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.
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.
The new long-anticipated literary memoir by Aberjhani, GREETING FLANNERY O’CONNOR AT THE BACK DOOR OF MY MIND, features insightful essays on: Flannery O’Connor, James Alan McPherson, John Berendt, Antiracism, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Includes cover art by the author and a throw-back photo album. ISBN 978-1-71668-481-4.
A month ago, I made a commitment to extend the outreach from Bright Skylark Literary Productions to different social media communities with more active engagement as part of my response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The choice was easily made due to the fact so many are huddling together on social media sites at this time much the way our ancestors once gathered at night around fires to recap the day’s adventure or to exercise strength and safety in numbers. What that translates into where this blog is concerned is that in addition to posting a little more frequently on Facebook, some of the posts shared there will be placed here as well. The items presented here, like this post, will likely include more material, such as additional photos or videos. This is the first of 2 parts on the value of Love and Laughter in the time of the coronavirus.
ON LOVE & LAUGHTER NO. 1
Love and Laughter are 2 expressions of human nature which share 1 very important quality: they are both excellent relievers of stress. Each possesses some capacity for reducing internally the pain of circumstances produced externally. Who can’t appreciate that in this year of the newly-revised normal? Let’s take a brief look at laughter in this post and check out Love in the next.
Late-night talk show hosts are well-paid for their ability to help us confront painfully serious issues while simultaneously laughing at them. So far as I know, the image shared with this post featuring POTUS #DonaldTrump was not produced by a celebrity talk-show host. Going by the site address at the bottom, it was done by Whomp Media. The humor comes from 2 factors. The first is the tradition of political satire practiced by great humorists as Mark Twain, Richard Pryor, and Whoopi Goldberg. In this instance, the creator of the quotation graphic is poking fun at President #DonaldTrump’s tendency to sometimes employ overly-simplistic assessments of issues like the #COVID19 pandemic, or calls for #socialjustice, by repeating the words: “very bad” or “nasty.” The designer has dubbed such pronouncements #Trumpentines.
The text of this Donald Trump "Trumpentine" starts with a quote from the poem "Angel of Valentine Days & Nights" published in THE RIVER OF WINGED DREAMS. Its use by the creator of this graphic, Whomp Media, is obviously meant to be satirical.
The second is trickier and some might argue not so funny. It comes from the designer’s use of a popular quote taken from the #book The River of Winged Dreams: “Un-winged and naked, sorrow surrenders its crown to a throne called grace.” Before anyone asks, the answer is No, I did not receive a request to use the quote. Did I laugh when I saw it? I shouldn’t have but I did. Couldn’t help it.
As much as I enjoyed the relief laughter provided from stress, I’m obligated to point out that graphics of this nature fall into the category of what I call guerrilla decontextualization. It’s when images and words are taken out of one context and placed in another for a specific political purpose. Both Barack Obama and #JoeBiden recently have protested against such practices against them.
I first coined the phrase #GuerrillaDecontextualization when writing for AXS Entertainment about Mr. Obama’s second run for the U.S. presidency. Because the goal of this graphic is laughter, it may arguably be considered less hostile or violent than some campaign ads now running on TV. In any event, it’s always a good practice when possible to acknowledge original sources. That’s something I will happily do concerning the artist featured in the next post:
Aberjhani is author of the forthcoming GREETING FLANNERY O'CONNOR AT THE BACK DOOR OF MY MIND, Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah, and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (the latter with Sandra L. West). He is also creator of the Silk-Featherbrush Artstyle.
Title-art graphic featuring artist Suzanne Jackson in conversation on stage at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts. (Art graphic by Aberjhani)
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
Artist Suzanne Jackson (right) speaking with librarian Mark Darby (left) at historic 2004 "Harlem Renaissance in Savannah" book signing and lecture presented by Aberjhani (center) at the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia (USA). (Photograph Bright Skylark Literary Productions Collection)
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.
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.
Sharing some perspective on outgoing year 2016 and incoming New Year 2017 with essay and Postered Poetics by Aberjhani.
Somehow I developed an unkind tendency to underestimate at the end of each year the amount of work accomplished during the previous 12 months. I used to like the feeling of being surprised to discover how much really got done, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all. It’s just not as fair to the truth, and some of my best go-for-the-gold efforts, as such an assessment should be.
But my New Year 2017 resolutions include a commitment to breaking the self-negation habit. As a practice, it’s just not a helpful one when it comes to planning future projects or establishing once-and-for-all final deadlines for current endeavors. In addition, miscalculating earnestly-applied efforts is unfair to the integrity of the work itself, as well as to those who helped make it happen and give it increased value. Therefore, in honor of the difficult, to paraphrase author Alice Walker, below is a list of links to tributes, essays, and reviews that I managed to share while continuing to work on my current nonfiction book. These are followed by further reflections on the year that was and the year to come.
One of the most challenging aspects of accomplishing anything of significance in the year 2016 was remaining focused on priorities. That can be difficult throughout the course of any election year but it was exceptionally so during the 2016 battle for the White House.
The various low-points and dubious tactics that resulted in the United States’ new President-Elect have been chronicled sufficiently enough that they do not need to be repeated here. What does bear re-emphasizing is that not only did the American people elect a new president whose worldwide business empire practically guarantees compromising conflicts of interest. They also chose to endorse standards of conduct likely to create ripples of political pandemonium for years to come (though hopefully and prayerfully––not).
So why is that? Because we cannot sanction free-for-all lawlessness when it suits the purposes of one class or race within a society while constructing billion-dollar prison complexes in which to enslave those for whom such lawlessness has not been deemed appropriate. This is more than a matter of practicing double standards. The issue is recognizing the chaos that can stem from specific choices and, for better or worse, proclaiming ownership to correct the damage incurred.
Video Notes on Barack Obama: Giving an American President His Proper Due
Remembrance and Gratitude
If nonstop political mayhem was not enough to distract many of from reaching targeted goals, other factors played their parts as well. We cannot engage life without periodically, appropriately, pausing to honor those who have passed on before us. Among those who passed in 2016 and prompted me to reflect upon their impact on the world overall and on my life in particular, to name only a few in no special order, were these:
The Great Muhammad Ali Luther E. Vann (visual artist) James Alan McPherson (author) Natalie Cole (Performing Artist) George Michael (Singer-Songwriter) Gloria Naylor (author) David Bowie (musician and actor) The Beloved Artist Known as Prince (Creative Genius) Leonard Cohen (singer-songwriter-poet) Billy Paul (musician/social advocate) Cuban Revolutionary and President Fidel Castro Debbie Reynolds & Carrie Fisher (Hollywood icons, Mother & Daughter) Zsa Zsa Gabor (actress, socialite) Ron Glass (actor) Florence Henderson (actress) Bernie Worrell (musician/keyboardist) Anton Yelchin (actor) Gwen Ifill (television journalist) Maurice White (musician/Earth Wind and Fire)
They are remembered not to mourn the loss of their lives, but to express gratitude for whatever gifts of knowledge, love, and empowerment their existences bestowed upon humanity.
NEXT: Reflecting on the Year 2016 & stepping not-too-boldly into 2017 (part 2)