This third installment of Bright Skylark Literary Productions’ observation of the PEN International and PEN America Centennial is a condensed version of an article previously published by AXS Entertainment. It addresses the arrest of Ethiopian journalist and publisher Eskinder Nega, the history of PEN’s stance against racism, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
From Journalist to Founder of Political Party
Since the 1990s, Eskinder Nega has been arrested at least a dozen times on charges generally denounced by the world community as false. They have ranged from inciting riots and attempts to overthrow the government to participation in a murder. He and his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil, were both jailed on charges of treason charges for their writings on government suppression of protests questioning the validity of parliamentary elections.
After his arrest in 2012 for editorials criticizing government policies and supporting the rights of citizens to protest them, PEN joined with Amnesty International and other organizations to advocate on Nega’s behalf. He was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on May 1, 2012. He received the International Press Institute (IPI)’s 69th World Press Freedom Hero award on May 18, 2017. Nega has modeled his style of advocacy and activism on the example of Nelson Mandela and once said, “Like my hero Nelson Mandela, my soul is unconquered, my spirit unbroken, my head unbowed, and my heart unafraid.” True to Mandela’s model of political activism and persistence, he served nearly seven years at Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa. In addition, he experienced subsequent arrests and assaults before going on to establish the Balderas for Genuine Democracy Party in January 2020.
Nega once offered the following critique of his government and citizens of Ethiopia: “This being Ethiopia, though, leaders seldom enjoy the privilege of honest advice from subordinates... By the power tradition, leaders are told what they want to hear and not what they should… The rule in this world is simple: Thrive with opportunism and sophistry. Perish with honesty and integrity.” His growing popularity may be an indication he has found a functional balance between the divisive extremes.
The One Constant
As history has demonstrated many times over, change may arrive slowly or quickly but it is the one constant, in one form or another, on which we can all count. A lasting shining example of positive change in action is PEN America itself.
Front cover of book "Mrs SAPPHO The Life of C.A. Dawson Scott 'Mother of International P.E.N." by Marjorie Watts.
In her biography of PEN co-founder Catherine A. Dawson Scott, Marjorie Watts (her daughter) observed that both Dawson Scott and PEN president John Galsworthy had a “dislike” of “racial prejudice.” Yet the PEN American Center in 1943 was all of two decades old when Harlem Renaissance authors Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps exchanged letters about the absence of any African-Americans in the organization. Responding to query from Hughes, Bontemps wrote on September 24, 1943:
“…You are right. No Negroes are members. I know of two attempts. It was rumored in Chicago that Dick (Richard Wright) was suggested for membership in N.Y. shortly after Native Son became a best seller but something came up and the idea was dropped.”
Still, three years later Wright was a guest at PEN centers throughout Europe. Ten years after that, Ralph Ellison, esteemed author of Invisible Man, was invited to join the American Center. And the rest, as “they say,” is now an unparalleled portrait of triumphant diversity.
However, the more important point in 2021 is that because it chose to embrace change for the betterment of all humanity at a time when many opted to resist it, PEN America can now celebrate 100 years as part of the world’s oldest human rights and literary advocacy organization. In other words, someone had to embrace positive beginnings before anyone could celebrate successful conclusions or continuations.
The Challenge of Making Change Work
wo of the most interesting comments regarding the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2012 came from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. himself when he stated: “It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.” And: “…it is not our role to forbid it or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness."
Some commentators have extended interpretations of those statements, plus additional comments, as Chief Justice Roberts’ way of saying his job in this ruling “was to find a way to make the Affordable Care Act work.” How unprecedented and extraordinary is that? (Since the historic ruling, former US President Donald Trump initiated policies aimed at restricting access to the program but current President Joe Biden, upon his election, reversed Trump’s actions and expanded access.)
It is fully possible that the Affordable Care Act (popularly referred to as “Obamacare” after former U.S. President Barack H. Obama) and the movement toward humane applications of immigration laws are the beginnings of a potentially golden age for democracy. It is also possible that Eskinder Nega and the other journalists calling for greater freedom of expression in Ethiopia are heroes whose courage eventually will help elevate even more than concepts of freedom in their homeland. First steps are always the hardest but until they are taken the notion of progress remains only a notion and not an achievement.
"A Crown & Castle for George Perry Floyd Jr. No. 1" art by Aberjhani C2020)
EDITORIAL NOTE: Previous installments of the Conversations with the World Series have featured different translations of popular quotations from my books. This one includes two which many have employed over the past few years in protests against social and racial inequality.
The emerging consensus regarding former policeman Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Perry Floyd Jr. appears to be calling not for reduced, but increased advocacy targeting social and police reform in America. President Joe Biden and Minnesota State Attorney General Keith Ellison, along with numerous others, voiced this repeatedly after Chauvin’s three-weeks-long trial ended April 20, 2021 (just over one month shy of a year after George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020). Members of Mr. Floyd’s family have suggested the same. What their calls could mean in Savannah, Georgia, is redoubled efforts to protect voting rights in light of the recent passage of the so-called Election Integrity Act of 2021, even as Governor Brian Kemp urges other state leaders to follow suit. Or it could manifest as yet another push to remove the name of white supremacist Eugene Talmadge from the Savannah River Bridge by staging demonstrations on, and marches across, the bridge until that simple but very consequential action is taken. On the national level, such advocacy increases chances of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 will become an actual law.
Believing What You See
In their closing arguments for Mr. Chauvin’s trial, prosecutors encouraged jury members to believe what they had seen in multiple videos showing the former officer’s knee bearing down on Mr. Floyd’s neck until the latter died. It would not have surprised me if, while deliberating Chauvin’s guilt or innocence, jurists discovered they were not able to believe what they saw. It had taken me, after different videos first began surfacing in late May 2020, more than a week to believe what I was seeing.
"Fusion of Faith & Resilence" art by Aberjhani with quote from the book Journey through the Power of the Rainbow.
My first instinct was to call them deep-fake videos produced by people looking for their shot at social media stardom. Maybe this White man in a police uniform was only pretending to pose like some infamous hunter over subdued game while staring, with a toxic mixture of arrogance and defiance, at cameras recording the insanity. Maybe that other gentle giant of a Black man, who probably could have snapped Chauvin in two had he not consciously chosen to respect his authority as an officer of the law, and who cried out repeatedly to someone whose love he did not doubt, was not really gone after all. Except that he really was.
Global Support for African Americans
Strangely, what broke my frozen-in-time disbelief was another set of images which flashed across the globe over the weeks that followed. Protesters in Pretoria, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney, Berlin, and many more international cities took to streets, plazas, and fields to register their rejection of the hatred documented so thoroughly and horrifically. Their actions, however, also demonstrated something else which many may not have considered.
In different capacities internationally, African Americans have become known to the world as something very different from what Chauvin chose to dismiss with such heinous disregard. And certainly different from what a bridge named after former Governor Talmadge would have visitors to Savannah believe. Globally, various Black performance artists, athletes, members of the military, business partners, and spiritual consultants have become highly-valued members of an extended family. This value was something the policeman could not imagine. As prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell stated repeatedly during opening and closing statements of the trial, “He didn’t get up, and he didn’t let up.”
Questions & Possible Answers
It is worth questioning why Chauvin felt so comfortable murdering someone suspected of having passed on a counterfeit $20 bill and why his subsequent conviction was not a foregone conclusion. The same question bears contemplation when examining circumstances surrounding the deaths of: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, 13-year-old Adam Toledo, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, and 42-year-old Andrew Brown Jr. Not a comprehensive list by any means but only of names which come most readily to mind at this moment. Questions regarding them have also hounded me my entire life in regard to the 1963 death of my adolescent brother Robert Lee, shot in the back and killed by police here in Savannah.
The answers have to do with the casual manner in which too many Americans, until now (possibly), have chosen either actively or passively to sustain a culture which encourages the advancement of one demographic based on the detriment of another. The short name for this is well known: systemic racism. Because it truly is SYSTEMIC, ironically, any number of African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans have been conditioned to perpetuate its devastating consequences in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew he was not going to see the end of racism in his lifetime just as Barack H. Obama knew his election to the U.S. presidency would not accomplish that extraordinary feat. The current U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledges the same. Nonetheless, the conviction of Derek Chauvin has, perhaps like no other single court ruling in U.S. history, confirmed that it can be done. The successful movement to see justice delivered on behalf of George Floyd’s family was accomplished by engaged citizenry applying sustained advocacy at every social level where diverse people happened to find themselves. As impossible as it may seem to end racism at this current history-making moment, perhaps the best way to honor Mr. Floyd’s amazing contribution to the effort is to do all we can anyway to make sure it does end at some point. Otherwise, what good does it do to celebrate such things as a small helicopter called Ingenuity lifting itself for a few moments off the surface of Mars 181.55 million miles away? In what way would it make sense to continue boasting about advancements in artificial intelligence if we refuse to commit our innate human intelligence to healing the world of the life-destroying disease that is racism?
With April 2021 being the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month, it is also the perfect time to share a shortened re-post of the article ‘Tis the Season for the Magic of Poetry Part 2: Angels and Poets. It was first published in 2014 as part of a series for my AXS National African-American Cultural Arts column. When considering the recent shooting deaths of 13-year-old Adam Toledo and 20-year-old Daunte Wright, as well as mass shooting in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Atlanta, Georgia, poetry might seem to lack any real kind of serious significance in 2021. But as pointed out in the original first part of this series: One important reason poetry matters is because it often helps to expand humanity’s capacity for putting brutal and sublime experiences alike into usable, meaningful, contexts.
A Significant Utilitarian Role
The publication of an anthology such as Black Gold (compiled and edited by the late Ja A. Jahannes) is always an important event for a number of reasons. For one, it contributes to the preservation of a powerful literary tradition which has served to document the diverse poetic voices of different eras. Another is because it helps secure a niche market known to make traditional publishers somewhat nervous from a business perspective when it comes to investing in that same market. However, this being the digitalized information age, new traditions have formed in which established poetry organizations such as the Academy of American Poets will email subscribers poems on a daily basis.
In addition, online publications like Poetry Life and Times, edited by Robin Ouzman Hislop, publish contemporary poets on a fairly regular weekly to biweekly basis. Moreover, its sister digital venue Poetry Lifetimes, edited by Sara Russell, delivers poetry titles and headlines on a daily basis via the popular Paper.li content aggregation platform. Each of these, and others like them, demonstrates the significant cultural and utilitarian role that poetry continues to play in the lives of numerous individuals, organizations, and communities.
Angels and Poets
The book The River of Winged Dreams has gained some popularity since its publication in 2010 partly because more than half a dozen of the poems take their themes, and sometimes titles, from different holidays and other special occasions. The following, however, is presented at this time for its evocation of grace and compassion, two of humanity’s better qualities which even those who are fairly humbug on the holidays can appreciate when extended to them:
1. Neither had been invited but both were welcomed. They spoke through wordless intuition, cool nods of “Peace-Be-Still,” and, “As-Goes-Love-So-Goes-Life.” Their quiet burned my brain with inklings of wonders to come––as I set my table with what I had: half of a cheese sandwich left over from a lucky day.
2. From the eyes of one, my meager offering drew liquid letters and symbols that splashed into goblets until they overflowed with flavors of wine. The second stranger laughed. As he howled, their sorrow and their joy set my table anew—laid it heavy with glazed yams, marinated dreams, and aromatic breads.
3. Then their wings spread and revealed feathers painted with the names and words of poets known and unknown. Echoes of vows and prayers exploded blinding songs of light. By the time I could see again, my guests had gone. I stared at the bountiful table they left, too stuffed with awe, to feast on the generosity of their grace. 4. A knock at the door made me think they’d returned. It was instead an old grandfather, homeless, with three children whose parents had been lost to war and disregard.
They had not been invited but all were welcomed. I nodded through tears of wordless intuition: “Peace-Be-Still,” and, “As-Goes-Love-So-Goes-Life.”
(“Freedom & Accountability” art by Aberjhani for Bright Skylark Literary Productions C2021)
Members of the U.S. Congress and millions of American citizens in general are finding it very hard to think in terms of compassion when it comes to participants in the Trumpsurrection of January 6, 2021, at Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA. Here are five painful reasons why:
1) The country was already reeling from the crippling blow dealt by COVID-19, which during the week of the Trumpsurrection reportedly was averaging 2,700 deaths daily. On the day of the event, which itself may now be described as a super-spreader, the country hit a then record high of 3,964 deaths. The next day the number shot up to more than 4,000. With the virus itself having long been described as “the invisible enemy,” Trumpsurrectionists have become easily viewed as allies of the same.
2) According to repeated alerts issued by the FBI, the January 6 Trumpsurrection was only the first of a series of planned attacks veiled as protest demonstrations. More “armed protests” are scheduled to take place nationwide from January 16-20. Just as the initial domestic terrorist assault successfully replaced the victorious historical Senate elections of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in media headlines, the planned mayhem has already begun to disrupt news of annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations. Likewise, they are becoming a dominant point of focus over the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the Unites States, and Kamala Harris as the first woman, and person of African and Indian descent, as the vice president.
3) The relative ease with which Trumpsurrectionists were able to breach Capitol defenses with seeming minimal opposition from “overwhelmed” law enforcement officials has magnified the issue of disparity when it comes to how predominantly White groups have been treated at protest events in DC under the current administration in sharp contrast to the way Black Lives Matter advocates have (not to mention the pile-up of bodies of Black bodies shot down by police throughout 2020). Whereas Blacks have been routinely met and halted in their tracks by a heavily-armed uniformed presence organized far in advance of announced BLM protests, Trumpsurrectionists were literally invited by POTUS to come to Capitol Hill and show their strength. One the shock of what had occurred began to lessen, officials did move to announce charges and make arrests.
4) For the first time in their collective memory, members of the U.S. Congress found their collective physical presence directly involved in the kind life-and-death situation which members of America’s armed forces have dealt with all the years of war in Afghanistan and elsewhere. People armed with assault guns, pipe bombs, restraint ties, and incredible disregard for the processes of democracy have a way of convincing lawmaker to rethink their sense of power and authority versus a suddenly-consuming awareness of individual mortality. 5) What once may have been considered the current POTUS’s bold charismatic style of leadership incorporating pragmatism and the manipulation of manufactured chaos (with disinformation and misinformation often-favored tools) is no longer viewed as such. It has been branded a high-level fascist threat to America’s security, the health of its citizens, and the future of its economy. An unprecedented second impeachment of a U.S. president in whom millions obviously believe very deeply is not something on which most leaders would prefer to spend time, energy, or resources while a pandemic continues to rage like a global wildfire. However, given the state of vulnerability and explosive violence into which said president has plunged America, the political disciplinarians who would see the country remain intact have to take at least one last cue from the POTUS and “be strong.” That has meant, in lieu of the attempt to convince Vice President Vice President to invoke the 25th amendment, moving ahead with that historic second impeachment.
The events we tag as history have a way of derailing planned intentions, good or otherwise, and revising stories already in progress. That clearly became the case for every American with the domestic terrorist attack, referred to herein as the Trumpsurrection, on January 6, 2021. It was the same for millions of non-American with various business, political, or family ties to the country, who experienced excruciating disruptions of their lives altered.
Different individual leanings and cultural or political persuasions are always going to stir disagreements regarding issues as minor as what to watch on TV, or as major who should receive COVID-19 vaccinations first. Does that mean they can only be resolved, after all these centuries of evolving and supposedly learning better, through violent conflict? If ours was still an era in which we still used clubs or spears as major instruments of survival and we had not developed to a point where we can communicate proficiently through multiple mediums, the preceding question might not be considered rhetorical. What baffles so many at this bizarre moment in history, following a year in which the coronavirus forced communities worldwide to realize how truly inextricably interwoven our lives are, is why such a question has to be posed with any intention whatsoever.
Aberjhani Co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance Author of Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind
A shortage of compelling topics to address via books, blog essays, podcasts, fine art, photography, electronic gaming, and other creative media has not been among the traumatizing events unleashed upon humanity in the year 2020. Painful history-altering occurrences have, however, included the following: a very stubborn and deadly COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, further evidence of climate change in the form of murderous fires in California, riots in cities across America in response to #2ManyLivesGone2Soon, and political unease in the face of an uncertain future.
Detail from artwork titled "Blue Rose of Remembrance for Black Lives Gone Too Soon" by Aberjhani.
Incorporating reports on important public happenings into ongoing projects has long been among the better practices at Bright Skylark Literary Productions. It goes back at least as far to the days of my former AXS National African-American Cultural Arts column when I created art graphics for my news stories. Articles sometimes included original poetry to enhance editorial impact. Where the year 2020 is concerned, the following steps have been taken:
To help combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bright Skylark added face masks to the line of products offered through its Fine Art America storefront.
To help correct social injustices generated by systemic racism and other forms of oppression, the book Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind underwent a timely revision and launched officially in September. Artwork supporting the same goal was posted on Fine Art America.
The Conversations with the World Blog Series launched to encourage dialogues on unifying as well polarizing topics to help bridge the gap between the two.
A previously dormant Facebook author account was reactivated to increase engagement with people concerned about deteriorating social conditions and help identify ways to improve the same.
Works of art presented as tributes to victims of COVID-19 and diverse frontline essential workers were made available at Fine Art America.
Although taking the above steps did not erase the different social, political, and environmental ills currently dogging the world, I like to think they contributed to the process of helping move things in a better healthier direction.