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.
INTRO: This installment of Celebrating the PEN Centennial was first published in May 2012. What it addresses in regard to writers’ relationships with language as well as such issues as immigration and genocide are as irrefutably relevant now as then. Possibly even more so. To read part 1 of this series please click here. Part 2 begins now:
Whether language is shyly uttered, fiercely written, or fearfully thought, it creates an inherent rhythm which invites the soul to dance to such intoxicating melodies as truth, anger, inspiration, fear, and love.
Human beings most often accept that invitation to dance in many different ways. Sometimes we do so by following the lead of an initial small or large realization until it whirls voluptuously into an unyielding idea that persuades us to take a certain action or cautions us against another.
Sometimes other pronouncements, spoken or un-, follow the first. But in languages of different kinds. They spring back and forth between diverse grammars and revelations of universal symbols or archetypes, as strangely enthralling formulations and poetic constructions creating what many might recognize as: a song of some kind. The music is not always beautiful and the dance it inspires may appear more macabre than graceful. As much as we might prefer to choreograph our lives to hip-hop ballads of genuine democracy, various populations throughout the world community endure their existence instead to the soundtrack of something closer to a nonfiction nightmare dystopia.
Ours is an age in which thousands are driven daily from their homelands by the unforgiving brutalities of war, terrorism, political oppression, starvation, disease, economic piracy, and the relentless suffocation of that singular breath which makes human beings individuals. In the United States, Latinos once secure in their identities as Americans discover they are in fact something referred to as “illegal aliens.” They then have to make their way south across the Mexican border and reestablish their lives to the tune of conditions and customs which previously had been little more than the subject of tales shared by grandparents and other interesting relatives.
Leaving Somalia, refugees struggle to reach neighboring countries like Kenya and Ethiopia or, increasingly, to cross the Atlantic to the United States to escape rape, mutilation, and genocide. People indigenously at home in rain forests and other native locales find themselves driven out by the encroaching demands of commercialism [and climate change]. In each of these scenarios human beings have to adapt to choices made by someone other than themselves and dance frantically, as it were, to a beat not their own. The forced nature of these cultural migrations burden language with a vocabulary of tears steeped in grief and desperation. And they challenge writers to retrieve out of these everyday tragedies any beauty worth singing–– without glamorizing the horrors involved or betraying the lives so despicably at risk.
The Pattern of Dynamics
An author accepting language’s invitation to dance steps onto the floor of his or her sensibility-charged consciousness and begins to move instinctively––even if with much dread––in ways which synchronize images, ideas, emotions, sounds, smells, ignorance, and knowledge. Subtle energies crackle insistently along intersecting horizontal and vertical lines to occupy each other repeatedly and compose a vision which at some point may be called a story, a poem, an essay, or a play. The pattern of dynamics might alter where different authors are concerned but the nature of this paradigm dancing remains essentially the same. Such is the culture, if you will, of the dance shared between vernacular and writers that others––passionate readers, curious friends, fellow authors, tribes on the run––are always encouraged to join them. Many, in fact, will say the dance is not a true one until they do.
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.
“Of Peacocks & Skylarks” art by Aberjhani used in title graphic for "Moving forward with global release of: Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind" C2020.
Sometimes in the middle of a pandemic a writer has to make difficult publishing decisions. That sounds a little odd, I know, but this is one of those times for me as I move forward with the global release of Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind, now on its way to online and offline book distributors.
The final stages of releasing Greeting Flannery to the public have not gone as smoothly as preferred but then few things have for most of us since COVID-19 arrived and refused to go away. With that being the case, I had to choose between either continuing to delay release of the book because of stubborn cosmetic problems concerning several pages incorporated to address the impact of coronavirus, or finally give readers access to the literary content I’ve been promising. I opted for the latter choice because the book as it stands, I believe, is a worthy contribution to current dialogues driving strategies to confront serious ongoing issues.
Consider that in addition to coronavirus, we are dealing more aggressively than ever before with: social injustices, correcting cultural biases, ending racial inequality, education versus misinformation, and adapting to a rapidly-changing world.
Quote from Greeting Flannery with art dedicated by Aberjhani to the U.S. West Coast: “With each passing day, I allowed myself to become a little more intoxicated by limitless possibilities which seemed sometimes to roll in with the fog, murmur suggestions that would have made me run yelling from them had I been anywhere [other than San Francisco], then leave me to cope with that special brand of terror bestowed by sweet and sour tastes of freedom.”
Lastly, when weighing the decision whether to publish or further delay release of the book, I was forced to acknowledge the old saying (paraphrasing Proverbs 27:1) that “Tomorrow is not promised us.” Truth of those words has never appeared more self-evident than during this #pandemic. Hopefully, however, the newly-released Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind (ISBN 1-716-68481-1) is only the first in a succession of editions which will improve more and more relevant with each publication . But because this is a first edition and features original art by the author on the front and back covers, plus some rare photographs in its “Antique Photo Album” section, it is a genuine collector’s item. Please remember as well that a collection of corresponding artworks has already been set up with several images on Fine Art America and more will be added throughout the month of September. I welcome any and all feedback on the book for future editions and hope everyone investing in this one enjoys the read and finds the shared insights useful.
Aberjhani Author, Poet, Artist Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2020
Display of books and literary journals featuring writings by Aberjhani with an art poster for Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah in the center. (photo from Bright Skylark Literary Productions Collections)
Receiving feedback about content published on a cultural arts website like Bright Skylark Literary Productions is always a good thing so I appreciate visitors who have expressed disappointment over the lack of posts usually presented every February in celebration of Black History Month (officially ordained by the U.S. Government as African-American History Month). Sometimes we find ourselves too engaged in living the unfolding history of the present moment to address the exemplary achievements of the past. At least that’s how it has been with me lately. As indicated in the previous post I am currently scheduled to give a lecture at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home in May. Presenting a lecture on such an iconic author, even when preparing to publish a book in conjunction with the same, is not something which can be done (not by me anyway) haphazardly. It has required extensive focus and tapping a few reserves of stored energy. Which is why I’m grateful that while I was concentrating on O’Connor’s work, folks at the WW Law Community Center Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia, were featuring a display of my book Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah along with a poster for it in honor of Black History Month. An administrator asked if I would be willing to take a few photos at the library. I agreed.
A Literary Photo-Op
To accomplish our shared mission, I went to the library (where I have conducted research many times) and took with me about a dozen books which I had either written, co-written, edited, or contributed to, plus just as many literary magazines containing writings by me. I had never assembled my various publications for photographing so was kind of stunned by the variety and quantity, from the slender first paperback edition of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry and early volumes of the Savannah Literary Journal, to shiny hardback copies of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love, and the Civil War Savannah Book Series. Included in the creative mix was a 1992 edition of the African American Review and a more recent poster rendition of the book cover for Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah.
This is the cover of a well-preserved copy of the 1992 edition of the African American Review featuring Harlem Renaissance artist William H. Johnson’s 1944 oil painting “Moon Over Harlem.” Inside in the review’s first poetry section is “Black Man Sitting on a Rock” by Aberjhani.
Even more amazing was realizing copies of ESSENCE Magazine and numerous other publications––not to mention online articles, essays, and blog posts––were not included in the display. If ever I felt tempted to criticize myself for not having done more (thus far) as an author, there before me was considerable evidence of a substantial effort. So having put it all together, the librarians took a number of photos, some of them showing me with the books and some of the books by themselves. The lighting was not the best for picture-taking but it turned out to be a good way to continue a very special Bright Skylark Black History Month tradition.