Somewhere in the digital files accumulated while working with Sandra L. West on Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance is a long poem I wrote--at a time when we were both feeling exhausted by our literary labors--to renew our motivation to finish the book. Having learned earlier this week of Sandra's passing last month on Valentine's Day, I wanted very much to find it.
What I recall about the poem is that it placed our determination to complete the encyclopedia within the context of challenges faced by our Harlem Renaissance heroes to get their work done. Instances such as the historical reality of James Weldon Johnson repeatedly risking his life in different towns to establish new chapters of the NAACP, or Zora Neale Hurston moving a small heater from one room to another in a cold Harlem, New York City, apartment to keep her hands warm while typing, did not invalidate our personal struggles but did diminish the anguish they caused.
For her part in keeping hope alive as we wrote what would become a Choice Academic Title Award-winning volume, Sandra used to conclude all of her emails with several inspiring and empowering quotes. They included this one from the great poet and essayist Audre Lorde:
"When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."
During one low point, when frustration more than fear nearly got the better of us, she grumbled: "...I have never worked so hard. I am still tired from it. My face has lines in it, encyclopedia tracks, I call them, just like the tracks in a junkie's arms."
"Encyclopedia tracks": That was some kind of weariness and addiction. But we were no more about to throw in the towel than Ida B. Wells-Barnett had been about to give up her gun when investigating reports on lynching.
Mission Impossible Accomplished
The obstacles confronting us as we employed every ounce of strength we could command in service to our vision were not minor. In my case, it was a matter of balancing the extensive research and composition of articles with being a full-time caregiver. In Sandra's, it meant continuing the work at the same time she negotiated significant life changes: going through a divorce while also relocating from Savannah, Georgia, to Richmond, Virginia, to New York City and eventually back to her alma mater of Rutgers University in Newark, NJ.
Obviously, with help from a few friends like the late Dr. Clement Alexander Price, who gifted us with a foreword for the book, we did make it to the finish line and enjoyed an amazing launch party for the encyclopedia at Rutgers University in 2003. Not long afterwards, numerous reviews, book-signings, and interviews followed. Below is an excerpt from a spring 2004 interview with Sandra published in the EBONY WATCH newsletter of the Organization of Black Faculty and Staff, Rutgers University-Newark. Her response to the interviewer's question makes it clear why she felt our stress and agonies were worth the battle won:
Q. There are many reference books about the Harlem Renaissance. What makes your volume stand out?
NEXT: Tribute to Harlem Renaissance Chronicler Sandra L. West part 2: Worthy of Our Ancestors' Legacy
100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
Elemental's 10th anniversary inspires mindful reflections & renewed hopes (part 2 of 2): illumination
That Elemental, the Power of Illuminated Love, would prove a challenge to get published had always been known. Potential traditional publishers had no problems admiring its bold creativity and uninhibited spiritual intensity. What most could not accept was something traditionally troublesome when it comes to artists and the marketplace: the financial risks involved.
With all respect to healthy doubts and sensible reservations, so far as Luther and I were concerned the years of energy, labor, and determination already invested in Elemental by the time 2006 rolled around equated to something more than a calculated transactional value. From the perspectives of our deepest meditations and intentions, the completion of Elemental meant contributing to the cultural legacies established by creative artists like those who made possible such movements as Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and the Harlem Renaissance. This last, especially, was one which had already stamped our destinies as Luther had studied with artists of the Harlem Renaissance and I had already co-authored Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
The center image for this art graphic features the first two stanzas of a poem by Aberjhani from ELEMENTAL (p. 22) titled "Past, Present & Future Are One" based on a Luther E. Vann painting of the same title. The third-eye illustration seen above was drawn by Jason Maurer when the poem was published in the former SCAD newspaper The Georgia Guardian in 1993, 15 years prior to the publication of ELEMENTAL. The combined creative synergy demonstrates how ELEMENTAL has helped to inspire and empower others from the beginning.
But once creative passion and committed partners empowered us to finally produce a physical book, we reached two important conclusions. First: we recognized the need to articulate, both for potential buyers and booksellers, as definitively as we could, the goals and values inherent in Elemental. Secondly: it seemed obvious the work could be adapted for different mediums. These considerations resulted in the following statements:
When envisioning Elemental as a staged musical or as a video production, I described it thus:
...An exploration and documentation of the way human beings occupy public spaces in interpretative contrast to how they experience inner spaces... It illustrates the way collective intention makes communal interaction possible while individual need and impulse maintain the integrity of a person's separate being.
For example, the Luther E. Vann painting "Christ Listening to Stereo" (p. 27) is of a youth on a bus in New York City (please see image below). The image reveals how the youth is at once physically part of a larger setting while remaining, via his personal stereo, completely apart from it. Immersed in his music, he claims a connection to the artist who made the music and who allows him to not only share in the expressed creative passion, but to utilize the same as a kind of soundtrack for his own anticipations, memories, desires, needs, or fears of the moment. Very similar and yet very different scenes are enacted in such public spaces as parks, malls, back yards, office buildings, clubs, and street corners. They all make the individual part of a larger whole even while many individuals continue to exist primarily as isolated fragments of that whole.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.