“Men and women who dedicate their lives to the realization of their gifts tend the office of that communion by which we are joined to one another, to our times, to our generation, and to the [human] race.”
––Lewis Hyde (The Gift)
I am ending the year 2017 the same way I started it: by recommitting myself to life-affirming values and productive best-practices. The hope is such commitment will help me and others continue to steer our way past the debris of political chaos and social nihilism which characterized too much of 2017 and thereby make 2018 a time of much greater unity and productivity.
In 2017 this translated into doing anything and everything necessary to complete a nonfiction book project on which I had been working for nearly a decade. It also meant increasing efforts to encourage the use of compassion as a primary tool for nonviolent conflict resolution.
Being able to say I met with significant measures of success on both fronts is a good feeling. These individual accomplishments, however, become much less satisfactory when considering how little an impact the call for compassion had on those who throughout the year 2017 convinced themselves that mass murder, as uselessly insane as it is, was a viable approach to achieving some kind of victory. Or some form of favor with divine authority.
Historic Tipping Point
While striving to reach certain goals (about which more will be said a little later) that component of history known as current events frequently interrupted my plans with its own agenda. Like authors, journalists, and artists all over the world watching the clashes between political uprisings and humanitarian urgencies, I responded in the best ways I could.
Some, like the massacre of 305 people at the al Rawda Mosque in Egypt on November 24 and the killing of 58 people (along with the loss of millionaire gunman Stephen Craig Paddock’s life) on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada (USA) on October 1 (just to give two examples) left me speechless for days; I was astounded at our collective inability to evolve beyond an apparent addiction to the cruelest kinds of pandemonium.
In addition: extreme alt right politics (often equated with white supremacy), scary fluctuations in the climate, and the ongoing disclosure of unacceptable sexual aggressiveness within business environments have created what many consider a historic tipping point for humanity. The question is whether we’re going to tip forward toward healing progression or tumble screaming backwards into even more aggravating mayhem. A certain president’s—that would be U.S. POTUS Donald Trump’s––decision to re-tweet inflammatory anti-Muslim videos and repeatedly bate unstable dictators has not been particularly comforting.
Various transgressions stirring furious indignation are not new. Does this mean they must remain unceasing? The level of expanded public outrage prompting corrective responses to perceived, and often confirmed, injustices represents a powerful shift in humankind’s shared awareness of its potential plight. And that in itself is reason to keep hope alive and kicking.
A Bridge of Silver Wings Reconsidered
Of all the issues worth pausing my writing and art projects long enough to join fellow citizens in public protests and advocacy, the one which actually prompted me to do so was the historic Renaming the Talmadge Bridge Symposium sponsored by the social justice advocacy group Span the Gap and the Beach Institute of Savannah, Georgia. Originally, I was slated to join participating panelists on stage at the Savannah Theatre along with the moderator, former Mayor Otis S. Johnson. Health issues, however, forced me to limit my participation to taking a front-row seat in the audience and accepting Span the Gap’s gracious acknowledgment of my contributions to the ongoing campaign.
The panelist who did go on stage included: civil rights attorney, pastor, and educator Francys Johnson, president of Georgia state NAACP; community organizer Bernetta B. Lanier; Connect Savannah’s community editor Jessica Leigh Lebos; former Chatham County commissioner John McMasters; Savannah Morning News columnist Dr. Mark Murphy; community activist Pamela Oglesby; and chairman of SCAD’s Architectural History Department Robin Williams.
My participation in discussing the need to change the name of the bridge from that of someone who openly championed white supremacy to one less racially antagonistic was less robust than I had preferred but I took some consolation in knowing I had helped create this momentous event through the publication of various essays and articles prior to it taking place. Among them:
The Renaming the Talmadge Bridge symposium did not end with any kind of firm commitment to immediately change the name of the causeway. The event did help raise public awareness of what’s at stake if it remains unchanged. It also inspired me to begin work on a play about the dynamics of inter-generational legacies and embracing the battle to correct social injustices.
Vigorous Applications of Compassion
The practice of compassion sat either at or near the top of the list of most crucial life-affirming values to which I re-committed myself in 2017. Working with partners at Charter for Compassion, I strove to drive home the point that a vigorous application of compassion in daily personal or professional encounters, the composition of government policies, and religious considerations could go a long way toward solving many of our most egregious dilemmas.
The following is a list of blog essays in which I attempted to present my case for advantages of applying a philosophy of universal compassion to everything from global warming and violent conflicts (domestic as well as international) to creative maladjustment, poem-making, and the agony of historic cultural shifts.
So: why all these diverse explorations of the application of the golden rule? Because there’s a lot more wisdom in doing unto others as we would have them do unto us than most people take time to consider.
NEXT: Chaos of 2017 sets stage for growth and greater unity in 2018 (part 2 of 2)
On any given day of the week, the creator of Postered Chromatic Poetics and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Aberjhani, may be found wearing any number of hats: historian, visual artist, poet, advocate for compassion, novelist, journalist, photographer, and editor. Having recently completed a book of creative nonfiction on his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA) he is currently writing a full-length play about the implications of generational legacies as symbolized by efforts to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
In his lifetime, Dick Gregory (1932-2017) achieved the distinction of becoming a celebrated athlete, conscientious comic, civil rights leader, devoted (in his own singular way) family man, philanthropist, American icon, and author of more than a dozen books.Publisher Harper Collins released his most recent title, Defining Moments in Black History, Reading Between the Lies, on September 5, 2017. The event was a highly-significant one for a 21st-century America in which racial conflicts continue to fuel social and political division. It also represented the extension of a major literary legacy begun at the height of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
‘For Black Folks and White Folks’
Gregory possessed an uncanny ability to transform the soul-crushing anguish of racism and poverty into healing inspiration. As rare as such a gift can be, it is on full display in his first triumphant publishing venture: the classic autobiography titled Nigger, (written with Robert Lipsyte).
My used paperback edition of the book was published in 1964 and has a cover price of $1.94. On its now-famous front is a beautiful black and white photograph of Gregory beside a red starburst with bold white text announcing in all caps: OVER ONE MILLION COPIES SOLD. The copy in my possession has been so thoroughly read and re-read by different people that the cover has started coming off and had to be reinforced with cellophane tape.
As impressive as the book’s 1 million-plus sales figures are, equally noteworthy is an observation shared by Gregory in its pages about the history and future of the struggle to which he would dedicate so much of his life:
“It started long before I came into it, and I may die before it’s over, but we’ll bust this thing and cut out this cancer. America will be as strong and beautiful as it should be, for black folks and white folks” (p. 209).
Few in 1964 would have imagined those words retaining the relevance which they have for more than half a century. Yet the #TakeAKnee and Black Lives Matter movements, both of which owe some ideological debt to the icon’s legacy, indicate they have never been more applicable. In addition, Mr. Gregory has indeed passed on while the struggle has not halted but intensified in ways unpredictable before the advent of social media.
On August 20, the day before the great eclipse of 2017, I learned that Gregory had died on the 19th at the age of 84. Prior to learning about his death, my plan for the day had been to spend some time constructing an outline for an article or an op-ed in response to suggestions the Confederate Monument in Savannah’s (Georgia, USA) Forsyth Park should be removed. But news of the great satirist’s demise prompted me once again to pick up his brilliant autobiography.
‘More Hope in Laughing’
In his own way, Richard Claxton Gregory, who was born on Columbus Day, was as politically dynamic as Malcolm X, as spiritually motivational as Martin Luther King Jr., and as socially revolutionary as Nelson Mandela. Yet his talent for coaxing laughter out of the most brutally inhumane situations set him apart as an astonishingly unique and painfully necessary individual.
He said his genius for employing comedy in the face of humor-less oppression derived from a lesson taught by Lucille Gregory (1909-1953) his mother, whom he saw cruelly beaten by Presley Gregory (b.?-1964) his father: “She taught us that man has two ways out in life—laughing or crying. There’s more hope in laughing” (p. 25).
In regard to the highly-controversial word chosen for the title of his autobiography, he examined it from many different angles and concluded it said more about people who used it to express hatred that it did about people who were targets of its use. He himself employed it in different situations, such as in 1963 during a protest demonstration in Greenwood, Mississippi, when threatened by a white policeman: “Nigger, you want to go to jail?” (p. 172). By that time, when he was 30 years old, Gregory had already become one of the most successful comedians in America and responded to the policeman as follows:
His words represented more than just a furious retort. Gregory felt a deep compassion for humanity as a whole; one of his early mentors was the white Southern Illinois University track and field coach Leland “Doc” Lingle. Like many of the great civil rights activists of his time and now, he believed racism was at least as injurious to those who practiced it as it was to those dis-empowered by it.
In the universe as the comically-inclined author saw it, whether certain words cause an individual’s soul to bleed or help it to heal depends on the emotional intent expressed behind its use. Hatred can turn a beautiful poem into a curse. Love can transform an expletive into a benediction. Therefore, the same word which word which sustained an intense encounter between him and a policeman could make others smile: such as when reading this dedication to his mother:
“Dear Momma––Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”
Maintaining that fine-line balance between humor and rage never became easy. In light of the author’s commitment to eradicating social injustice, however, the ability to do so remained critical.
NEXT: Text and Meaning in Dick Gregory’s ‘Nigger’ part 2: Unyielding Commitment
On any given day of the week, the creator of Postered Chromatic Poetics and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Aberjhani, may be found wearing any number of hats: historian, visual artist, poet, advocate for compassion, novelist, journalist, photographer, and editor. Having recently completed a book of creative nonfiction on his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA) he is currently working on a play about the implications of generational legacies as symbolized by efforts to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.