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.
"A Crown & Castle for George Perry Floyd Jr. No. 1" art by Aberjhani C2020)
EDITORIAL NOTE: Previous installments of the Conversations with the World Series have featured different translations of popular quotations from my books. This one includes two which many have employed over the past few years in protests against social and racial inequality.
The emerging consensus regarding former policeman Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Perry Floyd Jr. appears to be calling not for reduced, but increased advocacy targeting social and police reform in America. President Joe Biden and Minnesota State Attorney General Keith Ellison, along with numerous others, voiced this repeatedly after Chauvin’s three-weeks-long trial ended April 20, 2021 (just over one month shy of a year after George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020). Members of Mr. Floyd’s family have suggested the same. What their calls could mean in Savannah, Georgia, is redoubled efforts to protect voting rights in light of the recent passage of the so-called Election Integrity Act of 2021, even as Governor Brian Kemp urges other state leaders to follow suit. Or it could manifest as yet another push to remove the name of white supremacist Eugene Talmadge from the Savannah River Bridge by staging demonstrations on, and marches across, the bridge until that simple but very consequential action is taken. On the national level, such advocacy increases chances of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 will become an actual law.
Believing What You See
In their closing arguments for Mr. Chauvin’s trial, prosecutors encouraged jury members to believe what they had seen in multiple videos showing the former officer’s knee bearing down on Mr. Floyd’s neck until the latter died. It would not have surprised me if, while deliberating Chauvin’s guilt or innocence, jurists discovered they were not able to believe what they saw. It had taken me, after different videos first began surfacing in late May 2020, more than a week to believe what I was seeing.
"Fusion of Faith & Resilence" art by Aberjhani with quote from the book Journey through the Power of the Rainbow.
My first instinct was to call them deep-fake videos produced by people looking for their shot at social media stardom. Maybe this White man in a police uniform was only pretending to pose like some infamous hunter over subdued game while staring, with a toxic mixture of arrogance and defiance, at cameras recording the insanity. Maybe that other gentle giant of a Black man, who probably could have snapped Chauvin in two had he not consciously chosen to respect his authority as an officer of the law, and who cried out repeatedly to someone whose love he did not doubt, was not really gone after all. Except that he really was.
Global Support for African Americans
Strangely, what broke my frozen-in-time disbelief was another set of images which flashed across the globe over the weeks that followed. Protesters in Pretoria, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney, Berlin, and many more international cities took to streets, plazas, and fields to register their rejection of the hatred documented so thoroughly and horrifically. Their actions, however, also demonstrated something else which many may not have considered.
In different capacities internationally, African Americans have become known to the world as something very different from what Chauvin chose to dismiss with such heinous disregard. And certainly different from what a bridge named after former Governor Talmadge would have visitors to Savannah believe. Globally, various Black performance artists, athletes, members of the military, business partners, and spiritual consultants have become highly-valued members of an extended family. This value was something the policeman could not imagine. As prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell stated repeatedly during opening and closing statements of the trial, “He didn’t get up, and he didn’t let up.”
Questions & Possible Answers
It is worth questioning why Chauvin felt so comfortable murdering someone suspected of having passed on a counterfeit $20 bill and why his subsequent conviction was not a foregone conclusion. The same question bears contemplation when examining circumstances surrounding the deaths of: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, 13-year-old Adam Toledo, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, and 42-year-old Andrew Brown Jr. Not a comprehensive list by any means but only of names which come most readily to mind at this moment. Questions regarding them have also hounded me my entire life in regard to the 1963 death of my adolescent brother Robert Lee, shot in the back and killed by police here in Savannah.
The answers have to do with the casual manner in which too many Americans, until now (possibly), have chosen either actively or passively to sustain a culture which encourages the advancement of one demographic based on the detriment of another. The short name for this is well known: systemic racism. Because it truly is SYSTEMIC, ironically, any number of African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans have been conditioned to perpetuate its devastating consequences in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew he was not going to see the end of racism in his lifetime just as Barack H. Obama knew his election to the U.S. presidency would not accomplish that extraordinary feat. The current U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledges the same. Nonetheless, the conviction of Derek Chauvin has, perhaps like no other single court ruling in U.S. history, confirmed that it can be done. The successful movement to see justice delivered on behalf of George Floyd’s family was accomplished by engaged citizenry applying sustained advocacy at every social level where diverse people happened to find themselves. As impossible as it may seem to end racism at this current history-making moment, perhaps the best way to honor Mr. Floyd’s amazing contribution to the effort is to do all we can anyway to make sure it does end at some point. Otherwise, what good does it do to celebrate such things as a small helicopter called Ingenuity lifting itself for a few moments off the surface of Mars 181.55 million miles away? In what way would it make sense to continue boasting about advancements in artificial intelligence if we refuse to commit our innate human intelligence to healing the world of the life-destroying disease that is racism?
The following excerpt is re-posted from a blog first shared years ago and is presented now because it makes a good fit for the Conversations with the World series.
“When an acquaintance from a social media site emailed me in March 2011 to tell me a quotation from one of my books was circulating on Twitter as a “quote of the day,” I said to myself: Oh, that’s nice, I think. As a brief afterthought while turning my attention to other real-time matters, I hoped someone would find the quote useful. I learned the next day that the trend had continued. I became curious enough to take a break from my work in progress––a literary memoir with the working title Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind––to do a bit of net surfing and look at the quote itself:
Dare to love yourself
as if you were a rainbow
with gold at both ends.
“This quote, which became the basis for the book Journey through the Power of the Rainbow, is from the poem ‘Angel of Healing: for the Living, the Dying, and the Praying.’ It was written to reflect the need for scarred and abandoned souls to celebrate their inherent value. It was also an acknowledgement of the challenge of sustaining an inner peace unshaken by the chaos erupting throughout the rest of the world. That challenge, however, was one which had to be met before an individual could hope to help humanity make its way from a suicidal faith in hatred and indifference to a more soul-nourishing investment in cooperation and the concept of a truly functional worldwide human community.”
Since those words were written way back in 2011, a number of rainbow quotes from Journey through the Power of the Rainbow (Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry) have become popular. More recently, Australian artist VIVA Anderson dedicated one of her pieces with rainbow quotes from Journey. They have helped inspire some of everything from self-esteem workshops and videos to Dare to Love Yourself Challenges on Facebook and Random Acts of Kindness Week activities. In fact, seeing different memes of the quote encouraged me to create original art combined with my text for collectors to purchase on Fine Art America and Pixels.com.
The following are a few more shared on social media status updates:
"Dare to Love Yourself" motivation quote by Aberjhani shared by Brilliant U.
Aberjhani's "Dare to Love Yourself" in Spanish text featured by Club De Millionarios.
"No envy between the different colors of the rainbow" quotation by Aberjhani on poster art by Resisting Hate.org.
"There is no envy between the different colors of the rainbow" quotation by Aberjhani featured as part of outdoor art exhibit by Crawley & Owens.
"Shine your soul with the same humility as the rainbow" text by Aberjhani on poster shared by Inner Journey Events.
It is going to require more than a single blog entry to illustrate the full impact of what I call the lexicon of the rainbow. Future posted conversations will address the subject because the rainbow is such a universally recognized symbol which has come to hold significant spiritual and social meanings for different individuals and cultural groups. That recognition is currently helping many to navigate some of the biggest changes to ever occur in human history.
Postered Chromatic Poetics title art graphic by Aberjhani.
Many of my blogs on the Charter for Compassion website address an international audience on why the practice of conscious global coexistence is crucial to humanity’s survival and how we can work towards achieving it. It is something diplomats from different countries have been trying to help nations accomplish for centuries, so the concept is not new. But we continue to get blindsided in the 21st century by biases and phobias which do more to perpetuate divisions than strengthen unity.
Among the quotations from my work employed the most to help transform international antagonism into global cooperation is the following:
“Individual cultures and ideologies have their appropriate uses but none of them erase or replace the universal experiences, like love and weeping and laughter, common to all human beings.” (from Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays)
These words were first published as part of the essay “For Love of Paris and a More Compassionate World” following terrorist attacks on the city November 13, 2015. The quotation has since been adopted by groups ranging from students’ civic clubs and online study groups to social service nonprofits and political organizations. It has proven particularly popular in different countries on the continent of Africa. Here are two examples:
Individual Cultures quotation social graphic posted in South Africa
Sign featuring quote on Individual Cultures by Aberjhani created by Facebook user in Kenya.
This third social graphic comes from the United States’ Kearsarge Food Hub in New Hampshire.
Many additional artsy social graphics employing the same words indicate a hunger for something other than the tensions which exist between members of different demographics on different continents in different communities. More importantly, educators, conference speakers, various thought leaders, and men and women from diverse backgrounds are not just quoting the words. They are living the truth behind them and demonstrating the greater unifying possibilities which come with embracing our shared humanity. Few realizations could be considered more important during a COVID-19 pandemic which apparently does not play favorites.
Aberjhani Author, Poet, Artist Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2020
Art graphic by Aberjhani for narrative excerpt from the book Greeting Flannery O'Connor at the Back Door of My Mind.
For more than one demographic of America's diverse populations, Black, White, Brown, Red, Yellow, and combinations thereof--male or female and different-flavored sexual identities--back doors were once synonymous with emblems of racial, economic, and political oppression in their most cutting conspicuous forms. They stood alongside crosses burning with flames of hatred as opposed to crosses gleaming with messages of love or redemption, with “Whites Only” and “Coloreds” signs attached to public restrooms and water fountains, seats at the backs of buses and trains or up in balconies of theaters, segregated beaches, pamphlets on eugenics, and “strange fruit” (as Billie Holiday sang) hanging from southern trees.
Evoking this historical twentieth century function in the first half of the twenty-first century would seem ridiculously archaic if not for striking counterparts in the form of hate crimes, mass incarceration, black bodies repeatedly falling to gun violence, and economic gentrification so often directed against people of color. Moreover, all of this has been repeatedly, casually, streamed on large and small screens around the world. Many current-day legal and illegal immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe know something about the back-door experience because they, too, have lived it. Time has not removed the necessity of documenting how too many of us still dehumanize and eradicate our fellow human beings seeking shelter from the world's increasingly destructive "natural" and "man-made" storms.
Rear entrances have, however, served more inspired purposes as well. Some have provided meeting places for secret lovers. Others have been transformed into Eden-like refuges carpeted and ceilinged with vines blossoming fragrant roses, morning glories, wisteria, or honey suckle. Nothing wrong with thinking of love as emblems of hope or love. On certain days of the month, you can find in our present time (at least in Georgia) many people who are battling poverty lined up at the far ends of churches to receive brown bags filled with food which otherwise would end up in dumpsters.
Sensibilities of an Uncanny Nature
There is also in this era of technological wonders the notion of digital back doors which allow hackers to sneak in and out of computer systems belonging to people other than themselves. Whether that is a good or bad thing tends to depend on the hacker, his or her affiliates, and the intentions in question. Coming to personal and professional terms with the impacts of O'Connor's, McPherson's, and Berendt's blazing passages has felt at times like someone slipped invisibly into my life and effectively hacked it. The beliefs, assumptions, and confirmed certainties of a comfort zone forming fragments of an established identity––that of mine and many others'––were compromised and eventually reconfigured.
More than anything else, the back door as it is approached in the pages [of Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door Of Mind] represent points in time, places in space, and regions of the spirit where sensibilities of an uncanny nature either collide or converge. Stepping through it led to the kind of adventures and misadventures for which we are rarely prepared, yet somehow often end up welcoming. The results are the kind which continue to increase literature's prized value as it pertains to specific communities and the world at large, providing solace and shelter during the best of times and the worst. (From the book Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind ISBN 1-716-68481-1)