World-changing catastrophes––like the earthquake that struck Mexico on September 7, and the back-to-back twin maelstroms, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, that rocked the United States this month––have a way of bringing to the surface humanity’s innate, but too often dormant, capacity for compassion. The life-and-death dilemmas they create strip us of the conditioned tendencies that cause people to fixate on superficial differences which encourage needless conflict rather than focus on shared commonalities that make community-building possible.
In their aftermath, we often see concrete demonstrations of exceptional considerations not only through the actions of celebrities like Beyoncé and Stevie Wonder who donate their time and talents to raise millions of dollar to support relief efforts. We also see it in the less glamorous actions performed by ordinary citizens contributing in whatever humble way they can.
Varieties of Angels and Monster Truck Drivers
On September 4, famed British author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, shared this quote by me on Twitter: “Varieties of angels, like varieties of love, are many” (Aberjhani). The quotation was posted along with a video, from AFP News Agency, in which the driver of a mega truck, a bearded white male, is seen wheeling his way through the flooded streets of Port Arthur, Texas, helping people cope with the ravages of Hurricane Harvey.
In this day and age of strained racial anxieties in America and around the world, many people would hesitate to associate the driver in the video with the concept of angelic behavior. As he admits himself, the gargantuan-wheeled trucks are something he and others usually utilize for fun in ways rarely considered heroic. However, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey provided an opportunity to employ the vehicles in a completely different and literally life-saving kind of way:
“You know,” he said, “we’ve had people trying to pay us, but we’re not taking any money. The hugs and the kisses, and watching a grown man cry when you come save him, it’s all worth it.”
Such is the kind of disposition that makes an everyday culture of compassion both credible and possible. Like the giant truck seen in the video, compassion equips us with the means to move past the destructive elements that prevent us from connecting with the potential for greater higher good residing within everyone.
That a global culture of compassion is needed now more than ever has become increasingly evident from by the nonstop talk of possible war between the U.S. and North Korea, and the string of terrorist attacks in London and elsewhere throughout the year 2017. The only thing standing in the way of citizens worldwide making it real is citizens worldwide making the choice to do so.
Most importantly, a true culture of compassion goes beyond basic acts of kindness to encompass mindful considerations of how everyday human activities, such as work, political engagement, social interactions, and economic enterprises either enhance or diminish the quality of human lives. In addition: it takes into account how our actions and aspirations impact the Earth’s ever-evolving biodiversity and general global environment.
One Good Quotation Deserves Another
Some have wondered what prompted celebrity author J.K. Rowling to use my specific quote and whether I had anything to do with the choice. My guess is her informed humane instincts were simply leaning in the same direction as the mega-truck driver’s in the video: toward compassion. It is not exactly something I could have influenced other than, like Rowling, by always striving to communicate something of value to humanity and hoping someone finds meaning in the attempt.
And in this case, thus far some 11,094 re-tweeters have found the shared words valuable and more than 37,970 Twittizens have expressed appreciation by clicking the like button. That being said, the quotation was particularly apt for this specific video because both negate assumptions and prejudices, and both propose exercising a more expanded form of awareness.
My response to Rowling’s tweet was also an acknowledgement of the Dalai Lama’s observation that “we all possess the seeds of love and compassion.” Whether we take time to cultivate their growth, however, tends to be another matter. And where that is concerned, the tweet with which I replied to Rowling was a quote by her: “It is our choices... that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (J.K. Rowling).
We can choose to evoke the angels our better nature because doing so makes life more joyfully sustainable for humanity as a whole, or we can choose to demonize each other based on such superficial differences as nationalities, religion, or race for no beneficial reason whatsoever. When tempted to give in to the latter, it is worth remembering that catastrophic events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires don’t ask for immigration papers, birth certificates, or bank account balances before bringing on the full unrelenting force of pure non-discriminating pain.
Poet-Author-Artist Aberjhani spend almost a decade writing his most recently-completed manuscript on culture, history, and race relations in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA). He is currently at work on a play about attempts to change the name of the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
Any attempt to write a biographical essay about someone as multi-talented and prolific as the late Ja A. Jahannes would be incomplete without immersion––or re-immersion––into a comprehensive sample of his works. In Jahannes’ case that would mean listening to diverse genres of music, going through numerous powerful poems, revisiting provocative essays, and revisiting intensely-original memoirs, novels, and plays.
Getting it all done in the short amount of time allotted by deadlines would not be possible but enjoying the challenge would be. In the course of rising to meet that challenge by penning the essay 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together, Celebrating Ja Jahannes, I naturally looked for suitable quotes to include with the essay. Upon finding more than I could use, I was inspired to create the three quotation graphics posted with the article.
From that point, it wasn’t much of a leap to realize that our modern shell-shocked world could possibly benefit tremendously from a collection of quips and witticisms distilled from the glittering torrent of fiction, sermons, librettos, stories, papers, etc., that seemed to flow with such ceaseless determination from Jahannes’ inspired soul. A good title for the collection might be The Wit, Wisdom, and Genius of Ja A. Jahannes. Moreover, if I were a traditional publisher taking on such a project I would push for both an illustrated hardback edition and a primarily text paperback edition.
The Notion of Being Geniuses Together
The first part of the 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together essay contains a short discussion on my allusion to the notion of collective genius. Specifically, I identity the following as a central theme binding the larger body of multi-discipline works by Jahannes:
Being geniuses together (to borrow the phrase from Kay Boyle’s and Robert McAlmon’s classic memoir) makes it possible for human beings to serve as each other’s heroes rather than simply function as each other’s antagonistic nemeses. (from 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together)
I was fortunate enough to experience Jahannes’ application of that concept through a number of shared projects. We first met when he visited a Waldenbooks store I managed in the Savannah Mall (Savannah, Georgia) during the early 1990s. His careful study of the New York Times bestselling titles on the shelves and the sustained attention he gave to the African-American Studies section told me he was someone of rare intellectual sensibilities. I was not offended when he gently waved me away after I offered my assistance but let him know I was there if he should need it.
The Black Writers Project: Something Magical
The first time we actually worked together on a cultural arts project was probably in 1996 when he was one of the authors profiled in the stage production debut of 4 Native Voices. The play was produced by the Savannah Writers Workshop, with which I worked for a decade to help produce literary events and co-edit the Savannah Literary Journal. The next year his long poem “Communion,” dedicated to photographer Roland L. Freeman, was published in the Journal.
In 1998, 4 Native Voices was revived for the first Savannah Literary Festival, coordinated by Miriam K. Center. As part of that same festival, Jahannes joined Word Sculptor Iris Formey Dawson and me as part of a panel discussion on “Southern People of Color Write about the South.” With our more formal introduction via 4 Native Voices and the literary festival behind us, I accepted invitations in 1999 to join him, author Michael Porter, and Formey Dawson at different venues to share our individual brands of poetry with the community. Jahannes named “our little group” The Black Writers Project.
The group might not have been as large or dynamic as the throngs of authors, poets, painters, and musicians who flooded New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, but as black literary artists sharing our works in public spaces we were doing something new. We were helping create what eventually would evolve into the modern spoken word movement.
One of the group’s first assignments was undertaken in March when we joined him at Abyssinia Baptist Church where he served as pastor. For another, we went to the Hitch Village Library and read to a group of excited children. Jahannes knew I had lived in Hitch Village myself until the age of 10 and had often spent time reading and playing in that very same library. He therefore introduced me as one of their own who was now a bookseller and a writer who had returned to them after having lived and written in other parts of the world.
Something magical happened when I passed out copies of a poem called Black Then as I Am Black Now so the children would be able to follow along as I read. I had written it specifically for the occasion to emphasize that being black meant more than the reports about gun violence and drug-busts taking place in their neighborhood and which they saw on the news almost every evening. Halfway through the poem, they picked up on one particular phrase and turned it into a repeating refrain after each remaining stanza:
“…I was black back then
They had added their genius for rhythm to the poem and made it their own. Each time they repeated the lines following my recital of a new stanza I was nearly overcome with emotion. That kind of transference of creative catalyst from one generation to another gave meaning to a way of being geniuses together that Jahannes seemed to appreciate the most. He was, after all, an exceptional educator who made it his mission to not only inform young people but empower them. In this instance, the children had given me as much through their voices as I had hoped to give them through mine.
Further Adventures in Literary Savannah
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.