The fact that Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance turns 18 in September makes me more than a little emotional. It was my second major book (after the birth of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry) and at this time I feel about it as many parents do when an offspring turns 18: apprehensive, reflective, grateful to have come this far.
Several days passed before I allowed myself to actually pick up a copy of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance after boxes of both the hardback and paperback editions arrived at my home in September 2003. The cover art, featuring a painting by celebrated Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence, was so beautiful I almost felt like touching it would be a criminal offense. (The more recent second edition has art by Archibald J. Motley on the cover.)
Having labored virtually nonstop for months and years prior to that moment to complete the encyclopedia, I suddenly found the anticipated joy of physically holding the book plagued by fears and doubts. Much the way humanity en masse of late has found itself afflicted by divisions over vaccinations and face mask mandates when it comes to continuing the battle against COVID-19 and its more lethal Delta variant.
My problem had nothing to do with a virus and everything to do with lingering questions over how well my writing partner, Sandra, and I had fulfilled a mission we both considered sacred. Had we utilized available resources efficiently enough? Had we provided readers fair balanced interpretations of “known facts” relevant to our subjects’ lives? Was the work a worthy tribute to their phenomenal accomplishments and sacrifices? I had gone through a similar trial of initiation involving The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois book when it arrived a week earlier. Only it was a smaller project which caused less anxiety.
Once I allowed myself to lift Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance out of its box, sit down with a cup of coffee and go through its pages, I reached an important sanity-preserving conclusion. We (Sandra, myself, Clement Alexander Price, and our amazing contributors) had added significantly to the expansion and elevation of conversations surrounding the impact of the renaissance.
Confronting History with History
In the months and years to come, we would take a number of the critical hits which tend to follow the publication of such groundbreaking work. However, important awards, numerous citations, supportive reviews, and further editions would also follow.
Moreover, the book was published just after the 9-11 Attacks and prior to the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement. As such, it helped lay the groundwork for important dialogues addressing both events. Just being mindful of that is one beautifully-satisfying way to celebrate Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance’s 18th birthday. Another is the following:
Documenting the Story of One Book’s Amazing Journey
As I observe this 18th birthday of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, I am very mindful of the fact that my co-author for the title, Sandra L. West, and writer of the foreword, Clement Alexander Price, are now deceased. So is the man who provided us with the book’s epigraph, Ja A. Jahannes. But rather than immerse myself in sorrow over their passing, I am more inclined to acknowledge the enduring radiance with which their spirits and intellect blessed our enterprise. They would be happy to know the book continues to serve as a valuable resource for a new generation of students of the renaissance. Below, in closing, are links to my tributes to them as well as to a few posts on the encyclopedia’s impact thus far:
And at this point, now that the Harlem Renaissance Centennial is upon us, my personal Harlem Renaissance journey continues…
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
“…turnin’ nouns into verbs braids into crowns
The poem from which the above quote was taken, “people of watts,” by the late playwright and poet Ntozake Shange (1948-2018) was originally published in her Wild Beauty collection and more recently in the special spring 2020 edition of African Voices Magazine dedicated to Shange and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison (1931-2019). The quoted lines summarize with agonizing eloquence the work Shange and Morrison have done to resurrect the lynched legacies of African American women. I hope they apply as well to my poem, “A Song of Toni Morrison My Soul Now Sings,” included in African Voices’ celebration of the authors’ amazing lives.
Publisher Carolyn Butts, in her introductory note, spells out the importance of the women’s literary triumphs: “Part 2 of our Ntozake Shange issue honors two Black women writers whose language ignited movements around the principles of self-love, healing and interconnectivity. Toni Morrison and Ntozake Shange freed us from restricting cultural mores while stretching our language and shifting our gaze. We tip our pens in gratitude…”
Balancing Scales of Recognition
Women have always occupied major positions in my nonfiction books, fictional works, essays, poems, and journalism. That may have become more evident over the past year with the inclusion of my work in the art catalogue, Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades, and announcement of my forthcoming lecture at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, Georgia.
Morrison in particular has been a recurring subject. However, by comparison, I’ve written far too little about Shange. That realization comes as a major surprise because I recall clearly the controversies stirred over her iconic play: For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, and the impact it had on me and others.
Described as a choreopoem by Shange in the late 1970s, the play had already become a cultural phenomenon (much like the TV production of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has today) by the time I saw it at Temple University in Philadelphia. The playwright had set astonishing witnessed truths, some of them beautiful and some of them horrifying, to linguistic music, and dressed them up in skirted dancing hues. It was as visually captivating as it was dramatically innovative and exhilarating.
Male friends had declined to go see it with me because they bought into the hype it was “anti Black men.” While there may have been grounds for such an argument, I had grown up with too many sisters and female cousins to fail to recognize the shocking validity of Shange’s voice. I had read the works of too many of her predecessors–like Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, and Lorraine Hansberry––to fail to accept that hers was a major authentic contribution to a dialogue essential to African Americans’ expanded understanding of African Americans. As a young writer looking to develop his own voice, how I could I not be astounded by what she had done with hers?
It is not the destiny of literary sisters like Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Shange to rest in peace. Legacies such as theirs tend to lift our love for and memories of them ever higher in power. That is something for which we can always be grateful.
© Women’s History Month 2020
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
That the story of two chroniclers of the Harlem Renaissance should have had its beginning in Savannah, Georgia, in the early 1990s, might seem unlikely but it did. Sandra and I met as writers often do: in a bookstore. I was the manager at a now defunct Waldenbooks store interviewing for a part-time worker and she was interested. The interview turned into a two-person literary salon as, somehow, we started talking about writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and contemporary art.
Scheduling requirements would not allow me to hire her but neither did it bring our dialogue to an end. Long before either of us would consider working on Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, within a year she would suggest I consider writing poetry for a book of her then husband Luther E. Vann's art. We would for a time work together on the Savannah Literary Journal, and in her role as an assistant editor for the weekly Savannah Tribune, one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the country, she would publish a feature story on me. We would also team up for different literary programs, so when the time did come to tackle the encyclopedia we were ready, as a team, to answer history's call to duty.
Worthy of Our Ancestors' Legacy
Although we moaned, groaned, and outright blubbered over difficulties encountered completing Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, the hardcore truth was we were two lit-geeks who would have been disappointed had there not been any major hurdles to overcome and thereby prove ourselves worthy of our ancestors' legacy. If ever any book was worth burning candles at ends we did not even have, it was the encyclopedia. Sandra trusted that I would pull through because I was somewhat younger and had energy enough to carry my multiple loads. I trusted she would pull through because she had one of the finest literary minds and most committed dispositions toward African-American literary culture I had ever encountered. Moreover, it was she who had invited me to join the project.
This is a framed news article titled "A legend’s place" written by Sandra L. West about Georgia civil rights icon W.W. Law. It hangs on the wall of the W.W. Law Center in Savannah, GA. The photo in the lower right corner is of West. The article was published in the Savannah Morning News Black History Month 1996.
The really big surprise was one that often stuns first-time authors. It was learning how much promotional work remained to be done after the writing was accomplished. That was also the fun part with Sandra taking on book signings and interviews up north while I did the same down south. Still, she emailed to remind me it was not enough that we had completed the history-making volume itself. We needed to record the history we were continuing to make through related activities:
"Aberjhani, we need to keep a running list of what we have done thus far. Especially since we have done a ton of public relations stuff ... I know you have been busy on your end and I would like to have at least one major list of things done ... because, you never know. Please plug in what you did... radio interview for Michael Porter and WBAI, the Gusby TV interview, signings, etc. We also need to plug in print reviews, and all those newspaper interviews of you.
By "line of defense" she meant irrefutable proof the success of the encyclopedia warranted additional printings and a revised, maybe expanded, second edition. The follow-up eventually would come in the form of InfoBase’s eBook of the title and its addition to publisher Facts On File's history database. Any plans on an updated edition to correspond with the current Harlem Renaissance centennial never surfaced. Given the significance of the 100th anniversary of the renaissance and the way numerous institutions are observing it around the globe, many thought an updated reissue was going to happen automatically. But the world of publishing in 2019 as impacted by social media and various Internet influencers is a far cry from what it once was. So in 2003 my co-author assigned herself the role of Team Encyclopedia scorekeeper and started recording notes like the following:
SEPTEMBER 2003, BOOK SIGNING. Aberjhani & Sandra L. West host Book
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.