Elemental's 10th anniversary inspires mindful reflections and renewed hopes (part 1 of 2): remembrance
"He used the word 'nourishing' to refer to Vann's work. And the more I looked through the work seriously, and took my time, that term [seemed] quite apropos. The art and poetry of Elemental nourishes the soul, the mind, and the aesthetic."
Every now and then I get a good sense of what it might feel like to be a phoenix waking up as a pile of ash and bones which suddenly burst into new flaming life. It was kind of like that recently while continuing my ongoing recovery from the hurricanes of 2016 (Matthew) and 2017 (Irma) to prepare for the 2018 stormy-weather season.
In the course of going through yet another pile of unsorted thumb drives, DVDs, CDs, and mini cassettes, I discovered a lost treasure: a DVD filmed by the gifted polymath Benjamin Bacon (known to friends and colleagues as BeBe) labeled "Elemental, Early Morning Light Productions, by Luther E. Vann, Final Cut, Jepson Gallery, Savannah, GA, May 29, 2008." It is not something which will ever challenge the global impact of director Ryan Coogler's game-changing Black Panther film, but it has added immeasurably to the 2018 10th Anniversary Celebration of the publication of Elemental, the Power of Illuminated Love (ISBN 9780972114271).
The video, shot just as YouTube and social media were developing their considerable digital muscles, captures in raw fashion a singular moment in the history of cultural arts in the United States. The program that evening included my friend Luther's debut effort as a videographer, a short bio-documentary titled Coming Home, in which he recorded me reciting the poem from which the video took its title, and chronicled his days in New York City pursuing his craft while living in the basement of a friend's apartment on Washington Square.
In addition to Luther, program participants included: Dr. Ja A. Jahannes, musician Travis Biggs, The Telfair's Friends of African-American Art (who did so much to make the evening possible), its then director Steven High, curator Harry DeLorme, and many patrons, supporters, and fans. They all combined intentions and resources to demonstrate art's ability to endow a diverse community with a single beautiful purpose. That potential is one which has eluded too many in 2018 as educational institutions and organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts have seen their budgets butchered at a time when what creatives gift to society possibly has never been more needed.
The current political assaults on freedom of the press and individual expression make it even more important to savor the kind of rarity represented by Elemental's launch ten years ago. Moreover, the event takes on greater and greater significance because some of the key geniuses who made it happen are no longer with us on the physical plane and others have taken on new missions in different cities or countries. Vann died April 6, 2016, and Jahannes on July 5, 2015. (I last communicated with violinist Travis Biggs a few months before Luther passed but since then have not received any responses to phone messages or emails).
Dr. Jahannes' contribution to the celebration remains particularly memorable because with his eloquent, insightful, and often humorous comments on the art and poetry of Elemental he both "stole the show" and gave it back to the audience as a perfect gift. He had been asked to introduce the Coming Home video precisely because of his familiarity with our work both as individuals and as a team. In his words:
"Aberjhani and Luther Vann have dynamic synergism in their poetry and their paintings...'Luther Vann's paintings will enrich our community for years to come,' said Steven High in a preface to Elemental. So will the poetry of Aberjhani..."
He spoke with infectious ease when comparing Luther's work to that of painters as diverse as the Norwegian master Edvard Munch and the iconic Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. He did the same when pointing out parallels between it and musicians such as the classical composer Antonin Dvorchak and giants of jazz John Coltrane and Miles Davis. An accomplished photographer himself, Jahannes further described as Vann as "a remarkable storyteller" and "a sensory artist" whose images engage viewers' attention on multiple levels:
"He's a master of sensory brilliance. His work is visual, captivating, and viscerally engaging... If you look at these paintings, you can almost hear them. They are auditory. There are voices emitted by color and arrangement. They're kinesthetic. Energy [is] generated by the arrangement of pulsating hues... They are tactile. You can almost feel the texture by the way he layers and juxtaposes color and arranges symbols and images..."
These observations have since helped various scholars and art lovers to more fully understand what they are viewing when going through the pages of the book, or standing in front of Luther's work at the Telfair Museum of Art or elsewhere.
The Deep Road to Infinity
Long before Elemental made cultural arts history in Savannah, I had become an admirer of Dr. Jahannes's poetry and essay collection, Truthfeasting. For that reason, I felt more than a little honored by his generous comments on the body of my published works and was thrilled to hear him recite the following passage:
We take the deep road to infinity.
His willingness to lend his voice in service to something greater than either of our individual ambitions was a large part of what defined Elemental's thematic substance. It brought to mind the great Lucille Clifton’s famous dictum that when it comes to identifying yourself as a poet and actually writing poetry, "One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated."
The celebratory evening of May 29, 2008, marked the culmination of an almost two-decade campaign to breathe life into a project which had survived, and in part been shaped by, the turbulence born of two creative individuals' private, social, political, and professional lives. The luxury of having finally reached a point of relief nearly overshadowed the excitement of having achieved a long-sought triumph. We soon realized we had completed only one more stage of a perpetually interactive process which would, much like the book, continue to unfold in layers of color and sparks of revelation.
NEXT: Elemental's 10th anniversary inspires mindful reflections & renewed hopes (part 2): illumination
“It had been more than a year since the Joker’s conquest of America and we were all still in shock and going through the stages of grief but now we needed to come together and set love and beauty and solidarity and friendship against the monstrous forces that faced us. Humanity was the only answer to the cartoon. I had no plan except love. I hoped another plan might emerge in time but for now there was only holding each other tightly and passing strength to each other, body to body, mouth to mouth, spirit to spirit, me to you.” –Salman Rushdie (The Golden House)
Production-wise, in addition to the list of essays and poem noted in the previous post, 2017 will go down in my personal history as the year I completed the long-promised book of essays on different aspects of life in Savannah, Georgia (USA). Among the topics addressed in the book are: the increasing wrath of hurricanes, slavery of the past and present-day human-trafficking, the cultural arts, family life, the legacies of James Alan McPherson and Flannery O’Connor, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and the enduring allure of the city of Paris, France.
Not too long ago, I responded to a tweet by fellow author J.K. Rowling in which she proposed something which prompted me to think about the scope of material covered in my book: “…If I had listened to 'the rules' back in 1990, there would be no Harry Potter. Stories about schools are passé. 95k words is too long” (https://twitter.com/jk_rowling/status/928688419332657153).
I thanked her with the following reply: @jk_rowling You just gave me a lot 2 think abt. I've been thinking my latest manuscript might actually be 2 #books, not 1. Btw I was a #bookseller in 1990 & HP [much later, around 1998] got me a sales bonus. #Thanks4That
Rowling’s comment––though she may have meant differently from how I first interpreted it–– made me wonder if, in my zeal to write a new kind of creative nonfiction about life in Southeast Georgia as it relates to a single individual and the larger world, I had overreached. She had noted the length specifically in regard to “Stories about schools.” But when I picked up copies of The World and Me, and The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I estimated each was no longer than 45,000 to 50,000 words. My manuscript by comparison was closer to what JK Rowling––or publishers responding to early Harry Potter manuscripts––had described as “too long.”
Then again, Ibram X. Kendi’s National book Award Winning volume, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas, is almost 600 pages long. So which was preferable: concision or heft?
This quandary, I decided, is by no means a tragedy because the new manuscript is written in such a way that it can be published as either a single large edition suitable for attracting those impressed by authorial range, or, as two separate corresponding books attractive to readers who prefer more compact volumes. The popularity of having options could ultimately add to the votes in favor of two volumes rather than one. For right now, the forced considerations provide further evidence of a year which turned out to be exceptionally productive despite endless streams of political, financial, and other kinds of unruly disruption.
Rebirth of a Visual Artist
The other important production news of the year 2017 came from the launch of the Postered Chromatic Poetics store at Fine Art America. As happy as I am that the store opened, it was one of those developments which evolved naturally out of already-established activities as opposed to stemming from a planned enterprise.
Digital art, photography, and mixed media creations have expanded my capacities for communicating literary and philosophical observations about life as we experience it on different physical, mental, and spiritual levels. They increasingly provide frames, inspiration, and useful commentary for some of my most accessed writings.
It was quite an honor when supporters of the Renaming the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge Symposium were presented with gift cards of my Savannah River Bridge The Morning after Hurricane Matthew No 2 as commemorative keepsakes for the historic event. (All of my Postered Chromatic Poetics artwork is currently available until January 7, 2018, at 40 percent off using promo code MEKCFJ). This specific piece formerly was named The Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge The Morning after Hurricane Matthew No. 2 for the sake of historical accuracy but more and more it seemed self-defeating to keep using Talmadge’s name while simultaneously calling for its removal from the bridge.
On Eulogies and Elegies
Diverse professional priorities and obligations made it impossible for me to respond, as I often have in the past, to the loss of every beloved figure in 2017 with individual poems or essays. Actress-singer Della Reese, actor Nelsan Ellis, playwright-actor Sam Shepard, actor Robert Gillaume, and rock and roll legend Fats Domino are only a few for whom I did not get a chance to write the kind of tribute I would have preferred. Thankfully, social media made it possible to at least acknowledge most of those to whom we bid farewell during the previous year. I did a little better when it came to jazz master Al Jarreau and the great human rights advocate Dick Gregory:
Prospects and Milestones
What does all of this mean as we settle into the year 2018? Simply that a lot good ground work has been laid to increase the potential for significant accomplishments over the next 12 months. In light of difficulties so many of us are facing on personal, local, national, and international levels, that is a valuable prospect to keep in mind. We can add to those prospects a number of notable milestones towards which we may look forward:
Positive as well as negative world events are going to have their say when it comes to whatever plans and resolutions we declare for this brand New Year 2018. That’s just the way reality rolls and it is all the more reason to salvage the best of everything worthwhile gained in 2017 while preparing to step up our games with just a little bit more inspired drive and determination for 2018.
8 January 2018
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
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.
World-changing catastrophes––like the earthquake that struck Mexico on September 7, and the back-to-back twin maelstroms, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, that rocked the United States this month––have a way of bringing to the surface humanity’s innate, but too often dormant, capacity for compassion. The life-and-death dilemmas they create strip us of the conditioned tendencies that cause people to fixate on superficial differences which encourage needless conflict rather than focus on shared commonalities that make community-building possible.
In their aftermath, we often see concrete demonstrations of exceptional considerations not only through the actions of celebrities like Beyoncé and Stevie Wonder who donate their time and talents to raise millions of dollar to support relief efforts. We also see it in the less glamorous actions performed by ordinary citizens contributing in whatever humble way they can.
Varieties of Angels and Monster Truck Drivers
On September 4, famed British author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, shared this quote by me on Twitter: “Varieties of angels, like varieties of love, are many” (Aberjhani). The quotation was posted along with a video, from AFP News Agency, in which the driver of a mega truck, a bearded white male, is seen wheeling his way through the flooded streets of Port Arthur, Texas, helping people cope with the ravages of Hurricane Harvey.
In this day and age of strained racial anxieties in America and around the world, many people would hesitate to associate the driver in the video with the concept of angelic behavior. As he admits himself, the gargantuan-wheeled trucks are something he and others usually utilize for fun in ways rarely considered heroic. However, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey provided an opportunity to employ the vehicles in a completely different and literally life-saving kind of way:
“You know,” he said, “we’ve had people trying to pay us, but we’re not taking any money. The hugs and the kisses, and watching a grown man cry when you come save him, it’s all worth it.”
Such is the kind of disposition that makes an everyday culture of compassion both credible and possible. Like the giant truck seen in the video, compassion equips us with the means to move past the destructive elements that prevent us from connecting with the potential for greater higher good residing within everyone.
That a global culture of compassion is needed now more than ever has become increasingly evident from by the nonstop talk of possible war between the U.S. and North Korea, and the string of terrorist attacks in London and elsewhere throughout the year 2017. The only thing standing in the way of citizens worldwide making it real is citizens worldwide making the choice to do so.
Most importantly, a true culture of compassion goes beyond basic acts of kindness to encompass mindful considerations of how everyday human activities, such as work, political engagement, social interactions, and economic enterprises either enhance or diminish the quality of human lives. In addition: it takes into account how our actions and aspirations impact the Earth’s ever-evolving biodiversity and general global environment.
One Good Quotation Deserves Another
Some have wondered what prompted celebrity author J.K. Rowling to use my specific quote and whether I had anything to do with the choice. My guess is her informed humane instincts were simply leaning in the same direction as the mega-truck driver’s in the video: toward compassion. It is not exactly something I could have influenced other than, like Rowling, by always striving to communicate something of value to humanity and hoping someone finds meaning in the attempt.
And in this case, thus far some 11,094 re-tweeters have found the shared words valuable and more than 37,970 Twittizens have expressed appreciation by clicking the like button. That being said, the quotation was particularly apt for this specific video because both negate assumptions and prejudices, and both propose exercising a more expanded form of awareness.
My response to Rowling’s tweet was also an acknowledgement of the Dalai Lama’s observation that “we all possess the seeds of love and compassion.” Whether we take time to cultivate their growth, however, tends to be another matter. And where that is concerned, the tweet with which I replied to Rowling was a quote by her: “It is our choices... that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (J.K. Rowling).
We can choose to evoke the angels our better nature because doing so makes life more joyfully sustainable for humanity as a whole, or we can choose to demonize each other based on such superficial differences as nationalities, religion, or race for no beneficial reason whatsoever. When tempted to give in to the latter, it is worth remembering that catastrophic events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires don’t ask for immigration papers, birth certificates, or bank account balances before bringing on the full unrelenting force of pure non-discriminating pain.
Poet-Author-Artist Aberjhani spend almost a decade writing his most recently-completed manuscript on culture, history, and race relations in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA). He is currently at work on a play about attempts to change the name of the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
In the debate over the potential repeal of the American Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, mainstream media commentators commonly refer to the law as President Barack Obama’s “signature achievement.” Whether you describe that tendency as guerrilla decontextualization or simple disrespect, it mostly adds up to a miscalculation of the assessment of President Obama’s impact on American and world history.
Said assessment is one which historians will be determining for decades, but for now, by way of introducing the 3 poems that will soon follow, it is enough to note that the American Care Act is only one of many key achievements spearheaded by Mr. Obama on behalf of his American constituents and his fellow leaders in the global community. How is it commentators so easily overlook the fact that under his leadership a downward spiraling recession which nearly brought the country to its red, white and blue knees was effectively strategically reversed, dropping unemployment figures from double digits to when he took office to the current figure below 5 percent? How can they so casually forget that his accomplishments earned him the Nobel Prize for Peace?
That he became the United States’ first African-American president at the age of 47 is possibly less remarkable than the full two terms during which one generation was born, and another grew into maturity living without the assumption that a black American president––this one accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters–– was by default an anomaly. The observation is more than just the most commanding fact to cite for Black History Month every year from this point onward. It is one of the most compelling arguments for ramping up improved lessons worldwide in diversity, cultural literacy, and peaceful coexistence.
Add to the above the skillful application of leadership principles employed by Mr. Obama to repair diplomatic abroad and whether storms of race-fueled violence at home. Look closely at the risks he took in effort to achieve a diverse workforce with appointments of women, gays, Latinos, Asians, and African Americans to influential offices. And although he obviously boasted a bit when it came to his role as Commander-in-Chief, he was amazingly effective in his position as Chief Comforter following some of the most horrendous natural and man-inflicted disasters in history.
Of the poems below, the first was written to commemorate Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election to the presidency. The second and third were written as it became apparent that his presidency was going to meet with serious oppositions of every kind: political, racial, personal, military, betrays, and more. Each of the poems are available in the pages of The River of Winged Dreams.
Hope and Audacity Revisited
The poem titled “There Upon a Bough of Hope and Audacity” was first published in The Savannah Herald after Barack Obama’s first election to the U.S. presidency. Ironically enough, the poem proposed that Mr. Obama was not to be compared to the great Abraham Lincoln, and yet one of the more noted responses to his re-election in 2012 was a challenge much like one Mr. Lincoln faced a century and a half ago. It was the challenge, whether symbolic or literal, of a growing call for different states to secede from the U.S. President Obama’s re-election was by no means a given. The battle to win was as epic a political struggle as America has ever seen, but U.S. citizens in the end made their choice clear:
Angel of Hope’s Persistent Flight
“To continue one’s journey in the darkness with one’s footsteps guided by the illumination of remembered radiance is to know courage of a peculiar kind––the courage to demand that light continue to be light even in the surrounding darkness.”
Wreaths of nuclear ash
decorate civilian hearts
with unresolved blood.
Greed, crowned emperor,
rules the earth with cold disdain
for harmony’s path.
War poisons the land
like diseased minds downloaded
into bowls of tears.
Chaos, loving none
so much as itself, slurps and
spits dead souls like bones.
What is belief now?
What is faith that will not die?
What news from heaven?
In midnight’s orchard
rose’s blossom the secrets
that heal daylight’s wounds.
Beats of broken hearts
flow waves of revelation––
open gates to strength.
Cradled in scorched arms,
a soldier’s moon keeps its vows––
shines persistent hope.
This love that God is
curves in figure eights greater
than both time and space.
Death wins nothing here,
gnawing wings that amputate––
then spread, lift up, fly.
(from The River of Winged Dreams)
“It was a savage scene, and we stayed there for a long time, watching life feed on itself, the silence interrupted only by the crack of bone or the rush of wind, or the hard thump of a vulture’s wings as it strained to lift itself into the current, until it finally found the higher air and those long and graceful wings became motionless and still like the rest.”
––Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father
What once was blood streaks
your face with indigo tears
and lush midnight tunes.
Holding silver hands,
you compose a Tao of art
that heals broken wings.
Lips glow violet,
open to reveal tongues bright
with pearl metaphors.
A speckled halo
handcuffs the world’s best liars
to soft dark passions.
Music’s sweet labors
give birth to a springtime rush
of sighs rippling dreams.
Out of your mouth rhymes
blossom like warm paradigms
already in flight.
Golden, your songs,
and noble; spinning stars on
their axis of love.
On faith’s battered back
calm eyes etch prayers that cool
a nation’s hot rage.
Inside these scarred hearts
genius flows incandescent
waves of truth made real.
Hope drowned in shadows
emerges fiercely splendid––
(The River of Winged Dreams)
From the History Channel: “The 44th President: In His Own Words”
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a collection of nonfiction narratives on the cultural arts, history, race relations, literature, and social and political conditions in Savannah, Georgia (USA).
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
© 9 January, 2017
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.