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.
"Simply by allowing its darker-hued brothers and sisters to openly discuss ideas without having to constantly justify, defend, or survive the color of their skin, whether in classrooms of the great Sorbonne or while walking un-hunted down a boulevard, Paris [France] made a crucial contribution to what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance and to the legacy of African-American intellectual traditions in general." from Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah quote, art graphic, & new 2019 book by Aberjhani. Click image to pre-order.
The basic image in this quotation art graphic was derived from visual studies prepared for the works of art which have become known as Harlem Renaissance Deja Vu Numbers 1 and 2 canvases. The work seen above was modeled after a famous photo (photographer unknown at this point) of a young James Baldwin holding a copy of his essay collection, No Name in the Street. In the poster graphic viewed here, this author is seen holding a copy of the forthcoming title, Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah (ISBN 978-9388125956) currently slated for release May 1, 2019. It is also now the focus of a new blog-site you can check out by clicking either the art graphic or this link: Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
With actress Regina King having won Golden Globe and Academy Awards for her portrayal of Sharon Rivers in the film adaptation of Baldwin's classic novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, plus the critical acclaim garnered by the 2016 biopic, I Am Not Your Negro, the iconic Baldwin is possibly more famous now than ever before. And No Name In Street, of course, has gone on to become an American literary classic.
The personal essay style utilized in Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah may or may not reflect some of Baldwin's influence. He is referenced in the stories "Cities of Lights and Shadows and Dreams," and "Trees Down Everywhere" but any stylistic similarity is not intentional. Contemporary authors who grew up reading Baldwin, as I did, are more likely than not to have been influenced by him to one degree or another on one level or another.
Connecting and Disconnecting
The observation noted in the above quote about the city of Paris's connection to the cultural arts revolution known as the Harlem Renaissance might seem out of place in a book titled Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. In fact it is not. One reason is because the book is being published during the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance.
Another is because Savannah, like Paris, also has strong ties to the event which is generally recognized as having lasted throughout the 1920s going into the 1930s, but which endured to a lesser degree well into the 1940s. That such an unlikely connection can be identified between the Harlem Renaissance, Paris (France), and Savannah (Georgia, USA) is one more example of how the phenomenal movement transcended geographical boundaries and strengthened the case for harmonious interactions between multicultural communities.
I first explored that three-way connection in an essay titled The Harlem Renaissance Way Down South, and now revisit it in the aforementioned story, "Cities of Lights and Shadows and Dreams." The narrative stands as a good metaphor for one of the primary concerns highlighted in Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah: how we connect and why we sometimes disconnect during disruptive, or stagnant, moments in our personal lives and shared public histories. Measuring, determining, and applying the value of such awareness holds possible advantages for many more than the denizens of just one city or region.
100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
Not quite 2 years ago (February 12, 2016) I wrote the following regarding the publication of a new edition of my novel, Christmas When Music Almost Killed the World, now titled Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Player, on the publication streaming site known as #FreedReads:
‘Freed Reads hopes to help combat those problems [associated with illiteracy] by doing for reading what #YouTube and #Netflix have done for viewing. But is such a thing possible? Can books be streamed in a manner that proves satisfactory to #stakeholders at every level? Freed Reads’ founders decided that the idea is worth investing sufficient time, labor, and pioneering technology to find out…” (from Christmas Gets a Valentine’s Day Weekend Reboot) I also felt the innovation was worth taking time to investigate its possibilities. For me, that meant taking a leap of faith and placing Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player in the Australia-based publisher’s hands.
Bad News, Good News, and More Good News
With the stiff competition that seasoned organizations like Amazon and various retail chain giants always present to newcomers, the venture at first gained some respectable ground. Recently, however, owners decided the operation in its current form would not be able to survive and the website hosting it is now offline.
The good news is that although Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player is no longer available as a “Freed Read,” the original Christmas When Music Almost Killed the World underground classic edition can still be purchased in both copy and digital formats at the following links:
The other upside to recent developments is that the Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Player edition is now available for a traditional publisher to consider its publication and distribution.
On any given day of the week, the creator of Postered Chromatic Poetics and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Aberjhani, may be found wearing any number of hats: historian, visual artist, poet, advocate for compassion, novelist, journalist, photographer, and editor. Having recently completed a book of creative nonfiction on his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA) he is currently working on a play about the implications of generational legacies as symbolized by efforts to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
Screenshot of JK Rowling on Twitter with tweet showing mega truck driver assisting residents of Texas during floods that followed Hurricane Harvey in September 2017. Please see below for full AFP News Video.
World-changing catastrophes––like the earthquake that struck Mexico on September 7, and the back-to-back twin maelstroms, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, that rocked the United States this month––have a way of bringing to the surface humanity’s innate, but too often dormant, capacity for compassion. The life-and-death dilemmas they create strip us of the conditioned tendencies that cause people to fixate on superficial differences which encourage needless conflict rather than focus on shared commonalities that make community-building possible.
In their aftermath, we often see concrete demonstrations of exceptional considerations not only through the actions of celebrities like Beyoncé and Stevie Wonder who donate their time and talents to raise millions of dollar to support relief efforts. We also see it in the less glamorous actions performed by ordinary citizens contributing in whatever humble way they can.
Varieties of Angels and Monster Truck Drivers
On September 4, famed British author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, shared this quote by me on Twitter: “Varieties of angels, like varieties of love, are many” (Aberjhani). The quotation was posted along with a video, from AFP News Agency, in which the driver of a mega truck, a bearded white male, is seen wheeling his way through the flooded streets of Port Arthur, Texas, helping people cope with the ravages of Hurricane Harvey.
In this day and age of strained racial anxieties in America and around the world, many people would hesitate to associate the driver in the video with the concept of angelic behavior. As he admits himself, the gargantuan-wheeled trucks are something he and others usually utilize for fun in ways rarely considered heroic. However, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey provided an opportunity to employ the vehicles in a completely different and literally life-saving kind of way:
“You know,” he said, “we’ve had people trying to pay us, but we’re not taking any money. The hugs and the kisses, and watching a grown man cry when you come save him, it’s all worth it.”
Such is the kind of disposition that makes an everyday culture of compassion both credible and possible. Like the giant truck seen in the video, compassion equips us with the means to move past the destructive elements that prevent us from connecting with the potential for greater higher good residing within everyone.
That a global culture of compassion is needed now more than ever has become increasingly evident from by the nonstop talk of possible war between the U.S. and North Korea, and the string of terrorist attacks in London and elsewhere throughout the year 2017. The only thing standing in the way of citizens worldwide making it real is citizens worldwide making the choice to do so.
Most importantly, a true culture of compassion goes beyond basic acts of kindness to encompass mindful considerations of how everyday human activities, such as work, political engagement, social interactions, and economic enterprises either enhance or diminish the quality of human lives. In addition: it takes into account how our actions and aspirations impact the Earth’s ever-evolving biodiversity and general global environment.
One Good Quotation Deserves Another
Some have wondered what prompted celebrity author J.K. Rowling to use my specific quote and whether I had anything to do with the choice. My guess is her informed humane instincts were simply leaning in the same direction as the mega-truck driver’s in the video: toward compassion. It is not exactly something I could have influenced other than, like Rowling, by always striving to communicate something of value to humanity and hoping someone finds meaning in the attempt.
And in this case, thus far some 11,094 re-tweeters have found the shared words valuable and more than 37,970 Twittizens have expressed appreciation by clicking the like button. That being said, the quotation was particularly apt for this specific video because both negate assumptions and prejudices, and both propose exercising a more expanded form of awareness.
Trendsmap showing Author-Poet Aberjhani trending in London following tweet by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.
My response to Rowling’s tweet was also an acknowledgement of the Dalai Lama’s observation that “we all possess the seeds of love and compassion.” Whether we take time to cultivate their growth, however, tends to be another matter. And where that is concerned, the tweet with which I replied to Rowling was a quote by her: “It is our choices... that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (J.K. Rowling).
We can choose to evoke the angels our better nature because doing so makes life more joyfully sustainable for humanity as a whole, or we can choose to demonize each other based on such superficial differences as nationalities, religion, or race for no beneficial reason whatsoever. When tempted to give in to the latter, it is worth remembering that catastrophic events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires don’t ask for immigration papers, birth certificates, or bank account balances before bringing on the full unrelenting force of pure non-discriminating pain.
Poet-Author-Artist Aberjhani spend almost a decade writing his most recently-completed manuscript on culture, history, and race relations in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA). He is currently at work on a play about attempts to change the name of the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
A few years ago while writing my former National African-American Cultural Arts column for AXS Entertainment, certain bloggers in Hong Kong started referring me to as a writer of conscience and commitment. They saw in my work strong parallels between the mission French authors––like Simone De Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus-- who emerged during and after World War II, had assigned themselves, and that which I had adopted in a relatively more peaceful time.
The defining elements in each case were uncontrollable currents of history. They convinced us in our separate eras and geographical regions, and in our determination to secure democracy and advocate struggles against tyranny, that apathy was not an acceptable option. That sentiment is a principle driver behind what many now refer to as the resistance movement in the United States.
The Hong Kong bloggers seemed to also like the fact that I was committed not only to the pursuit of social justice but to creating poems with a more expansive #creative or #spiritual concerns. Some were moved enough to translate some of my haiku verse, like Angel of Earth Days and Seasons, into Hans Chinese. Then along came 2017 and the current debate over what to do or what not to do about Confederate Monuments in America’s public spaces. Amazingly enough, I knew nothing about the one in Forsyth Park in my hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA), while growing up in the city. An informed awareness of what it represents came only after becoming a veteran of a kind myself.
Invitation to a Different Perspective
I first began giving serious thought to the implications of its gargantuan presence in such a public space after author George Dawes Green made reference to it in the inscription he included when autographing for me a copy of his novel, The Caveman’s Valentine. Later, when writing about reinterpretations of urban slavery in Savannah for Connect Savannah, the weekly entertainment news magazine, I delved more deeply into the subject. And then of course went to a completely different level while working on the Civil War Savannah Book Series project. Consequently: the outlook and proposals expressed in my article, “Re-envisioning the Confederate Monument as a Portrait of Diversity”, is very different from what many are voicing about the subject. But I invite you to check it out along with the comments that follow by CLICKING RIGHT HERE.
Aberjhani's most-recently completed work is a book nonfiction on the cultural arts, race relations, and history in Savannah, Georgia (USA). He is currently at work on a play about how history and social movements such as the effort to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge intersect with family dynamics.