"Luther and the Coming of Light" digital art by Aberjhani C2022)
.he last thing I expected to find myself writing about as we moved deeper into the year 2022 was a 3-way war between Russia, Ukraine, and professed defenders of democracy around the world. But write about it I have on the LinkedIn website as well as here at Bright Skylark. Hopefully, the articles have made it clear one of my primary concerns regarding the war has been the brutal erasure of history and culture as well as that of human lives.
The Chronicling Legacies of Black Artists in Savannah series was first published in my AXS cultural arts column as an expression of that same concern. It is reposted at this time both to encourage unwavering support in their struggle for what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called “the right to live,” and, in observation of the 14th anniversary of the publication of ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love:
Contributors to Unique Traditions
Upon his passing on April 6, 2016, Luther E. Vann joined an illustrious group of brilliant contemporary African-American creative artists who, prior to their transitions, produced numerous celebrated works which have added tremendously to Savannah’s (Georgia, USA) reputation and value as a favorite travel destination for lovers of the cultural arts. Vann (b. 1937) and Allen Fireall (1954-2014) bestowed upon the city a legacy of fine visual art that documented daily life in different communities throughout the Low Country in Georgia and South Carolina. Like artist William M. Pleasant Jr. (1928-1997) before them, they also contributed greatly to the unique traditions of Gullah art.
(Digital portrait of late Savannah Gullah artist Allen Fireall by Aberjhani)
In many cases, particularly where Fireall is concerned, their painted canvases depict scenes representative of historic cultural activities rarely practiced as part of everyday living in contemporary times. Making nets and sewing quilts by hand, for example, are more likely to be done for creative enjoyment [or to be sold as cultural artefacts] rather than, as they once were, out of simple necessity. Similarly, men and women carrying bushels of crabs atop their heads, or gathering in parks or alongside roads to wait for job assignments are seen even less rarely (if ever). Nor are you as likely while driving or walking down a lane in the American South to see women in adjoining back yards laughing and talking as they hang freshly-washed laundry out to dry.
Restoring Erased History
The late world-renowned Rev. Dr. Ja A. Jahannes(1942 -2015) was something of a polymath whose exceptional talents included writing plays, poems, novels, and children’s books–– as well as publishing anthologies, producing fine-art photography, composing music, teaching, and delivering inspired sermons. Through his multiple positions as an educator at the HBCU Savannah State University, a minister at Savannah’s now 105-year-old Abyssinia Baptist Church, and a public intellectual, Jahannes empowered many others to pick up where he would leave off.
The names presented here are not done so to invite nostalgic reveries, though studied reflections are certainly appropriate for people familiar with them. They are offered (and a number of others could easily be included) to help prevent their consignment to discarded files marked “erased history, or being deleted, via guerrilla decontextualization by omission, from the more “official” channels of documented acknowledgements.
Whether using the term “erasure of history” or “history of erasure” the final definition points to the same legacy-destroying result: the removal of consequential names and events from their authentic historic context and thus from public awareness. An erasure of history indicates the active or conscious deletion of a subject from various official records. Histories of erasure, as it were, possess the paradoxical distinction of referring to accumulated instances of eradication. The first describes the act of omitting relevant events or biographies. The second describes accounts of such actions.
The late painter William M. Pleasant Jr. surrounded by some of his celebrated works.
Guerrilla decontextualization by omission tends to occur frequently when it comes to African-American cultural arts workers who have not been embraced by certain institutions. Whatever prominence they command stems more from the direct support of, and engagement with, appreciative audiences than from disinterested commercial outlets. Some, such as William M. Pleasant Jr., had the good fortune to produce heirs, like Jalal Pleasant, who also became accomplished artists and have labored to ensure their parent’s work is properly noted.
The Example of Luther E. Vann
All of the people mentioned here have won some level of recognition in their own right. Vann earned his place beside the luminous talents he has joined through a lifetime of dedication to both the spirit and the forms of his craft. It was that dauntless commitment which prompted organizations like the Telfair Museum Friends of African-American Art to back the publication of the ekphratic book, Elemental the Power of Illuminated Love, in honor of his individual genius.
The dream, for a Black man living in the U.S. southeast, was a strange one to have during Thanksgiving week in 1991. Within it, I was standing in front of a large map of Europe. On the map, what was then called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) stood out prominently, as if the printed surface had been embossed. Images of its fabled neighboring nations–– Poland, Turkey, Germany, France, Sweden, and others––remained colorful but flat.
Then, as I stared, thin lines of flame started spreading throughout the map. They grew larger and a loud rumbling like thunder growled from inside it as large burning chunks tore away like fiery boulders exploding out of a volcano.
Although the dream-explosion forced my eyes open, I could still see chunks of burning earth exploding out of the map. My hand automatically reached for the pen and notebook on the nightstand and I wrote down everything I could remember about what I had seen. Typing up such intriguing night-time visions and sharing them with a small dream study group was a favorite interest at the time (as acknowledged in Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah). So later, type and share I did.
Group members came up with different interpretations of what it might mean. Maybe it was about me wanting to go back to Europe, now that I was out of the Air Force, and write a novel there. Or: might it have something to do with the WWII memorials to Russians and Germans I had seen while attending a military editors’ conference in Berlin, Germany, some years earlier (when the infamous Berlin Wall was still standing)? Or maybe, just maybe, it was something as simple as my subconscious suggesting I study more deeply great Russian authors like Leo Tolstoy, Anna Akhmatova, Maxim Gorky, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
An Unexpected Development
About a month later, on Christmas Day, then President George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) delivered a televised statement which gave my dream yet another potential meaning. He announced the end of the USSR and the birth of a cluster of newly-independent nations. The senior President Bush informed the world:
“…This is a day of great hope for all Americans. Our enemies have become our partners, committed to building democratic and civil societies. They ask for our support, and we will give it to them. We will do it because as Americans we can do no less.”
Following the departure of Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, and a dozen more from the USSR, combined with the resignation of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Russian President (1990-1991) Mikhail S. Gorbachev, an era of frozen diplomatic relations began thawing. It had taken decades for the Soviet Bloc and the U.S. to reach a point where Bush could make such an extraordinarily hopeful proclamation in 1991.
Weathering Putrid Storms
History is rarely short on various antagonistic events unkind to notions of lasting world peace. That being the case, a quick glance at any comprehensive timeline of manmade catastrophes around the world reveal more than a few have occurred since the USSR’s depressing suffocating empire dissolved. The event which prompted me to take a more active nonviolent role addressing matters of war and peace on a global scale was 9/11 and its hysteria-inducing aftermath. Within the span of half a century, humanity had gone from punctuating the language of diplomacy with hydrogen bombs to concluding them by crashing passenger aircraft into the World Trade Centers.
The collective international trauma resulting from 9/11 lead me to establish the online Creative Thinkers International community in 2007 and keep it afloat for almost a decade. Members from countries on nearly every continent shared their stories, videos, photography, music, artwork, poetry, and lives to demonstrate the advantages of harmonious coexistence.
For those of us in my corner of the world, the prolonged angst of: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, COVID-19, revelations of the extent of systemic racism in the U.S., and the strange drama that was January 6, seemed the worst history might dump on us en masse. We may have weathered those putrid storms less gracefully than preferred but weather them we did with sufficient measures of dignity and hope remaining intact. Then along came February 24, 2022.
Sanity Be Damned
From the beginning of Russia’s bare-fanged attacks upon Ukraine this time around, the sheer monstrous brutality of assaults stirred quaking terror in some even as they ignited excited awe in others. In a world where entering realms of virtual warfare is a daily pastime for many, a lot of people likely had problems believing they were not immersed in an AI-generated dystopian landscape. How, millions have wondered, could they/we possibly be watching, in this 21st century, authentic-rather-than-artificial human beings bombing a nation of people out of their homes, occupations, bodies, and countries.
Most incredibly, so far as anyone has yet been able to tell, all that death and obliteration came raining down solely because one man could not relinquish fantasies of rebuilding a past he considered too irresistibly glorious. Unlike those who have no choice except to make peace with various losses or changes in our lives, here was someone with the wealth, political power, and military might to indulge his megalomania at will. The lives of pregnant women, elderly men, and school children be damned. Sanity: be damned.
NEXT: Why Genocide in Ukraine Matters to A Black Poet in America (pt. 2 of 2)