A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 1 of 3): Geography & History
Anyone on June 27, 2019, attending the opening of the Suzanne Jackson Five Decades retrospective at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia (USA), or involved in its production prior to that historic evening, could tell something exceptional was happening. In addition to the mesmerizing kind of vibrant textiles and stunning canvases one might expect to discover at such an opening for a contemporary artist, there were seven vitrines (display cases) filled with family photographs, vintage 1960s flyers advertising a "Revolutionary Art Exhibit," sketchbooks, program notes, letters, photographs, and other revealing archival materials from different chapters of Jackson's, and America's, life stories.
The items made available went beyond career highlights to illuminating an artist's considerable immersion in a significant historical moment: the 1960s-1970s Black Arts Movement as it rooted and flowered in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. For those observers of African-American history who contend America's West Coast contributed much less to the Harlem Renaissance than other regions because it lacked, during the 1920s-1940s, a heavy representation of the traditions and institutions then associated with Black culture in the South, the 1960s may be considered the bridge which connected history and geography.
Ideas of how and why that might be the case, within the context of Five Decades, first struck me as apparent while listening to the on-stage conversation between Jackson, fellow artist Alonzo Davis, and Telfair Museums curator Rachel Reese. Jackson's and Davis's stories of establishing art galleries in downtown Los Angeles, building a sustainable cultural arts community, and balancing commitments to careers and political struggle with commitments to family life were not completely unlike what we find in the life stories of East Coast predecessors like Lois Mailou Jones and Augusta Fells Savage.
This observation does not contradict the contexts of ecowomanism and black feminist ethics contexts in which the brilliant essays by Reese, julia elizabeth neal, Melanee C. Harvey, and Tiffany E. Barber place Jackson's work in the forthcoming Five Decades catalog. It simply acknowledges one more powerful aspect of the place she now occupies as an influential contemporary artist of historical importance. In her foreword to the catalog, artist Betye Saar alludes to the significance of Jackson's role as someone whose art and advocacy have bridged gaps:
"In the 1960s, black artists in Los Angeles were struggling to be recognized. Some public venues had integrated exhibitions, but generally speaking black artists were ignored... Suzanne made a concrete imprint when she opened Gallery 32 on Lafayette Park Place..." (Appropriately enough, work by the 93-year-old Saar herself is currently undergoing a kind of revival with forthcoming solo shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.)
After Jackson's, Davis's, and Reese's dynamic conversation, the feeling when walking among the dozens of artworks hung with dazzling appeal in the Steward North and Kane Galleries, absorbing the full impact of the actual exhibit, was like glimpsing a long-hidden priceless American treasure. Those who have yet to treat themselves to the experience still have until October 13, 2019, to do so at the Jepson. Just as importantly, the exhibition catalog is due out September 25 and orders for it are being accepted now.
Continental Crossings & Fortuitous Connections
My journey toward the almost magical evening of June 27 actually began on August 28, 2004, when Ms. Jackson attended my "Harlem Renaissance in Savannah" lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah. Since relocating to the city eight years earlier, she had been surprised to discover the African-American cultural arts scene was as vibrant as it was and included someone who had co-authored (with the late Sandra L. West) the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
I was surprised and impressed to learn she had lived on the West Coast--just as I had in San Francisco--and now taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). If I'd had the slightest prophetic clue of the visual marvels that would be revealed 15 years later, I would have been flat-out amazed.
Mounted wall screen showing video images from life and career of artist and educator Suzanne Jackson. The video was part of the opening for Jackson's Five Decades Retrospective at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Art in Savannah, Georgia, on June 27, 2019. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
That early meeting was genuinely fortuitous because in those days my responsibilities as a caregiver had already started to limit participation in public events. I nevertheless did make it out occasionally and during the years which followed the lecture our paths crossed enough for an acquaintance to become a friendship. As it turned out, we had more than the cultural arts and California in common. We had both also spent time in Fairbanks, Alaska--she as a child growing up there and me some years later as a U.S. military journalist.
We came to know many of the same creatives and shared enthusiasm over their triumphs. Grief, too, demanded acknowledgement when experiencing the loss of such individuals as painter Allen M. Fireall (1954-2014), his fellow artist and friend Luther E. Vann (1937-2016), and author-educator Ja A. Jahannes (1942-2015). More personal, more blood-connected losses inserted themselves into the stories of our individual lives as well, both stalling and fueling painted poems and poemized visions that would manifest in coming years.
NEXT: A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 2): Jazz, Art, & Partying
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player
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
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.