CLA paper

CLA,  April 6, 2018

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

PHBW:  Negotiating the Ideas of Seven Writers[1]

                Founded in 1983 by Dr. Maryemma Graham, "The Afro-American Novel Project" (AANP) had the initial goal of identifying all published novels written by African Americans from the nineteenth century to the late twentieth century.  AANP became The Project on the History of Black Writing (PHBW) in 1990 to reflect an enlarged vision and a more ambitious aim.  PHBW want to make a substantial contribution to what we then spoke of as our "Profession" by organizing bibliographic information and databases, sponsoring institutes and seminars, and by encouraging our colleagues to have rigorous engagements with all genres of black (African American) "writing" within  frames  of historical inquiry.                            The Project's  working frame was an  adaptation of the paradigm of unity in African American Studies , first published in Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A Peoples College Primer (1973). [2]Colleagues associated with PHBW adjusted and readjusted its  operational  paradigms in response to trends in scholarship and criticism, pedagogical shifts,  and other aspects of so-called cultural wars inside and outside of the Profession. Thus, for thirty-five years, PHBW championed the idea that genuine accounting for the history of black writing could not be achieved by simple imitation of the changing forms of theory, scholarship, and criticism. PHBW colleagues created a culture of professional civility.  We had a tacit agreement to be supportive of one another. Whether we were established scholars, tenured experts, or emerging neophytes, our disagreements about strategies and directions  were models of civility.  Constructive criticism, yes.  Deadly deconstruction, no.  

                Under Professor Graham's leadership,  PHBW  founded the Richard Wright Circle (and published the Richard Wright Newsletter ); it  sponsored the first international conference on Wright (1985) and an international symposium on Langston Hughes (followed by a Hughes reading project), four Language Matters seminars,  as well as three NEH summer institutes on teaching  black literature.  Our cooperative work included interdisciplinary endeavors, experiments with methods and methodologies, and testing of radical questions of the kind embedded (often silently) in the Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011).[3] PHBW's service to the "Profession"  has never been  (and is not in 2018 ) immune to controversy and contradictions; it has been honest.  PHBW has had the courage to be a mission impossible.

                Within the limits of fifteen minutes, I suggest  that the historically situated, culture-based ideas of seven twentieth-century African American writers may have influenced the work of many thinkers who have contributed to PHBW's history as an institution.  Those writers and the selected  foundational essays are

·         James Weldon Johnson, 1922 and 1931 Prefaces for The Book of American Negro Poetry

·         W. E. B. DuBois, "Criteria of Negro Art" (1926)

·         George Schuyler, "The Negro-Art Hokum " (1926)

·         Langston Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926)

·         Zora Neale Hurston, "Characteristics of Negro Expression" (1934)

·         Richard Wright, "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937)

·         LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], "Myth of a Negro Literature" (1962) and "Black Writing" (1963)

Without apology for my  idiosyncratic choice of essays, I suggest that the positions represented by these essays constitute a microcosm of ideological correspondences and contradictions, theory, innovation, and acts of intra- and inter-group resistance and affirmation in PHBW's  chronicling of our African American  literary and cultural selves.  Obviously, those  influenced by  PHBW shaped its enterprise by using a far more extensive body of critical essays and books between 1990 and the present than one can account for within 15 minutes. In terms of paradigm shifting, PHBW has recently engaged  print history,  digital humanities[4] and newly  emerging technologies in order to document change and continuity in "black writing" as a sprawling metaphor for possible cultural expressions.  In this paper,  I comment on seven moments in intellectual/critical history, the tools that  shaped my academic work (teaching, mentoring, writing),  my sense of responsibility regarding terms of engagements with society, my personal paradigm shifts.   Complex  engagement with ancestral ,  race-marked historical remembering  and occasional cultural amnesia and their implications continue to inform the ideals of  what PHBW seeks to accomplish: a reasonable notion of what is true about black writing in the unfolding of time.

                To preclude misunderstanding, I  emphasize that I speak for no one associated with PHBW other than myself. I give you fair warning that I am pre-future and always politically incorrect.


Johnson:  James Weldon Johnson's prefaces for The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922, 1931) are good examples of the disruptive gestures that authenticate the terms of engagement  we use in the contact/combat zones of literary and cultural enterprises/commerce.  Johnson turned the misrepresenting of black people into a call for the discovery of "a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than symbols from without (The Book of American Negro Poetry, 41) and give specificity to authentic  African American forms of imagery, idiom, turns of thought, and "distinctive humor and pathos" (42). Johnson conceded a dubious point---"the final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced" (9).   His concession is an invitation to be thoroughly skeptical and even cynical regarding American cultures; it also justifies Brent Hayes Edwards's recommendation  in Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (2017) to avoid a simplistic critique of Johnson's brief for assimilation and to come to terms with the depth of Johnson's theoretical work on the issue of transcribing vernacular form by reading the preface for The Book of American Negro Spirituals in more detail (65). Edward brings necessary clarity to what is at stake in juxtaposing literature and music: translation of sounds.[5]

DuBois:  Surveying the cultural politics of 1926, DuBois complements Johnson by way of sociological commentary on cultural politics.  The veiled criteria function in the racial binary of the 1920s.  Thus, DuBois provokes thinking about the desirability of having a descriptive sociology of literature.  Two paragraphs in the essay are essential----

                "The apostle of Beauty thus becomes the apostle of Truth and Right not by choice but by inner and outer compulsion.  Free he is but his freedom is ever bounded by Truth and Justice; and slavery only dogs him when he is denied the right to tell the Truth or recognize an ideal of Justice.

                Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.  I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.  I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.  But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent." (Within the Circle, 66)

Thus DuBois indicates what dedicated work in the contact/combat zones of American culture must be, or how to profit from reading George Schuyler and Langston Hughes in tandem.[6]

Schuyler:  Recalling Thomas Kuhn's use of the word "paradigm" in The Structure of Scientific Revolution, one detects that Schuyler seeks to be "scientific" and "logical" in denying the existence of Negro art as an entity distinct from American art.  He acknowledges the existence of black or African art, but he insists the historical synthesis in the making of so-called "Negro" art results in pure American products. He is passionate in identifying "art" as an abstraction to be understood in the complexity of a national culture rather than in the relative simplicity of imposed ethnic identity.  One suspects he is signifying on willful white blindness in the manufacturing of "whiteness."  Often held to be a response to Schuyler, Hughes' s manifesto affirms the legitimacy of describing Negro art as a blood and flesh ethnic process rather than as an abstraction.

Hughes: "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" can be interpreted as a special case in discourse about tradition and individual talent and relentless struggles in the culture(s) of the United States.  One mustn't gloss over what Hughes, from the vantage of the working artist, says about class consciousness in aesthetic transactions.  That peculiar consciousness might occasion a failure of the artist  to see in the race (however bogus the classification might be in science) that there is "sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work. Hughes forces us to consider the rightness of DuBois being "unashamed," the right of the "younger Negro artists who create now [1926] to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame."  Why give a tinker's damn if whites and blacks are pleased or displeased?  Hughes had a liberated vision of  black artists building "temples for tomorrow" and of standing atop the mountain of oppression free within themselves. (Within the Circle, 59) Hughes reminds us that in literary critical discourses the enmity of  self-love and self-hatred  has grown as deep as the river.

Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright do us the service of itemizing aspects of black expression and literary creations that retain currency in 2018.[7]

Hurston: Using her expertise in anthropology , folklore, and womanist insights, Hurston reads out the major characteristics of black expressive cultures: drama, adornment (in language and material culture), angularity, asymmetry, dance (inspired motion), folklore (the intellectual formulations of common sense psychology and conceptualization), culture heroes, originality, imitation (mimesis), absence of privacy (openness), the Jook (scenes of tragedy and comedy), dialect ( linguistic analysis cutting a path for Geneva Smitherman and others).  The unresolved challenge of Hurston's descriptions is desire to know when performance is not performance, a desire that is constantly frustrated by dynamics of cultures.

Wright:  From the angle of his unorthodox Marxism, Wright sketches out primal options for the black writer in negating defensive postures: role or addressing directly black needs, suffering, and aspiration; socially determined minority outlook; the totality of black culture that shapes consciousness; nationalism rooted in folk experience and articulated in writing; perspective ---the part of a work "which a writer never puts directly on paper"; theme, craft, necessity for collective cooperation; social consciousness and responsibility.  However theoretical he sought to be in 1937, Wright did recognize "No theory of life can take the place of life."  We do well to remember that sentence when we are tempted  to theorize everything.

Jones:  Of the seven writers, Jones/Baraka is probably the most mercurial and problematic.  He seems to affirm what Schuyler called the "nonexistence" of Negro literature, but he grounds his affirmation in class habits not ontology.  His argument regarding "myth" is predicated on a biased comparison of music and writing, one wherein music is less likely than literature to reproduce "impressive mediocrity."  His rhetorical posture, unfortunately, doesn't involve a clear definition of what is "serious" (although Toomer, Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin are his models of the serious, one finds the absence of Langston Hughes to be a psychological slip fraught with anxiety of influence. Nor is his purpose in speaking of "great Irish writers" as clear as was James Weldon Johnson's tip of the hat to the Irish. [8] The two essays  in Home (1966) were salvos for a revolution of ideas that shaped  the Black Art/Black Aesthetic Movement.

                I am indebted to thirty-five years of association with PHBW for my transforming the ideas of the seven writers ( and hundreds of others) into the totality of my dealing with black writing and trying to give the best of myself in teaching and mentoring at Tougaloo College and Dillard University and trying to create a bridge for understanding black writing in The China Lectures (2014), my gift to the People's Republic of China. The history of black writing is always the story that can't be completely told, because it is a story that does not end.


Alkalimat, Abdul et al., eds. Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A Peoples College Primer.  Chicago: Twenty-First Century Books & Publications, 1973.

DuBois, W. E. B. "Criteria for Negro Art." Within the Circle, ed. Angelyn Mitchell. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 60-68.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. Epistrophies:  Jazz and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Fisher, Dexter and Robert B. Stepto, eds. Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction. New York: Modern Language Association, 1979.

Graham, Maryemma and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., eds. The Cambridge History of African American Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.. Within the Circle, ed. Angelyn Mitchell. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 55-59.

Hurston, Zora Neale. "Characteristics of Negro Expression." Within the Circle, ed. Angelyn Mitchell. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 79-94.

Johnson, James Weldon, ed. The Book of American Negro Poetry.  New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959.

Jones, LeRoi. Home: Social Essays.  New York: William Morrow & Co., 1966.

Mitchell, Angelyn, ed. Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.

Schuyler, George. "The Negro-Art Hokum." Within the Circle, ed. Angelyn Mitchell. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 51-54.

Ward, Jerry Washington, Jr.  The China Lectures: African American Literary and Critical Issues.   Wuhan,China: Central China Normal University Press, 2014.

Wright, Richard. "Blueprint for Negro Writing." Within the Circle, ed. Angelyn Mitchell. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 97-106.

[1] I thank Professor Stefan Wheelock (George Mason University) for his many helpful suggestions about the nature of negotiating as I developed this paper.
[2] The association of PHBW with the work of scholars whose interests were not "literary" has been bracing.  The editors of Introduction to Afro-American Studies were clear about the nature of their text: "Our text is based on a paradigm of unity for Black Studies, a framework in which all points of view can have the most useful coexistence.  While maintaining a dynamic process of debate, everyone involved can remain united and committed to the field. This includes Marxists, nationalists, pan-Africanists, and old-fashioned civil rights integrationists as well.  Further, our specific orientation is anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-capitalist.  We are basing our analysis on most of our Black intellectual tradition and that leads us, as it did Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and W. E. B. DuBois, to a progressive socialist position.  This text, therefore,  has a definite point of view, but it presents the basis for clarity, understanding, and dialogue between different schools of thought and different disciplines" (21-22).
This idea of a paradigm or model of unity is decidedly idealist and driven by one sense or another of history as a process of narration and revising of narration.  Unlike the scholars ----Dexter Fisher, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Robert O'Meally, Robert Stepto, and Sherley Williams --- who committed themselves to the reconstruction of instruction and who deemed it necessary "to design courses in, and to refine critical approaches to, Afro- American literature yielding a 'literary' understanding of literature" ( Fisher and Stepto, vii), many of the PHBW scholars were not committed to grant privilege to what is literary as opposed to what is sociological, political, or ideological.  Imitation of an academic tradition of segregating "Literature" from writing and other expressive forms was not our choice.  We chose a different path and tried to recover ignored writers and works of literature for the sake of maximizing "literacies" and consciousness of how vast is black writing.  Like the scientific paradigm that Thomas Kuhn argued was most influential in the hard sciences, our paradigm could promote empiricism, archival scholarship, humility, lack of arrogance,  and awareness of limits and uncertainty that is rather unusual in the mainstream Academy.  Many of us in the PHBW group asked ourselves for whom we were doing our work.
[3] In our joint editing of the Cambridge History, Professor Graham and I were especially conscious of inevitable tension between "radical" as that which is rooted in cultures  and "radical" as that which can be obviously political. We argued that "literary historians are beginning to recognize that writers are not the sole shapers of literature, that people who are not usually deemed citizens in the republic of letters must not be ignored in describing the interweavings of literature, imagination, and literacy.  Thus, we must give attention to the roles of publishers, editors, academic critics, common readers, and mass media reviewers in shaping textual forms, literary reputations, and literary tastes" (2).
[4] See CLAJ 59.3 (March 2016), a special issue on digital humanities guest edited by Howard Rambsy II, who has a long association with PHBW.  His major contribution in promoting  the ideals of PHBW is the substantial information he provides in the website "Cultural Front: A notebook on literary art, digital humanities, and emerging ideas" ( ).

[5] In Chapter 2, "Toward a Poetics of Transcription: James Weldon Johnson's Prefaces," Edwards deals with transcription by focusing on problems of form. "The transcription of vernacular musical forms into written linguistic forms," Edwards argues, "necessarily alters our conception of literacy ---but it must alter our conception of orality, as well" (84). I think of transcription and translation as related stages of a process, and I would promote realization ,more than Edwards is willing to do,  in a critic's moving between  musical and linguistic forms (or in a reader's struggles  in moving between the mind's recollection of musical sound and the representation of sound ). Edwards's observations deepen appreciation of Johnson's efforts.  They also necessarily urge us to become conversant with work in empirical aesthetics. The more scientific we can be regarding the psychological dimensions of transcribing, the firmer might our grounds for  historical interpretation become.
[6] I deal briefly with contact/combat zones in two chapters in The China Lectures: "On the Study of African American Literature: The Obligations of Literary History" (2-14) and "Tradition and Acknowledgement in Combat Zones" (15-24).
[7] Although the items or categories described by Hurston and Wright in the 1930s remain relevant, the weight contemporary scholars accord them are significantly distinct, I'd wager, from the writers' original intentions. From the angles of critical race theory, womanist/feminist theorizing, and multiple "post-" conceptualizations, the distinctions are quintessentially diverse.
[8] Johnson and Jones may have had the affinity between Irish and African American nationalisms in mind, but their references become ironic when we consider how the Irish and other European immigrants became "white" in the United States.


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