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.
"The Amazing Sustainable Power of the PEN" artwork by Aberjhani C2021)
INTRODUCTION: I first began looking forward to celebrating PEN International’s and American PEN’s centennial while observing their back-to-back 90th anniversaries 10 years ago. I did so with a series of articles titled Paradigm Dancing. The AXS Entertainment and previous PEN website pages which once hosted those articles are no longer accessible so it is my joyful honor to periodically republish different articles from the series in Visionary Vibes and to also create a complete page in support of PEN’s efforts on behalf of writers around the world.
Claiming Rights to an Honored Tradition
It was almost enough for me to simply join PEN America roughly a decade ago and, on its former site, set up a profile page without doing much else to qualify its existence. Such a page alone could allow me to relax inside the satisfaction of knowing I had remained true enough to my literary calling to place my name beside that of authors whose lives and craftsmanship had so often empowered my own. That idea, of course, faded very quickly as I further allowed myself to acknowledge something I have long known: you do not claim rights to an honored tradition just because a few books allowed you to bring them into the world or because you managed to cough up the obligatory dues. One claims a right to such traditions very much the way runners on a winning Olympic relay team each earn the distinction of wearing an individual medal––by running his or her segment of the race.
This blog represents one account of one author running his segment of the race. Except that as the title and the quote attributed to Nobel laureate and P.E.N. Club co-founder John Galsworthy indicate, I see it more as a kind of dance than a race. (The anacronym P.E.N. once stood for “Poets, Essayists, Novelists” but now is spelled simply as PEN to indicate dedicated writers of all kinds.)
("Dancing to the Jazz of Life" art by Aberjhani with text by PEN co-founder John Galsworthy.
Galsworthy’s words represented more than a witty aphorism to serve as needless proof for his much-celebrated genius. They could also describe the determination with which he year after year fired off letter after letter, traveled, and campaigned to increase the Club’s membership and secure international support for it. After more than a decade of serving as the organization’s president, he often (according to Harold V. Marrot writing in The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy) expressed his weariness and desire to step down from the position. Yet one thing he did not tire of was promoting PEN’s principles themselves or his belief as spelled out in a May 1924 address to members of the American Center in New York: “…What we feel today the world will feel tomorrow. In homely phrase: It is up to us to make a better world of it. We are the voices. Our Club exists to convert the wilderness we cry in to a green garden.” (J. Galsworthy)
Faced with such conviction and unwavering dedication, it becomes difficult to do nothing more than skillfully park on one’s semi-magnificent laurels. Therefore, the mission established for republishing this blog is to share in the dance of interactions between language and writers’ visions of literary possibilities, and, readers’ participation in that same relationship.
(“A Sigh Out of the Deeps” art by Aberjhani C2021. Quoted text by C.A. Dawson Scott)
Because this is described as a dance of notions, perspectives, and interpretations moving in out of days gone by and days yet to come, it will spin both forward and sideways at varying tempos. The material will include some articles previously posted elsewhere but most notably will feature entries that focus on principles and observations initially presented by John Galsworthy and Catherine A. Dawson Scott. It will also comprise takes on other authors and progressive thinkers inspired by PEN from the time of the original club’s founding in London in 1921, and that of PEN American Center in 1922, to the present. As Galsworthy and Dawson Scott saw for themselves, conversion of “the wilderness we cry in to a green garden” takes some serious labor which can absorb entire lifetimes. It’s a good thing they and those who answered their call in the twentieth century have given the rest of us who are tilling fields in the twenty-first century a 100-year head start.
INTRO: This installment of Celebrating the PEN Centennial was first published in May 2012. What it addresses in regard to writers’ relationships with language as well as such issues as immigration and genocide are as irrefutably relevant now as then. Possibly even more so. To read part 1 of this series please click here. Part 2 begins now:
Whether language is shyly uttered, fiercely written, or fearfully thought, it creates an inherent rhythm which invites the soul to dance to such intoxicating melodies as truth, anger, inspiration, fear, and love.
Human beings most often accept that invitation to dance in many different ways. Sometimes we do so by following the lead of an initial small or large realization until it whirls voluptuously into an unyielding idea that persuades us to take a certain action or cautions us against another.
Sometimes other pronouncements, spoken or un-, follow the first. But in languages of different kinds. They spring back and forth between diverse grammars and revelations of universal symbols or archetypes, as strangely enthralling formulations and poetic constructions creating what many might recognize as: a song of some kind. The music is not always beautiful and the dance it inspires may appear more macabre than graceful. As much as we might prefer to choreograph our lives to hip-hop ballads of genuine democracy, various populations throughout the world community endure their existence instead to the soundtrack of something closer to a nonfiction nightmare dystopia.
Ours is an age in which thousands are driven daily from their homelands by the unforgiving brutalities of war, terrorism, political oppression, starvation, disease, economic piracy, and the relentless suffocation of that singular breath which makes human beings individuals. In the United States, Latinos once secure in their identities as Americans discover they are in fact something referred to as “illegal aliens.” They then have to make their way south across the Mexican border and reestablish their lives to the tune of conditions and customs which previously had been little more than the subject of tales shared by grandparents and other interesting relatives.
Leaving Somalia, refugees struggle to reach neighboring countries like Kenya and Ethiopia or, increasingly, to cross the Atlantic to the United States to escape rape, mutilation, and genocide. People indigenously at home in rain forests and other native locales find themselves driven out by the encroaching demands of commercialism [and climate change]. In each of these scenarios human beings have to adapt to choices made by someone other than themselves and dance frantically, as it were, to a beat not their own. The forced nature of these cultural migrations burden language with a vocabulary of tears steeped in grief and desperation. And they challenge writers to retrieve out of these everyday tragedies any beauty worth singing–– without glamorizing the horrors involved or betraying the lives so despicably at risk.
The Pattern of Dynamics
An author accepting language’s invitation to dance steps onto the floor of his or her sensibility-charged consciousness and begins to move instinctively––even if with much dread––in ways which synchronize images, ideas, emotions, sounds, smells, ignorance, and knowledge. Subtle energies crackle insistently along intersecting horizontal and vertical lines to occupy each other repeatedly and compose a vision which at some point may be called a story, a poem, an essay, or a play. The pattern of dynamics might alter where different authors are concerned but the nature of this paradigm dancing remains essentially the same. Such is the culture, if you will, of the dance shared between vernacular and writers that others––passionate readers, curious friends, fellow authors, tribes on the run––are always encouraged to join them. Many, in fact, will say the dance is not a true one until they do.
"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.”