Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Book of Negroes on BET

If it takes Black History Month to spark excellence on BET (Black Entertainment Network), so be it. I am talking about that station's airing this week of The Book of Negroes, the three-part miniseries based on the award-winning 2007 novel of the same name by Canadian author Lawrence Hill (which was originally published as Someone Knows My Name in the US, and rereleased under its original name this past January). Co-written by Hill and Jamaican-Canadian director Clement Virgo, and produced by Guyanese-Canadian Damon D'Oliveira and Virgo, the miniseries, original in six parts, initially premiered on Canadian Broadcast Channel TV in January, and was, to my mind, not just compelling TV, but utterly perfect in its historical and diasporic dimensions for Black History Month.

Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis),
speaking to abolitionists in London
The series, and Hill's novel, draw from the historical Book of Negroes, which the British Army, after its defeat in the US Revolutionary War, compiled as a means of documenting which people of African descent, many of them enslaved, had escaped to the British lines and aided its war effort. Those who could vouch for their contributions and who had no standing claims as chattel nor debtors were guaranteed their freedom and passage to Nova Scotia. Some 3,000 people qualified. In Hill's novel, which fictionalizes and reshapes the story, an enslaved woman, named Aminata (later Meena) Diallo and raised in the Muslim faith, from Segou in what is now Guinea, plays the central role in recording the names, later going on to testify before a select committee of British legislators in order to help end the British Slave Trade.

Aunjanue Ellis
In fact, the novel and miniseries center on Aminata's experiences. When we first see her, she is a child (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) with her parents in Africa. Shortly thereafter, after hearing a djeli, or traditional storyteller, she is captured by slavers, assisted by a young native, Chekura Tiano (Siya Xaba), and on the slave ship, we see the early sparks of her lifelong as she provides the means for a near slave rebellion, which is violently quelled. Aminata and Chekura survive the Middle Passage, and she ends up on a South Carolina plantation owned by the lecherous Robertson Appleby (Greg Bryk). Here, as elsewhere, Aminata/Meena never forgets her family, Africa or her past; now into early womanhood (and played with aplomb and fearlessness throughout by Aunjanue Ellis), she befriends one of the older enslaved women, Bertilda (Cara Ricketts), who serves as a surrogate mother, and reconnects with Chekura (now the strapping, handsome Lyriq Bent), who manages to make infrequent nocturnal trips to see her, and uses the fishnet (or "slave grapevine," an effective proto-telecommunications system) to keep abreast of what she is up to.
Aminata in revolutionary New York
Much of this early portion of the story unsurprisingly parallels the usual depictions of plantation slavery, though Virgo's direction is assured throughout; a vile master, the hardships of the enslaved people, punishment for defiance. In Aminata's case, her relationship with and pregnancy by Chekura, whom she marries without the permission of and in defiance of her master Appleby, leads him to sell off her daughter May to unknown owners and eventually her to Solomon Lindo (Allan Hawco), a Jewish trader who becomes the witting and unwitting catalyst for Aminata's liberation. Witting, because his wife Rosa (Amy Louise Wilson), fosters the multilingual, perspicuous Aminata's skill at reading and writing. Unwitting because after Rosa's and the Lindo's child death from smallpox (and here, we get a strange moment of present-day irony because Bertilda had innoculated Aminata so as to protect her from the pox's ravages), Solomon takes her to New York, where she will serve and assist him in his business affairs.

The trip coincides with the stirrings of the Revolution, though Aminata's taste of freedom begins when she encounters free black people, including free black tavern keeper Sam Fraunces (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who is smitten with her. (The depiction of Black Sam, both in Hill's book and the miniseries, takes some liberties, but some contemporaneous accounts apparently did describe Black Sam as a "mulatto" or mixed race person.) Aminata flees to precarious freedom among the city's black encampment while Solomon heads back to South Carolina, and Chekura, having learned of her whereabouts, finds her in the City. He also volunteers for the British side, as does she as an aide to Captain John Clarkson (Ben Chaplin). This creates the conditions for their unqualified freedom and her role as the author of the official Book of Negroes.
Aminata and Chekura Tiano (Lyriq
Bent), in Nova Scotia
To give just a bit more of the plot, Aminata and Chekura find themselves separated when authorities prevent her from boarding the ship bound for Nova Scotia because of a standing claim on her--but not by Solomon. It is Robertson Appleby, instead, who tries to game the law and gain control of Aminata before she can get away. Miraculously, Sam Fraunces produces (!) Solomon, her former owner, and countermands the claim, in the process and in court manumitting Aminata, though she tempers his heroic gesture by reminding him that she cannot forgive his role in selling off her infant daughter May. In Birchtown, the black settlement in Nova Scotia, Aminata emerges one of its leaders alongside preacher Daddy Moses (Louis Gossett, Jr.), but the economic and social conditions for the newly arrived black population remain shaky before they find themselves at the hands of rioting whites who blame for the loss of jobs and other privations.
Cuba Gooding Jr., who
plays tavernkeeper Sam Fraunces
The British have set up a colony in Africa, Sierra Leone, which Aminata and Chekura and nearly 1,000 other blacks from Canada will head to, together, and while there, in addition to helping to establish Freetown, the capital city, she hopes to see her native village again. As it turns out, Chekura is able to redeem his participation in their enslavement, though with tragic consequences; Aminata does find another village mirroring her native one, which may no longer exist; and she ends up, in her final chapter, moving to London to assist Captain Clarkson. It is there that she pens her own autobiography, despite the disbelief of her white abolitionist supporters and opponents (reminiscent of Phillis Wheatley's attestation), which with her testimony will play a key role in ending Britain's participation in the slave trade. There is a final, moving and lovely twist, which exists in both the novel and miniseries, and which the story certainly earns.
One of the actors during
a Revolutionary War scene
There are moments of anachronism throughout the series; at one point I felt, based on the dialogue in revolutionary New York and in Nova Scotia, as if I were watching a mashup of MTV and 1776; at another, at the very end, when Aminata participates in an outdoor public book-signing, which might have been possible though it seemed unlikely from a historical standpoint, it took me momentarily out of the story. All of the enslaved and free men are a bit too buff (a fact I am not really complaining about). In addition, though the screenplay mostly avoids sentimentality, but it does crop up at points, such as when Aminata and Chekura reunite in New York, but I chalked this up to the demands of portraying a story of such complexity that a little shorthand was necessary and not worthy of a quibble.

What works throughout is Aunjanue Ellis's characterization of Aminata. She fully inhabits this visionary figure of resistance, showing vulnerability when required but also conveying an inner fortitude that would have made possible the vast journey she traveled. Lyriq Bent also is strong as Chekura, and though he has less to do and say throughout, he succeeds in embodying the sort of man who could steal through the night, despite all obstacles, to be with her, and who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to atone for actions he could not have fully understood in his youth. Veteran actor Jane Alexander exudes the right combination of liberalism and racism in her depiction of Nova Scotian printer Mary Witherspoon, while Louis Gossett, Jr., as Daddy Moses, radiates joy in his role. I could not, however, stop thinking that I was watching Cuba Gooding, Jr., as opposed to Fraunces, but accepting this I was able to enjoy his scenes. This was true too for some of the secondary actors, who were uneven, but a few, like Matt Ward as Jason Wood, and Stephan James as Cummings Shakspear, endowed their characters with vivacity and gravity. All in all, I was impressed with the rich cast of mostly black Canadian and South African actors, and now want to see them--along with their African American, British, and Afro-Latin peers--much more frequently on screens, large and small.
Lyriq Bent
Other aspects of the miniseries are even stronger. The adapted screenplay transforms the novelistic material in appropriate ways, while also never faltering in its ability to properly and effectively depict expressions of black solidarity, love, and, between Aminata and Chekura, eros and tenderness. Another pinnacle is the cinematography. From start to finish, though it occurred primarily in Cape Town, South Africa and Nova Scotia, it sensorially and visually anchors each scene, whether the grim edged pastoral of Appleby's plantation; the frenetic (though perhaps far too clean) streets of revolutionary New York; and the chilly, snow-doilied hills of Birchtown and Nova Scotia. Even the period interiors, if sometimes too sumptuous when depicting the enslaved people's quarters, place viewers firmly in a past time and space. In terms of pacing, the series never lags. Each two hour installation races by--and around BET's sally of ads. I could easily have stood several more nights of this fascinating tale, though that would have gone beyond the novel's and story's scopes.

As entertainment, The Book of Negroes is a triumph, but it also succeeds in its efforts to highlight a still too-little known aspect of American, African American and African Diasporic history. In essence, it presents the history of black Loyalists, who had everything at stake by agreeing to support the British. It also shines a light on the contributions of a black woman who was unwilling every to cede her agency if she could help it, and in so doing, helped to change one of the most abominable systems that has gripped the globe. The novel and miniseries succeed in their efforts to present a fuller social and political economy of the slave trade, of black resistance and freedom, and of a feminist perspective on our histories--and herstories. I recommend, and will say don't forget the popcorn and the tissues for the tears that may come along the way, before you get to cheer at how this particular story does end on a high note.

For more about The Book of Negroes' historical facts and context, BET even has an iPhone/Android app!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Motion of Light: Samuel R. Delany Tribute at Jacket2

Last April 11 in Philadelphia, the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania organized a tribute to Samuel R. Delany (1942-), "Motion of Light," honoring his "performative poetics."

Though I always associate Chip Delany with his native New York City, he has taught at Temple University for over a decade (and will be retiring this year), and has become an integral member of that city's literary communities, so it was fitting that he was honored there. A number of admirers of Delany's work were present; though invited I was already booked at a conference (&Now) in Colorado, so I sent my contribution, "Paean," to Tracie Morris, one of the organizers, to present in my absence. The original event was archived at PennSound.

Now Tracie has edited a special section at Jacket2 featuring some of the events' tributes, including work by Kenneth R. James, Ira Livingston, Sarah Micklem, Fred Moten, Jena Osman, Frank Sherlock, Anne Waldman, Tracie herself I, and, as well as Chip offering his own contribution to the event through a concluding conversation with Charles Bernstein. Although Chip needs no introduction and his work as a creative writing, critic and intellectual could fill a month-long conference, if you're interested in seeing others speak (or create Möbius strips in response) to his poetics, the Jacket2 features offers a fine introduction.

Here's a snippet from Tracie's warm introduction to the special section:

The magnitude of Chip’s impact in a variety of fields is impossible to calculate, much less organize into one volume. Here’s hoping for more and more celebrations, compilations, cheers, toasts, and discussions on his monumental work and importance to so many people and at so many stages of their lives. Chip is a constellation that continues to be fixed, yet revolves, for me and for so many lovers of poetry, of resonant words. I’m eternally grateful to be part of bringing these many hands together that have lifted a glass in Samuel R. Delany’s honor during his birth month in 2014, a microcosm of his worlds-full of admirers. As this is coming out in February, a month, in the US, given to emphasizing the experiences of Black people and Black culture, I’m especially glad to share this celebration of one of the world’s great Black thinkers, writers, creators. A maker of many worlds. Worlds for everyo

Here's a snippet from Fred Moten's perfectly titled "Amuse-Bouche":
Moved movers amid the intensity of the pas de deux my offering asks you to imagine, Delany and Taylor are bound in what Denise Ferreira da Silva would call the affectability of no-bodies.[4] Bound for that embrace, they hold, in their openness, to its general, generative pattern. Openness to the embrace moves against the backdrop of exclusion and the history of exclusion, which is a series of incorporative operations. This is how openness to being affected is inseparable from the resistance to being affected. Dance writes this push and pull into the air and onto the ground and all over the skin of the earth and flesh that form the city. The words of these moved movers have something specific to do with dance and I want to talk about that specificity as an interplay between walking and talking, between crossing and tasting, between quickness and flavor. Their words and work form part of the aesthetic and philosophical atmosphere that attends the various flows and steps that have taken place in and as New York City over the last fifty years, especially downtown in the serially and simultaneously emergent and submergent dance space between two churches, Judson and St. Mark’s.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

eBooks, Surveillance and a New Aesthetics?

(Source: Instagram user hotdudesreading,
from PopSugar)
Perhaps five year ago when, at hiring and committee meetings, readings, or during the rare non-literary performance (as in the crazy Raymond Roussel play John Beer directed with such aplomb in Chicago), I would pull out my iPad and read from it, my use of this technology would spark comments and queries. I seldom saw people reading from an iPad, let alone another e-Reader, in public spaces, including on the MTA subway trains, and even less so on the El, though I did spot a number of early adopters on my flights commuting between Jersey City and the Windy City. My status as a tablet/e-book harbinger, however, did not result from any innovative thinking on my part; it was the direct result of living with an app developer who had bought two machines to test his work on, and I ended up with the more basic one. There was little likelihood that I would have gotten one so quickly otherwise.

Nowadays almost everyone I know has a tablet computer or an e-Reader, and many have both. "Sent from my iPad" pops up at the bottom of perhaps every fourth email. As a present a few years ago I received an updated iPad from C, and I do use it but far less frequently than I once did, for reading, drawing, animation, or anything else. I have not purchased an e-book or downloaded a free one in a while. Instead if I'm reading anything online, I primarily turn to my laptop (which I recently had to have replaced, because the prior one's logic board fried), or my iPhone (which I had to replace because I left the previous one in a US post office near Chelsea Market, and when I rushed back to find it, it was, unsurprisingly, gone). One of my animations (cf. below) expressed in a few images my thoughts about the e-reading experience, which I find far less enjoyable than codex (printed) books, but for many people today, these handheld computers are becoming the default. (I found it telling that at least one recent survey of college students suggests they prefer print books, which tracks my classroom experiences, a small group of phone-centric student readers notwithstanding.)

Still, convenience, physiological comfort, and to some degree costs, make strong arguments on behalf of e-books and e-devices. Rather than having to carry about heavy hardcover or even lighter but still bulky paperback books, as I have done for most of my life, you can store hundreds (thousands?) of books on many e-reading devices, which have increasingly shrunk in their physical dimensions to the point that some are not much bigger than the largest smartphones. (Compare an iPad Mini or smaller Kindle reader to one of the larger Android phones, or Apple's news gigantic iPhone.) On most e-readers you can enlarge print with a swipe or a button, obviating the need, as your eyes age, for squinting at tiny print. E-books also tend to be less expensive (as they should be) than codex books, and with most--all?--e-reading devices you can also easily read .pdfs of anything you can transform into that format, which today is anything you find on a laptop or tablet screen. A vast array of literature can be found free of charge on the web, such that an enterprising person could--and some have--cobble together from existing materials an ever-changing, personalized e-anthology.

Recently, Francine Prose published a short article, "They're Watching You Read," in the New York Review of Books, in which she describes reading William Makepeace Thackeray on her e-reader, and while doing so, she came across an article in the Guardian, "Ebooks can tell which novels you didn't finish," that shares something many readers may be aware of but probably are not thinking about too much, which is that some e-devices are carefully tracking their readers' habits, down to where they break off in reading before resuming, which passages they reread, and how far they get in terms of a book's full length. (Do all e-reading programs do this?) According to e-bookseller Kobo's stats, "less than half of British readers" or 44.4%, of Donna Tartt's immense Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch, finished the 800-page tome. With Solomon Northup's shorter memoir Twelve Years a Slave, returned to public notice by Steve McQueen's Academy Award-garnering film, only 22.8% managed to complete it. On the the other hand, according to Kobo, the most completed book, at 83%, was self-published author Casey Kelleher's Rotten to the Core. Although it did not make the Kobo Bestseller list, it held four-fifths of its readers to the final period. Kelleher has gone to "win a book deal with Amazon's UK publishing imprint." In fact, as Kobo's stats show, its bestseller lists (books purchased) and most completed books (read to the end) are quite distinct, as are the national reading trends it tracked (though the percentages aren't broken down according to gender, age or other readership categories):

Kobo also revealed that the people of Britain were most likely to finish a romance novel, with 62% completion, followed by crime and thrillers (61%) and fantasy (60%). Italians were also most engaged by romance (74% completion), while the French preferred mysteries, with 70% completion.
I wonder what American readers tend to finish the most. Fantasy? Nonfiction books? Something not listed above?

Even raising such questions underlines the basic fact that the collection of data is a form of surveillance. Neither Prose nor the Guardian report says whether the data collection is voluntary, but I imagine it is similar to most online data collection today, which is to say, you have to opt out, sometimes with great difficulty. But then it isn't just online sites that are collecting data. A few years ago on these pages, I raised an uproar over the warrantless wiretapping George W. Bush's government was engaging in, but as Wikileaks and other whistleblowers, including most importantly, I'd argue, Edward Snowden have certified, the surveillance of everyone, via a variety of increasingly networked means, is widespread. To put it another way, every networked device, as well as every data point collected by any means possible, becomes the means to follow, track, quantify, and monetize our existences. Everything we do that can be tracked can be commoditized, among other things. The most sinister aspects of this panoptic society remain to be reckoned with.

But back to Kobo: as the Guardian report and Prose both point out, e-devices allow publishers to know not only which books readers are purchasing but how slowly or quickly we move through them, whether we finish, and where we bog down. Prose goes on to talk about how this knowledge about readers might become public, but then, assuming the perspective of the published writer that she is, wonders about whether publishers may start using these data when to shape the writing the publish. She writes:
Since Kobo is apparently sharing its data with publishers, writers (and their editors) could soon be facing meetings in which the marketing department informs them that 82 percent of readers lost interest in their memoir on page 272. And if they want to be published in the future, whatever happens on that page should never be repeated. 
Will authors be urged to write the sorts of books that the highest percentage of readers read to the end? Or shorter books? Are readers less likely to finish longer books? We’ll definitely know that. Will mystery writers be scolded (and perhaps dropped from their publishers’ lists) because a third of their fans didn’t even stick around long to enough to learn who committed the murder? Or, given the apparent lack of correlation between books that are bought and books that are finished, will this information ultimately fail to interest publishers, whose profits have, it seems, been ultimately unaffected by whether or not readers persevere to the final pages? 
Other than Kobo, it appears most publishers are not (yet) willing to share the full data they have been collecting, but an earlier article along these lines made me wonder about not only about how publishers and readers might respond, which is the ultimate focus of Prose's article, but rather, within a specular regime of surveillance of writers' aesthetic choices how writers ourselves might start to respond as the data haul increases and we have an ever clearer picture of how readers are moving through books. (This also may be of great interest to the big data researchers now active in literary studies.) Publishers, agents and editors already push fiction and nonfiction writers toward certain themes and topics, as well as towards certain styles of writing that have proved, at least by empirical standards, to result in books that readers will purchase, whether they read them all the way through or not. With this new data, analogous to how we modify our behavior (or don't) based on the expectation of widespread surveillance, might some of us start to make even more specific aesthetic decisions based on the data, aware that it's always being collected and will be shared with us?

As things already stand most authors, whose work draws upon the prevailing discourses, frameworks, ideas, and rules of the era in which we are writing, already grasp the parameters for readership and publication, but this is often intuitive, with some recourse to empiricism. For example, most writers know an 800-page novel is going to be harder to sell than one that's 400 pages, though the example of Tartt, Foster Wallace, Catton, and others suggests that it's not impossible. Also, most writers know that language that is too baroque, too ornate, too lyrical, to subtle, and so no, will repel most, though not all, readers off, although the example of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, to give one fairly recent example, suggests that the right writer can write in a prose as finely wrought as that found in the Bible or Shakespeare's plays, and still sell books. (And that McCarthy novel is, I would argue, significantly more simple in its language than an earlier book of his, like Blood Meridian.) Most writers know that certain genres, and the conventions embedded within them--romance, mystery,  horror, science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy, etc.--sell far more than realist literary fiction, though there are authors who successfully, in aesthetic and market terms, blend and bend all of these genres.

If an emerging or even established fiction writer, to take one example, not only wants to get her work into print, but to have readers engage with it and finish it, however, awareness of these data, let alone the specific data points assembled in descriptive--or prescriptive and proscriptive form--might begin to function like a template or paint-by-numbers guide. How to write? Shorter sentences and paragraphs; stock characters (young, upper middle class, physically abled, white) with certain winning descriptors (the default "blond(e)" or "sun-kissed"); prose so simple and shorn of rhetorical devices a second grader could read it without breaking a sweat; rigid Aristotelianism in terms of form; faster pacing; muted, middle-of-the-road politics; boilerplate, normative sexualities; and so forth. You could call this "e-data aesthetics," I suppose, and in some cases a writer may feel it benefits her work aesthetically. For others, of course, it could prove problematic, on multiple levels. If you know readers in general do not like complex syntax, to much figuration, and complex characters, but you are drawn to write such things, will you change to please (and gain?) readers?

These days such questions may appear farfetched, but you need only look at the increasingly rigid, money-driven template Hollywood employs with regard to mainstream filmmaking to recognize that once enough writers proceed from such premises, it will change writing dramatically. It may help certain writers reach a level of competency, but it may harm the talents and aims of others. This is not to say that won't be other mechanisms, including forms of technology, social and cultural attitudes, as well as economic criteria, and so forth, at play, that determine what people are writing, but "e-data aesthetics" are something we might want to start thinking a bit more about, since the data are only growing and the means to aggregate them are steadily growing too.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Justice Carlton Reeves on the Death of James Craig Anderson

James Craig Anderson
(Justice for James Craig
Anderson via Facebook)
At her Hullabaloo blogsite, Digby posted the remarks Justice Carlton Reeves, the second African American to serve on the federal bench in Mississippi when he was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010, delivered when he passed down sentences against three young white men who were part of a larger group that brutally beat and ran over a black man, James Craig Anderson, in Jackson, Misssissippi, in 2011. Justice Reeves gives an excellent overview of the racially motivated hatred that still plagues the US, so following Digby's lead, I am reproducing a sizable chunk of his commentary from the bench. I recommend reading the whole thing.
One of my former history professors, Dennis Mitchell, recently released a history book entitled, A New History of Mississippi. “Mississippi,” he says, “is a place and a state of mind. The name evokes strong reactions from those who live here and from those who do not, but who think they know something about its people and their past.” Because of its past, as described by Anthony Walton in his book, Mississippi: An American Journey, Mississippi “can be considered one of the most prominent scars on the map” of these United States. Walton goes on to explain that “there is something different about Mississippi; something almost unspeakably primal and vicious; something savage unleashed there that has yet to come to rest.” To prove his point, he notes that, “[o]f the 40 martyrs whose names are inscribed in the national Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL, 19 were killed in Mississippi.” “How was it,” Walton asks, “that half who died did so in one state?” — My Mississippi, Your Mississippi and Our Mississippi.
Mississippi has expressed its savagery in a number of ways throughout its history — slavery being the cruelest example, but a close second being Mississippi’s infatuation with lynchings. Lynchings were prevalent, prominent and participatory. A lynching was a public ritual — even carnival-like — within many states in our great nation. While other States engaged in these atrocities, those in the deep south took a leadership role, especially that scar on the map of America — those 82 counties between the Tennessee line and the Gulf of Mexico and bordered by Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama.
Vivid accounts of brutal and terrifying lynchings in Mississippi are chronicled in various sources: Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynching and Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, just to name two. But I note that today, the Equal Justice Initiative released Lynching in America: Confronting the Terror of of Racial Terror; apparently, it too is a must-read. 
In Without Sanctuary, historian Leon Litwack writes that between 1882 and 1968 an estimated 4,742 Blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs.1 The impact this campaign of terror had on black families is impossible to explain so many years later. That number contrasts with the 1,401 prisoners who have been executed legally in the United States since 1976.2 In modern terms, that number represents more than those killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom3 and more than twice the number of American casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom4 — the Afghanistan conflict. Turning to home, this number also represents 1,700 more than who were killed on 9/11.5 Those who died at the hands of mobs, Litwack notes, some were the victims of “legal” lynchings — having been accused of a crime, subjected to a “speedy” trial and even speedier execution. Some were victims of private white violence and some were merely the victims of “Nigger hunts” — murdered by a variety of means in isolated rural sections and dumped into rivers and creeks. “Back in those days,” according to black Mississippians describing the violence of the 1930’s, “to kill a Negro wasn’t nothing. It was like killing a chicken or killing a snake. The whites would say, ‘Niggers jest supposed to die, ain’t no damn good anyway — so jest go an’ kill ’em.’ . . . They had to have a license to kill anything but a Nigger. We was always in season.”6 Said one white Mississippian, “A white man ain’t a-going to be able to live in this country if we let niggers start getting biggity.”7 And, even when lynchings had decreased in and around Oxford, one white resident told a visitor of the reaffirming quality of lynchings: “It’s about time to have another [one],” he explained, “[w]hen the niggers get so that they are afraid of being lynched, it is time to put the fear in them.”8 
How could hate, fear or whatever it was that transformed genteel, God-fearing, God-loving Mississippians into mindless murderers and sadistic torturers? I ask that same question about the events which bring us together on this day. Those crimes of the past as well as these have so damaged the psyche and reputation of this great State.

Mississippi soil has been stained with the blood of folk whose names have become synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement like Emmett Till, Willie McGee, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Vernon Dahmer, George W. Lee, Medgar Evers and Mack Charles Parker. But the blood of the lesser-known people like Luther Holbert and his wife,9 Elmo Curl,10 Lloyd Clay,11 John Hartfield,12 Nelse Patton,13 Lamar Smith,14 Clinton Melton,15 Ben Chester White, Wharlest Jackson and countless others, saturates these 48,434 square miles of Mississippi soil. On June 26, 2011, four days short of his 49th birthday, the blood of James Anderson was added to Mississippi’s soil. 
The common denominator of the deaths of these individuals was not their race. It was not that they all were engaged in freedom fighting. It was not that they had been engaged in criminal activity, trumped up or otherwise. No, the common denominator was that the last thing that each of these individuals saw was the inhumanity of racism. The last thing that each felt was the audacity and agony of hate; senseless hate: crippling, maiming them and finally taking away their lives. 
Mississippi has a tortured past, and it has struggled mightily to reinvent itself and become a New Mississippi. New generations have attempted to pull Mississippi from the abyss of moral depravity in which it once so proudly floundered in. Despite much progress and the efforts of the new generations, these three defendants are before me today: Deryl Paul Dedmon, Dylan Wade Butler and John Aaron Rice. They and their coconspirators ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi . . . causing her (our Mississippi) to bleed again. 
Hate comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and from this case, we know it comes in different sexes and ages. A toxic mix of alcohol, foolishness and unadulterated hatred caused these young people to resurrect the nightmarish specter of lynchings and lynch mobs from the Mississippi we long to forget. Like the marauders of ages past, these young folk conspired, planned, and coordinated a plan of attack on certain neighborhoods in the City of Jackson for the sole purpose of harassing, terrorizing, physically assaulting and causing bodily injury to black folk. They punched and kicked them about their bodies — their heads, their faces. They prowled. They came ready to hurt. They used dangerous weapons; they targeted the weak; they recruited and encouraged others to join in the coordinated chaos; and they boasted about their shameful activity. This was a 2011 version of the Nigger hunts. 
Though the media and the public attention of these crimes have been focused almost exclusively on the early morning hours of June 26, 2011, the defendants’ terror campaign is not limited to this one incident. There were many scenes and many actors in this sordid tale which played out over days, weeks, and months. There are unknown victims like the John Doe at the golf course who begged for his life and the John Doe at the service station. Like a lynching, for these young folk going out to “Jafrica” was like a carnival outing. It was funny to them – – an excursion which culminated in the death of innocent, African-American James Craig Anderson. On June 26, 2011, the fun ended.
But even after Anderson’s murder, the conspiracy continued . . . And, only because of a video, which told a different story from that which had been concocted by these defendants, and the investigation of law enforcement — state and federal law enforcement working together — was the truth uncovered. 
What is so disturbing . . . so shocking . . . so numbing . . . is that these Nigger hunts were perpetrated by our children . . . students who live among us . . . educated in our public schools . . . in our private academies . . . students who played football lined up on the same side of scrimmage line with black teammates . . . average students and honor students. Kids who worked during school and in the summers; kids who now had full-time jobs and some of whom were even unemployed. Some were pursuing higher education and the Court believes they each had dreams to pursue. These children were from two-parent homes and some of whom were the children of divorced parents, and yes some even raised by a single parent. No doubt, they all had loving parents and loving families. 
In letters received on his behalf, Dylan Butler, whose outing on the night of June 26 was not his first, has been described as “a fine young man,” “a caring person,” “a well mannered man” who is truly remorseful and wants to move on with his life . . . a very respectful . . . a good man . . . a good person . . . a loveable, kind-hearted teddy bear who stands in front of bullies . . . and who is now ashamed of what he did. Butler’s family is a mixed-race family: for the last 15 years, it has consisted of an African-American step-father and step-sister plus his mother and two sisters. The family, according to the step-father, understandably is “saddened and heart broken.” 
These were everyday students like John Aaron Rice, who got out of his truck, struck James Anderson in the face and kept him occupied until others arrived . . . . Rice was involved in multiple excursions to so-called “Jafrica”, but he, for some time, according to him and his mother, and an African-American friend shared his home address.
And, sadly, Deryl Dedmon, who straddled James Anderson and struck him repeatedly in the face and head with his closed fists. He too was a “normal” young man indistinguishable in so many ways from his peers. Not completely satisfied with the punishment to which he subjected James Anderson, he “deliberately used his vehicle to run over James Anderson – – killing him.” Dedmon now acknowledges he was filled with anger. 
I asked the question earlier, but what could transform these young adults into the violent creatures their victims saw? It was nothing the victims did . . . they were not championing any cause . . . political . . . social . . . economic . . . nothing they did . . . not a wolf whistle . . . not a supposed crime . . . nothing they did. There is absolutely no doubt that in the view of the Court the victims were targeted because of their race.
The simple fact is that what turned these children into criminal defendants was their joint decision to act on racial hatred. In the eyes of these defendants (and their coconspirators) the victims were doomed at birth . . . their genetic make-up made them targets.
In the name of White Power, these young folk went to “Jafrica” to “fuck with some niggers!” – – Echos of Mississippi’s past. White Power! Nigger! According to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, that word Nigger is the “universally recognized opprobrium, stigmatizing African-Americans because of their race.”16 It’s the nuclear bomb of racial epithets – – as Farai Chideya has described the term. With their words, with their actions – – “I just ran that Nigger over” – – there is no doubt that these crimes were motivated by the race of the victims. And from his own pen, Dedmon, sadly and regretfully wrote that he did it out of “hatred and bigotry.” 
The Court must respond to one letter it received from one identified as a youth leader in Dylan Butler’s church, a mentor, he says and who describes Dylan as “a good person.” The point that “[t]here are plenty of criminals that deserve to be incarcerated,” is well taken. Your point that Dylan is not one of them — not a criminal . . . is belied by the facts and the law. Dylan was an active participant in this activity, and he deserves to be incarcerated under the law. What these defendants did was ugly . . . it was painful . . . it is sad . . . and it is indeed criminal. 
In the Mississippi we have tried to bury, when there was a jury verdict for those who perpetrated crimes and committed lynchings in the name of WHITE POWER . . . that verdict typically said that the victim died at the hands of persons unknown. The legal and criminal justice system operated with ruthless efficiency in upholding what these defendants would call WHITE POWER. 
Today, though, the criminal justice system (state and federal) has proceeded methodically, patiently and deliberately seeking justice. Today we learned the identities of the persons unknown . . . they stand here publicly today. The sadness of this day also has an element of irony to it: each defendant was escorted into court by agents of an African-American United States Marshal; having been prosecuted by a team of lawyers which includes an African-American AUSA from an office headed by an African-American U.S. Attorney — all under the direction of an African-American Attorney General, for sentencing before a judge who is African-American, whose final act will be to turn over the care and custody of these individuals to the BOP — an agency headed by an African-American. 
Today we take another step away from Mississippi’s tortured past . . . we move farther away from the abyss. Indeed, Mississippi is a place and a state of mind. And those who think they know about her people and her past will also understand that her story has not been completely written. Mississippi has a present and a future. That present and future has promise. As demonstrated by the work of the officers within these state and federal agencies — black and white; male and female, in this Mississippi, they work together to advance the rule of law. Having learned from Mississippi’s inglorious past, these officials know that in advancing the rule of law, the criminal justice system must operate without regard to race, creed or color. This is the strongest way Mississippi can reject those notions — those ideas which brought us here today. 
At their guilty plea hearings, Deryl Paul Dedmon, Dylan Wade Butler and John Aaron Rice told the world exactly what their roles were . . . it is ugly . . . it is painful . . . it is sad . . . it is criminal. 
The Court now sentences the defendants as follows: [The specific sentences are not part of the judge’s prepared remarks.] 
The Court has considered the advisory guidelines computations and the sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). The Court has considered the defendants’ history and characteristics. The Court has also considered unusual circumstances — the extraordinary circumstances — and the peculiar seriousness and gravity of those offenses. I have paid special attention to the plea agreements and the recommendations of the United States. I have read the letters received on behalf of the defendants. I believe these sentences provide just punishment to each of these defendants and equally important, I believe they serve as adequate deterrence to others and I hope that these sentences will discourage others from heading down a similar life-altering path. I have considered the Sentencing Guidelines and the policy statements and the law. These sentences are the result of much thought and deliberation. 
These sentences will not bring back James Craig Anderson nor will they restore the lives they enjoyed prior to 2011. The Court knows that James Anderson’s mother, who is now 89 years old, lived through the horrors of the Old Mississippi, and the Court hopes that she and her family can find peace in knowing that with these sentences, in the New Mississippi, Justice is truly blind. Justice, however, will not be complete unless these defendants use the remainder of their lives to learn from this experience and fully commit to making a positive difference in the New Mississippi. And, finally, the Court wishes that the defendants also can find peace.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Nathaniel Mackey Awarded Bollingen Prize + Poem: Nathaniel Mackey + NBCC Nominees

Nathaniel Mackey
The Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, administered by the Yale University's Beinecke Library, is one of the most prestigious awards of its kind. Since its initiation in 1948 by the Library of Congress, in a firestorm of controversy because of the inaugural winner, avowed fascist and bedrock Modernist Ezra Pound, it has recognized many of the US's most important and innovative poets. The Bollingen shifted to its home at Yale by 1949, and originally was conferred on a yearly basis until 1962, when it switched to a biennial calendar, in some years honoring two poets at the same time. Throughout its history nearly all the honored poets have been white and the overwhelming majority male, and this has mostly remained the case, though some of the country's greatest women poets, including Marianne Moore (1951), May Swenson (1981), Adrienne Rich (2003), and most recently Susan Howe (2011). The sublime Jay Wright was the first African American recipient of the award, which I recognized in my very first post at J's Theater in 2005.

Yesterday another extraordinary, prolific poet--as well as fiction writer and critic--Nathaniel Mackey, has been selected to receive the Bollingen Prize. Mackey first came to wider public notice when he won the National Poetry Series in 1985 for Eroding Witness, but he has been publishing his poetry since 1978's Four for Trane, for a total of nine books or chapbooks of poetry, and a forthcoming tenth volume, Blue Fasa, to be published this year by New Directions. His collection Splay Anthem, also published by New Directions in 2006, received the National Book Award for Poetry. Among the other awards he has received for his work are the Stephen Henderson Award from the African American Literature and Culture Society, a Whiting Writer's Award in 1993, a Guggenheim fellowship in 2010, and the Ruth Lilly Prize from the Poetry Foundation in 2014. In 2001, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, serving until 2006. He currently is Reynolds Price Professor at Duke University, and has for decades published the literary journal Hambone.

Nearly all of the works since Eroding Witness can be read as constituting a long, serial poem under the rubric of the Song of the Andoumboulou and Mu, combining with consummate artistry cross-cultural strands drawn from African and African American mythological and musical traditions, tuned to a peerless pitch. The ear never errs in Mackey's work; he has a gift for generating an often entrancing music, full of mix and dance, that carries the complex and profound knowledge his lyric imparts. For many years during his long tenure at the University of California-Santa Cruz, Mackey hosted a radio program on local public radio station KUSP, "Tanganyika Strut," that featured African music, and this well of familiarity with the language of music, with song's cadence and power, along with his grasp of multiple literary, philosophical and critical traditions, richly informs the poems' form, texture and content. As the Bollingen Prize committee said of Mackey's poetry:

“Nathaniel Mackey’s decades-long serial work—Songs of the Andoumboulou and Mu—constitutes one of the most important poetic achievements of our time. Outer Pradesh (2014)—jazz-inflected, outward-riding, passionately smart, open, and wise—beautifully continues this ongoing project.”

and, of the 2014 book Outer Pradesh:

“The book’s epigraph is Jean Toomer’s assertion of modernist open-endedness and generic not-belonging: ‘There is no end to ‘out.’’ Mackey applies this endlessly outward-going passage to an ecstatic, exilic experience, as a group of travelers—a ‘philosophical posse’—makes its way across an Indian province. What they and we encounter on this journey is a pre-history embodied by ‘old-time people’ whose songs must be heard. Together we find ourselves within an improvised social continuum that grows larger, stranger, more remote, and more consoling at every turn. Memory becomes a site of social commentary and collective vision. Mackey’s epic of fugitivity forms a stunning meditation on being.”

I must note Mackey's fiction as well; he has published four novels that together constitute another serial project, this time in prose: From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. The first volume, Bedouin Hornbook, published in 1986, went off like a volcano when I first came across it during my Dark Room Collective days. I still have that volume, which I peer into periodically; it is a book that, like its intense and probing companion volumes, From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Bass Cathedral (2008), Atet A. D. (2001), and Djbot Baghostus's Run (1993), could sustain repeated and extended readings--and studies--for years.

Congratulations to a nonpareil writer, Nathaniel Mackey!


Before I post a poem by Nate Mackey, I wanted to offer congratulations to all the writers nominated for this year's National Book Critics Circle Awards, which will be announced on March 12. It is a remarkable lineup, and I can say that I know and admire the work of many of the nominees, and reviewed one of the books, Ian S. McNiven's biography of James Laughlin, a few posts back.

Among this year's honorees, Claudia Rankine, a poet whose work I hold in the highest esteem, was nominated not only in the poetry category, but also in the criticism category for her superlative volume Don't Let Me Be Lonely, which should have received the National Book Award last fall. My  brilliant former Northwestern colleague, Eula Biss, who received the National Book Critics Circle Award a few years ago, was nominated again in the criticism category. Another former Northwestern colleague, Chris Wiman, who was also the editor for many years of Poetry magazine, received a nomination in poetry too, as did Saeed Jones, a dazzlingly talented young poet who graduated from Rutgers-Newark a few years before I started, and Willie Perdomo, a superb poet I've known and read since my early 20s.

Also, the great Toni Morrison, who received the National Book Critics' Circle Award for her 1977 novel The Song of Solomon, will receive the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Congratulations to Claudia, Christian, Eula, Rasheed, Willie, and all the other nominees!

Blake Bailey, “The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait” (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Roz Chast, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” (Bloomsbury)
Lacy M. Johnson, “The Other Side” (Tin House)
Gary Shteyngart, “Little Failure” (Random House)
Meline Toumani, “There Was and There Was Not” (Metropolitan Books)

Ezra Greenspan, “William Wells Brown” (W.W. Norton & Co.)
S.C. Gwynne, “Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson” (Scribner)
John Lahr, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh” (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Ian S. MacNiven, “Literchoor Is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Miriam Pawel, “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” (Bloomsbury)

Eula Biss, “On Immunity: An Inoculation” (Graywolf Press)
Vikram Chandra, “Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty” (Graywolf Press)
Claudia Rankine, “Citizen: An American Lyric” (Graywolf Press)
Lynne Tillman, “What Would Lynne Tillman Do?” (Red Lemonade)
Ellen Willis, “The Essential Ellen Willis,” edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (University of Minnesota Press)

Rabih Alameddine, “An Unnecessary Woman” (Grove Press)
Marlon James, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (Riverhead Books)
Lily King, “Euphoria” (Atlantic Monthly Press)
Chang-rae Lee, “On Such a Full Sea” (Riverhead Books)
Marilynne Robinson, “Lila” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

David Brion Davis, “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation” (Alfred A. Knopf)
Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book” (Pantheon)
Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” (Henry Holt & Co.)
Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press)
Hector Tobar, “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Saeed Jones, “Prelude to Bruise” (Coffee House Press)
Willie Perdomo, “The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon” (Penguin Books)
Claudia Rankine, “Citizen: An American Lyric” (Graywolf Press)
Christian Wiman, “Once in the West” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Jake Adam York, “Abide” (Southern Illinois University Press)

Alexandra Schwartz

Charles Finch
B.K. Fischer
Benjamin Moser
Lisa Russ Spaar

Toni Morrison

JOHN LEONARD PRIZE Phil Klay, Redeployment (Penguin Press)


A now, a poem by Nathaniel Mackey:

-ring of the well-                        

Fray was the name where we came
to next. Might’ve been a place,
might not’ve been a place but
we were there, came to it
than we could se... Come to
so soon, it was a name we stuck
pins in hoping we’d stay. Stray
was all we ended up with. Spar
was another name we heard
went by... Rasp we also heard it
called...          Came to it sooner
than we could see but soon enough
saw we were there. Some who’d
come before us called it Bray...

Sound’s own principality it was, a
pocket of air flexed mouthlike,
meaning’s mime and regret, a squib of
something said, so intent it
seemed. At our backs a blown
bamboo flute, trapic remnant,
Coast reconnoiter come up empty
but for that,          a first, forgotten
warble trafficked in again even so,
mango seed’s reminder sent to what
end we’d eventually see...

                              We had
Come thru there before we were
told. Others claiming to be us had
come thru... The ubiquitous two lay
bound in cloth come down from on
hoping it so, twist of their raiment

integument, emollient feel for what
might not have been there. Head in the
clouds he’d have said of himself,
have said elsewhere, his to be above and
below, not know or say, hers to be
alibi, elegy otherwise known...

have said elsernrheren

Above and below, limbo what fabric
intervened. Limbo the bending they moved
in between. Limbo the book of
bent knee... Antiphonal thread
attended by thread. Keening string
by thrum, inwardness, netherness...
strings tied their hair high, limbo
the headrags they wore... The admission
of cloth that it was cover, what
was imminent out of reach,          given
went for real, unreal,                                          

“Song of the Andoumboulou: 50” from Splay Anthem by Nathaniel Mackey, copyright © 2006 by Nathaniel Mackey. New Directions Publishing Corp., all rights reserved.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Black History Month/Langston Hughes Day + Poems by Langston Hughes

February 1 always marks the start of US Black History Month, as well as the birthday of one of the greatest poets this country gave the wider world, James Langston Mercer Hughes (1902-1967). I think I've alternated in the past by celebrating one or the other, but today, in tribute to the month and to Hughes, here are a few of his poems, all taken from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad and David E. Roessel, Editors (New York: Vintage, 1995).

The first is a poem drawn from Hughes's time on the sea; Sekondi, part of Sekondi-Takoradi, is a port city in Ghana. Note the ironic play on fog and the swift punchline-like turn at the poem's end.


Singing black boatmen
An August morning
In the thick white fog at Sekondi
Coming out to take cargo
From anchored alien ships,
You do not know the fog
We strange so-civilized ones
Sail in always.


Here are three queer poems drawn from Hughes's collections up to 1936. I reread all the poems in these volumes in preparation for my story "Blues," which involves a (fictional?) meeting between Hughes and the Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia, who had already translated some of Hughes' work into Spanish.

In his first three or so collections, Hughes has, among a wide array of poems in which a male voice addresses a female beloved; a female voice addresses or speaks of a male beloved; and gender-ambiguous poems, many invoke nocturnal imagery (because we all know what goes on in the dark).


Lovely, dark, and lonely one,
Bare your bosom to the sun.
Do not be afraid of light,
You who are a child of night.

Open wide your arms to life,
Whirl in the wind of pain and strife,
Face the wall with the dark, closed gate,
Beat with bare, brown fists--
And wait.


Let us sing the night together,

I love you.

The Harlem roof-tops
Moon is shining.
Night sky is blue.
Stars are great drops
Of golden dew.

Down the street
a band is playing
I love you.

Come, let us roam the night together


Desire to us
Was like a double death,
Swift dying
Of our mingled breath,
Of an unknown strange perfume
Between us quickly
In a naked


Lastly, Hughes was a poet who did not shy away from political and social commentary, but he had a gift for figuring out how to express it without it (for the most part) sounding like propaganda. Part of his success hinges on his use of humor, part on his careful use of rhyme, rhetoric and rhythm, part on his inclusion of vernacular and the viewpoint of the subaltern, and part on his skillful deployment of irony. The parodic tone and collage quality here point in the direction of post-modernism.

"Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria" appeared in 1931 in New Masses magazine, and later in Hughes's aubiography, The Big Sea, and is considered a masterpiece of Popular Front aesthetics. I checked the Inflation Calculator, and $10,000/year in 1931 would equal $155,747.37/year in 2014 dollars. That would come to about $12,978/month, which, it turns out, was about the price of the lowest end rentals in the Waldorf Towers in 2011 (I can only imagine that it has risen by several thousand dollars as the price of high-end real estate keeps rising.) To put it another way, Hughes was prescient, and not for the first time!



All you families put out in the street
   Apartments in the Towers are only $10,000 a year. (Three
   rooms and two baths.) Move in there until times get good,
   and you can do better. $10,000 are about the same
   to you, aren't they?
Who cares about money with a wife and kids homeless, and no-
   body in the family working? Wouldn't a duplex high above
   the street be grand, with a view of the richest city in the
   world at your nose?
"A lease, if you prefer, or an arrangement terminable at will."

All poems Copyright © Estate of Langston Hughes, 1995, 2015. All rights reserved.