Dark Reflections Redux

 

Back in 2007 I reviewed Samuel R. Delany’s Dark Reflections for the GC Advocate. Dark Reflections went out of print later that year when it’s publisher, Carroll & Graf, was acquired by another company and then dissolved, which turns out to be an oddly relevant development for a novel about the precarious nature of publishing and the writing life. Thankfully, Dover Books has released an updated and revised edition of Dark Reflections in 2016.  I decided to write about this new version of the novel from the perspective of race and literary awards for The New Inquiry.

if you haven’t seen it, I also recommend Matthew Cheney’s extensive review essay on Dark Reflections in LA Review of Books.

Jon-Christian Suggs (1940-2016)

jcs

Jon-Christian Suggs, 2016. In front of Self-Portrait by Edward Hopper at the Whitney Museum of American Art

(These remarks were delivered at the memorial service for Jon-Christian Suggs held at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY on Thursday, September 8, 2016.)

I wanted to share a few words, inadequate though they may be, about what Chris meant to me, because he meant so much to me and was a fixture in my life for the past 13 years, and I know that it will take the rest of my life to pay forward even a measure of the kindness and generosity that he showed to me and my colleagues and friends.

The last time I saw Chris was earlier this year, on a cool April evening at the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, in a session for the Gotham Center Seminar where he was presenting on his research project about Hannah Elias, a little known black businesswoman in early 20th century New York. Chris was as knowledgeable and witty as ever in his presentation. Now that I know he was working on that unfinished research project in the last months of his life, I find it fitting that this was the last place I saw him –  in a library in New York, sharing his knowledge with others. I’ll always remember him as a scholar and a gentleman to the end.

All of us here know that Chris was a student and teacher of African-American history and literature. I emphasize student and teacher because inasmuch as he was a master teacher of literature, he also maintained an inquisitive spirit, searching out new trends in the field.  A few days ago I searched his name in my email inbox and came across an old thread from two years ago on the Africana Studies listserv where he asked us about the best African-American novels published in the 21st century thus far, and then compiled a list of the suggestions we all made. You already know that his book Whispered Consolations is an important scholarly contribution to the fields of law and literature and African-American studies. But what you must also know about Chris is that unlike some of his colleagues in this profession, for whom African-American studies is merely a “frame” or a “trope,” or a convenient subfield with which to leverage their prospects for jobs and tenure, Chris did this work because he cared deeply about the lives of black people, and he was always a supportive and encouraging mentor to his black students, recognizing the particular challenges that we face.

In a season where there’s a lot of talk about how economic insecurity and racial grievances are driving certain Americans into the arms of a certain demagogue, I just need to remind you that Chris grew up in Louisiana — in poor, white, rural Louisiana — and that he served his country in Vietnam (however conflicted he felt about that service later), and that he recognized that anyone who claims to care about liberty, and anyone who’s talking about government tyranny and repression had better be concerned about the lives of those who have actually lived with the government’s boot on their necks for ALL two hundred forty years of this nation’s existence.  Chris devoted himself to the study of African-American literature, and championed the work of little known and neglected black writers, and passed his knowledge on to the thousands of undergraduate students who he taught here at John Jay, and the dozens of scholars he mentored at the Graduate Center, ushering us into the ranks of the academy.

I hated to see the news of his passing, but I think he would appreciate the fact that I spent that very week writing about Sutton Griggs, an author who I first discovered in his African-American Legal Novel Class. I know that any scholarship that I am able to produce will always have Chris’s fingerprints on it. I’m grateful that I had him on my orals and dissertation committees. I’m grateful that he was there with me the evening of my defense celebrating with drinks at O’Reilly’s. I am grateful that I got a chance to tell him about the research that I’m working on now, and that I got a chance to thank him for helping to make it happen.

I can personally say that I owe much of my academic career to his guidance and support through the years.  During the trying months when I wasn’t sure if I’d get through the program, when I felt like giving up, he was always a steady hand of encouragement, and I know there are so many people in this room with stories just like mine.

I want to send out my sincerest condolences to Nan, and all his family and friends who knew him even better than I did and loved him.

When I heard that he had left us, I immediately thought of this short, poignant poem by Langston Hughes that resonated with the loss that I felt at that moment.

I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began,—
I loved my friend.*

 


Whispered Consolations: Law and Narrative in African American Life by Jon-Christian Suggs.

Read some of Chris’s autobiographical writing, and other thoughts, on his blog With My Weight on My Elbows.

Contribute to the Jon-Christian Suggs Memorial Scholarship in Literature and Law at John Jay College:  https://jjaycuny.thankyou4caring.org/suggs.

* “Poem [2] (To FS)” by Langston Hughes, from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Knopf, 2004.

Singing Him Up: The Death and Afterlife of Henry Dumas 

visiblemandumas

“Henry Dumas was killed by police in a case of ‘mistaken identity’.”  So goes the explanation that has been reproduced in essays and sketches about him, and even in the blurbs on the back of his posthumously published books. It’s not clear how the “mistaken identity” explanation came about, but it is inaccurate. The actual circumstances of Dumas’s death remain murky, and it is likely that the case will never be completely solved.  However, Jeffrey Leak’s biography of Dumas gives us the most lucid account of that night so far.

Henry Dumas was shot and killed in Harlem by a New York City Transit Policeman on the platform of the 125th street station at Lenox Avenue on the evening of May 23, 1968, just seven weeks after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  According to Leak, the only public police account of the incident came from an article in the Amsterdam News which includes a statement by the officer who shot Dumas. In that account, the officer says that he was breaking up an altercation between another man and Dumas, when Dumas became belligerent and attacked him.  Dumas’s friend Lois Silber later stated in an interview that when she went to identify his body at the morgue, a police officer told her that Dumas was carrying a knife.  The New York City Transit Police Department merged with the NYPD in 1995, and with that organizational merger many of the transit police records were destroyed.  With the loss of those records, and no other witness accounts of the incident, there is no way to know if any weapon was actually recovered. According to Leak, Dumas had begun carrying a pistol for protection, particularly in the wake of King’s murder in April, but he had left it home that night.  In 1984 a SUNY student writing a thesis on Dumas contacted the officer, and was surprised that he was willing to speak about the incident.  As with so many police shootings of unarmed citizens, the explanation seems to be that “mistakes were made.”  The officer felt he was a rookie caught in a volatile situation that he was not prepared for.  But even if we accept his “innocence,” the fact that such mistakes always seem to happen to the poor, to the disenfranchised, to black and brown people in ghettos, speaks to the systemic problems with policing that transcend individual morality. (For more on the incident see pages 145-153 in Visible Man)

As more people discover Dumas’s work, there will certainly be interest in the circumstances of his death. Perhaps the investigation that Leak has done will lead to an even clearer narrative of what happened that night. But hopefully this interest in Dumas will also lead to more engagement with his writing as well.

In Play Ebony Play Ivory, a collection of Dumas poems compiled and edited by Eugene Redmond, the last section is titled “Saba (Selections),” a series of poems all titled Saba, some with subtitles added such as “Saba: Shadow and Act” and “Saba: Black Paladins” and “Saba of the Sun and Snow.”

The title “Saba” might refer to the Caribbean Island colonized by the Dutch, or to the source of that island’s name, the biblical Queen of Sheba, or both.  In either case the poems are another example of Dumas’s engagement with Afrocentric history, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and African-centered spiritual practices, and their influence on his art.  An excerpt from one of the poems titled “Shaba” reads:

She was a fighter with shreds of flesh
beneath her nails
light would break upon her face
and call her smile a song of war
She was a lone island

The following poem is one of the most powerful in the Saba sequence, a poem that seems to speak directly to the current resurgence of interest in Dumas’s work:

Saba

we weep that our heroes have died in our memories
our historians and preachers
remind us that we had warriors
who fought the boot of the devils
who came in Jesus ships from Europe

we weep that our forefathers kneeled
and let the knife take our tongues

we weep that no one weeps for us
what is this?
are we what we are?
listen! we are not what we will be
what is this weeping and screaming?

a people cannot create the real hero
until they create the real hero
not by mirrors or masks or muscles
but by men the soil is nourished
and one day
we will not weep but sing him
up

(For more on Dumas see “Dry Bones Breathe” in The New Inquiry.)

Dumas, Henry.  Play Ebony Play Ivory. New York: Random House, 1974.

Leak, Jeffery. Visible Man:  The Life of Henry Dumas.  Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014.

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

Through-The-Valley-of-the-Nest-of-Spiders

This is the abstract is for a presentation that I will be giving at the upcoming “Navigating Normativity” Queer Studies Conference at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.  I’m posting this version even though I’ve modified the talk a bit since this abstract was submitted.  This is a work in progress that I will also be presenting at another conference soon, so I’ll be posting more about it later.

I’m kicking myself for having added yet another project into the middle of a busy and quite stressful month, but I have absolutely no arguments with reading, thinking through, and talking about this fascinating novel again.

“The Splendor and the Misery: Reading the Body in Samuel Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.”   

The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, was the proposed title of a sequel to Samuel R. Delany’s popular 1984 science fiction novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a sequel which thus far has never materialized. (The unpublished, perhaps non-existent, book is legendary among devoted Delany fans.)  Inspired by the title of that mythic text, I’d like to explore “the splendor and misery of bodies” in Samuel R. Delany’s writing, particularly in his 804 page pornographic novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, published in 2012. Like other Delany novels, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is full of coarse talk about the body. Delany’s writings are often filled with anecdotes about his own sexual experiences with a variety of people whose bodies fall outside of heterosexual norms, and outside of certain normative gay beauty ideals (of youth, thinness, whiteness, symmetry, ability).  The characters represented in his fiction span a broad range of races, nationalities, ages, sizes, genders and abilities. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is full of provocative depictions of race and sexuality, and the characters in the novel often talk about and pursue their desires for racial difference, and use racial epithets as a part of sexual play. One way in which this novel diverges from his prior body of work is that it is not set in the city, but in the rural American South, among a small community in Georgia comprised of black gay men and their admirers known as The Dump, a community founded and organized by a black gay millionaire named Robert Kyle III.  In this presentation I will explore the way that Delany writes about the philosophy of embodiment and the utopian/anti-utopian/dystopian/heterotopian ways of managing and regulating bodies that are depicted and interrogated in his work. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is particularly inventive in Delany’s imagining of a community with formal institutions and services geared toward queer people with active sexual lives, and which provide employment and housing for blue collar gay workers.

Obsolete? The Novel and the University in the Digital Age

Last semester’s course on Contemporary American Fiction turned out to be a success, with good effort and engagement from the students and interesting conversations each week.  It was a “hybrid” course, my first time teaching in such a format. The course met in person Mondays, and online on Wednesdays.  I was skeptical, but the format actually turned out to be fruitful and relevant to the subject matter of the course, which I gave the subtitle “Obsolete?: The University and the Novel in the Digital Age.” The course itself turned into a mixture of short-form digital writing (with discussion board conversations each week), long-form reading (five novels altogether) and more polished, formal writing (with short review essays due every two weeks).

With the online discussions on Wednesday it was obvious some students were just phoning it in with perfunctory responses to the first comments they came across. But I let that slide. Just putting some words together each week was good practice in developing a discipline of reading and writing.  Serious writers learn to write consistently whether they “feel like it” or not, and I think that’s what they were learning to do with the weekly assignments.

So I wanted to record a few thoughts about the books we covered:

anxietyofobs

The Anxiety of Obsolescence –  I assigned this book to add some more theoretically dense critical writing than the students might be used to.  Fitzpatrick’s book was one of the main texts I had in mind for this course when I designed it.  The very form of the text that we used, Fitzpatrick’s own online version of the book, is a clever experiment in merging theory and practice.  Much has changed since 2006 when it was published.  The collapse of bookstores, even the corporate chains, and budget cuts to libraries shows that fears of obsolescence are not entirely unfounded.  But I liked the way that Fitzpatrick unpacks some of the cultural meaning behind declarations of obsolescence; mainly that they often come from gatekeepers (yes, often straight white men) who find their power and influence being challenged by the hordes of commoners. Again, the  Ferguson protests are another instructive moment. Others have already written about the way that women, and women of color specifically, have wielded social media and used it in interesting ways politically and intellectually, and how they have often encountered vicious responses in these digital spaces.  There’s so much hostility directed at women who have followings, so much resentment that certain women are being listened to and read, and so much of that male anger is driven by the assumption that these women do not deserve such platforms, and that merely reading and listening to them is somehow culturally and politically dangerous, and that therefore these women must be put back in their places and silenced.  Fitzpatrick’s book is a welcome corrective to the reactionaries who warn us that new digital forms are destroying literature, journalism, or intellectual discourse, and she provides a convincing analysis of the sinister cultural politics lurking in those critiques.

realityhunger

Reality Hunger – I know Shields’s book is a gimmick, and there might be other theorists who I could have assigned to get the same critiques into the conversation, but mostly the book was an effective and engaging introduction to some basic ideas about copyright, intellectual property, digital reproduction and writing.  The students mostly resisted his skepticism about the form of the novel.  As wired as they are, they are also not averse to all long form reading.  After all, this is the generation raised on Harry Potter, and raised on the revived interest in say, Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia.  Those examples of fantasy writing speak to Shields’s biggest blind spots.  Yes, reality-TV and mockumentary and memoir are prevalent forms, and he gives some sound arguments (by cobbling together the words of others) about why these forms dominate in a digital culture.  But the continued popularity of science fiction, fantasy, vampire, romance and supernatural novels (among other “genre” writing) seems to suggest that there’s still a thirst for fantastic fiction in literary form, and that the generation of social media seems to be interested in more than thinly veiled autobiographical forms of their own lives.

white-noise1

White Noise –   I have written about this novel before (“Reading DeLillo’s White Noise in the Summer of Ferguson”) and I thought what I put down about was pretty darned perceptive especially in light of the Black Friday protests that came about later. (Though I didn’t take the argument far enough.)  Many people have complained about the venal consumerism of Black Friday, the sacrilegious corporatization of a sacred Christian holiday, and the awful spectacle of people being trampled to death for cheap electronics.  Despite all of this, it was last year in 2014 that we really saw the first substantial pushback against the gluttonous consumption of the Christmas shopping season.  Black activism did that. And the Ferguson movement brought into stark relief the ways that American consumerism can (and will) be weaponized against movements for justice.

thehumanstain

The Human Stain – Reading this book again deepened my appreciation for Philip Roth’s writing.  Yeah, yeah, I know he’s a misogynist prick and I’m not supposed to like him. Yeah,  I watched the PBS documentary Philip Roth Unmasked a couple of years ago when it came out and it occurred to me how many male novelists he cited as exemplars of the form.  But he is undoubtedly important, and much of his writing is genuinely insightful.  Even from a feminist perspective, a novel like The Dying Animal captures so well the changes that the movement brought to the culture of college campuses.  Clearly Roth did his homework about the African-American experience in The Human Stain, capturing the drama of a black family living on the edge of the color line.  The book also articulated so well that hysteria of the Clinton-Lewinsky moment, a moment, which by the way, fell into the realm of “history” for my students.  (Most of them were too young to remember when that was all going down.)  The discussion board conversation about The Human Stain was one of the best, as we talked about the concept of “passing” and racial identification.  My perception of their comments is that they were indicative of a generation raised on consumerism, and trained in the language of choice.  Their consensus about Coleman Silk’s decision to pass for white was that people should be able to choose to identify however they want.  Nevertheless, I also pushed them to consider the ways in which race is embedded in particular histories of white supremacy and anti-blackness, a history which complicates the seemingly benign concept of “choice.” The idea that there are things we cannot choose seems to offend the sensibilities of the young, but understanding the difference between those identities you can and cannot choose is the beginning of empowerment and understanding.

erasure

Erasure  – I wasn’t sure how this novel would go over, but it turned out to be one of their favorite books.  Their reactions to it were interesting.  The centerpiece of the novel is My Pafology (later retitled Fuck) a satirical novel based on the plot from Richard Wright’s Native Son, and a parody rife with exaggerated caricatures of the black underclass. I was surprised that some of them found the backstory about literary fiction writer Theolonious Ellison less interesting and less funny than My Pafology/Fuck, but I suppose that is precisely the irony that Everett was going for, and maybe that reaction only serves to reaffirm what Everett was writing about in the first place, and shows how brilliant this novel really is. I shared with them some of my own writing on the book, and I think we had a good conversation about minstrelsy and the fraught history of black cultural performance in a white supremacist culture industry.  Last year another of Percival Everett’s academic novels, Glyph was republished by Graywolf Press.  I will be discussing both of these novels at the upcoming NeMLA meeting in Toronto in early May.

onbeauty

On Beauty – This is a novel that really deserved more than two weeks of discussion.  The students struggled to get through it and I’m sure some of them cursed me for assigning it since it was so long, but mostly they seemed to enjoy it.  I admit I was skeptical about this novel after my first reading a few years ago.  Reading it again, however, I saw the beauty and power in Zadie Smith’s writing, and there were so many great passages I wanted to linger over but couldn’t do so in my push to get through. (Full disclosure:  I’m working on a longer piece about it, so I will have several chances to re-read it again.) The book really does dig into and occupy the academic novel genre.  I would not be at all surprised if it turns out Smith read several of them before composing this one.  On Beauty hits all the conventions of the genre, but delivers them in a fresh and even subversive way.  I loved Smith’s beautiful descriptions of the physical geography of academic spaces, and she nails the absurd pettiness of academic politics.  While reading this novel I also read Smith’s compelling new short story published last year “Miss Adele Admist the Corsets” an inventive take on gentrification-era New York told through the story of an aging drag queen. (The full story was temporarily available on the The Telegraph.)

opencitytejucole

Open City –  Well, this was a colossal flop.  They HATED this book.  I have to admit; I miscalculated.  Mainly, I think I let my inner New York historian take over and distort my vision of the novel. One of the things that Cole has been so highly praised for with Open City is the novel’s rich, perceptive take on the geography and history of NYC.  Without that context, yes, a reader might see it as just some book about a dude wandering around, seeing random shit and thinking deep thoughts about it.  I did mention that this was in the tradition of the flâneur, and one student happened to be reading Baudelaire in another class.  Despite the negative reactions to it I’m still glad we read it because Cole provided us with a different approach to the novel.  We listened to this interview with Cole where he described Open City as an “idea-driven” rather than “plot-driven” novel, and that seemed to help clarify things a bit.  They still didn’t like it, but I felt like we got an interesting conversation out of it, and selfishly, I was glad to re-encounter what I still think is a luminous and important piece of 21st century writing.   And pedagogically, I felt it became a useful exercise in how to write intelligently, thoughtfully and fairly about a work one doesn’t like.

Along the way we talked about the politics of higher education, and some conventions of the academic novel, and we read Jeffrey Williams’s article “Teach the University.”  I think we fulfilled that concept of teaching the university in this class, by addressing some of the pertinent issues in higher education in our readings of these novels.

No, I don’t have any grand pronouncements about obsolescence to conclude with, but whatever the outcome, the future of the novel and the university is in the hands of the next generation, and I am not without hope.