Friday Reading: George C. Wolfe and Kenneth Burke

This past Tuesday (April 22), I had the good fortune to receive “The Australia Tarver Award for Critical Essay on Race, Post-Colonialism, or Multi-Ethnic Studies” at the TCU English Department’s Creative Writing Awards. The following essay took me outside my comfort zone as a writer quite a bit — I rarely write about drama, and as the second section of the essay discusses, I’m leery of any project that purports to make sweeping statements about personal identity — but it also provided me an invaluable opportunity to explore Wolfe’s controversial play from a rhetorical perspective. Two years after I completed the first draft of this piece, I think it still holds up pretty well — and, luckily for me, the award’s judge(s) agreed.

“My Colored Contradictions”: George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum as Rhetorical Performance

THE NOTION of the contradiction has played a large role in defining playwright George C. Wolfe’s relationship with his audiences. In a 1998 interview with David Savran, Wolfe describes his use of contradiction in The Colored Museum as a process of “searching for [one’s] own complexity,” of “try[ing] as a human being not to choose this quality over that quality, but to try to embrace all of them” (Savran 347). The mélange of exhibits in Museum results in a varied tapestry of black experiences and stereotypes that suggests multiplicity is the only way to discover unity—or, as the character Topsy declares in the final scene of the play, “I’m not what I was ten years ago or ten minutes ago. I’m all of that and then some. . . . My power is in my [madness] and my colored contradictions” (Wolfe 52-53). Yet—and this strikes at the root of Wolfe’s contradictions—the same “tapestry of black experiences and stereotypes” that affords The Colored Museum its power as critical commentary also places it squarely in the crosshairs of those who would reject the play as inherently racist, misogynist, or insensitive to the history of blacks in America. As Wolfe declares to Savran, “And I got trashed for [The Colored Museum]! I got trashed by a lot of black people for it because they didn’t see the flip side, they only saw the side that nobody’s supposed to talk about” (Savran 348). In attempting to explore multiple, conflicting facets of African American culture in a single performance, Wolfe’s “colored contradictions” alienated many audience members and relegated his art to the periphery of the national conversation about race relations in the mid-1980s.

The Colored Museum

The cover to the 1988 Grove Press edition of THE COLORED MUSEUM (Image via

The purpose of this essay, then, is to begin the process of reclaiming The Colored Museum by exploring how and why this play has elicited such divided responses from audiences over the last thirty years. Critical analyses of the play are virtually nonexistent; with the exception of a few scattered reviews, little has been written about Wolfe’s first play, in part because so much attention has been paid his later (and more commercially successful) works like Spunk (1990), Jelly’s Last Jam (1992), and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk (1996).[1] I want to propose, however, that box office receipts only tell part of the story. In order to understand how a play that accepts so many divergent perspectives can be rejected by individuals whose interests it seems to have in mind, I want to use rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke’s conception of identification as a heuristic for exploring the imbricated discursive formations represented by Wolfe’s satiric Museum. The choice of Burke may seem odd to those unfamiliar with his hybridized approach to the relationship between literature and rhetoric, but his career-spanning interest in theatrical metaphors and “dramatistic” approach to analyzing symbolic actions suggest a fecund theoretical fit with the world of drama, and his long correspondence with Ralph Ellison has already been the subject of multiple critical works on Burke’s implications for race studies.[2] In aligning Burke with Wolfe, I want to demonstrate how the performative aspects of black identity that constitute so many of The Colored Museum’s infamous “contradictions” engage in a dialectical negotiation between alienation and identification which holds, as its ultimate goal, the transcendence of these two states in order to fully embrace the historical, cultural, and political complexity exhibited in Wolfe’s play. If The Colored Museum is meant to be viewed as an argument about the state of American black culture in the 1980s—and I believe that it is—then the pairing of Wolfe and Burke enables us to explore the play’s symbolic resources in such a way as to make this argument clear while, at the same time, exposing points of contention that have served to undermine Wolfe’s communication with audiences.

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Kenneth Burke, Louis Zukofsky, and the Comic Framing of “A”-23

I presented the following paper at the “Rhetorical Approaches to Literature” panel during the 2012 PAMLA Conference in Seattle, Washington. Since I’ll soon be presenting at this year’s conference in San Diego (November 1-3, 2013), I thought now might be a good time to look back at one of my first attempts at a “rhetoricized” reading of avant-garde writing.

Despite their mutual friendships and well-documented correspondence with William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Burke and Louis Zukofsky are rarely mentioned together in contemporary scholarship. On one hand, this oversight seems entirely appropriate: only two letters between Burke and Zukofsky—both from July of 1960—are archived at Penn State, and Burke mentions Zukofsky’s magnum opus “A” in his correspondence with Williams exactly once (Williams, Burke, and East 213-16). On the other hand, the harsh judgment Burke passes on Zukofsky’s work in his letter to Williams seems to cry out for further investigation. “In any case, I agree with you,” Burke declares. “[H]e writes an honest line. . . . But jeez, if you don’t consider pp. 112-17 absolutely hideous, then prithee learn me!” (215).

What, then, are we to make of Burke’s rather violent rejection of Zukofsky’s work—especially when Williams, whom Burke deeply admired, held his poetic protégé in such high regard? How might we begin to reconcile Burke’s concerns over certain portions of “A” with his approval of Zukofsky’s “honest lines”? And what was it about Zukofsky’s poetics in particular that evoked such a strong reaction from a man whose notion of poetry required “experimentally wrenching apart all those molecular combinations of adjective and noun, substantive and verb, which still remain with us” (Permanence and Change 119)?

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Pursuit of the (Barefooted) Pneuma: James Alan McPherson’s “A Matter of Vocabulary”

The following mini-essay was originally written for an African American Literature course I took in the spring of 2012. Though I couldn’t possibly have known it at the time, this simple assignment — perform a five-page “close reading” of a text from the first half of the class — has had a profound impact on my current interest in the vocabularies of racial identity.

It was all very clear, and now he understood that the Barefoot Lady came in the night not because she really loved Mr. Jones or because he had once buried someone for her for free, or even because she liked the blue-and-white lighted sign. She came always in the night to scream because she, like himself, was in misery, and did not know what else to do.

—“A Matter of Vocabulary” (HC 32)

I would employ the ancient Greek word pneuma, meaning “the vital spirit of life itself”… [P]neuma is foundational in all systems of religious belief, but it seems to me that, as a civic conviction, it is still vital in communities rooted in rural mores.

—“Pursuit of the Pneuma” (184)

In his 2011 essay from Dædalus’s special issue “Race in the Age of Obama,” James McPherson returns to the past—to the ancient past—in his search for the proper way to name the surprising “institutional receptivity to non-white students” (184) he experienced upon joining the faculty at the University of Iowa in the early 1980s. McPherson selects the Greek word pneuma (“the vital spirit of life itself”) as his keystone term, explaining that he wants the word to represent “an omni-American perspective and sensibility” (187) which privileges community as “an essential dimension of the human experience” (188). Noting ironic parallels between the violent Tea Party rhetoric of the 2000s and the extreme statements of many Black Nationalists in the 1960s and 70s, McPherson cautions against exclusionary or isolationist worldviews and asks that, in their stead, we foster the kinds of “multiracial, extended family unit[s]” that he has worked to create both for himself in Iowa City and for his daughter in her own life and career (187). If we work together to pursue the pneuma with sufficient determination, McPherson suggests that even individuals who grow up “separated by race and caste” (185) will be afforded the space necessary to “reconnect through common strains of cultural background.”

Although “Pursuit of the Pneuma” possesses enough complexity to warrant a focused analysis of its own cultural and historical implications, the present essay seeks to enlarge McPherson’s social critique by allying it with his work as an author of fiction. More to the point, I want to position the word pneuma as an entryway into the early story “A Matter of Vocabulary,” the opening piece in McPherson’s first collection of short fiction, Hue and Cry (HC). In much the same way that the word pneuma functions as a means of expressing the previously unsayable in “Pursuit,” the word “misery” provides Thomas access to a revolutionary understanding of his own emotional state at the end of “Vocabulary.” In both cases, the unspoken can only be voiced through recourse to words previously outside the speakers’ vocabularies; in reaching out for these new words, both McPherson and Thomas perform pneuma-tic acts that connect them with persons and cultures outside their own positions in the world. By focusing on the relationship between Thomas and his spectral interlocutor, “the Barefoot Lady” (HC 13), I want to illustrate the fundamental role that vocabularies—words qua words—play in McPherson’s use of the literary realm to explore the challenges facing American society in the post-World War II era.

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