Thursday, August 9, 2012

Renaissance of Imagination: A Review of The Wisdom of Plato Negro, parables, fables

Marvin centers himself in his “classroom/clinic,” his “Academy of da Corner” at 14th and Broadway, Oakland, California. There he sells his “empowering books” and offers insight, advice to mothers (e.g., “Parable of the Woman at the Well,” 58), wives (e.g. “Parable of the Preacher’s Wife,” 29), and lovers. “Other than the white man, black men have no other pressing problem—maybe with another brother, but 90% of the brothers come to Plato with male/female problems” (“Parable of a Day in the Life of Plato Negro,” 148).-- from review by Rudolph Lewis

Review by Rudolph Lewis
For Marvin X, a founder and veteran of the Black Arts Movement of the late 60s/early 70s, we who strive for a rebirth of humanity must choose to be a mentor rather than a predator. “No matter what, I am essentially a teacher,” he lectured at California College of the Arts, where he was invited by poet devorah major. Marvin has taught at Fresno State University; San Francisco State University; UC-Berkeley and San Diego; University of Nevada, Reno; Mills College, Laney and Merritt Colleges in Oakland. But, Marvin warns, “The teacher must know . . . no matter how many years he gives of his soul, his mental genius is not wanted” (“Parable of the Poor Righteous Teacher,” 12).

Gov. Ronald Reagan ran him out of Fresno State University, 1969, with the help of the FBI’s Cointelpro which employed a hit man who sought him out after an agent provocateur murdered his choir director Winfred Streets, who died from a shotgun blast to the back (“Parable of American Gangsta J. Edgar Hoover,” 171).

Pressured out of black studies academia, Marvin contends such programs now attract “sellout” Negroes, or if such African American elites are sincere and dedicated and allowed to remain, many die early from “high blood pressure, depression, schizophrenia, paranoia.” One or more such conditions, he believes, brought on the early and unexpected deaths of poet June Jordan, scholars Barbara Christian, and Veve Clark at UC Berkeley and Sherley Ann Williams at UC San Diego (“Parable of Neocolonialism at UC Berkeley,” 115). There remain nevertheless many educated colored elite all too willing to put “a hood over the hood” and lullaby the masses with “Silent Night,” while “colonialism [is] playing possum” (“Parable of the Colored People,” 42).

In “Wisdom of Plato Negro,” Marvin teaches by stories, ancient devices of instruction that appeal to a non-literate as well as a semi-literate people. (Fables differ from parables only by their use of animal characters.)  The oldest existing genre of storytelling used long before the parables of Jesus or the fables of Aesop, they are excellent tools, in the hands of a skilled artist like Marvin X, in that he modifies the genre for a rebellious hip hop generation who drops out or are pushed out of repressive state sponsored public schools at a 50% clip. Marvin X is a master of these short short stories. Bibliographies, extended footnotes, indexes, formal argumentation, he knows, are of no use to the audience he seeks, that 95 percent that lives from paycheck to paycheck.

These moral oral forms (parables and fables), developed before the invention of writing, taught by indirection how to think and behave respecting the integrity of others. Marvin explained to his College of Arts audience, “This form [the parable] seems perfect for people with short attention span, the video generation . . .  The parable fits my moral or ethical prerogative, allowing my didacticism to run full range” (“Parable of a Day in the Life of Plato Negro,” 147). But we live in a more “hostile environment” than ancient people. Our non-urban ancestors were more in harmony with Nature than our global racialized, exploitive, militarized northern elite societies.

The American Negro or the North American African, as Marvin calls his people, is a modern/post-modern phenomenon, now mostly urbanized, and living in domestic war-zones for more than three centuries. Black codes have governed their speech and behavior; they have been terrorized generation to generation since the early 1700s, by patty rollers, night riders, lynchers, police and military forces, usually without relief by either local or federal governments, or sympathy from their white neighbors or fellow citizens, though they have bled in the wars of the colonies and the nation to establish and defend the American Republic. Their lives have been that of Sisyphus, rising hopes then a fall into utter despair. Such are the times we still live.

To further aide the inattentive reader, most of the 83 sections of this 195-page text begins with a black and white photo image. Although most of these parables were composed between January and April 2010, some were written earlier. A few were written in 2008 (e.g., “Parable of the Basket,” 109) during the election campaign, and a few in 2009 (“Parable of Grand Denial,” 153) after the installation of Barack Obama as president of the United States. Three of these short short stories—“Parable of the Man with a Gun in His Hand,” “Parable of the Lion,” and “Parable of the Man Who Wanted to Die”—were first published in the June 1970 issue of Black World. His classic “Fable of the Black Bird” (86) was written in 1968. The “Fable of the Elephant” (7) and the “Fable of Rooster and Hen” (97) are quite similar in form and style to the black bird fable.

Marvin’s traditional or “classic” parables and fables, written during the BAM period, differ from the ancient fables and parables, which were told in an oral setting within a rural community with some wise men available by a campfire or candle light to explain the story told. In written form the writer in some manner must explain or make the meaning evident, preferably without the mechanical explanation tacked on. That would be a bore and not quite as pleasing to a hip urban audience, as what has been achieved by Marvin’s improvisation on the genre.

Thus Marvin uses humor, sarcasm, irony, exaggerated and sometimes profane language of one sort or another to capture the inattentive reader’s attention. In the first parable, “Parable of Love” (2), Marvin explains, “every writer is duty bound to speak the language of his people, especially if he and his people are going through the process of decolonization from the culture of the oppressor.”  His parables are “highly political” and intended also as a kind of “spiritual counseling.” As he points out in “Parable of Imagination,” artists in their work must “search the consciousness for new ways of representing what lies in the depth of the soul and give creative expression to their findings” (160).

“Under the power of the devil,” our lives tell us a story we hardly understand, Marvin discovered from his teachers Sun Ra, Elijah Muhammad, and others. The church, the mosque, the temple do not provide the needed spiritual consciousness for out time. Nor do 19th century radical political ideologies. As Stokely Carmichael told us in 1969, ideologies like communism and socialism do not speak to our needs. They do not speak to the issue of race. We are a colonized people, he argued, whose institutions have been decimated, our language mocked (e.g. Bill Cosby), our culture when not yet appropriated and stolen called “tasteless” by black bourgeois agents or stooges (e.g., Jason Whitlock in his criticism of Serena Williams at Wimbledon doing a joyful jig after her victory and winning a gold medal).

In “Wisdom of Plato Negro,” Marvin X is about the work of decolonization, though BAM has been commodified as a tourist icon at academic conferences and in university syllabi. The “sacred” work of the artist remains. Its object is to “shatter lies and falsehoods to usher in a new birth of imagination for humanity” . . . to “promote economic progress and political unity” . . . to undermine “pride, arrogance, and self-importance” (160). Although he is critical of the black bourgeoisie, Marvin knows that they have skills our people need, that we must find a way to bring them home. They must  learn to have as much respect for the Mother Tongue as they have for the King’s English (“Parable of the Black Bourgeoisie,” 35).

“Wisdom of Plato Negro” deals not only with the political but also with the personal. That means he cannot live his life in an academic (or ivory) tower, or up in a mountain, writing and publishing books. In “Parable of the Man Who Left the Mountain,” written in 2008, he explains, “in the fourth quarter of my life, I can only attempt to finish the work of being active in the cause of racial justice, of using my pen to speak truth, to put my body in the battlefield for the freedom we all deserve” (45). 

Though he sees the problem as economic and political, one that keeps us poor and powerless, our oppression is “equally” one that creates “a spiritual disease or mental health issue.” (45). Racial supremacy for him not only affects the body or the potential to obtain wealth, it also affects the soul. It is at the heart of the drug war crisis. Black people seek to “medicate” themselves with drugs or the ideology of racial supremacy to find relief from the pain of racial oppression and the suppression of the imagination. Drugs and racial supremacy both are addictive and create dependency. In numerous instances, Marvin calls for moderation of desires and discipline, to “detox” from an addiction to racial supremacy and other “delusional thinking” (“Parable of Sobriety,” 177).

Marvin centers himself in his “classroom/clinic,” his “Academy of da Corner” at 14th and Broadway, Oakland, California. There he sells his “empowering books” and offers insight, advice to mothers (e.g., “Parable of the Woman at the Well,” 58), wives (e.g. “Parable of the Preacher’s Wife,” 29), and lovers. “Other than the white man, black men have no other pressing problem—maybe with another brother, but 90% of the brothers come to Plato with male/female problems” (“Parable of a Day in the Life of Plato Negro,” 148). In contrast to his street work, the racial experts seem rather lost. Marvin reports on a 2008 conference held in Oakland by the Association of Black Psychologists, which has a membership of 1,500 Afrocentric psychologists. Even the experts with two and three Ph.D., “victims of white witchcraft,” he discovered do not know how to heal the community. When leaders don’t know, “why not turn to the people?”  (“Parable of the Witch Doctor,” 24).

There is much more that can be gained from a slow reading of “Wisdom of Plato Negro” than what I have tried to recall in this short report. Marvin X writes about such topics as sexuality and creativity and their relationship, on war, the weather and global warming, and numerous other topics that all tie together if we desire to bring about a rebirth of humanity. This highly informative, insightful, and creative volume can be of service to the non-reader as well as students and seasoned scholars, if they want to be entertained or to heal their bodies and souls so that they can become mentors rather than predators.

“Wisdom of Plato Negro” ends with the “Parable of Desirelessness” (193), which mirrors the “Parable of Letting Go” (61). In the materialist culture of contemporary capitalism we are beset on all sides by “greed, lust, and conspicuous consumption.” There are a “billion illusions of the monkey mind” that lead nowhere other than an early death, suicide, or cowardly homicide. We all must “hold onto nothing but the rope of righteousness.” That will guide us along the straight path to full and permanent revolution and liberation.

Rudolph Lewis is the Founding Editor ChickenBones: A Journal / 

Additional Notes by Rudolph Lewis on The Wisdom of Plato Negro

Thanks, Marvin, I am deep into the Parables. I am looking at the construction of the book. I see that you have shortened it. I found your parable of the lecture at the California College of Arts helpful in that it presented a brief response to what your parables are. I have taken about fives pages of notes, many come from Parable of Imagination. That was masterful in your insight into the role that the educational system play in the suppression and the oppression of those on the margins, particularly black youth.

I'll try to keep the review short (500 words or so) but we'll see. I am still making myself pregnant. I have been skipping about in the text, which may indeed be advantage for the reader you have in mind. But I wanted to see how you constructed the work. I see that most of the pieces were written between January and April of 2010. But you also have pieces from 2008 and 2009, and pieces published in 1970 and 1973. I do not know that you called them "parables" at the time.

I am still meditating on the whole notion of "parable" and "fable." I checked the dictionary definitions. I have yet to read the fables. I have read at least one of the dialogues. I will get to the one on "bitch" sometime tonight. I remember the parable of the man who talked to cows. That was indeed humorous.

In any case my present task is to finish reading the last four or five parables. I am now on the Hoover piece and your experience with the FBI. You are rare indeed: to have been steeped in all of that and lived to the tell tale, and to tell it as boldly as if you were still there. As Gore Vidal pointed out in writing his memoir, Memory is piled upon memory upon memory, and so we remember our memories for we tell them through filters of life, knowledge, and years and years of intellectual and other experiences.

But the thing is that so many who lived through the experiences of the 60s and 70s are living other lives, lives of the status quo, lives that they owe to the company store. You may in this incarnation of Marvin  be the only revolutionary of the 60s an 70s who is struggling as ever for a "revolution of conscious and society" in the present. I have looked at some of the material from the 50th anniversary of SNCC and other civil rights veteran. Their memories do not inform their present.

Of course, Julius Lester may be an exception. He was always a man of the Imagination. But I have not kept up with his novels. Some of them however seem quite to the point, though I do not know how he resolves the conflict that continues, or exactly who his audience is. As you may know he is now a Jew.

In any case, your Call for a Renaissance of the Imagination is exceedingly important. What seems most important is that you never cut yourself off from the lumpen (the dopefiends, the hustlers, the workers), those who have tragic relationships with their lovers and children, those who can’t afford a $100 an hour psychiatrist. It is indeed important that you point out the deficiency of health care in our communities and how everything is commodified in the interest of the few.

Your "classroom/clinic" has kept you grounded to the realities of racial oppression. Many racial activist have sold their souls and become wheeler/dealers of the powers that be. A few went into city and state government, like Marion Barry and courtland Cox, and Ivanhoe Donaldson, and Julian Bond and John Lewis. Many are union execs, and on the leash of their whites bosses. Union execs are part mafia/part political hacks of the Democratic Party. Obama can kill a million spy on hundreds of millions and they will die for Obama, rather than the common man, woman, and child. Of course, like any sane conscious person Obama is preferable to Romney and Tea Party. But to die for Obama is to lose the way of ethics in defense of humanity.

Well, what I am trying to say. I am deep into your Wisdom, in your thought, thinking and construction of a literary work that is quite post-modern, an interactive text that would not have been possible before the invention of the web, as indicated by your dialogues.

My only comparison to what you have done is Jerry Ward's "The Katrina Papers." Of course, his book is grounded by the destruction of an American city, New Orleans , and the tragic destruction of his own home and much of its contents, including papers, records, tapes and other personal items.

But of course, your work is grounded by your Academy of the Corner, and your daily contact with the ongoing tragedies of our people. Those stories are told in your parables. I thank God for a Marvin X, a Plato Negro.

I will try to have a review of the book by Wednesday.

Loving you madly, Rudy

Rudolph Lewis, Editor
ChickenBones: A Journal

On Saturday, September 1, 2012, 3-6pm, Marvin X will read and sign The Wisdom of Plato Negro at the Joyce Gordon Gallery, 14th and Franklin Streets, downtown Oakland. Donation $20.00, includes signed copy of book. For more information, please call 510-200-4164.

Sponsored by the Post Newspaper Group, Lajones Associates, OCCUR, West Oakland Renaissance Committee/Elders Council, Ed Howard and Leonard Gardner's West Oakland Stories TV Show, Black Bird Press.

Proceeds benefit Academy of da Corner, 14th and Broadway.

Marvin centers himself in his “classroom/clinic,” his “Academy of da Corner” at 14th and Broadway, Oakland, California. There he sells his “empowering books” and offers insight, advice to mothers (e.g., “Parable of the Woman at the Well,” 58), wives (e.g. “Parable of the Preacher’s Wife,” 29), and lovers. “Other than the white man, black men have no other pressing problem—maybe with another brother, but 90% of the brothers come to Plato with male/female problems” (“Parable of a Day in the Life of Plato Negro,” 148).-- from review by Rudolph Lewis

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