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Tradition and the Black Atlantic—Critical Theory in the African Diaspora

by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Basic Civitas, New York | 2010 | ISBN 978-0-465-01410-1 | $23.95 | 205pp

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

henry gates

Within the confines of African American literary theory, Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. is practically peerless.   It’s when the Harvard professor ventures from these precincts that his authority weakens; his expertise turns less formidable.   A good example of this diminution occurred earlier this year when he authored an op-ed piece in the New York Times that set off a chain of reaction from mainly black public intellectuals and activists who felt he had done the reparations movement a gross disservice in his contention that African chiefs and rulers were complicit in the European transatlantic slave trade.  They charged that he tipped the scale much too unfairly.

Many believed that his thesis there, a possible chapter, was a harbinger and a mere pre-pub announcement of his forthcoming book, Tradition and the Black Atlantic—Critical Theory in the African Diaspora, which was mentioned at the end of his article.  But, to some degree of relief, such is not the case, and Dr. Gates aligns his impressive bona fides with at least two other notable scholars who have traversed this rarely discussed intellectual terrain—Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall. In fact, the book is dedicated to Hall, a Jamaican-born, cultural theorist who resides in Ireland.

To Gilroy, Hall’s estimable colleague in the discipline, Gates extends a host of attributions, and well he should since it is Gilroy’s Black Atlantic that paved the way in this complex field of study.

Tradition and the Black Atlantic is not an easy book, which should stand as my most profound understatement.  Unless you are well schooled in Diasporan studies with a tad of modernist palaver, you might consider spending your time acquiring a headache in a more rewarding endeavor.  For the more adventurous, and certainly the most curious among us, prepare for a thicket of unfamiliar concepts and terminology.  I thought I had a reasonably good command of academic jargon, but Skip—and you’ll notice that I refer to him with alternate names given the nature of the review—will send you to the thesaurus with regularity, and sometimes the search for comprehension remains inexplicable.

Let me tease you with a few terms—rhizome, pleonasm, imbrications—that were absolutely baffling and you wonder if Dr. Gates couldn’t have found more familiar synonyms to make the points.  If arcane and difficult language slows the reading, his long exegesis on the importance of Edmund Burke to anti-colonial thought will probably bring it to a screaming halt.  Yes, Burke may be the father of anti-colonialism but it was his children, so to speak, the Nkrumahs, the Lumumbas, the Cabrals, the Mandelas and the Fanons who turned theory into practice and waged the revolutions to bring about change.

Gates devotes an entire chapter to Fanon and it’s somewhat of a return to the book’s first familiar references, those Francophone activists and artists who were at the fulcrum of negritude, particularly Aime Cesaire, Leopold Senghor, Leon Damas, and Jacques Roumain.   His take on Fanon is breathtaking and to some extent the power of his persuasion resumes what he began in the former chapter “Fade to Black,” though you wish he had spent more time on the real Langston Hughes rather than Isaac Julien’s somewhat interpretative film “Looking for Langston.”

And one more point on impetus.  In the Prologue to his opening chapter (a rather strange division), Dr. Gates—and he can be astonishingly brilliant and captivating—subtitles it “The Wright Stuff,” as in Richard Wright.   He recounts the third day of the First International Conference of Negro Writers and Artists, where Wright and James Baldwin are the two African American luminaries among such headliners as Senghor, Cheikh Anta Diop, Alioune Diop (of no kin), Jean Prince-Mars, and Frantz Fanon.   Assembled here in the Sorbonne in Paris in September of 1956, is “practically every major black critical thinker of the age,” Gates observes.   And it’s good that he conditioned this comment because beyond the Francophones are George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, and C.L.R. James who were around at that time, and I wonder if any women of prominence were at the event. 

If the book appears to be a smorgasbord of topics with a narrative that here and there adheres to his theme of comparing the “culture wars” in America in the 1980s with the British Black Arts Movement, it’s because the chapters were written as stand-alone items between 1989 and 1992.   In short, Skip has revisited some of his fugitive pieces and woven them under a fresh rubric.  Following this narrative thread through such a dense subject will challenge even the most informed doctoral candidate in philosophy.

Perhaps the least opaque, least impenetrable chapter is the final one.  Gates offers a timely critique of the current culture wars presently raging during the Obama administrati on.  His analysis resonates with clarity and conviction as he announces that the culture wars—exemplified on the right today by the emergence of the Tea Party and its allies in the media—is a war for the soul of America, no the “war is the soul of America,” Gates corrects.

To be sure, the book is an amalgam of scholarly essays straight from such publications as Critical Inquiry, but two of the chapters, rather than veering toward dissertation territory, cry out for a larger treatment in the more accessible realm of the common, everyday reader.  Over the years Gates has demonstrated his ability to operate in both spheres, but Tradition and the Black Atlantic unfortunately gets too tangled in mangrove and thereby more fit for the seminar than your local reading room.

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The Doctor and the Diva

by Adrienne McDonnell

Pamela Dorman Books (Viking) | 432pp.

Reviewed by Janet Garber

doctor and the diva cover

There have always been women, even dating back to 1903, who have aspired to “Have It All”: husband, children and career.  And not just any old husband, child or career would do.  They want a Rich and Handsome Spouse, an Adaptable, preferably Stowable Child, and an Internationally Acclaimed Career on the their wish lists.  Finding a balance between work and family? Ah, who had time to think about that?

Erika von Kessler, our story’s ravishing heroine, is married to a hunk named Peter, who’s rich from trading textiles internationally, sexy and fit (with a cute butt, we’re told), and extremely adventurous.  He gives her everything he thinks she should have, a lovely townhouse in Boston, a lively social life, and gorgeous gowns and furs.  But here’s the rub: he wants children and she thinks she does too, but none have been forthcoming.  They go to the rounds of fertility specialists (think syringe/turkey baster in terms of technology) and finally are referred to the young Dr. Ravell, a successful obstetrician who just happens to be a single magnet for every restless matron in the Back Bay.  He’s a lovely, well-meaning fellow, but not overly concerned with bioethical issues if they get in the way of his plans or his patients’ desires.

Dr. Ravell quickly unravels the problem through simple sleuthing, then adds a few tangles of his own until we are left with one heck of a ball of yarn.  Without revealing too much of the plot, let’s just say that once Sarah gets her kid, she decides she needs more in her life in order to be fulfilled.  She blithely jettisons the family to pursue her real passion: singing opera.  “God wouldn’t have given me this voice if He didn’t want me to use it,” she haughtily declares as she boards an ocean liner to Italy.

What will happen to her marriage, her increasing infatuation with Dr. Ravell (and vice versa), and her motherless child?  Peter and Dr. Ravell seem awfully fond of each other; they even go on trips to the tropics together – is it too early in history for a threesome?   Could there be some latent homoeroticism in store for readers?   For that, you will have to read the book, and I highly recommend that you do.                  Despite an over-reliance on a soap opera/General Hospital/Calling Dr. Kildare plot that turns a touch maudlin toward the end (just before the happy ending), McDonnell, I believe, intended to aim higher than her material.

She has said the story is a real one, based on a family member’s great-great grandmother’s actual experiences, diaries, and notes.  She has re-imagined this story and artfully populated it with somewhat sympathetic, though deeply flawed characters.  Erika’s dilemmas as she struggles with her musical ambitions vs. her desire to conform to conventional family life and be a mother to her child, will resonate with women readers today. She feels trapped in her role as an early 20th century wife and mother, particularly with a husband who takes a few too many business trips.  She yearns for a bohemian life, sitting in cafes with gay friends, and sipping coffee between her operatic performances.  She has romantic illusions which seem to trump loyalty or love.  We see her as a real woman, not always likable perhaps, certainly self-involved and immature, but what artist isn’t?

Peter is the ultimate businessman, thinking of his marriage as a trade: I give you material goods and as much of my time as I can spare; you fulfill your duties as my spouse and the mother of my child.  He is a realist and attacks his problem with the same frame of mind.  Like Dr. Ravell, whom he genuinely appreciates, he enjoys exploring the wild places of the world and collecting specimens along the way.  In some ways, he’s the most mature and grounded of the characters.

Dr. Ravell is a boy wonder of 30, overly impressed with the promising arc of his medical career, and seemingly incapable of not sabotaging himself.  He sins against convention, medical ethics and friendship, and is quite unperturbed by the consequences of his exile to Trinidad where he plants yaw-yaw trees instead of delivering babies. 

Yet, we are drawn to him because he is a man of heart, putting his patients’ well-being and happiness above all other concerns. He’s foolish, but endearing, as well. Erika remarks that they two are really alike and she’s right.  They both do what they want to do, regardless of the consequences.

The Doctor and the Diva, is beautifully written and McDonnell has an acute eye for lush description, whether of the tassels on a lamp in the corner of the room, the views from the window of a garret in Florence, or the thrill of a buggy ride along a path by the ocean in Trinidad.  She creates appealing, multifaceted characters who set out to get what they want, and when they get it, understanding that this is not a perfect world, they suspect that they will have to pay a price for what they believe in and what they wish for.

McConnell has taught college literature and fiction writing classes in California, and this is her first novel.  She has written a book that is a great read, perfect to take on vacation or to the beach.  I sense there is a more serious book in her waiting to emerge…perhaps next time.

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The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters

by Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar (Editor)

Johns Hopkins University Press | 2010

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

jeffrey ogbar

The Harlem Renaissance has always been an appealing moment in American history, but never more so than in times of economic hardship, when little distraction from uncertainty and dull necessity seem to exist. In a period of contraction and austerity, any flowering of culture serves as a powerful reaffirmation of a society’s value and provides something to counteract the apparent meaninglessness of the daily struggle.

In light of the current recession, Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar’s recent collection of scholarship, The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters, is well timed. One essay in particular, Back to Harlem: Abstract and Everyday Labor during the Harlem Renaissance, by Jacob S. Dorman, strikes a chord in the attention it devotes to “the masses of people who lined [Harlem’s] streets”—the majority of whom faced backbreaking labor and wearying unemployment alternately, as well as a prohibitively high cost of living (Dorman observes that many Harlem residents, especially families with children, were forced to take in boarders) and consistent discrimination. Dorman rightly notes that “the abstracted Harlem of the literary imagination” has overshadowed the reality of life for most of the neighborhood’s inhabitants in the public mind.

Despite this insightful chapter and the concluding essay of the collection that focuses on the fascinating phenomenon of African American travel and involvement in Soviet Russia from the 1920s up to the beginning of World War II (Maxim Matusevich’s Harlem Globetrotters: Black Sojourners in Stalin’s Soviet Union), most of Ogbar’s articles focus on the art and literature produced in Harlem during this era. It is possibly because these subjects have been treated so thoroughly within the canon that this focus seems detrimental to the book as a whole.

What new insight is Ogbar able to unearth in this volume—what in these pages makes Harlem worth “revisiting”? There are certainly a number of reasons for such a trip, but Ogbar seems to have not been able to choose one—and so, jamming them all between two covers, the final product lacks focus.

The volume thus raises two important questions: First, why does Ogbar’s collection seem so little concerned with what aspects of the Harlem Renaissance we can bring to bear upon American society at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Second, what are these aspects?

Regarding the first question: Literature and arts scholarship can all too easily fall into the trap of insularity. In the humanities disciplines, scholars pride themselves on a certain purity of approach that examines the works in question under a microscope, as if they existed in a vacuum. Even those studies that do take into account societal currents and the flaws and desires of the work’s creator—seeing the work as both a product of the times and as something to be interacted with and that affects change in the world at that moment—still fail to extend this consideration to the present time. How does the work affect and interact with us today? Why and how does it continue to have meaning for us? These problems aren’t helped by the need of our academics to secure tenure; for many, the solution on which they fix is to study, in exhaustive detail, minor works that have been ignored—often with reason. Ogbar’s collection seems to fall into this trap.

The second question is probably more important and more open to interpretation. Last autumn, I had the privilege of attending a lecture at the City University of New York on the Depression that addressed the question of how an economic crisis impacts the arts. The panel of speakers offered three examples: a crisis exacerbates critique of the present circumstances; the arts receive new sources of support; and a crisis leads to the construction of a new kind of audience and public. Art becomes more accessible during a crisis, because people start to understand the vital necessity of the arts and literature to their lives.

Although the Harlem Renaissance predated the Depression, the economic reality faced by black Americans in the earlier era was similar to the later period faced by the nation as a whole. The art that was produced during the Harlem Renaissance was created in the face of great hardship and yet it was able to break new ground in modes of communication, in intensity of critique, and in the transformation of its audience.

We live in an era when marginalized groups are increasingly raising their voices, but we have not yet seen the same kind of artistic outpouring that the Harlem Renaissance saw. It would have been interesting had Ogbar’s collection consistently investigated not only the inner workings of the literature, but also the kind of response that they received. Essays such as So the Girl Marries, concerning the DuBois-Cullen marriage, touch on both points and are able to provide insight into the perspectives of people at the time (and how similar many of their reactions seem to those expressed today!). But others are sorely lacking in this department and risk pushing the Harlem Renaissance onto the back burner of a dusty academic shelf, which would certainly be a loss to us all.

Sarah Vogelsong is an editor and freelance writer living in Washington, DC.

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The Supremes:
A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal

by Mark Ribowsky

Da Capo Press | 426 pages | $17.95

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell

The Motownettes

supremesSoft porn and scholarship just might not be a good combination. At least that was my impression while reading this unauthorized biography of the phenomenal Supremes by Mark Ribowsky, author of He's a Rebel: Phil Spector, Rock and Roll's Legendary Producer.

One suggestion to the reader is to ignore the masturbatory adjectives about extra- marital, quasi-marital, and interracial sex replete in this book. It’s not clear whether the mention of possible prostitutes or possible pimps is meant to be funny. Suffice it to say, all of these activities and occupations are mentioned numerous times in this work. Frankly, these 50-year-gone couplings and un-couplings are neither interesting nor racy by today's standards.

What is noteworthy is the amount of information amassed by Ribowsky. As evidenced by the bibliography and the discography, he researched prodigiously. Judging from the pictures attributed to his personal collection, Ribowsky is a Motown fan of many years.

He begins with the history of Motown, the vehicle created by Barry Gordy, Jr. that made possible the stardom of the Supremes, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Miracles, Stevie Wonder, song writers Holland Dozier Holland, Marvin Gaye, and many more.

Gordy, a failed entrepreneur in his other business ventures, began Motown as a way to get rich and promote the music that he loved: Blues, and Rhythm and Blues. He had worked variously throughout his career as a singer and songwriter.

Prior to Motown, his start-up businesses were funded largely by his family. In fact, his family lent him $600 to start Motown. (The name is a tribute to Detroit, the automotive capital of America at that time.) Gordy had developed connections in the music industry in Detroit and was able to build a stable of talent fairly quickly.

Among the teenage girl groups that he auditioned were the Primettes. Ribowsky describes the first meeting with this group (later christened the Supremes) as less than auspicious. After hearing the girls’ audition, Gordy asked for an encore.

Then he said, "I want you to come back when you finish high school."

Of the four Primettes who auditioned, Betty McGlown, Florence Ballard, Diane Ross, and Mary Wilson, three of them (Ballard, Ross, and Wilson) returned to take him up on that offer. Although Ross and Wilson graduated from high school, Ballard did not.

As described by Ribowsky, she had post-traumatic stress syndrome caused by a brutal rape years before. She was unable to keep up with her studies and subsequently dropped out of high school.

The group remained a trio despite attempts to make it a quartet. In a caption from a photo in the author's collection, McGlown is characterized as the Primette who dropped out of the group because “she got a real job."

Once under Gordy's tutelage, the group did some admirable woodshedding. They worked as office help for Motown and sang back up for Mary Wells, Mable John and Singin' Sammy Ward, to begin with. They very gradually worked their way to being taken seriously by Gordy and their peers at Motown. The shift in perception of them came when he decided to change their name. According to the book, Gordy "wanted a change to a classier, more market-friendly moniker." He asked his receptionist, Jane Bradford, to come up with one.

She wrote down suggestions, put them into a hat, and had Florence Ballard pick from it. Ballard chose the name that is now synonymous with rock and roll excellence and glamour.

However, behind the scenes, Motown was anything but glamorous. According to Ribowsky, and numerous lawsuits against Motown, Gordy paid his talent as little as possible or often not at all. His reasons were nebulously called “expenses."

This usually meant that Gordy took the money and gave his artists whatever he felt like. Strangely enough, several of them knew they were being cheated.  One singer, Katherine Anderson, was very candid in her opinion about Gordy's business practices.

"We knew what that whole ITMI thing was about," she said, “he was finding ways not to pay us!"

Yet most of them stayed with Motown. Why? Gordy had created what he called a "family" in Motown. Although this sounds romantic, Gordy was a tough businessman. He jettisoned anybody whose talent didn't meet his standards.

Those who passed muster trusted Gordy with their careers. He did for these Black artists something that nobody else had ever done. He respected their talent. That respect bound them to him almost like biology.

Much mention is made here of the vagaries in the careers of other Motown artists. We learn of the trajectory of the Temptations, the career of Tami Terrell, and the problems of Marvin Gaye’s. Gordy was a father figure to all of these performers. Still, he worked them like dogs.

Thus, the Supremes, like all the members of the Motown “family,” endured grueling schedules of shows and road tours. Sometimes they performed multiple shows in one day. As Ribowsky outlines it, the group performed everywhere from state fairs and college auditoriums, to night-clubs, some of which were sleazy. Others, like the Apollo and the Copacabana, were la crème de la crème.

The road tours were the real test of their mettle, however. Often several of the Motown groups traveled together or with other artists under other labels. The tours in the segregated South were especially deadly.

In Birmingham, Martha Reeves, thinking she heard gunshots outside the bus, dove for cover between two seats. Others twitted her, insisting the noise must have been firecrackers.” Sadly, Reeves was right. Later that day, the bus driver dug two bullets out of the Motor Town Tour sign on the bus.

At one gas station, the white owner refused to let the Black entourage use the toilet. Ballard asked him if they could use a bucket with a hose to relieve themselves. The owner agreed to that.

It could be argued that the three women who later became the Supremes were able to endure these hardships because they were scrappers. All three came from the Brewster Projects in Detroit. Admittedly, the housing development became more dangerous and drug addled after they left.

Still, each of the Supremes had a strong instinct for survival. For Ballard and Wilson, that meant growing up in and out of relative poverty. For Ross, who grew up in a solid working-class family, it meant a determination about her career that was tantamount to hallucinatory. Indeed, Ribowsky describes Ross’ obsession with her career as one of the reasons she and the Supremes became international stars. The other reason, he outlines, was her relationship with Barry Gordy, Jr. This 20-year relationship, (characterized in this book as more like a marriage), was a springboard for Ross’ solo stardom.

Slowly, inexorably, according to Ribowsky, Ross turned Gordy away from Motown, “the family” and toward her career. He all but abandoned his company for her. Understandably, once she achieved fame, she abandoned the Supremes, yet she seems to have abandoned Gordy at the same time. Though they have a child together, the relationship seems to have been intact only while Ross worked for Motown.

Somewhere in this process, Diane Ross changed her name to Diana Ross. Ribowsky depicts her as a woman who remade herself and discarded anything and anybody that didn’t fit the new persona.

Still, the book makes it clear that without the steadfast vocal backup of Ballard and Wilson, there would have been no Supremes and no Diana Ross. Despite this, neither Ballard nor Wilson achieved the fame of Ross. Tragically, Ballard died young. Although Wilson can rest on her laurels as one of the Supremes, her solo career has been uneven. Luckily, she has fared better financially.

 "To this day," she is quoted as saying in the early 80s, "I still don't know exactly how many millions of copies any of our records sold, though I still receive royalties."

In some ways this statement is evidence of the family, albeit dysfunctional, that was Motown. This book outlines in detail why the Detroit legend was so important to the history of American music and why it can never be duplicated.

Loretta H. Campbell is a writer, teacher and activist with the New York office of the National Writer's Union.

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What About Darwin? : All Species of Opinion from Scientists, Sages, Friends, and Enemies Who Met, Read, and Discussed the Naturalist Who Changed the World [Kindle Edition]

by Thomas F. Glick

Reviewed by Ken Liebeskind

professor thomas glick

What About Darwin? is a compendium of writings about Charles Darwin collected and annotated by Thomas F. Glick, a history professor at Boston University who has already published three books on Darwin. There are 442 entries here, from a vast array of individuals including clerics, politicians, novelists, poets, musicians.

The fact that there is such a wide array of opinions proves that Darwin’s The Origin of Species, the work that lay the groundwork for the theory of evolution, is all encompassing. “It produced a radical break in patterns of thought everywhere,” Glick writes in his introduction. The Origin of Species was published in 1859 and instantly sparked controversy with the British novelist George Eliot who wrote, “It will have a great effect on the scientific world, causing a thorough and open discussion of a question about which people have hitherto felt timid.”

What About Darwin? presents all sides of the discussion of evolution, providing excerpts in alphabetical order, from Henry Adams, the American historian, to Emile Zola, the French novelist.

Among the highlights is a passage from William Herndon’s Abraham Lincol,n that said the president “plunged into Darwin’s The Origin of Species when it appeared but Lincoln refused to follow on the plea that the water was too deep.

Mao Tse Tung wrote, “Darwin’s theory of evolution was once dismissed as erroneous and had to win out over bitter opposition. Chinese history offers many similar examples. In a socialist society, the conditions for the growth of the new are radically different from and far superior to those in the old society.”

Karl Marx wrote, “Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle.”

Sigmund Freud wrote that “Darwin’s conjecture that men originally lived in hordes, each under the domination of a single powerful, violent and jealous male was the root of man’s sense of guilt (or “original sin”) which was thestrictions.”

Isaac Bashevis e beginning at once of social organization, of religion and of ethical rSinger, the Yiddish novelist, wrote that, “Darwin maintained that the continuous struggle for food or sex is the origin of all species. The Cossacks who massacred the Jews, the Russians, the Tartars, all the tribes who kept on killing each other, actually implemented the plans of Creation.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that Darwin’s evolutionary theory raised a furor because it “contradicted those who accepted a literal account of the Bible” and it “seemed to lessen man’s status. We can see that Darwin’s theory upset certain habits of mind.”

There is even some humor here, with a review from the Brooklyn Eagle in 1873 that links P.T. Barnum's circus to Darwin's theory: "Barnum has simplified for ordinary minds the Darwinian controversy by bringing all the animals concerned together and leaving them to speak for themselves."

It is engaging to read many of the excerpts although not all deal with Darwin’s theory of evolution directly. Some merely mention his name in passing.

My biggest criticism of the book is that all of the entries are from the 19th and 20th centuries and none are current. Darwin’s theory of evolution continues to arouse controversy today and writings from born again Christians who oppose the theory and contemporary scientists who support it would have been valuable. Instead. We have a collection of quotes that reads more like a work of history, which is valuable in its own right because it presents the way Darwin’s theory was initially received and how the reaction to it developed over more than a century.

Ken Liebeskind is a freelance writer living in New Haven, Ct.

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