1995). His poetry draws on his personal experience of growing up in a small Mississippi River town as well as his interest in African American cultural figures.

A career in teaching took Aubert back to Southern University, where he taught for ten years, to SUNY Fredonia and then to Wayne State University in Michigan, where he was professor and director of the Center for Black Studies as well as chair of Africana Studies. In 1975, he founded the journal Obsidian: Black Literature in Review, which was an early forum for African American literature and literary criticism.

Auberts’s honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Callaloo Award, and the Xavier Activist for the Humanities Award.

The Revolutionary
By Alvin Aubert

He is bound to make something happen
he is not quite sure what
but he is determined
he flits from flower to flower
he has more legs than a hive of bees
he takes everything out of them leaving them for dead.

It will be a long time before anything happen.
In the meantime he plies his adversary’s craft
on whomever is at hand and is useful to him
in that way, being bound as he is
to making something happen
something worthy of himself almost anything.....

Nat Turner in the Clearing
By Alvin Aubert

Ashes, Lord-
But warm still from the fire that cheered us,
Lighted us in this clearing where it seems
Scarcely an hour ago we feasted on
Burnt pig from our tormentors' in willing
Bounty and charted the high purpose you
Word had launched us on, And now, my comrades
Dead, or taken; your servant, pressed by the
Blood-drenched yelps of hounds, forsaken, save for
The stillness of the word that persist quivering
And breath-moist on his tongue; and these faint coals
Soon to be rushed to dying glow by the
Indifferent winds of miscarriage-What now,
My Lord? A priestess once, they say, could write
On leaves, unlock the time-bound spell of deeds
Undone. I let fall upon these pale remains
Your breath-moist word, preempt the winds, and give
Them now their one last glow, that some dark child
In time to come might pass this way and, in
This clearing, read and know....

Dog's Day
a belated note to the editors of
The Norton Anthology of African American Literature

If Winter Comes Can Spring Be Far Behind?
in memory of western new york

By Alvin Aubert

one could say, simply, everything,
everywhere, is white. but that
would strain the point.
one might just as well declare
affirmative action. instead,
one observes only, that, there are
snow banks still that, despite
the negligible precipitation, of
recent weeks, continue to grow,
mounting their stark precipices,
in the mind. mountains, and where
we are allowed to move at all
(one avoids saying "cliffs"), walls
of snow. deep white alleyways,
archeological in their alternate,
street plough shared layers of
dark and light dark and light,
of virginal snow and interim grime.
of solidifying all, the cold,
all movement whitely predetermined
and spring's inevitable advent
of minimal consolation.

"Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry"
Edited by Camille Dungy