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