The new long-anticipated literary memoir by Aberjhani, GREETING FLANNERY O’CONNOR AT THE BACK DOOR OF MY MIND, features insightful essays on: Flannery O’Connor, James Alan McPherson, John Berendt, Antiracism, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Includes cover art by the author and a throw-back photo album. ISBN 978-1-71668-481-4.
A month ago, I made a commitment to extend the outreach from Bright Skylark Literary Productions to different social media communities with more active engagement as part of my response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The choice was easily made due to the fact so many are huddling together on social media sites at this time much the way our ancestors once gathered at night around fires to recap the day’s adventure or to exercise strength and safety in numbers.
What that translates into where this blog is concerned is that in addition to posting a little more frequently on Facebook, some of the posts shared there will be placed here as well. The items presented here, like this post, will likely include more material, such as additional photos or videos. This is the first of 2 parts on the value of Love and Laughter in the time of the coronavirus.
ON LOVE & LAUGHTER NO. 1
Love and Laughter are 2 expressions of human nature which share 1 very important quality: they are both excellent relievers of stress. Each possesses some capacity for reducing internally the pain of circumstances produced externally. Who can’t appreciate that in this year of the newly-revised normal? Let’s take a brief look at laughter in this post and check out Love in the next.
Late-night talk show hosts are well-paid for their ability to help us confront painfully serious issues while simultaneously laughing at them. So far as I know, the image shared with this post featuring POTUS #DonaldTrump was not produced by a celebrity talk-show host. Going by the site address at the bottom, it was done by Whomp Media. The humor comes from 2 factors.
The first is the tradition of political satire practiced by great humorists as Mark Twain, Richard Pryor, and Whoopi Goldberg. In this instance, the creator of the quotation graphic is poking fun at President #DonaldTrump’s tendency to sometimes employ overly-simplistic assessments of issues like the #COVID19 pandemic, or calls for #socialjustice, by repeating the words: “very bad” or “nasty.” The designer has dubbed such pronouncements #Trumpentines.
The second is trickier and some might argue not so funny. It comes from the designer’s use of a popular quote taken from the #book The River of Winged Dreams: “Un-winged and naked, sorrow surrenders its crown to a throne called grace.” Before anyone asks, the answer is No, I did not receive a request to use the quote. Did I laugh when I saw it? I shouldn’t have but I did. Couldn’t help it.
As much as I enjoyed the relief laughter provided from stress, I’m obligated to point out that graphics of this nature fall into the category of what I call guerrilla decontextualization. It’s when images and words are taken out of one context and placed in another for a specific political purpose. Both Barack Obama and #JoeBiden recently have protested against such practices against them.
I first coined the phrase #GuerrillaDecontextualization when writing for AXS Entertainment about Mr. Obama’s second run for the U.S. presidency. Because the goal of this graphic is laughter, it may arguably be considered less hostile or violent than some campaign ads now running on TV. In any event, it’s always a good practice when possible to acknowledge original sources. That’s something I will happily do concerning the artist featured in the next post:
PART 2 OF 2-for-2 Facebook Shares on Love and Laughter in Our COVID-19-Challenged World.
Aberjhani is author of the forthcoming GREETING FLANNERY O'CONNOR AT THE BACK DOOR OF MY MIND, Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah, and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (the latter with Sandra L. West). He is also creator of the Silk-Featherbrush Artstyle.
Geographically, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was closer than that of Elijah McClain because it occurred only an hour’s drive from where I grew up and where people who mean a great deal to me have family members. But for some reason McClain’s death, although it occurred all of 1,600 miles away in Aurora, Colorado, felt closer. I did not understand why until recalling two poems written more than a decade ago. The memory of both forced me to sit down and wonder how it was something written so far in the past was having such a powerful impact on my life in 2020.
The first composition is a song lyric titled “ELI-JAH” originally published in the first edition of the novel Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player (sung by a character named Ruzahn), and later in the poetry collection titled Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. It is about a man who refuses to accept reports his brother has been killed so he keeps singing his name, Eli-Jah, to let him know he’s committed to finding him. The complete lyric is too lengthy for the purposes of this post but these are the last 2 verses:
The second text which surprised me with an unexpected emotional connection to McClain is 2 lines at the end of the poem “Vampire Song: The Last Bloodfeast,” also from Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. I recalled when writing the lines that they sounded strange and I changed them several times but always switched back because somehow they felt honest. Reading them, now, I’m stunned at how close they come to an image combination frequently associated with Elijah McClain: the violin and kittens, for his compassionate practice of playing for them on his lunch breaks. This is the quote from “Vampire Song”:
“Soft upon my right thigh, an oddly-colored kitten
There is a possibility I’m making more of these parallels than I should and some might even argue I am forcing them where there are none. They would have a right to that belief.
Before identifying the subconscious links stirring within me such a strong response to the shooting death of McClain, I considered writing a blog titled Music for a Black Skylark in Mourning to express the lingering grief. So I looked for a music video with the words “Black Skylark” in the title and found two. Either one, I felt, could serve as a worthy tribute to McClain and believe he would have appreciated either. The one with which I’ve chosen to close is from volume 5 of the China Meditation Ethno Music Project and titled “A Black Skylark.”
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
Such an overwhelming pattern of lethal violence against African Americans at the hands of police unskilled in nonviolent conflict resolution has emerged over the past decade that I was less stunned by news of what happened to 23-year-old Elijah Jovan McClain in Denver, Colorado, last August 24, than I was by the words attributed to him as he was being detained and slowly robbed of his life. I have not been able to access a single video or recording on which everything Mr. McClain said can be heard clearly but according to the fact-checking website Snopes.com this is an accurate transcription:
“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people, I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You are all very strong. Teamwork makes the dream work. Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”
These are not words to cry over and then forget. They were uttered as McClain (wearing earbuds and carrying a shopping bag) was stopped, forced to the ground with a carotid (choke) hold, injected with a chemical called Ketamine to make him more docile, and then transported to a hospital where he died a few days later.
“Try to Forgive Me”
There is a mixture of awe, admiration, and fear in the demeanor of people sharing McClain’s last utterances across the internet. They are amazed by the clarity of his spiritual intention to put the officers at ease although he is the one, at some 140 pounds, who is clearly outnumbered and overpowered. In short, he demonstrates compassion towards them while his freedom and life are being taken from him. He tells them, “You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me.”
Imagine if even half the compassion which Mr. McClain exercised towards the law enforcement officials in Denver had been shown by different police or citizens anxiously out to make arrests in the cases of: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, my adolescent brother Robert Lee, and the numerous others who did not become subjects of intensified media scrutiny or campaigns calling for justice.
Compassion might have led officer Timothy Loehmann to see Tamir Rice as a 12-year-old child instead of as a deadly threat and coaxed him to drop the toy gun he was holding before unloading actual gunfire on him. It might have decreased the toxic rush of “fear” Trooper Brian Encinia claimed he feared for his life when forcing an unarmed Sandra Bland out of her car reportedly for failing to signal a lane change. Whereas compassion might possibly have won him a new friend or admirer, his brutally aggressive treatment and arrest of Bland ended in what was ruled as a suicide by hanging in her jail cell.
Considering the Golden Rule: Who among us know of anyone who would wish to have done to them the gun violence so many, and the loved ones left behind, have experienced just this year alone?
Recent reforms in police training and procedures combined with legislation to support them provide reason to believe the kind of unjustified killings we have seen can and will end. Chances of that happening increase greatly with a mindful cultivation of compassion as an essential tool for addressing volatile situations within communities as a whole before life-threatening conflicts occur.
The Violinist and the Kittens
Only those closest to him can speak with any kind of authority about who or what Elijah McClain was but there are videos and public documentation which support claims he was an exceptionally sensitive and empathetic human being. Some might find the description of him as “an angel walking among people” a bit much. Speaking for himself he declared: “I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all.” That wasn’t exactly all because being a massage therapist did make him a kind of healer in the mode of an angel. In fact, his fateful encounter with police occurred after reportedly purchasing tea for a cousin.
And then there is this: he was so concerned about the loneliness from which he believed kittens in shelters might suffer that on his lunchbreaks he played the violin for them. That practice of musical compassion prompted world-class musicians to gather in Aurora on June 27, 2020 and play their hearts out as crowds peacefully chanted and called out #Justice4ElijahMcClain.
Read McClain’s final words again and note the degree to which he is holding himself accountable, not his uniformed assailants, for the transgression against him: “Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.” And this amazing plea: “Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better.” There are certain phrases or words we use––like beautiful soul, altruistic, sublime spirit, courageous, and saintly––to characterize someone who places above their own well-being that of people causing them harm. They are not phrases restricted to any single color, gender, nationality, or demographic classification. If anything, by their nature they confirm the presence of someone whose life example seemingly transcends sociological categorization.
The appropriate application of such words is determined by going beyond simply advocating for love- and compassion-based social change in our world to taking the radical dangerous step of embodying that change and living it. We know it is a radical and even, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., a “marvelously militant” thing to do because historically committing to it has cost a lot of beautiful souls their physical existence. We also know Elijah Jovan McClain had taken that sublimely revolutionary step and made the heroic commitment because even in the face of voracious death he did not refrain from proclaiming and living it.
28 June, 2020
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
This is a continuation of the classic 2010 article excerpted from "5 Notable Women of the Past and Present" first published by AXS Entertainment:
Simone’s composition, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," written for her friend Lorraine Hansberry, became one of the major anthems of the civil rights struggle and the title of Hansberry’s autobiography. Her “Four Women” is a marvel of minimalist art in which she deftly dramatizes the impact of racism upon the lives of four different women. In all, Nina Simone composed more than 500 songs and recorded more than fifty albums throughout her prolific career.
[If you missed part 1 of this classic article you can click here to check it out.]
The singer’s achievements were celebrated with, among others, awards like the 1966 Jazz at Home Club’s “Woman of the Year,” and the 1967 “Female Jazz Singer of the Year.” As if to help make up for the anguish in her tortured genius soul, the committee for Human Kindness Day in Washington, D.C., selected her as the day’s honoree in 1974.
None of these, however, proved sufficient enough to compensate for the wounds inflicted by racism or the grief experienced over the death of peers who understood her best. Like Josephine Baker, Abbey Lincoln and others before her, she left the United States in 1978 in search of greater artistic and political freedom. Her journey over the next seven years took her to Barbados, Liberia, England, Switzerland, and France, where she eventually settled. Relocation, however, did not solve all of her problems and she sometimes engaged in widely-reported public battles with stress and depression.
She returned to her homeland in 1985 to perform and record for six years before going to the Netherlands, then moving back to South of France.
The great performer revealed in her 1991 autobiography that she once attempted suicide. Since the publication of I Put a Spell on You, at least two biographers have explored the theory that she suffered from a bipolar disorder and depression. Some have taken this as the reason she sometimes appeared combative towards unruly audiences or certain critics and described it as the cause of her “downward spiral.” Others have interpreted the possibility as one of the sources of her phenomenal talent. Moreover, that fact that she evidently won battle after battle against the illness to produce the triumphant award-winning works that she did, make her in the eyes of many that much more heroic.
Before her death in Carry-le-Rouet , France, on April 21, 2003, Nina Simone enjoyed the satisfaction of receiving honorary degrees from the Julliard School and The Curtis Institute (the very school that had previously denied her application) and honorary doctorates from the University of Massachusetts and Malcolm X University. Consequently, she is often referred to as Dr. Simone.
The Legacy from 2010–2020
One of the greatest confirmations of the value of a musician’s work is the passion with which peers and following generations embrace it. From 2010–2020, Nina Simone has become one of the most covered, remixed, frequently rediscovered, reinterpreted, and generally honored musicians in music history. The sheer diversity of artists––ranging from hip hop and rock stars to Broadway and jazz divas–– who have either “sampled” her work or recorded versions of it, prove her contention that she was an accomplished artist of multiple genres. Among those who have linked their creative visions to that of Simone’s are: hip hop artists Common, Lil Wayne, Timbaland, and Kanye West; the groups Faithless , Walkabouts, and the Animals; and European cabaret singer Barb Jungr as well as American jazz diva Randy Crawford, in addition to many more.
The music icon was also a favored subject of photographers while she lived and is a treasured focus of fine artists now. Sculptor Zenos Frudakis worked with the Eunice Waymon-Nina Simone Memorial Project to create a life-sized bronze statue of the singer. A dedication ceremony was held for it February 21, 2010, in Simone’s hometown of Tryon.
This Mother’s Daughter
Nina Simone was married to her manager and business partner Andy Stroud when she gave birth to her daughter and only child, Lisa Celeste Stroud in 1962. Like her mother, Stroud also developed into an exceptional entertainer. Known simply as Simone, she has starred in such major Broadway productions as Rent and Aida. She made her recording debut in 2008 with Simone on Simone, a CD of covers of her mother’s music. A second album reportedly is set for release in spring 2010.
Following Nina Simone’s death, Simone the Second (more recently listed under credits as Lisa Simone Kelly) established the Nina Simone Foundation (NSF) as s a non-profit organization dedicated both to preserving the performer/composer’s legacy and to spearheading initiatives to establish various education opportunities and cultural resources. From April 16-25 in Atlanta, Georgia, the Foundation will present The Nina Simone Experience. In addition to performances and a fashion show, the event will feature a fine arts exhibition of works depicting images of Nina Simone and visual interpretations of her music.
In an interview with Jet Magazine in 2008, Simone pointed out, “I am keeping my mother’s name out there in a positive light, which she deserves because she sacrificed a lot and she stood for a lot. She deserves to be recognized and honored for that.” She accomplished that mission to critical acclaim as executive producer of the 2015 Netflix biopic on her mother titled: What Happened, Miss Simone?
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance Centennial 1919-2029
Of the more than 50 poems and half a dozen short stories published in my first book, I Made My Boy Out of Poetry, at least one story, “I Can Hear Juba Moan,” and a dozen poems throughout the book deal with people battling against social injustices. It is a recurring theme in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance and The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois because the historic and biographical nature of the lives chronicled in those pages (or in the Audibleaudiobook).
The struggle to correct racial and other forms of social injustices while refining practices of democracy for all Americans is among the most important themes to define the collective legacy of people of African descent in America as a whole. As with the case of the 25-year-old black man Ahmaud Arbery, killed in Brunswick, Georgia, by the white father Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, that legacy has often come with a painful price.
The concept of justice tends to have little to no meaning for a life already erased by murder. That is a primary reason so many in recent times have rushed to protest the shooting deaths of African-American victims––like Botham Jean in Dallas, Texas, two years ago, and emergency response shero Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, two months ago––before all the facts are known. Whatever the facts turn out to be, for African Americans attempting to balance the weight of centuries of such lethal biases, it rarely feels like justice has been honored or served.
As of this moment in mid-May, no one questions whether or not the McMichaels killed Arbery on February 23, 2020, while, according to his parents and what has been seen on video, the 25-year-old was out jogging. The world knows they killed him because the McMichaels claim they did so in an attempt to stop him to question him for a crime they believed he might have committed. Their stated intent, fully armed as they were and with acquaintance William Bryan recording the video, was to make a citizen’s arrest.
Bryan’s video shows Arbery running unarmed and attempting to go around a truck parked by the McMichaels in the middle of the road. A second surveillance shows Arbery minutes before entering an open house under construction, taking a quick look around, and then leaving. So far, nothing has been made public which indicates cause for the McMichaels to have blocked Arbery’s path on a public road and forced him into a fatal confrontation.
Additional videos have shown different people who were not black entering and exiting the same house under construction without anyone following or killing them. Yet reports have started circulating the shooters are likely to claim self-defense when the case goes to court. Because Georgia (along with Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming) is 1 of 4 states without a hate-crime law, state officials cannot charge them with violating one.
Art of Social Justice: Landscape for a Smiling Jogger
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.