Bad Men: Creative Touchstones of Black Writers

By Howard Rambsy, II

Charlottesville University of Virginia Press | 2020.

Reviewed by Jerry Ward

Howard Rambsy's first book, The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), examined many aspects of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic Movement and gave special attention to "publishing venues and editorial practices [as] the principle connectors in the far-reaching transmission of poetry during the black arts era."

Since 2011, Rambsy has used his website Cultural Front (www.culturalfront.org) as a mega-notebook for information on such items as:

The wealth of information in Cultural Front has inspired many critical thinkers to pursue new scholarly projects; it has also served as the source of Rambsy's authority and his being esteemed by his peers.

Rambsy makes compelling speculations about pedagogical change necessitated by trends in African American literary and cultural arenas. His gathering of data as empirical evidence of how cultural domains function is impressive. If there is a weak spot in his method, it is a tendency to make hasty albeit tentative conclusions without scrutinizing the data. Astute readers get the point quickly. The strength of his efforts, on the other hand, exists in his sketching out a needed sociology of African American literature, in his being a pioneering scholar activist.

While parts of Bad Men: Creative Touchstones of Black Writers are grounded in his first book, his second book deals mainly with works produced since 2000. Rambsy uses quite general assumptions regarding ethnic tastes as he makes a case for inquiry about individual writers and how use of "bad men/bad boys" as foci for critique ordains a mixing of qualitative and quantitative procedures.

He is fully aware of how vexed interdisciplinary studies can be, and he makes a clear statement about the difficulty of joining literary study with creativity research conducted in the social sciences. Nevertheless, he gives us a fine illustration of how “adopting concepts such as ‘creative domains’ and ‘problem finding’ from creativity research could enhance our understanding of processes and inventiveness of black writers.”

“Rebellious or disobedient black male characters and historical figures,” Rambsy argues, “often showcase racial problems that stimulate African American writers to address a range of pertinent issues in original ways.”

However much one agrees with Rambsy, intellectual integrity demands careful thinking about the range of pejorative and complimentary meanings covered by the term “bad men.” The term "bad men" is super-slippery.

One must be cold in struggling with ideas about American violence directed against black people, about the concept of the heroic, and about ugliness and pain as they challenge us in the study of cultural domains and the practices of everyday life. It is no easy matter to sort out “moral bad men” who possess commendable consciousness about the need to combat American racism by any means available and “immoral or amoral bad men” who are often applauded for blatant criminality.

The task is made exceptionally difficult if one tries to name the value “bad men/boys” have in the aftermath of the obscene murder of George Floyd and the long history of murdering black women and men that is ordained by the racial contract that prevails in the United States.

One must ask, for the sake of adequate cultural explanation, whether “bad men” as creative touchstones for writers and other artists are weapons to decimate racism and racists, or psychological defense mechanisms to disguise a suspected futility in endlessly speaking truth to entrenched inequity.

Like a number of current scholars who bravely expose the vernacular hypocrisy and tyranny of academic discourses regarding American political, racial, and cultural histories, Rambsy has embraced his own version of a pedagogy of the oppressed to clear pathways into a future. He provides essential guidelines, but readers are encouraged to make independent discoveries in negotiation with Rambsy’s arguments. He is aware the bane of scholarly thinking is the delusion of having arrived at an answer.

The conversational organization of the book maximizes readability. The three chapters of Part 1 focus on how Kevin Young, Tyehimba Jess, and Adrian Matejka endow their writings with bad men, on ex-slaves as muses, and on characters in literature who are alleged to be race traitors.

Part 2 shifts attention to the depiction of black boys in Aaron McGruder’s famed Boondocks comic strip and the significant work Trymaine Lee and Ta-Nehisi Coates in writing about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

Rambsy concludes with optimism, because he believes “we can invigorate literary studies by examining the works of black writers utilizing concepts such as problem finding, domains, and productivity. So many wonderful discoveries await us at the crossroads of African American literary studies and creativity research.”

For students and scholars who engage in literary and cultural studies, Bad Men: Creative Touchstones of Black Writers is required reading.

Jerry Ward is an occasional writer for Neworld Review

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