Such an overwhelming pattern of lethal violence against African Americans at the hands of police unskilled in nonviolent conflict resolution has emerged over the past decade that I was less stunned by news of what happened to 23-year-old Elijah Jovan McClain in Denver, Colorado, last August 24, than I was by the words attributed to him as he was being detained and slowly robbed of his life. I have not been able to access a single video or recording on which everything Mr. McClain said can be heard clearly but according to the fact-checking website Snopes.com this is an accurate transcription:
“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people, I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You are all very strong. Teamwork makes the dream work. Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”
These are not words to cry over and then forget. They were uttered as McClain (wearing earbuds and carrying a shopping bag) was stopped, forced to the ground with a carotid (choke) hold, injected with a chemical called Ketamine to make him more docile, and then transported to a hospital where he died a few days later.
“Try to Forgive Me”
There is a mixture of awe, admiration, and fear in the demeanor of people sharing McClain’s last utterances across the internet. They are amazed by the clarity of his spiritual intention to put the officers at ease although he is the one, at some 140 pounds, who is clearly outnumbered and overpowered. In short, he demonstrates compassion towards them while his freedom and life are being taken from him. He tells them, “You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me.”
Imagine if even half the compassion which Mr. McClain exercised towards the law enforcement officials in Denver had been shown by different police or citizens anxiously out to make arrests in the cases of: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, my adolescent brother Robert Lee, and the numerous others who did not become subjects of intensified media scrutiny or campaigns calling for justice.
Compassion might have led officer Timothy Loehmann to see Tamir Rice as a 12-year-old child instead of as a deadly threat and coaxed him to drop the toy gun he was holding before unloading actual gunfire on him. It might have decreased the toxic rush of “fear” Trooper Brian Encinia claimed he feared for his life when forcing an unarmed Sandra Bland out of her car reportedly for failing to signal a lane change. Whereas compassion might possibly have won him a new friend or admirer, his brutally aggressive treatment and arrest of Bland ended in what was ruled as a suicide by hanging in her jail cell.
Considering the Golden Rule: Who among us know of anyone who would wish to have done to them the gun violence so many, and the loved ones left behind, have experienced just this year alone?
Recent reforms in police training and procedures combined with legislation to support them provide reason to believe the kind of unjustified killings we have seen can and will end. Chances of that happening increase greatly with a mindful cultivation of compassion as an essential tool for addressing volatile situations within communities as a whole before life-threatening conflicts occur.
The Violinist and the Kittens
Only those closest to him can speak with any kind of authority about who or what Elijah McClain was but there are videos and public documentation which support claims he was an exceptionally sensitive and empathetic human being. Some might find the description of him as “an angel walking among people” a bit much. Speaking for himself he declared: “I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all.” That wasn’t exactly all because being a massage therapist did make him a kind of healer in the mode of an angel. In fact, his fateful encounter with police occurred after reportedly purchasing tea for a cousin.
And then there is this: he was so concerned about the loneliness from which he believed kittens in shelters might suffer that on his lunchbreaks he played the violin for them. That practice of musical compassion prompted world-class musicians to gather in Aurora on June 27, 2020 and play their hearts out as crowds peacefully chanted and called out #Justice4ElijahMcClain.
Read McClain’s final words again and note the degree to which he is holding himself accountable, not his uniformed assailants, for the transgression against him: “Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.” And this amazing plea: “Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better.” There are certain phrases or words we use––like beautiful soul, altruistic, sublime spirit, courageous, and saintly––to characterize someone who places above their own well-being that of people causing them harm. They are not phrases restricted to any single color, gender, nationality, or demographic classification. If anything, by their nature they confirm the presence of someone whose life example seemingly transcends sociological categorization.
The appropriate application of such words is determined by going beyond simply advocating for love- and compassion-based social change in our world to taking the radical dangerous step of embodying that change and living it. We know it is a radical and even, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., a “marvelously militant” thing to do because historically committing to it has cost a lot of beautiful souls their physical existence. We also know Elijah Jovan McClain had taken that sublimely revolutionary step and made the heroic commitment because even in the face of voracious death he did not refrain from proclaiming and living it.
28 June, 2020
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
Few things can rearrange the priorities of individuals or nations like a full-blown pandemic. Its impact is felt no less by cultural arts workers than by anyone else. In some cases it is felt even more keenly through creatives’ attempts to convert the overwhelming collective and personal shock to meaningful works in different disciplines.
Responding to events of an historic magnitude with visual and text creations has become very natural for me over the past couple of years so that is how my response to the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 started. I’m stressing the word ‘started’ here because, like everyone else, I have had to adapt to the new social distance norms imposed by the crisis before I could begin converting the experience into a creative format. What resulting forms will look like in the weeks, months, and years to come remain to be seen. For right now, the new “Battle against the COVID-19 Curve” and “Angels of Music Revisited” artwork posted with commentaries on Fine Art American and Pixels.com represent the beginning of a series of creative counter-measures.
From the Postered Chromatics C19 Art Gallery
Spread of the coronavirus known as COVID-19 has become one of the most dominating forces, if not the single most dominating, in modern times. Populations around the world are confronting it in their own professional and creative ways to the best of their abilities. We see doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, and public transportation workers putting themselves at risk to help others. With famous singers streaming concerts from their living rooms and families gathered outside the homes of loved ones, standing several feet apart while singing them happy birthday or sharing wishes for a happy new married life together. The images in this gallery along with writings about the impact of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic are my way of standing in solidarity with humanity as we overcome the crisis.
Battle Against the COVID-19 Curve
The race to beat what scientists describe as the COVID-19 curve, meaning the highest likely impact levels of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, began back in January after people in China had already suffered its deadly fury. The goal since then has been to reduce major devastation while the pandemic continued its death march across the globe.
We nevertheless have seen within individual cities, countries, and the international community, scenes which have been terrifyingly heartbreaking and others which have been amazingly inspiring. It is my hope that the Silk-Featherbrush painting titled THE BATTLE AGAINST THE COVID-19 CURVE, captures some of the mixture of extreme emotions and behaviors which have characterized our responses to the ordeal so far.
Inspired The orange-and-rust colored arch in the foreground of the image represents a visual metaphor symbolizing two things. One is the narrow window of opportunity countries outside of China had time-wise to prepare for the invasion of the virus. Secondly, it symbolizes an entry-point to a new collective reality which shows why embracing practices of co-existence and cooperation are much more beneficial to everyone than maintaining belief in conflicts and domination.
The surrounding surging colors are waves of a diverse but unified humanity moving persistently against whatever holds us back from being our best selves. The shadows of dark red in the background can be interpreted a number of ways. I like to think the overall image implies that somehow hope will emerge victorious.
NEXT: Confronting COVID-19 With Inspired Art Part 2: Return of the Angels of Music
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
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.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.