Leon Forrest’s Divine Days

LForrest2In the Afterword to my book Black Writing from Chicago, the first person I apologize for not including is Leon Forrest.  I wrote: “First and foremost, I will immediately agree with anyone who believes omitting Leon Forrest is unforgivable.  Chair of African-American Studies at Northwestern from 1985 to 1992, he authored four celebrated novels: There Is A Tree More Ancient than Eden (1973), The Bloodworth Orphans (1977), Two Wings to Veil My Face (1984), and the monumental, 1132-page Divine Days (1992).  I tried to create a montage of passages centered on the mythic Sugar Grove character in Divine Days, finally admitting to myself that even 30 pages could not adequately convey the deep, quickly flowing multi-levels of a style so thick with myth and allusion.  Its book jacket accurately dubs Divine Days a “Ulysses of the South Side,” and, indeed, the novel opens with quotes from Homer, the Gospel of John, Joyce, and Dostoevsky.  A 1993 issue of Callaloo was devoted to essays on Forrest’s four novels.  I also recommend Relocations of the Spirit (1994) a collection of his essays, mostly on life in Chicago.”

I was, however, able to include an essay from Relocations of the Spirit—“Souls in Motion”—in a previous book, Smokestacks and Skyscrapers (1999), which I co-edited with my friend David Starkey.  There I wrote, in part:  “Born in Chicago, Leon Forrest [1937-1997] was long associated with Northwestern University’s African American Studies program, and gained an almost reverential following for his dedication to, research in and contributions to black culture in the Chicago area and throughout the nation…Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., referred to [Divine Days] as the War and Peace of African American Literature.  Forrest’s fusion of American myth, autobiography, black history, and religious doctrine and obsession creates an almost too-rich palette of shifting scenes, overlapping selves, and multi-voiced meditations not dissimilar to two other writers to whom he has sometimes been compared: James Joyce and William Faulkner….”

LForrestDDaysI chose the essay “Souls in Motion” for Smokestacks and Skyscrapers as a way to get to Forrest’s own obsession with the “divine day,” Sunday.  Much of the piece takes up this divine day at several Southside Chicago churches:  West Point Baptist, Mount Pisgah, First Church of Deliverance, Christian Tabernacle, and more.  He wonders over the artistry of the pastors, the titanic structure of the black sermon, the interplay of pastor and choir, the Word and the music, winding up at Antioch Missionary Baptist where he witnesses a rendition of “Move Mountain,” a song floating through the essay like a refrain and a witness to the mountains black people have had to move.  The soloist, Paula Williams, “…puts power behind the phrases that celebrate the will of the individual—not only those that honor spiritual fiber but also the lines rooted in the secular ruggedness of grit and guts.  Now I know what the old folks meant when they told me that to make it in life you needed ‘grit, shit, and mother wit’.”  It is close to Christmas, and later that Sunday, in a calmer mood now, Forrest feels “a renewal of faith and intellect” as he reflects on the Pastor’s “anchoring interpretation for all of us who must stand alone before that mountain of ascendancy.”

That ends the piece, but what I remember most, and Forrest, too, calls a “memorable exchange” is his conversation, quoted at length, with Rev. Morris Harrison Tynes, pastor of Greater Mount Moriah Baptist, a man “…who believes all things happen for a deeper purpose.”

Forrest-TynesThe conversation turns to a tragic Chicago incident: the murder of high school basketball star Ben Wilson by three young black men, an incident that still resonates with shock throughout the city 35 years later.  You could look at those three, says Tynes, in two ways: as misguided children of God needing sympathy, love, and forgiveness; or as people who just need to be strung up.  But there is a third way.  “…I believe the finality of death,” he says, “would be to them a blessing. They would be released from the agonizing shame and frustration that they will have to go through for the rest of their lives.  As they get older they will see the dimension of what they’ve done, more than they do now in their little 19-and-20-year-old minds.  And if they are in prison they are going to have a long time to think about their deeds.  And the awesome dimension of that may turn them into saints.”  Perhaps.  But here Forrest does what’s typical for him.  He puts us before words that loom like a mountain—hard, mysterious, inviting us to move them, ascend them, perhaps even cross over them somehow.

  Go to a list of Black Writers written about on this site, and to the Teaching Diversity page.

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Black Writers Picture Themselves – Part 1

B-Brooks2It all began some time in the early 60′s at New York’s famous club The Village Vanguard.  Burt Britton was tending bar, subbing for a friend, and one customer kept asking for more. It was Norman Mailer.  Britton tried to shoo him away, but Mailer kept asking for drinks and saying, “What do you want from me kid?”  In a flash of inspiration, Britton shoved a napkin Mailer’s way and asked him to draw a self-portrait on it.  “That,” says Britton, “was how the madness began.”  By the time he published Self-Portrait: Book People Picture Themselves (1976), he had hundreds of these informal portraits from some of the most prominent writers, actors, and artists of our time.  I wrote about Self-Portrait in “Self-Portraits of the Artists,” where you can get more of the remarkable story.

B-CJohnson2Given the interests of this site, I was delighted to find self-portraits of ten of the black writers I write about here and wanted to show some of these, beginning with Gwendolyn Brooks above.  Four of the ones I present here are included in my book Black Writing from Chicago: In the World, Not of It?   Go to my articles about them through the links that follow.

After Gwendolyn Brooks, the self-portraits running down the left side of this post are from Charles Johnson, Ronald L. Fair, and Clarence Major.

B-Fair2There’s a fifth self-portrait here as well, someone not included in Black Writing from Chicago, but certainly mentioned there and, I think, in most things I’ve ever published.  It’s James Baldwin.

As I commented in “Self-Portraits of the Artists,” it’s fascinating to see the range of styles: here from the scattering lines of Gwendolyn Brooks’ and Ronald L. Fair’s self-portraits, to the bold starkness of Charles Johnson’s, and Clarence Major’s combination of these two styles.  I commented in “Self-Portraits of the Artists” that some of the self-portraits seem contradictory to the writers’ actual styles.  My example B-Major2was Edward Hoagland’s severely austere drawing style vs. his lush writing style.  But all the portraits here seem to fit.  Charles Johnson’s “The Education of Mingo,” which I included in Black Writing from Chicago, is certainly bold and boldly etched, as are most of the things he writes.  And I find both Gwendolyn Brooks’ drawing and the parenthetical “(Not exactly!)”—complete with little arrow—sweet and self-effacing in the way she often (not always!) presented herself in public.  Important for her, too, was the cross-hatching she applied to her face, a move intended to make sure people knew she was black.  My introduction to Black Writing from Chicago begins with a quoteB-Baldwin2 from Gwendolyn Brooks, a quote intended to justify my calling the book BLACK Writing from Chicago, not African-American Writing from Chicago.  Brooks writes: “This objection of mine to the designation African-American is not popular. Nevertheless! The phrase is ISLANDING. The phrase is limiting. The phrase is weak…Almost a honeyed music: AF-ri-can A-Mer-i-can. (As opposed to B-L-A-C-K! Which comes right out to meet you, eye to eye.)”

I find it amazing how well each writer here has captured his or her essence, not just the essence of their styles, but their very looks themselves.  All of them, but especially for me James Baldwin.

In “Black Writers Picture Themselves – Part 2″ (link goes live when that post is done), I show five more self-portraits with links to my writing about them.  The five will be Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, Leon Forrest, James Alan McPherson, and Toni Morrison.

  Go to a list of Black Writers on this site, and to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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How the Other Third Lives

How3rd2There’s much more on the so-called “Third World” today, though it’s still mostly out of sight, out of mind for most Americans, except for its association with terrorism and, currently, as a place where all those “sh*t hole countries” are.  In 1979, when I wrote the following “Briefer Comment”  for The Virginia Quarterly Review, there was far, far less available, and the “Third World” was further out of sight.  I’m perhaps harder on the book than I should be, but even then I sensed that How the Other Third Lives—an anthology of “Third World” prayers, songs, and literature edited by Margaret B. White and Robert N. Quigley—was one of the first attempts to bring that area of the world into the popular imagination and connect it to our “First World” history.

Here’s what I wrote on June 19, 1979:  “The poetry and prayers section of this anthology of Third World Literature is good and surprisingly ‘warm’ and ‘pleasant’ at times.  The stories, essays, journal extracts, and novella are of very uneven quality, and though one can see some point to it, one sometimes wishes America’s ‘Declaration of Independence’ and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech hadn’t been included.  The editors stretch the term “Third World” quite a bit, and by their own admission have presented a ‘personal offering’ that is neither scholarly nor very representative.  Though it includes some fine, standard material and provides short biographies of some very fine writers, the anthology gives an insufficient view of the best literature the Third World offers.  If one keeps this in mind, however, this book, with all its shortcomings, will benefit us by providing a fair, general feeling for a literature about which most of us know very little.”


As a regular part of my teaching load, I’ve now taught “Third World” literature, culture, politics and economics for over 40 years.  For more about the “Third World” on this site—including why I persist in using that term—go to “The Third World,” and to “The ‘Third World:’ A Course Overview,” which contains, at the end, a VIDEO overview of an interdisciplinary graduate course I have taught for many years.

My first big articles, those that established me as a writer and scholar, were on the “Third World” writers N.V.M. Gonzalez and Raja Rao.  These two essays form the foundation of a developing page on WORLD WRITERS on this site, a page devoted mostly to “Third World” writers, but also to the enormous area of World Writing itself, an area—whether “Third World,” French, Australian, Canadian, etc.—we also need to know more about.

Despite current politics, globalization isn’t going away.  On this World Writers page you’ll find this link: POST-COLONIAL WRITING IN ENGLISH: A WRITER’S LIST.  This post reports on The Arnold Anthology of Post-Colonial Literatures in English and provides a pdf of the Table of Contents, so you can at least catch a glimpse of the richness of just the names themselves.  It’s a much, much bigger book than How the Other Third Lives, and much more inclusive and scholarly, too, even though it confines itself to “just” writing in English.  One reason globalization isn’t going away is the English language itself.

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