“It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant.” –James Baldwin, from the essay Nothing Personal
Before there were human resource managers and action research teams counseling American corporations on the advantages of embracing diversity rather than vilifying it, there was author James Baldwin putting the theory to the test in acclaimed essays, novels, plays, short stories, poems, and dialogues. Social networkers in recent weeks have found occasion to quote those writings in regard to everything from a Palestinian state and gay marriage equality to Barack Obama’s presidency and the American identity.
It is true that he marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and shared podiums with Malcolm X, Marlon Brando, and other iconic figures of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. It is also true that the author was something of a mentor to both the late Literarian Award-winner Maya Angelou and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Yet these biographical notes cannot fully account for the astonishing resurgence of interest in Baldwin’s legacy as observed in New York City and elsewhere via the ongoing Year of James Baldwin in honor of the 90th anniversary of his birth.
Baldwin understood that diversity was about more than racial dynamics or shifting cultural demographics. He knew that once society made its way past surface categorizations it would have to confront the more beguiling challenge of individuality dwelling beneath the surface of public demeanor. He was acutely aware of every American as a crucial stakeholder in the future of democracy, and just as aware of humanity’s need in general to liberate itself from the fear-driven inclination to oppress another for the sake of laying false claim to a doubly-false sense of “security.” What may provide greater insight on the resurgence of interest in his work and encourage reasons to host dialogues regarding the same on every educational level is the following:
The Year of James Baldwin Now in Full Classic Literary Swing
Members of New York City’s cultural arts community made a rare kind of decision earlier this year and the results of that decision continue to generate exceptional events and responses. They–– as in Columbia University School of the Arts, Harlem Stage, and New York Live Arts–– elected to observe The Year of James Baldwin from April 2014 until June 2015 in honor of the late iconoclastic African-American author’s 90th birthday August 2, 2014.
Long before he died on December 1, 1987, millions came to recognize the indelible mark of Baldwin’s impact on, and the incredible depth of his singular voice within American literature. He is in many ways more alive now than ever before, a statement that holds especially true when considering the events that have already been held to launch the year dedicated to him.
“There were few political figures as deeply engaged and as capaciously soulful as James Baldwin, nor we’d like to insist, any as urgently pertinent to our own times,” noted curator Lawrence Weschler in the brochure for Live Ideas, James Baldwin This Time! He added the following:
“We agree with one of our Festival’s premier participants, the poet Nikky Finney, that James Baldwin may well have been one of ‘the most salient, sublime and consequential American writers of the twentieth century.’ And this is not just because he confronted truths about race and gender with a vividness and lucidity few before him had done, but because he always did so from the vantage of an American—not just a black man, not just a gay man, but an heir to the whole harrowing, horrible, magnificent American project, and a prophet as to what that project yet could become, and indeed has to become.”
Initial enthusiasm for The Year of James Baldwin has been backed up with many outstanding events launched during April. One of them was the premier of Patricia McGregor’s stage adaptation of Nothing Personal, based on photographer Richard Avedon’s (1923-2004) and Baldwin’s now classic 1964 work of quietly understated images and provocative text such as this:
“…Wherever love is found, it unfailingly makes itself felt in the individual, the personal authority of the individual. Judged by this standard, we are a loveless nation. The best that can be said is that some of us are struggling. And what we are struggling against is that death in the heart which leads not only to the shedding of blood, but which reduces human beings to corpses while they live.”
Another noted event was a “preview” of the multi-talented Carl Hancock Rux’s stage piece, Stranger on Earth (the title comes from a classic song by Dinah Washington). Featuring Rux and vocalist Marcelle Davies Lashley, the work imagines Baldwin and Washington in a powerful dialogue on race, music, and creative artists’ perceptions of the future of the world.
Among the most talked about events thus far has been a conversation focused on Baldwin’s still-controversial novel, Another Country, between the Academy-Award nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal and author Colm Toíbín held May 1at Columbia University’s Altshcul Auditorium. The year-long celebration also received substantial attention during the Harlem Book Festival held July 11-14 with important panel discussions on work by Baldwin held at both Columbia University and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
In addition to those already noted, numerous others have lent their celebrated voices in support of the event, including: choreographer Bill T. Jones, the dramatist Stew, poet Yusuf Komunyakaa, and authors Michelle Wallace, Walter Mosely, Jamaica Kincaid, ad Fran Lebowitz, just to name a few.
FOR MORE PLEASE READ: The Year of James Baldwin Now in full classic literary swing (part 2): Letter to James Baldwin
When confronted by something too painful, incredulous, or monstrous to believe, a person will sometimes say, “I couldn't even wrap my head around that!”
Such was probably one of the main reasons the international community took so long to respond in any meaningful way to the abduction of the almost 300 Chibok school girls in Nigeria. The emotional impact was, and is, not completely unlike that of seeing for the first time a film clip of the aircraft exploding against the Twin Towers on 9/11. It was an image unprecedented in one’s mental model of what reality is supposed to be and therefore an image one was not able to immediately process.
Who could believe that an army of armed adult men would attack and abduct nearly 300 school girls in the middle of the night? Moreover, in retrospect, why were the girls left in such a vulnerable position in the first place?
For me, once I was able to “wrap my head” around what had happened, I cancelled the article I had originally planned to post for Mother’s Day. In its place I wrote the story Mothers, Daughters, and Slavery Make Disturbing 2014 Holiday News published by Charter for Compassion and in my Examiner column.
Now that we are processing the unfathomable horror, various agencies are devising strategies to help resolve the situation. Influential figures are speaking out. The excruciatingly painful problem is that after almost a month in captivity, it is impossible for the students––some of whom reportedly have been “sold into slavery” or forced into “marriage”–– to come out of this ordeal unscathed. For now, at least, opportunity remains for them to reclaim their stolen dreams and reconstruct their deeply wounded lives.
Mother's Day 2014
“To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity.” –The Charter for Compassion
You could say I recently received a double dose of compassion. The first came in the form of a friendly reminder from fellow wordsmith Barbara Kaufmann that the founder of the Charter for Compassion movement, Karen Armstrong, was going to be a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday program. The second came in the form of a photograph of the late much-loved actor Paul Walker assisting a group of children. Reach Out Worldwide, the organization founded by Walker, had paired the image with one of my quotes about compassion back in September and it resurfaced on Twitter and Facebook following Walker’s tragic death.
1. Paul Walker
For many, the death of the late actor and humanitarian was a shock as well as a revelation. It was a shock partly because he was so young and partly because people generally prefer Hollywood scenarios where the beautiful heroes and heroines triumph over brutal opposition rather than succumb to it. Most––would prefer that reality were a better respecter of persons. But it––like gravity, time, or disease––is not. Reality as we live it most often takes on qualities like mercy, grace, and yes, dynamic compassion, when we choose to endow it with such powerful elements.
Walker’s death was a revelation in the sense that millions recognized him from his action-hero, dramatic, and comedic roles in an acting career that spanned almost the entirety of his 40-years-long life. What millions did not know was that he did much more than lend Reach Out Worldwide his name. He gave it his living presence in dedicated attempts to alleviate suffering in the lives of others. It is neither a sentimental statement nor an exaggerated one to say that Walker apparently chose to commit as much of himself––not just his money or his time or talents but HIMSELF–– to living as much compassion as he could. Surely that is one of the better ways anyone might wish to be remembered.
2. Karen Armstrong
I first became aware of Karen Armstrong in my days as a bookseller. Her publication of such audaciously-titled works as Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (1991) and A History of God (1993) were also revelatory. It seemed unlikely that anyone should come up with anything new to say about spirituality or religious practices after centuries of human beings seeking to overcome human tragedies through studied devotion to the ways of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, different schools of philosophy, and other disciplines. However, as a former nun whose writings sidestepped culture clashes to affirm the essential spiritual unity of the major religious traditions (much in fact the way definitive passages in Rumi’s poetry does) Armstrong had a great deal to say.
And she did so even as calls for “holy wars” in the form of terrorist attacks and retaliations in the form of full-scale military battles soaked the opening pages of the history of the 21st century with the blood of men, women, and children alike. Upon receiving the TED Prize in 2008, she shared with the world her vision of compassion as a tool for nonviolent conflict resolution:
“I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.”
As ironic as it may sound, I was, unknowingly, so immersed in service to a similar vision through Creative Thinkers International and diverse literary endeavors that I remained unaware of the charter for far too long. The really great news is that although the charter itself has already been composed by contributors from across the globe, the perfect time to charge ahead on the “propagation” aspect of Armstrong’s request by sharing and signing it is right now. With that in mind, I consider it not an honor but an extraordinary blessing to add my name to the ever-growing list of supporters for the Charter for Compassion.
One of the greater joys of my endeavors as an author and poet has been an occasional opportunity to compose poems, essays, and articles to supplement the vibrant works of visual artists with my own literary constructions.
That was the case in 2011 when providing panel text for paintings featured in the extremely gifted artist Michele Wood’s I See the Rhythm of Gospel exhibition. Previously, I had been blessed with a similar honor when composing ekphrastic poems for the art of Luther E. Vann in ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love. And I’ve written any number of essays reviewing the works or chronicling the lives of other contemporary artists such as Allen Fireall (who currently, heartbreakingly, is challenged by the need for a heart transplant), Jerome Meadows, Phil Starks, and Amiri Geuka Farris.
The year 2012 saw this scenario change in some unexpected ways. In recent months, various readers and inspired techno angels have shared with me a variation on the creative process of me producing words to complement the visual brilliance of fellow creators. Demonstrating Zinta Aistar’s observation (in her review of ELEMENTAL) that “art begets art,” they have employed quotations from my works to lend verbal articulation to specific images–– and vice versa. Their application of these quotes seemed a natural development following the increased popularity of social media sites like Pinterest, Twitter, and Tumblr.
It was an astonishing thing––at first––to experience. The reason was not because I had been unaware these inventive mergers were in progress (although in fact I did not know at the time). It was because the end results so often successfully expanded the original conceptions without excluding the original intent. Others provided fresh interpretations that generated new insights into my own work. How often does that happen for a dedicated pen-pusher who refuses to give up his inkwell and yellow legal pads no matter how awesome the latest generation of notebook tablets may be?
I have often stated that my own involvement in contemporary literature is my way of contributing to the luminous conversation sustained by readers and writers as we journey from one century to another. This new way of art begetting art (new for me at least) is both an expansion of and commentary on that conversation. One of its greatest gifts has been to inspire works like the illuminated phrase posted with this article, and taken from the poem “Holiday Letter for a Poet Gone to War,” published in Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black:
“You were born a child of light’s wonderful secret--
you return to the beauty you have always been.”
As it happens, the image used with this quote represents yet one more way that art has given birth to art because it is my understanding that it is taken from a forthcoming video.
So long as quotations or excerpts are not used for commercial purposes without authorization, I am more than happy to share them and actually feel they help me fulfill my work as an author. For that I am very grateful. After all, if one of the creative artist’s most important jobs is to address––through his or her specific medium–– the more pressing issues of the times, then surely a major part of any serious author’s role is to help compose a suitable vocabulary that accomplishes exactly that. Moreover, it should probably be one that further empowers fellow citizens of the Global Village to achieve such a goal in a way that proposes to heal lives instead of proposing to destroy them. That, more than anything else, may very well provide the greatest affirmation of art’s ever-commanding timeless value.
author of The River of Winged Dreams
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
All websites are works in progress because they require routine updates to maintain their relevance and continuously attract interest. But they are also works in progress because the ever-evolving techno-verse constantly forces sites and the individuals who manage them to adapt to the trending flow of technological innovation just to remain functional. Therefore, I’m happy to acknowledge the launch of this new version of Bright Skylark Literary Productions as a fun-filled work in progress. I might also refer to it occasionally as The Weebly Experiment for reasons that are pretty obvious.
Visitors familiar with my work from Creative Thinkers International, PEN American Center, Facebook, Twitter, Red Room or elsewhere (shouldn’t leave AuthorsDen or Goodreads out) know I have quite a few projects shaping up already. One of the biggest, I should mention, is the fifth anniversary celebration at Creative Thinkers International. As the dates of different events approach, I will share more about them in the News and Events sections as well as in this particular space.
This website was initially slated to serve as a support vehicle for only one project; namely, the publication of the first U.S. edition of Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. However, as the flexibility and potential so graciously provided by Weebly became more apparent, it seemed a good idea to widen that limited scope and test a few more possibilities.
Taking a hint from social network friends, I’ve included on this site a collection of quotations from my writings. It also features an illustrated bibliography, list of article links, selection of poetry, and the VISIONARY VIBES BLOG, which you are (hopefully) reading right now. Exactly how far I’m going to be able to take all of this is hard to say, but I’m going to give it my best shot and hope to share some very interesting adventures in the process.
Thank you for visiting,
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.