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
Geographically, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was closer than that of Elijah McClain because it occurred only an hour’s drive from where I grew up and where people who mean a great deal to me have family members. But for some reason McClain’s death, although it occurred all of 1,600 miles away in Aurora, Colorado, felt closer. I did not understand why until recalling two poems written more than a decade ago. The memory of both forced me to sit down and wonder how it was something written so far in the past was having such a powerful impact on my life in 2020.
The first composition is a song lyric titled “ELI-JAH” originally published in the first edition of the novel Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player (sung by a character named Ruzahn), and later in the poetry collection titled Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. It is about a man who refuses to accept reports his brother has been killed so he keeps singing his name, Eli-Jah, to let him know he’s committed to finding him. The complete lyric is too lengthy for the purposes of this post but these are the last 2 verses:
The second text which surprised me with an unexpected emotional connection to McClain is 2 lines at the end of the poem “Vampire Song: The Last Bloodfeast,” also from Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. I recalled when writing the lines that they sounded strange and I changed them several times but always switched back because somehow they felt honest. Reading them, now, I’m stunned at how close they come to an image combination frequently associated with Elijah McClain: the violin and kittens, for his compassionate practice of playing for them on his lunch breaks. This is the quote from “Vampire Song”:
“Soft upon my right thigh, an oddly-colored kitten
There is a possibility I’m making more of these parallels than I should and some might even argue I am forcing them where there are none. They would have a right to that belief.
Before identifying the subconscious links stirring within me such a strong response to the shooting death of McClain, I considered writing a blog titled Music for a Black Skylark in Mourning to express the lingering grief. So I looked for a music video with the words “Black Skylark” in the title and found two. Either one, I felt, could serve as a worthy tribute to McClain and believe he would have appreciated either. The one with which I’ve chosen to close is from volume 5 of the China Meditation Ethno Music Project and titled “A Black Skylark.”
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
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 author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.