but i did this presentation this weekend, was thinking about trying to get it published somewhere
but you know i dont feel like being bothered with inquiries and all that, im trying to get a novel done
so ima jut drop it here and be done with it, i just need someplace to park it online
those of you prefer my tight stylee you welcome to skip it: and you dear regulators have heard it all before:
Arts Speaking Across Worlds: Africa and Poetry in the Delta
Honored to be on a panel with folk I so much respect, convened by Silvio, mi Hermano del Libro. The problem here is that I was told to give you a presentation on Africa and Poetry in the Delta. What I know about poetry anywhere you could lose in a thimble,
Im sure there are African retentions in poetry from the Delta but that’s not my field and no sense in me trying to make myself expert on Delta based poetics and be provocative too in a week or so leadtime, way too much sweat equity out of my summer woodshed for that, so Ima have to translate that into something I know something about, Ima interpert the word poetry liberally.
Delta based fiction I can play with, and if youre talking the iconic poetry of the Delta, the blues, I can play with that a little, but in search of the provocative Ima go artiste on you and take some poetic license.
Basically Ima look at how African tropes have influenced my own literary school and how that plays out in a Delta context, exampling fiction instead of poetry.
I come out of the griotic school of Afroam lit. The griotic school can be traced to the same African roots that infuse the blues, an unbroken line. What we call working in the tradition.
The case for Africas contribution to the AA oral tradition is pretty well established, a direct line of cultural continuity. Also the role that the oral tradition played in keeping an African based sensibility alive in a very hostile cultural environment.
You can trace oral tradition Africanisms through fieldhollers to worksongs to blues lyrics and on into the bluesbased sensibility in Afroam lit, and in particular Memphis based delta lit. What I will call the griotic school.
As many of you know, griot is the linga franca for the traditional African storyteller. This trope is prevalent in African literature around the world, and throughout the Americas, as exampled in the works of folk like Chamoiseau and Danticat. The narrative structures of Wideman and Gayl Jones.
What Toni refers to in Rootedness after explaining how she uses the earth as an afrocentric chorus responding to the action in Tar Baby "Those are ways in which I try to incorporate, into that traditional genre the novel, unorthodox novelistic characteristics-so that it is, in my view, Black, because it uses the characteristics of Black art. . . . I don't regard Black literature as simply books written by Black people, or simply as literature written about Black people, or simply as literature that uses a certain mode of language in which you just sort of drop g's. There is something very special and very identifiable about it and it is my struggle to find that elusive but identifiable style in my books."
The traditional griots performed many cultural functions but the one pertinent to my point is telling the right story at the right time, stories designed to shape tribal responses to evolutional challenges. Rootwork. Cast your vision young hoodoo, as far as you can see, determine the challenges the tribe will face, prepare the tribal soul to meet them.
We talking cultural custodianship now, a sense of responsibility for the health and well being of the host culture.
Consciously griotic, African American literature is passionately concerned with cultural custodianship. As the voice of a culture that has since its inception felt itself under mortal siege, African American literature is fundamentally shamanistic and vitally concerned with communal health and development.
Its most revered figures have pretty much all been engaged artists. Creating the visions without which the people will perish and serving in its mythic heart its ageold griotic function of keeping the culture alive and viable.
August Wilson recounts what he considers his moment of artistic revelation, when in the Fall of 1965 he put on an old 78 rpm, Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jellyroll like Mine by Bessie Smith and says it was a "resurrection and a redemption…the beginning of my consciousness that I was representative of a culture and the carrier of some very valuable antecedents . . . I saw the blues as a cultural response of a nonliterate people whose history and culture were rooted in the oral tradition. The response was to a world that was not of their making…It despised their ethos and refused to even recognize (their) humanity. In such an environment the blues was. . . a spiritual conduit that gave spontaneous expression to the spirit that was locked in combat and devising new strategies for engaging life and enlarging itself. It was a true and articulate literature that was in the forefront of the development of both character and consciousness. I turned my ear, my heart and whatever analytical tools I possessed to embrace this world. I elevated it, rightly or wrongly, to biblical status."
Another African retention in griotic lit is an attempt to elevate the vernacular into a literary language. What Skip Gates calls the speakerly text, text that tries to manifest the oral tradition, the spoken word, as text.
Accordingly, griotic practitioners have attempted to develop a heightened narrative language based on the oral tradition that serves as both literary and sacred language; as both text (personal and cultural expression) and Text (cultural template). Litericizing AfricanAmerican folk language/culture and enhancing its functionality as an instrument of emotional/cultural/literary expression and 21st Century thought and development.
As much music and orally based as it is on conventional literary forms and bearing the tension of Chestnuts halfformal halfdialect narratives, it played out in the battles between Rich Wright and Zora Neale over conventional narration vs dialectwork. - which actually counters my thesis since Deltaborn Rich Wright championed narrative convention and called Floridaborn Zora Neales dialectwork buffoonery but I can live with contradiction if you can. I suspect this is a flexible crowd.
It does however raise the problem in this presentation. How can I posit all this as particular to the Delta, I probably cant but that wont stop me from trying. I claim the griotic is strong in Delta based lit because the Delta is a black cultural stronghold.
That rich black delta mud been fertile ground for Africanisms.
I once had an interviewer ask me how does it feel being part of the mythopoetic tradition of the delta and I had to savor the concept a minute before replying it feels good, damn good. Ever since I have been conscious of representing.
The delta is particularly invested in the custodianship of afroam culture, in part because the delta, birthplace of blues, and jazz and high hoodoo, considers itself some kind of black belt holyground.
This mythwork is evident in the works of Lt Lee of Bealestreet, one of the earliest Memphis based black writers, and his concern not so much w/historical validity as it is mythical validity, as it was with Zora Neale when she conflated the John the Trickster slavetales and the Highjohn the Conqueror root into a returning culture hero.
She wrote her seminal essay on this early in WWII and America still reeling, here America she said, we will lend you the Conqueror.
That attention to mythwork thru the griotic is one of the driving forces in contemporary Memphis based literature. Or the jazzier licks of New Orleans.
Another pertinent African retention in delta literature would be the afrospiritual traditions of the Americas, in particular the hoodoo of Memphis and the voodoo of New Orleans. Hoodoo has played a seminal role in afroam lit from Charles Chesnutts Conjurewoman tales to Zoraneales HJ mythwork to the mumbojumbo of Ishmael reed. Now generally when folk hear hoodoo they thinking slaverytime hoodoo, folk magic hoodoo, spells hells and blackcat bones, but that’s about 100 years out of date. Contemporary hoodoo, high magic hoodoo, aspires to the prophetic. Enhancing the human condition, shaping human destiny. We talking high magic now.
This high hoodoo trope has been most recently manifested in young Memphis writers like the award winning playwright, Katori Hall, novelist Jamey Hatley and influential author/editor, Sheree Thomas, who uses hoodoo and the vernacular as sacred narrative in speculative fiction.
We talking visionary lit now. What Babajohn Killens called being a long distance runner, what I call the long game, shaping generations thru the power of the word. Or at least trying to. When you shaping generations who knows if you win. Who cares. You do the best you can, you let the generations decide. Once read writers while they living are judged by their worst. When you dead by your best. In the griotic tradition every work is a spell designed to shape human destiny, enhance the human condition. On a certain level this is a universal trope of literature: “O life! said the druidic James Joyce, "I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."
In the griotic this is a conscious attempt to ensure the 21st Century viability of African American culture. Forging a narrative instrument worthy of 21st Century nuance, an instrument of literary, political and spiritual redemption.
In the griotic tradition, the word has point and purpose, the word has power. The word is Nommo. A Dogon concept, the power of the word to shape reality. It is incumbent then upon the artist to wield that power responsibly. Your work has to transcend the political, it has to be art, not only art, it has to be great art. Work that matters, work that means something.
Or it will not serve.
Babajohn Killens, the Great Griot Master of Brooklyn, used to tell his students the more important that you have to say the more obligated you are to say it well. In the griotic aesthetic literature is a sacred calling.
Always has been. Always will.
That is all. This spell is done.