A much-respected poet, scholar, and professor, Jerry Washington Ward Jr., the son of Jerry W. Ward Sr. and Mary Theriot Ward, was born in Washington, D.C., on 31 July 1943. When he was six years old, his family moved to Mississippi. Ward attended Our Mother of Sorrows High School in Biloxi and Magnolia High School in Moss Point before enrolling at Tougaloo College after his junior year. He received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Tougaloo in 1964.
In the spring of 1964 Ward published a set of three poems, “Black Aphrodite,” “Five Fingers of French Velvet . . . ,” and “Untitled #4,” in Daemon, a Tougaloo publication. Later that year, “Double Sonnet” was published in The Tougazette. In 1966 Ward earned a master’s degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology. His career expanded to a more regional audience with the May 1968 publication of “Smoke from a Fire” in The Word at the State University of New York at Albany. “Smoke from a Fire” showed T. S. Eliot’s influence on Ward’s early writings. A revision of the poem appeared as “The Staid Echo” in the Mississippi Review. His first national publications were “Ours,” printed in 1972 in Black Creation; “Generation Gap” and “Heavy Feelings,” printed in Hoo-Doo in 1973; and “Manhood in a Violent Space,” printed in Black Collegian in 1983. The publications in Hoo-Doo and Black Collegian led to Ward’s lasting friendships with Ahmos Zu-Bolton and Kalamu ya Salaam. He continued publishing poems in regional journals and became a professor of literature at Tougaloo in 1970.
In the early 1970s Ward’s poems began to appear in national publications, and he became associated with BLKARTSOUTH, an outgrowth of New Orleans’s Free Southern Theater, which had been founded in 1964 to nurture and celebrate black theater and to use theater as a tool for social and political reform/activism. Created in 1968, BLKARTSOUTH boasted a number of noted writers and performers from across the South, including Tom Dent, Wendell Narcisse, Kalamu ya Salaam, Lorenzo Thomas, Nayo Barbara Malcolm Watkins, John O’Neal, Chakula Cha Jua (McNeal Cayette), Levi Frazier, Quo Vadis Gex Breaux, Tony Bolden, and Raymond Breaux. In November 1973 Ward met Dent and became involved with the work of the Southern Black Cultural Alliance, a community theater coalition. After earning a doctorate in English at the University of Virginia in 1978, Ward joined the alliance’s executive committee, serving until 1983.
Ward was also an early member of the Mississippi Cultural Arts Coalition. Founded in 1982 and directed by Watkins, the coalition was directly responsible for developing the Farish Street Festival, which celebrates the area’s history as the center of educational, social, political, religious, and entertainment activities for Jackson’s African American community. Ward also worked with jazz bassist John Reese’s Black Arts Music Society, a collaboration that inspired Ward’s signature poem “Jazz to Jackson to John” (1981). In 1982 Ward became a founding member of the Jackson Writers Workshop, which released a chapbook, Mississippi Earthworks. Members also published in the Jackson Advocate and national magazines while working to support black theater at Jackson State and Tougaloo and the careers of a new generation of artists.
During the 1990s Ward edited some noted anthologies, including Redefining American Literary History (1990), Black Southern Voices (1992), and Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry (1997). In 1993 Ward wrote the introduction to a new edition of Richard Wright’s Black Boy.
Ward remained the Lawrence Durgin Professor of Literature at Tougaloo College until 2002, serving as chair of the Department of English from 1979 to 1986, as a member of the Mississippi Humanities Council from 1984 to 1988, and on the Mississippi Advisory Committee for the US Commission on Civil Rights from 1987 to 1997. He also cofounded the Richard Wright Circle and the Richard Wright Newsletter. In 2003 Ward became a distinguished professor of English and African American world studies at Dillard University. In August 2005 he evacuated New Orleans just prior to Hurricane Katrina, and the following year he published The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery. In 2011 the Chinese Ministry of Education selected Ward to participate in a four-year teaching program at Central China Normal University as part of the Famous Overseas Professors project. Ward has also coedited The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (with Robert Butler, 2008) and The Cambridge History of African American Literature (with Maryemma Graham, 2011).
Ward’s two most noted poems are “Jazz to Jackson to John” and “Don’t Be Fourteen in Mississippi.” Both works display Ward’s ability to balance and enhance passion with technique, combining vivid imagery with biting wordplay that causes the familiar to ring with a new truth. Ward has received numerous awards, including the Kent Fellowship (1975–77), the Tougaloo College Outstanding Teaching Award (1978–80), the United Negro College Fund’s Distinguished Scholar Award (1981–82) and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence (1987–88), the Public Humanities Scholar Award from the Mississippi Humanities Council (1998), and the Darwin T. Turner Award from African American Literature and Culture Society (2000). In 2001 he was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. He retired from Dillard University in 2012 and now serves on the board of Kansas University’s Project on the History of Black Writing.
- Dorothy Abbott, ed., Mississippi Writers: Reflections of Childhood and Youth: Poetry (1988)
- Kansas University Project on the History of Black Writing website, https://hbw.ku.edu/
- Rudolph Lewis, Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary and Artistic African-American Themes (April 2006)
- C. Liegh McInnis, Prose: Essays and Letters (2007)
- Jerry W. Ward, interview by C. Liegh McInnis (18 July 2007)