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
"The 2017 Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices" Postered Poetics art graphic by Aberjhani. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions)
The United Nations may have officially tagged 2017 as The Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development and the Chinese dubbed it Year of the Fire Rooster, but I am inclined at this point to declare it: Year of the Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices.
Sounds a little awkward I know. However, it is fairly accurate and the poetic quality lends to the description an aspect of hopefulness as opposed to a smell of certifiable doom.
The tones of the Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices range from the humanely compassionate and passionately engaged to the apathetically detached and dangerously dictatorial. They include, but certainly are not limited to, the following:
African-Americans, although increasingly dubious about ever closing the racial divide in the United States and living as citizens with equal opportunities who are not routinely targeted for marginalization or annihilation, continue to do more than protest such issues. Advocates for racial justice and equality have become more inclined to propose solutions in the form of social data analyses used to formulate strategies for making changes in institutional procedures and individual behavior to help avoid violent conflicts.
White-Americans who continue experiencing difficulty accepting Donald Trump as POTUS alternately engage dialogues to help the president help the country move forward. When finding compliance too difficult, some encourage "resistance" to administrative policies they consider non-democratic or inhumanely repugnant.
Immigrants and Refugees fleeing to America and other lands as yet in 2017 wander the earth like tribes in Biblical times, but the mainstream media and social media of these modern times continues to amplify their cries for compassion and force humanity to examine hidden depths of conscience.
Members of the American Press, traditionally referred to as "the fourth branch of a democratic government," feeling under attack by the POTUS via his frequently-tweeted condemnations, have found themselves switching back and forth between reporting the news and using their platforms as journalists to fight a war of presidential accusations.
Add to the above chorus Native Americans and committed environmentalists taking a stand against the on-again Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, women across the globe convinced they have been cheated of their time to shine in history, and Millennials struggling to find the right balance between trust placed in technology and the flaring passions of their innate humanity.
In truth, members of any number of various demographic groups who thought they had gained solid social and political ground on which to stand for the rest of their lives during former U.S. president Barack Obama's administration are now screaming "Oh hell no!" as the new commander-in-chief --doing exactly as he promised to when campaigning for the job--steers America toward the far right.
Allowing Ourselves to Hear Each Other
Probably the biggest mistake anyone can make when wishing for his or her voice to be heard and respected is to ignore the voices of everyone else. That observation helped drive the launch and growth of the Creative Thinkers International (CTI) online community 10 years ago.
The sharing of visions and voices for the purpose of inspiring unity in a world turned morbidly cynical by 9/11 was what made the community possible and drove it to thrive for nearly a decade. At a time when hatred threatened to permanently erase the potential for any meaningful cooperation between cross-cultural populations, Creative Thinkers International demonstrated the exact opposite: unity in the name of shared humanity.
The glorification of hatred is predicated on a foundation of fear-induced ignorance venomous to haters and those they believe they hate. Without awareness of root causes inflating their fears, prejudices, and destructive actions, it is easy for someone such as an alt-right terrorist, or a jihadist more faithful to a love of violence than love for Allah, to misinterpret aggravated frustrations as saintly devotion. Given the chance to do so, their own hearts can provide the insight necessary to correct themselves.
For Creative Thinkers International in 2007, allowing ourselves to hear each other and work together to identify the common ground on which we could build trust and cooperation was a matter of working to either: 1) sustain humanity; or 2) watch it simultaneously implode and explode. It is not so different at this 2017 moment in history when words like "polarization," "fake news," and "alternative facts" shape stories heard, viewed, and read every day.
Most people understand achieving unification is more complicated than sticking labels on entire populations and trusting in bias or bigotry to solve the world's most existential dilemmas. Many, however, do not bother to consult any kind of discerning social or political analyses of the turmoil raging around them like the very real tornadoes that slammed New Orleans East on February 7, 2017 (twelve years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused historical damage from which the city is still recovering). To them it is a simple matter of opposing dichotomies: good versus evil, white versus black, the past versus the future, the aged versus youth, East/West, Christian/Muslim, nationalism/globalism, and so on.
What does it take for us to hear each other clearly enough to not only respect what is being said but understand that often the concerns of one group or individual mirror those of "the other." How do we recognize and remove the most unyielding roadblocks to harmonious coexistence between nations and communities? We begin by acknowledging the reality of the need to do so. We begin by setting aside denials of truth blazing like wildfires right in front of our faces. In addition, for example, to xenophobia and cultural bias, we know the so-called wealth gap and insufficient education all fall in the same category of oppressive strategies that do not work. We know also that a predatory instinct prompts some power-brokers to use divisiveness as a tool to manipulate social unrest for personal financial benefit. That is a sadly-cruel non-alternative fact we are able to improve with the kind of empowered consciousness represented by the 2017 Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices.
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.
"Discovering 'The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man' in 2017" Postered Poetics by Aberjhani inspired by original image creations of Barron Claiborne.
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.
“Compassion saves lives, builds communities, and restores nations by minimizing tendencies to glamorize hatred, and by maximizing the capacity for manifesting love.” Aberjhani Postered Poetics quotation art.
Compassion provides the means by which we walk a mile in each other’s shoes and learn to value our common humanity enough to invest in its immense potential. This is something many of us know very well, but which a lot of people choose to avoid for different reasons.
One motive behind the choice to sidestep this awareness is because when walking, or recognizing the value of, the path of another person’s life we sometimes discover tracks leading back to our own door. When such trails take us to the beginning of a joyful or healing experience in someone else’s life, it is easy to smile at the revelation and quietly celebrate the triumph.
But if they guide us to a point of disempowering trauma which our actions, words, or biases helped trigger in the existence of an individual or the collective being of a nation, acknowledging one’s role in the creation of their suffering can become more difficult. Apply this idea to a variety of scenarios and we begin to see why many might have a problem approaching situations from a perspective based on compassion:
Think about what various heads of state would have to confront when declaring how their actions or nonactions contributed to the barbaric destruction of one of humanity’s great historical treasures and much of the population entrusted with it: the city of Aleppo, Syria.
Imagine the spouses who finally snap out of their self-consuming rage long enough to understand the damage they have done to their wives, or husbands, or children, and themselves.
Picture the unrepentant racists, intolerant bigots, and self-righteous preachers of hate. They believe their prejudices to be indisputably morally correct, even morally superior, until the hatred they spew boomerangs and spills the blood of innocents for whom they feel some affection.
Shaka Senghor and the Transformational Power of Compassion
A second reason someone might hesitate to embrace exercising compassion as a basic component of their daily practices is the perceived price we pay when holding ourselves accountable for causes as well as effects. That price may be viewed as an existential risk, or a stress-laden sacrifice that could comprise anything from hard-earned financial resources to time-consuming labor and fragile relationships.
Why? Because practicing compassion in the 21st century means going beyond logging accusations of social, political, or domestic injustices, and taking the additional step of volunteering ways to correct them. Holding oneself accountable for producing a healing or restorative effect upon deteriorating lives or conditions can be a difficult thing to do. And yes: a challenging sacrifice to make.
Settling into the Year 2017
As the world settles into 2017, opposition opposed to presidential administrations even before they get underway, war-hawks eager to assert dominance over distant lands, increasing disease, and expanding poverty provide many opportunities for modeling what President Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Taking the risks and confronting the agonies, however, is not something we do to proclaim ourselves as heroic or saintly. We do it in answer to the needs and demands of our times, following the examples set by so many before this present hour.
"Giving Compassion a Chance in 2017" Postered Poetics quotation art by Aberjhani.
For men and women to comfortably adapt to a state of nihilistic indifference is to declare hope itself a sad delusion and compassion a spiritual fantasy. None of us are wealthy enough to pay such a fatal cost.
We declare a partnership in mindfulness with citizens of the global community because these words remain true: Compassion saves lives, builds communities, and restores nations by minimizing tendencies to glamorize hatred, and by maximizing the capacity for manifesting love. Compassion––keeps hope alive.
Aberjhani January 1, 2017 Bright Skylark Literary Productions