Monday, April 8, 2013
Black Writing, Culture and Memory
[By Jerry W. Ward]
To focus on black writing rather than black literature, it might be argued, is to attend with greater passion to dynamics of literacy within our culture. As theories of modernism and globalization lead to camps of blissful forgetting, there is some urgency in ordinary instances of black writing. Obviously, a young person walking down a sidewalk on the way to somewhere as she or he practices “rapping skills” is creating pre-conditions for literature. That young person may one day be viral on YouTube or have work published in a best-selling anthology.
Pre-conditions for literature also exist in commonplace email messages. They can inform us about our vibrant culture and certain uses of memory, of cooperation as an act of resisting the contemporary individualism that is quite the rage. Writers who are not selfishly worshipping their own egos do seek to help other writers. In the antiquity of classic African American culture, cooperation was simply a matter of being “in the tradition.”
Keenan Norris, author of the forthcoming and psychologically provocative novel Brother and the Dancer, was “in the tradition” when he sent out the following email on April 4, 2013. I quote the email with his permission.
I’m writing on behalf of Lynel Gardner and his debut book, BEAST: The Destruction of Charles “Sonny” Liston. Lynel is looking for a publisher and for leads to publishers. I’ve also included a bio about Lynel, whose life and work have been both dramatic and inspirational. Lynel’s work on the life of Liston will be profiled on an upcoming ABC Sports show.
Lynel has an agent and is working through his agent to find a publisher. However, he’s also looking to work through all other available channels as well. I figure this is as good a forum as any to see if my virtual community of fellow writers and artists might have connections with editors and publishers that would be appropriate for Lynel’s work. Lynel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Below is his bio and a synopsis of BEAST.
Bio: Lynel Gardner is a performance artist, novelist and playwright. His work with the Hittite Empire Performance Art Group started in 1989. They toured the country and the UK doing work based on black male silence. An all-male performance art group, they focused on issues of the day: the “wilding incident”, the Central Park rape case in New York and the LA riots. He has written a play called Stories I Never Told My Father about growing up with a pimp for a father, how he survived, and found God in the process of trying to find his father before he died. The life experiences of Lynel’s uncle (and several other family members) served as the basis for the movie The Mack.
Lynel’s debut book is based on the life of his grandfather, heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston. The book dispells many of the popular misconceptions about Liston. Lynel is the founder of Theater as Prevention and frequently speaks to inmates in the California prison system about fatherhood and reform.
When Muhammad Ali explained to the world in 1965, that he had been taught the “Anchor Punch” from Stepin Fetchit, who had learned it from Jack Johnson, the world stood in disbelief. It would be the first time ever that Charles “Sonny” Liston, who was trying to regain his title, would be knocked to the canvas, in his professional career. Muhammad Ali had indeed “Shook up the world” in their first championship fight together and in their second contest, he would boggle the mind. And from that point on, boxing, and its fans, would never be the same. The Liston Family, the Ali family and the Palermo family would forever be remembered, for being a part of some elaborate conspiracy, fix, and or “Phantom Punch.” Sonny Liston would go to his grave, never to be forgiven, by the public at large, for what had happened in those two fights. And even though Muhammad Ali would one day go down in history as “The Greatest” boxer of all time, the public would forever hold him suspect; marking him with a “Scarlet Letter” for somehow being partly responsible, for what is still believed to be, one of the greatest hoaxes, of the twentieth century.
It struck me that BEAST: The Destruction of Charles “Sonny” Liston had a no-nonsense title akin to some made famous by Holloway House, and I suggested to Norris that Gardner should explore the possibility of being published by that firm. Holloway House was willing to give attention to core black culture well before academic guardians of African American culture (including noted Black Arts Movement critics) were willing to acknowledge the little people, the core that Langston Hughes celebrated in poetry and fiction. From what Norris mentioned about the projected ABC sports special, it was apparent that Gardner might get offers from more powerful publishers who would want to cash in on a hot topic. Nevertheless, racial wisdom teaches us to cover all bases, to leave little to chance or accidents of fortune.
What Norris mentioned in the biographical sketch on Lynel Gardner and in the synopsis set my ideas flowing. Gardner has ancestral motives for wanting to tell his grandfather’s story (and his grandmother’s) in a culture that feeds on mass media’s stew of confusions. His efforts to tell a story that rescues Charles “Sonny” Liston from the shadows cast by Muhammad Ali are like those of writers who rescue the real soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement from the shadows cast by Martin Luther King, Jr. There is, as the poet Sterling D. Plumpp has reminded us, a story always untold, a story that should be told within the boundaries of African American literature but often is destroyed by literary politics. I applaud the cultural authenticity of Gardner’s efforts to broadcast “a truth.”
My applause is all the louder as a result of having read Thabiti Lewis’s Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (2010) and his claims regarding the desperation of mythologizing White masculinity in fiction and film. Referring to the Rocky films, Lewis indicts Stallone for culling “portions of real fights —along with the real personalities of Frazier, Liston, Foreman, and Ali —to write the four installments of the Rocky industry” (211).
Appropriation is a two-way street. Recall Charles Johnson’s deformation of Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” in the neo-slave novel Middle Passage. In the reclamation of Liston’s story, Gardner is quite on point about race, sport, and the power of re-enacting Puritan uses of the scarlet letter in contemporary American culture. And he only has to appropriate his family’s history. He is promoting one of the key functions of black writing: the correction of misrepresentations or absences that induce cultural amnesia about the being-in-this-world of African Americans. Despite endless attempts to devalue it in favor of black literature, black writing continues to be one of our strongest weapons in the post-whatever combat/contact zone.
We should support Norris and Gardner as affirmative writers who use their talents wisely in trouble-saturated times. They affirm the nexus of writing, culture, and memory.
Posted by The HBW Blog at 9:33 AM
“Sonny Liston was the Horatio Alger of his generation”.-“BEAST: THE DECONSTRUCTION OF CHARLES SONNY LISTON”. Amazon.com
It is almost like there is an “Old Boy Network” in the news agencies. Especially on the East Coast. But Walter Annenberg had a lot of “Yellow Kids” on his payroll. And some of them are still around, and still writing about Sonny, and still telling negative stories about Sonny, on behalf of the Walter Annenbergs. And remember that Walter Annenberg had Sonny Liston on his BlackList. The best thing Walter Annenberg, the owner of Philadelphia Inquirer ever said about Sonny, was that “He was a bum. I didn’t want to give him publicity”. – AMAZON, Beast: The Deconstruction of Charles Sonny Liston
It’s intellectually dishonest, a hit piece, racist. I hope Sonny’s Estate sues. It is factually incorrect and omits info that discredits its “narrative”. Sonny was a true success story, they had to tear him down. I’m very disgusted at the many #BoxingHistorians who know better but are silent. Shame on them. #NoIntegrity.
#6 PROFESSOR HASAN JEFFRIES/ OHIO STATE UNIVERSITYAmerica needed to remind the broader white public of the danger that was black folk. And nobody represented that danger more than Sonny Liston.
#9 NIGEL COLLINS RING MAGAZINE
Nobody really knows when Sonny Liston was born. He often gave a date of May 8, 1932. He was probably older than that. There were no records. Not even the family bible had his birthdate in there. So he was a mystery right from the start. Sonny was the 24th of 25 children. His father Tobe was a sharecropper. And with that many mouths to feed. It must have been tuff. Sonny knew what it was like to be hungry. He knew that.
#12 JERRY IZENBERG JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR
The story and I think that it is more than apotholic. The mule dies, and his father says, you’re the mule. Hooks him up to a harness, and he’s… He was whipped by his father to make him work harder. And Sonny had the marks to prove it.
#14 Professor Randy Roberts Purdue University
All Sonny knows is violence. And if Sonny looks at the world around him. What does he see? He sees violence toward black men, black children.
#15 Dr. Hasan Kiwame Jeffries- Ohio State University
Jim Crow America was violent, Jim Crow America was dangerous. You could be walking down the street as a young man, as a boy, as a woman. And literally, your life could be snuffed out. That’s what Jim Crow was.
#17 Dr. Hasan Kiwame Jeffries- Ohio State University
They called it black folk in search of the promised land. You get a couple of million black folk, literally. You’re looking for a better way of life. The reality though, was that the promised land was fabled.
#18 Professor Randy Roberts- Purdue University
Sonny finds his mother. Is the mother, she happy to see him? Maybe a little, maybe not. Sonny is another mouth to feed. And then he’s on the streets.
#19 Mike Tyson
He was on the dark side of St. Louis. And he saw how the poor got money. They robbed and stole.
#21 Shaun Assael
He went to the penitentiary in Jefferson. Which was a really tuff place. Time Magazine called it, the bloodiest 47 acres in America. Gangs ruled it, there were fights all the time. Guards were afraid to patrol some of D Block.
#23 Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur Yale Kennedy School
His story becomes about survival. His story has always been about survival. But it takes on a new element.
#25 Jerry Izenberg
Boxing has always been a step ladder for poor people without other skills. And Sonny fit that picture 100%
Sonny Liston saw boxing as a way out. They didn’t want to live that life in prison no more, they did not want to live that life in the streets. And that is why he excelled ad did so well.
#27 Don Majeski
Sonny was a prodigy, was a revelation. This is a guy who can be a really exceptional athlete a great fighter.
#28 PROFESSOR RANDY ROBERTS
And this is something good. That he can hang his identity onto. This is what his identity is about. Sonny had beaten up all the inmates that got in the ring with him.
#34 RING MAGAZINE
Sonny decided if I’m ever going to make anything out of my life. I got to go with these guys. Because their the ones that can get me where I want to
#35 Dr. Hasan Kiwame Jeffries- Ohio State University
He chooses this path. And I don’t know how many of us would choose something any different. Given that same set of choices that we had.
#38 RANDY ROBERTS PURDUE PROFESSOR
He was enormously powerful. Through the shoulders. He had long arms. His fist was like huge hams. His jab was his greatest weapon. And it’s the greatest jab any heavyweight has ever had.
Most fighters jabs are just to set the opponent up. Usually its not that hard. But Sonny Liston used it as a weapon to Knock you out. To knock you down.
#40 RANDY ROBERTSON PURDUE PROFESSOR
Sonny’s left jab was a nose cracking, teeth busting, jaw-dropping experience. And they said getting hit by it, was like being hit by a pole.
Well, Sonny had a big menacing tuff reputation. And that super ceded him in the ring. He intimidated the fighter. The fighter was really beaten before he got in the ring. Sonny could pull it off. I could pull it off. Not many people could pull it off.
SYNTAX OF ALL THE SPEAKERS UP UNTIL THIS POINT
Proof that everything that was said in the Showtime Special up until this point was pre-scripted. By having 14 different Speakers in this section, it gives the illusion of a general discussion. There are added lines from the special included below. I will be dissecting the rest of the script at a later date.
My partner and I got a call from dispatch. Says, “Any narcotics detectives in the area of Ottawa drive to come back”. I went up to the bedroom; there were Sherriff’s deputies running around the place like ants; they were everywhere. It didn’t even look like Liston; he had been dead for so long. He had been dead for four or five days. He was bloated, full of methane gas. It really made me sick to my stomach. Because he was such a predominant figure, in the sports world. I just thought it was a disrespectful way for him to go.
Sonny Liston was the greatest heavyweight who ever lived. I have no doubt about that. He was a bona fide monster. He punched with the force of a government crash test. Sonny was the first intimidating fighter. With the mean scowl, and the mean grin. He was a real badass: a real menace, a Force. The way Sonny won, most of his fights were before he got into the ring. Those eyes.
He was an ex-convict. He was brutal; he was mobbed up. He was a symbol of the Champ we didn’t want. Sonny was in the epicenter of the perfect storm as far as what was going on in society. The Civil Rights Era was just starting, and he was the guy in the middle, that took all the grief. America needed to remind the broader white public of the danger that was black folk. And nobody represented that danger more than Sonny Liston.
We don’t know how Sonny Liston died. And in the void created by the absence of rational explanation, conspiracy filled it like a foul odor. The medical examiner called it natural causes. But no one around Sonny believed that. Everyone believed he was murdered. So many people wanted Sonny dead. The only question is who got to him first.
Nobody really knows when Sonny Liston was born. He often gave a date of May 8, 1932. He was probably older than that. There were no records. Not even the family bible had his birthdate in there. So he was a mystery right from the start.
Sonny was the 24th of 25 children. His father Tobe, was a sharecropper. And with that many mouths to feed. It must have been tuff. Sonny knew what it was like to be hungry. In Fare City, Arkansas, we were trying to survive. Day to day survival. Cause we poor people, we were poor people. So we try to live from day to day.
He didn’t get much of an education. He never learned how to read and write. He was out in the fields working. By the time he was eight years old. The story and I think that it is more than apocalyptical. The mule dies, and his father says, you’re the mule. He hooks him up to a harness, and he was whipped by his father to make him work harder. And Sonny had the marks to prove it.
Being beaten as a child really effects your outlook on how you see things. If you had hope for a better life. You would live your life differently. He didn’t have hope for a better life. All Sonny knows is violence. And if Sonny looks at the world around him. What does he see? He sees violence toward black men, black children. Jim Crow America was violent, Jim Crow America was dangerous. You could be walking down the street as a young man, as a boy, as a woman. And literally, your life could be snuffed out. That’s what Jim Crow was.
1946, Sonny’s mother left to have a better life in St. Louis. Sonny was still living on the plantation, got a bus ticket to St. Louis. They called it black folk in search of the promised land. You get a couple of million black folk, literally. You’re looking for a better way of life. The reality though, was that the promised land was fabled. Sonny finds his mother.
His mother, she’s happy to see him. Maybe a little, maybe not. Sonny is another mouth to feed. And then he’s on the street. He was on the dark side of St. Louis. And he saw how the poor got money. They robbed and stole. Sonny Liston, after some minor infractions, went to the big time. He went to rob a gas station. He went to rob a restaurant. He used a gun in the commission of crimes.
Sonny always wore a yellow shirt. Police knew that they were looking for a guy in a yellow shirt. And they got him. After, Sonny was tried and got five years in jail. That was the sentence for armed robbery. Liston was brutalized early in prison. I believe that Liston had to fight everything he got there. And I think that he took his fair share of beatings. It was a Darwinian existence. He went to the penitentiary in Jefferson, which was a really tuff place. Time Magazine called it the bloodiest 47 acres in America. Gangs ruled it; there were fights all the time. Guards were afraid to patrol some of D Block.