The fact that Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance turns 18 in September makes me more than a little emotional. It was my second major book (after the birth of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry) and at this time I feel about it as many parents do when an offspring turns 18: apprehensive, reflective, grateful to have come this far.
Several days passed before I allowed myself to actually pick up a copy of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance after boxes of both the hardback and paperback editions arrived at my home in September 2003. The cover art, featuring a painting by celebrated Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence, was so beautiful I almost felt like touching it would be a criminal offense. (The more recent second edition has art by Archibald J. Motley on the cover.)
Having labored virtually nonstop for months and years prior to that moment to complete the encyclopedia, I suddenly found the anticipated joy of physically holding the book plagued by fears and doubts. Much the way humanity en masse of late has found itself afflicted by divisions over vaccinations and face mask mandates when it comes to continuing the battle against COVID-19 and its more lethal Delta variant.
My problem had nothing to do with a virus and everything to do with lingering questions over how well my writing partner, Sandra, and I had fulfilled a mission we both considered sacred. Had we utilized available resources efficiently enough? Had we provided readers fair balanced interpretations of “known facts” relevant to our subjects’ lives? Was the work a worthy tribute to their phenomenal accomplishments and sacrifices? I had gone through a similar trial of initiation involving The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois book when it arrived a week earlier. Only it was a smaller project which caused less anxiety.
Once I allowed myself to lift Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance out of its box, sit down with a cup of coffee and go through its pages, I reached an important sanity-preserving conclusion. We (Sandra, myself, Clement Alexander Price, and our amazing contributors) had added significantly to the expansion and elevation of conversations surrounding the impact of the renaissance.
Confronting History with History
In the months and years to come, we would take a number of the critical hits which tend to follow the publication of such groundbreaking work. However, important awards, numerous citations, supportive reviews, and further editions would also follow.
Moreover, the book was published just after the 9-11 Attacks and prior to the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement. As such, it helped lay the groundwork for important dialogues addressing both events. Just being mindful of that is one beautifully-satisfying way to celebrate Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance’s 18th birthday. Another is the following:
Documenting the Story of One Book’s Amazing Journey
As I observe this 18th birthday of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, I am very mindful of the fact that my co-author for the title, Sandra L. West, and writer of the foreword, Clement Alexander Price, are now deceased. So is the man who provided us with the book’s epigraph, Ja A. Jahannes. But rather than immerse myself in sorrow over their passing, I am more inclined to acknowledge the enduring radiance with which their spirits and intellect blessed our enterprise. They would be happy to know the book continues to serve as a valuable resource for a new generation of students of the renaissance. Below, in closing, are links to my tributes to them as well as to a few posts on the encyclopedia’s impact thus far:
And at this point, now that the Harlem Renaissance Centennial is upon us, my personal Harlem Renaissance journey continues…
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
I considered myself exercising patience and restraint when I resisted paying additional shipping fees to receive my order of Barack Obama’s bestselling book, A Promised Land, just one day after it came out on November 17, 2020. Having opted for the longer arrival time of approximately 2 weeks at the much cheaper cost of “Free Shipping,” I did not expect to receive the book until either the end of November or early December. So imagine my surprise and #gratitude when it showed up November 19, just 2 days after the release date.
There’s no question A Promised Land is one of the most significant, if not THE most significant, memoirs of the modern era. Because of Mr. Obama’s direct involvement with public events which have shaped much of America’s and the world’s history in this first half of the 21st century, it could not have been otherwise.
A Parallel Literary Journey
In the photograph above, I have placed A Promised Land between 2 of my own most recent books: Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah and Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind. The reason is not because I megalomaniacally imagine myself to be as famous or influential as the 44th president of the United States of America, but to commemorate a parallel literary journey through some extraordinary shared history. It is also my way of having a little social distance holiday fun with the great man himself.
Upon his election to the Oval Office 2008, I wrote the first (“There upon A Bough of Hope and Audacity”) of several poems about Barack H. Obama’s historic achievement. During my time as a national cultural arts columnist for AXS Entertainment, I wrote a number of articles documenting responses to Mr. Obama’s first term as president (with now #PresidentElect Joe Biden as his vice president). The proliferation of what we now frequently refer to as disinformation and misinformation prompted me to coin the term guerrilla decontextualization for the extreme nihilism directed against him and his family. Many Americans were not certain he would still be here to write and publish this book. The fact that he did endure to tell his remarkable story in A Promised Land is something totally worthy of celebration and gratitude.
Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2020-2030
The year 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of an article series I wrote called 5 Notable Women of the Past and Present and which was first published by AXS Entertainment. Included in the series were profiles of: musician and actress Abbey Lincoln, comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley, author Octavia Butler, social justice advocate Dr. Abigail Jordan, and Ms. Simone. It is an honor to recognize Ms. Simone’s brilliant legacy and extraordinary life at this time with two new works of art––titled Ode to the Genius and Good Intentions of Nina Simone Numbers 1 and 2–– and republication my article about her ongoing influence on contemporary musical artists. That influence remains as true now as a decade ago. Lessons from Nina Simone on Love, Music, and Commitment part 1 starts now:
Getting to Know Ms. Simone
Many modern audiences first became familiar with the name Nina Simone in 2005 after Canadian singer Michael Buble’ recorded her 1965 hit song, “Feeling Good,” and which finalists on the popular American Idol television show sang before world audiences in 2007.
However, long before Buble’ or American Idol finalists sang “Feeling Good,” Nina Simone made a lasting name for herself on several continents as one of the great singers, composers, and performers of the twentieth century. The fact that at least a dozen books document her life and work illustrate just how great she was and how enduring her music remains. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, by Nadine Cohodas, is one of the latest such titles just published in February 2010.
The singer herself published in 1991 (the first London edition) an autobiography titled I Put a Spell on You. Describing just how Simone went about working her musical magic, author and former Ebony Magazine music editor Phyl Garland wrote in her in her own book, The Sound of Soul, The Music and Its Meaning, that:
“She casts her spell with the fluid but frequently complex patterns of notes she etches on her piano and with the distinctive sound of her richly reedy voice.”
Another way to gauge the impact of Simone’s life and legacy is to look at it like this: whereas the great Aretha Franklin earned, and has worn with dignity, the title “Queen of Soul” for at least four decades, Nina Simone earned and wore for decades the title “High Priestess of Soul.”
North Carolina Beginnings
She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. Both her parents, John Divine Waymon and Mary Kate Waymon, were entertainers when they met but later settled into more stable professions to raise their eight children. Her mother became a devoted Methodist minister, which later prompted Eunice Waymon to adopt the name Nina Simone when she began performing in night clubs and bars.
Simone’s talents as a pianist were recognized early and her family supported her goal to become a world-class concert pianist. She was good enough to study for a time at the renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York but her application to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected. This rejection, she felt, was based more on her race than her abilities and it has often been cited as a major source of the political fury that characterized some of her music. The planned career in classical music took off instead in the direction of more popular genres. Recording her first album, Little Girl Blue, in 1957, she enjoyed a hit with the George Gershwin song, “I Loves You Porgy.”
While she was quickly labeled and marketed as a jazz performer, Simone had actually developed into a mistress of diverse musical forms that included not only jazz, but gospel, blues, Broadway show tunes, Black folk songs, and other styles in classic American modes. She could have easily carved out a successful career for herself in popular music and simply enjoyed the wealth and fame that comes with such success. But in addition to her musical sensibilities, she also possessed a social/political consciousness that was magnified by friendships with individuals like the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author James Baldwin, and author Langston Hughes, all of whom at various times lent their artistry to the struggle for racial equality.
It was Hughes who said, “Nina Simone is as different from other singers as beer is from champagne.” While he contributed liner notes to at least one of her albums, she in turn wrote with him the hit song “Backlash Blues.”
Commitment and Consequences
The singer once stated that as far as she was concerned, the job of a creative artist was to address the pressing issues of her times. Towards that end, she wrote and recorded a number of songs that addressed individual moral responsibility as well as the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s. Following two events in particular––the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in Mississippi and that of four Black girls in a Birmingham church–– she recorded the now classic “Mississippi Goddamn.”
The composition is in part satire, part social criticism, and part political outrage, which, given the real-world apartheid conditions and context of the times, makes a great deal of sense. She introduced the song by emphasizing its title and pointing out that she meant every word of it, then sang with fierce courage and intelligence: “Alabama's gotten me so upset/ Tennessee made me lose my rest/ And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam…”
Aside from expressing outrage, the singer also implored:
“Can't you see it
While many championed Simone for her courageous outspokenness at a time when passive endurance was considered the key to civil rights success for African Americans, others vilified her for it. Many radio stations banned the song and the impact upon her career would prove a lasting negative one. Other powerful protest songs, notably music legends Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” were also released during this period but apparently considered less confrontational or threatening than “Mississippi Goddamn.”
NEXT: Lessons from Nina Simone on Love, Music, and Commitment part 2
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of 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 American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.