Saturday, May 28, 2011


There are a couple of different but related questions on the table to answer today. Things that need to be tidied up.

Between 1969 and 1972, I did several book-length cartoon manuscripts. Johnson Publications in Chicago (the Ebony, Jet, Black World people) published the first one, Black Humor (1970), which I drew in one intense week after hearing a campus lecture by Amiri Baraka; and a fly-by-night west coast publisher, Aware Press, did the second, Half-Past-Nation Time (1972), but after that book came out, its publisher disappeared into thin air with a third book-length manuscript of drawings I did devoted entirely to the subject of slavery. (This second book from 1972 is extremely hard to find and I only have one copy of it myself.) Yet another book-length manuscript (unpublished) was on meditation and Eastern philosophy---some of those appear in a little book called Buddha Laughing (Bell Tower, 1999), which the editors at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review put together. (These drawings were published in that volume shortly before I started writing essays for Tricycle and later was selected to be one of their contributing editors by publisher Helen Tworkov just before she stepped down from running that magazine.)

The two published cartoon volumes deal a lot with black cultural nationalism, which was very much with us (tyrannical so, in my opinion) in the late 1960s and early '70s. Critics are right to point out that emphasis in the drawings, and to note the absence of that now dated subject in my fiction and non-fiction.

In addition to asking for the above clarifications, Ethelbert asks, "What themes do you feel critics overlook in your work? What order would you suggest your work be taught? Is it important to study the cartoons, too?"

I suspect one underlying, general theme critics often overlook in my work is the question raised in my story about Plato and Diogenes, called "The Cynic": How does one live a life of moral and spiritual integrity in a broken, corrupt society? That is a question that drives Faith Cross, Andrew Hawkins, Rutherford Calhoun, and Matthew Bishop.

From my days as an undergraduate forward, my work has always been very inter-disciplinary. One form of artistic and intellectual expression nurtures and feeds the others. Whatever it is we call creativity and the imagination--those two great mysteries---can be for some creators experienced as "global" in their lives, not localized in a single form of expression, but rather spreading or spilling from one genre to another, one artistic or intellectual discipline to another, for all the humanities (along with the sciences) are related, interconnected. When some people wake up each day they're as liable to pick up a drawing pen as begin a new story on their word processor, as likely to grapple with a philosophical essay about the mind/body problem as they are with the first stanza of a poem. (Frankly, for a Buddhist, one's daily life itself can be seen as a  canvas, a work-in-progress shaped by each and every one of our creative and rational deeds until the day of our death.) Or see creative imagination as the roots and trunk of a tree that shoots forth many branches of expression that arise from the same mysterious, inexhaustible source. (And isn't there something very quintessentially American, even Emersonian and Ellisonian, about an individual artist---or any person---who embodies the Many in the One, who is creatively free in a democratic republic to do this and this and, naturally, that, too?)
 However, for the sake of convenience people in general---and not just critics---always feel they need to label and categorize an artist.(This is especially true for artists of color.) We like to put things in neat, little boxes. After his or her name, they'll say "novelist," and ignore the others fields in which that individual works. 

Or they'll say,"poet." Or "screenwriter." All of this speaks to the natural, inevitable and annoying human tendency to oversimplify people and things (or any phenomenon) to make them manageable. But a polymorphous creator doesn't want, of course, to see any of his children slighted or ignored. (However, that's a situation he or she may simply have to learn to live with.) A sort of ars poetica statement I was asked to write for the Academy of Arts and Letters when I received their Academy Award in Literature in 2002 best expresses, metaphorically, how I see this situation in respect to my own body of work. Here is a slightly abbreviated version of that statement:

 "I see my body of work as being like a mansion with many rooms.  The foundation for the mansion is the novel Oxherding Tale.  Inside this imaginative “house” are rooms you can wander through or dwell in for awhile.  One has novels.  Another has short fiction. A third has 295 interviews from radio and television, in newspapers, and scholarly journals.  In the fourth you’ll find screen-and-teleplays. A fifth has philosophical essays such as “Reading the Eightfold Path.”  A sub-room of that has essays on many subjects---on Indonesia, how to draw political cartoons,the craft of storytelling, a pedagogy for writing workshops, the history of black cartoonists, an overview of black literature since the Harlem Renaissance, film critiques, and critical appreciations of many writers. Yet another room is devoted to book reviews. Other rooms have editorial and panel cartoons, comic strips, texts for studio photo books, and many public addresses and lectures. On and on through this house, from the basement to the attic, you’ll find prose and visual art in numerous aesthetic forms (the slave narrative, the sea adventure story, the folktale, the animal fable, the fabliau, and political novel).  There is fiction and non-fiction on the martial arts, affirmative-action, “exchange value,” Dr. Martin Luther King’s refrigerator, and a future in which the government taxes people’s dreams as well as traditional fables and parables in a sub-room of the bigger room devoted to short stories.  This is my conception of what a total body of work should be, one that is evolved over a lifetime, is generous in form and content, and offers a variety of different aesthetic experiences."

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