The Wasteland and the Flower: Through Blyden Jackson-A Revised Theory for Black Southern Literature

By Miller, R. Baxter | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 1984 | Go to article overview

The Wasteland and the Flower: Through Blyden Jackson-A Revised Theory for Black Southern Literature


Miller, R. Baxter, The Southern Literary Journal


Southernists might well re-elevate the life and work of Blyden Jackson to its rightful place. However distant the exploration away from home, his life has remained rooted in the land. Born in Paducah, Kentucky on October 12, 1910, he earned the bachelor's degree (1930) at Wilberforce University. Eight years later (1938), he took the Master's at The University of Michigan, and fourteen years afterwards (1952), the Ph.D. there as well. Though his years at Madison Jr. High school in Kentucky (1934-45) temporarily deferred him, he rededicated himself to the enhancement of teaching and scholarship in higher education. He began at predominantly Black institutions. Once an Assistant and Associate Professor of English at Fisk University (1945-54), he later served as Professor of English at Southern (1954-56). During his last years there, he was Dean of the Graduate School. Subsequently he became Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1969-73) as well as a Special Assistant (1973-81) to the Dean of the Graduate School.

For over forty years, he has contributed invaluably to public life. Formerly the Vice-President for the Louisville Association for Teachers in Colored Schools (1940-42), he later served as the President there. After the advance into higher education, he became the Vice-President of the College Language Association (CLA, 1955-57), which was then the official voice of Black American literary history and remains even today a self-revitalizing institution. Following his years as President of CLA (1957-59), he became Vice-President (1968-69) for the Southern Association of State University and Land Grant Colleges. The Chair for the English Section of NCTE (1972-74), he participated as well (1973-76) in the Committee on Academic Affairs for the American Council on Education. Almost concurrently (1974), he became a member of the Post-Secondary Task Force for the same body. Recently he has served in the Delegate Assembly for the Modern Language Association (1973-76) and been active in the Study of Afro-American Life and History.

Whatever his public accomplishments, his sensitive essays are perhaps his most significant contributions to scholarship. Written over a period of nearly four decades, the studies range from the mid-1940s to the present. As polished narratives in literary history (such as Black Poetry in America, coauthored with Louis D. Rubin, Jr., LSU, 1974), the essays reveal a scholarly method for the critical evaluation of Afro-American writing. While the posture is often self-effacing, it is sometimes explicit as well. The Waiting Years (LSU, 1976), Jackson's collected works, emerges as both a public and private communion. A revealing artifact, it displaces monolithic illusions about Southern Literature and culture.

First one must extrapolate Blyden Jackson's applied theory of literature. For Jackson, in the world of absolute truths, Black ("Negro") critics must improve racial standards as well as integration. (1) They must maintain compassion and integrity. Though they must address both the racial and the universal, the latter ought to receive emphasis. The artist must transcend. An outward movement signifies "honest racism" rather than "false racism," but social protest bolsters a Black literary tradition. (2) At issue is color caste. Jackson feels that Countee Culten opposed it well but failed in self-knowledge and in intellectual depth. He could not, at once, be true to both himself and his art. The poet parallels the critic, for great criticism is an art in itself. It is an art, moreover, with the direct social bearing imperative for art now, "for the complete critic must have, not only a feeling for art as art, but also a sense of history ... a creative philosophy, not merely for the future but for the present.... He must have, also, the integrity that comes from the capacity to live ..." (pp. 61-62). The critic, like the artist, responds to his environment.

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