Running throughout the title story of Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind is a series of intuited exchanges between this author and O’Connor. They range from nostalgic and humorous to confrontational and exploratory. The following is one of those exchanges:
Aberjhani: I agree about the limited perceptions of race in the South as opposed to the more extended objective reality, but I can’t agree that anything you said absolves certain politically empowered social groups of responsibility for the institution of slavery.
O’Connor: That’s because you’re trying to booby trap me again and I’m not having it. Tell me this: can you imagine God as a great author and history as a fantastic fountain pen in His hand?
Aberjhani: Actually, yes, I can.
O’Connor: I know you can. Now imagine God in 1865 authoring a manuscript dated 2008 and writing the unexpected name of the winner of the United States’ presidential election.
(From the book Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind ISBN 1-716-68481-1)
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.
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.
Trends in demographic shifts, progressive grass roots movements aimed at correcting blatant social injustices, and social media have had transformative effects that strongly encourage revisiting and reflecting on images of Black men's realities in 2017. The prototypes identified in "The Many Ways of Looking at Black Man" are still important. They have, however, expanded considerably.
Signs of Our Changing 2017 Times
Both before and during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s through the 1940s gifted African-American actors and performers like Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson at times left the States to find outlets for their talents where they could work without the hindrances of extreme racism. In 2017, that scenario has reversed as performers of African descent from countries outside the U.S. make their way to Hollywood, Broadway, and central strongholds of hip-hop to reap the financial rewards of professional gains made during Blacks' historic struggles for equality.
When giving interviews about his 2013 Academy-award-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen Afro-Britain noted he was able to adapt Solomon Northup’s book for the screen as successfully as he did because of the Transatlantic slave trade common to the history of Black people on different continents in the western hemisphere. That simple acknowledgment underscored an aspect of African American men’s' identity often overlooked: that African Americans are also members of the African Diaspora, or, if you will, African Diasporans. Despite the United Nations-endorsed 2011 International Year of People of African Descent, the profound implications and potential of the McQueen's observation is routinely overlooked.
In addition to McQueen, actors David Oyelowo, Idris Elba, DelRoy Lindo Del, and Chiwetel Ejiofor are only a handful of British actors of African descent whose artistry has been employed to dramatize interpretations of African-American men's lives. Such interpretations have ranged from Elba's portrayal of druglord Russell “Stringer” Bell to Oyelowo's acclaimed performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in the film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay.
Echo Kellum's recurring role as Curtis Holt, a gay Black man married to a Latino on the hit television show ARROW, reflects an aspect of one population subgroup which many in the larger community still have extreme difficulty accepting. Yet, so far as popular television series go, Jesse L. Martin's role as Joe West in The Flash is no less a challenge to stereotypes and assumptions. As the Black adoptive father of a White son––Barry Allen (a.ka The Flash, a.k.a. actor Grant Gustin) who is involved in a romantic relationship with West's biological daughter Iris (Candice Patton )––his is a comic-book world where race is defined not so much by color as by those who have super powers and those who do not.
The Obama Legacy Effect
In his farewell addess, President Barack Obama quoted the late great novelist Harper Lee in which her character Atticus Finch states the following in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Finch's words may contain the wisdom necessary to help members of an increasingly diverse democracy better support one another as Americans rather than continually battle each other as cultural and political separatists. The president also wisely pointed out the need for African Americans to recognize the value of adopting the following practice:
"...Tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change...." (Barack Obama)
Mr. Obama's commentaries on race and the American identity over the past nearly 10 years have not brought about an end to racial divisiveness or violence in the country. But they have played a major role in helping to decrease the magnitude of assumptions and racial bias that seemingly prompt the dismissal of Black folks' lives. His two-term presidency has allowed Americans and citizens of the global community to experience a black man as a "leader of the free world." That singular comprehensive achievement surpasses any categorical way of looking at African-American men that would have been considered possible in 1997.
If, however, someone did feel inspired to duplicate "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" with fresh 2017 faces, it would be easy enough to do with another seven individuals such as: Chance the Rapper, Colson Whitehead, T.D. Jakes, Semaj Clark, Jay Z, Michael B. Jordan, and Tyler Perry. Their celebrity or non-celebrity status would not really comprise the core issue. The main point would be a definitive demonstration that as catastrophic as violence and oppression have been in our lives, they have not and will not erase the most beautiful and essential truths represented by our stories and realities.
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives about race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
This coming November 2016 will mark the second anniversary of the dedication of the historical marker for the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia. Moreover, as it now turns out, that dedication also represents one of the city’s more notable acknowledgements of the life, work, and legacy of James Alan McPherson (September 16, 1943 – July 27, 2016). The iron-lettered text for the historical marker concludes as follows:
“…One of only two Carnegie library projects for African Americans in Georgia, this was the home library to James Alan McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer and essayist and Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
The story presented below was previously published in my former AXS Entertainment National African Cultural Arts Column. It is shared here in honor of what later this month would have been Mr. McPherson’s 73rd birthday; and, in recognition not only of the role that one particular library played in his life, but in recognition of the immense value libraries around the world continue to contribute to humanity as a whole.
Savannah community marks 100th anniversary of a legacy of knowledge
Community leaders, patrons of the arts, and enthusiastic readers gathered at the historic Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia, on November 13, 2014, to commemorate with a new historical marker the legacy established by its African-American founders in 1914.
Among those assembled on the lawn beside the majestic front steps of the library, located at 537 East Henry Street, were: Senator Lester G. Jackson (D-Savannah and Chatham County), cultural arts advocate Dessie Baker, librarian Mark Darby, author and composer Ja A. Jahannes, historian Charles Lwanga Hoskins, Library Board of Trustees Chairman Dr. Daniel Brantley, Georgia Historical Society Executive Director Todd Groce, founder descendant Ursuline Dickey, Dixon Park Neighborhood representative Helen Washington, Library Foundation Director Lester B. Johnson III, Dixon Park Neighborhood representative Helen Washington, Library Foundation Director Lester B. Johnson III, the library’s current branch manager Adriene Tillman, and many others.
In his remarks on the historical significance of the library, Sen. Jackson noted that one of the reasons his father first moved their family many years ago from Statesboro to Savannah was to gain access to the library. They settled in a house only two blocks away: “He said son, this neighborhood will be an investment in your future. It has a library… Every Saturday morning before I could go out to play, I had to visit this structure…”
Sen. Jackson added the following:
“A hundred years ago, 11 men got together and invested in this community’s future by gathering books. And that’s what this marker here stands for today, an investment those men made in the future of not only young people but everyone. It gave them access to knowledge, it gave them access to history, but most importantly it gave them access to the world… where they could come read books, where they could come collect books, where they could come to understand what was [happening] in the world. And that knowledge is still needed today.”
The men to whom he was referring established themselves in 1906 as the Colored Library Association of Savannah. With a grant from American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the group was able to build the unique facility at a cost of $104,041.78 but drew on its own resources and community support to provide operational funds and actual books. Construction of the facility, which stands as the only recognized example of Prairie Style architecture (generally associated with Frank Lloyd Wright) in Savannah, got underway in early 1914. Dedication observances were held for it in August of the same year and construction was completed in 1915.
Harlem Renaissance Connections
The date of the library’s construction and opening is particularly significant in light of the Harlem Renaissance that would get underway just as World War I drew to a close. Placed in that context, members of the Colored Library Association of Savannah may be rightly viewed as southern counterparts to such historians and bibliophiles as “the father of black history” Carter G. Woodson and scholar Arthur Schomburg. Like New York’s famed Schomburg Center for Black Culture, the Carnegie Branch Library is an exceptional repository of works related to African-American history and culture on local, state, and national levels.
In more recent times, structural damage forced the library to close in 1997. It reopened in August 2004 with a slate of programs that included a lecture and book signing based on Facts on File’s Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to modern technology resources, the renovated library also featured a new east wing dedicated to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The text of the new historical marker notes the significance of its role in the intellectual development of both Justice Thomas and Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Alan McPherson.
To learn more about the Carnegie Branch Library’s history, it hours or operation, or current programs please call (912) 231-9921 or visit the Live Oaks Public Libraries website.
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and Journey through the Power of the Rainbow: Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry
Any attempt to write a biographical essay about someone as multi-talented and prolific as the late Ja A. Jahannes would be incomplete without immersion––or re-immersion––into a comprehensive sample of his works. In Jahannes’ case that would mean listening to diverse genres of music, going through numerous powerful poems, revisiting provocative essays, and revisiting intensely-original memoirs, novels, and plays.
Getting it all done in the short amount of time allotted by deadlines would not be possible but enjoying the challenge would be. In the course of rising to meet that challenge by penning the essay 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together, Celebrating Ja Jahannes, I naturally looked for suitable quotes to include with the essay. Upon finding more than I could use, I was inspired to create the three quotation graphics posted with the article.
From that point, it wasn’t much of a leap to realize that our modern shell-shocked world could possibly benefit tremendously from a collection of quips and witticisms distilled from the glittering torrent of fiction, sermons, librettos, stories, papers, etc., that seemed to flow with such ceaseless determination from Jahannes’ inspired soul. A good title for the collection might be The Wit, Wisdom, and Genius of Ja A. Jahannes. Moreover, if I were a traditional publisher taking on such a project I would push for both an illustrated hardback edition and a primarily text paperback edition.
The Notion of Being Geniuses Together
The first part of the 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together essay contains a short discussion on my allusion to the notion of collective genius. Specifically, I identity the following as a central theme binding the larger body of multi-discipline works by Jahannes:
Being geniuses together (to borrow the phrase from Kay Boyle’s and Robert McAlmon’s classic memoir) makes it possible for human beings to serve as each other’s heroes rather than simply function as each other’s antagonistic nemeses. (from 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together)
I was fortunate enough to experience Jahannes’ application of that concept through a number of shared projects. We first met when he visited a Waldenbooks store I managed in the Savannah Mall (Savannah, Georgia) during the early 1990s. His careful study of the New York Times bestselling titles on the shelves and the sustained attention he gave to the African-American Studies section told me he was someone of rare intellectual sensibilities. I was not offended when he gently waved me away after I offered my assistance but let him know I was there if he should need it.
The Black Writers Project: Something Magical
The first time we actually worked together on a cultural arts project was probably in 1996 when he was one of the authors profiled in the stage production debut of 4 Native Voices. The play was produced by the Savannah Writers Workshop, with which I worked for a decade to help produce literary events and co-edit the Savannah Literary Journal. The next year his long poem “Communion,” dedicated to photographer Roland L. Freeman, was published in the Journal.
In 1998, 4 Native Voices was revived for the first Savannah Literary Festival, coordinated by Miriam K. Center. As part of that same festival, Jahannes joined Word Sculptor Iris Formey Dawson and me as part of a panel discussion on “Southern People of Color Write about the South.” With our more formal introduction via 4 Native Voices and the literary festival behind us, I accepted invitations in 1999 to join him, author Michael Porter, and Formey Dawson at different venues to share our individual brands of poetry with the community. Jahannes named “our little group” The Black Writers Project.
The group might not have been as large or dynamic as the throngs of authors, poets, painters, and musicians who flooded New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, but as black literary artists sharing our works in public spaces we were doing something new. We were helping create what eventually would evolve into the modern spoken word movement.
One of the group’s first assignments was undertaken in March when we joined him at Abyssinia Baptist Church where he served as pastor. For another, we went to the Hitch Village Library and read to a group of excited children. Jahannes knew I had lived in Hitch Village myself until the age of 10 and had often spent time reading and playing in that very same library. He therefore introduced me as one of their own who was now a bookseller and a writer who had returned to them after having lived and written in other parts of the world.
Something magical happened when I passed out copies of a poem called Black Then as I Am Black Now so the children would be able to follow along as I read. I had written it specifically for the occasion to emphasize that being black meant more than the reports about gun violence and drug-busts taking place in their neighborhood and which they saw on the news almost every evening. Halfway through the poem, they picked up on one particular phrase and turned it into a repeating refrain after each remaining stanza:
“…I was black back then
They had added their genius for rhythm to the poem and made it their own. Each time they repeated the lines following my recital of a new stanza I was nearly overcome with emotion. That kind of transference of creative catalyst from one generation to another gave meaning to a way of being geniuses together that Jahannes seemed to appreciate the most. He was, after all, an exceptional educator who made it his mission to not only inform young people but empower them. In this instance, the children had given me as much through their voices as I had hoped to give them through mine.
Further Adventures in Literary Savannah
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.