Monday, September 19, 2011


"It is my belief that the artist's first allegiance is to the imagination, as opposed to any prevailing dogma...When artists submit to being told what to write---if that telling comes from anyone but themselves---they have abandoned the history that gave them birth and sustained their lives in the first place." Clayton Riley, The Demands of Craft, an address presented at the 1978 Howard University Black Writers Conference.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "How important is it for black writers to talk about a black aesthetic? Do you think there is one? Some young writers mention the post-soul aesthetic, what does this term mean to you?"

The single most disastrous and disappointing course I taught during my entire career in higher education was called "The Black Aesthetic." This course I took on during my second year of teaching as a doctoral student at SUNY Stony Brook. The previous year I had taught a course in the Philosophy Department called "Radical Thought," a survey that included everything from Marx's "1844 Manuscripts" to Critical Theory. But that year Faith and the Good Thing (1974) was published, and so the Department of Comparative Literature asked me to teach for them (I had taken several graduate classes there, some with the late Polish theater critic and Shakespeare scholar Jan Kott.) 

Things went well enough during my first semester when I taught a course called "Third World Literature," which I inherited from visiting professor Kofi Awoonor, who in 1975 returned home to Ghana to head the English department at the University of Cape Coast and, sad to say, was imprisoned without trial for helping with the escape of a soldier accused of trying to overthrow the military government. (On Stony Brook's campus several of us faculty and students held a reading from Awoonor's works to protest his incarceration.) Then I was asked to teach something called "The Black Aesthetic."

I was simply the wrong young man for that job. It was too early in my teaching career. Furthermore, in 1976 I was not convinced there was anything we could universally call a "white aesthetic" or a "black aesthetic." (Or for that matter, an "Asian aesthetic." Wabi-sabi may be an aesthetic concept for those Japanese people oriented toward Zen, but certainly not for everyone in Japan; or China, or Thailand, where my 1997 Microsoft-sponsored research on the Thai sense of beauty revealed that beauty for many Thais has a significant relationship to the concept of riabroi, which has no Western equivalent.) My Stony Brook class emptied of students until I was left with only one who showed up---a young woman who was an acquaintance of Amiri Baraka and his wife---to argue with me. From my perspective as a Ph.D. student in philosophy in the mid-1970s, the writers who presented the case for a "black aesthetic" were sloppy thinkers, too subjective, more inclined to emote than provide analysis that was trustworthy, mired in essentialist thought, poor at defining their terms, offering evidence that was apodictic, and reasoning in a fashion that was systematic. Now it must be said---and since then I've said this often (see my 1986 essay "A Phenomenology of On Moral Fiction")---during the 2500-year history of Western philosophy, aesthetics tends to the scandal of the discipline, the bastard child who, despite our best theories, remains in the realm of opinion and prejudice. The subject itself cannot be quantified (nor should it be) and so often defies objective treatment.
So during winter, 1976 I learned my lesson and never again attempted to teach a course on a "black aesthetic." (And I have no idea what a "post-soul aesthetic" is supposed to be.) Other black writers in the mid-to-late 1970s were facing the same problem I had in 1976 with race-based aesthetics (and this problem, which dates back to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, led, of course, to my 1988 book, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970, which was my Stony Brook dissertation). In his 1978 address at Howard University's Black Writers Conference, Clayton Riley stated that, "Craft is, in my view, the perception and application of excellence." Then he says:

        "The way things are written, or otherwise constructed as examples of the impulse to share information, has often been subordinated to that which many people have come to feel is the more significant---in fact the only significant---testimony of what has been formulated as a writer's evidence of conscious commitment to tribal ethics. We have, as Black writers and artists, contested this point at conferences such as this one, and at numberless other gatherings."

Riley bemoaned the situation of those artists who "commit the latter-day, 20th century sin of living as an 'incorrect' person who has, by such inclinations, betrayed those brothers and sisters whose fundamentalism derives from the certainty that political stimulation and activity remain the bedrock of any truly human sensibility."

He quotes from Albert Murray's beautiful essay "The Social Function of the Storyteller," where that distinguished writer notes that, "It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint." Then Riley concludes with these words on craft and vision:

         "Artists seek to find out, to explore, taking on in the process the risky business of knowing what is not easy to know---the danger of discovery. In this, writers most especially, have an entire world---not just the fractured universe of American racism and psychic social disorder---to employ in structuring systems and methodologies to make up new planets, new societies, new ways of being eminently more human. Craft is the vehicle to convey us through another sky, one in which we can come to realize that form is a vital dimension of content, not an isolated point on someone's broken political compass."

All I can say is that I wish I'd been able to invite Mr. Riley to my Black Aesthetic course two years before he wrote "The Demands of Craft." He would have given my students a great deal of wisdom and perhaps saved me a good deal of grief.

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