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
Anyone on June 27, 2019, attending the opening of the Suzanne Jackson Five Decades retrospective at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia (USA), or involved in its production prior to that historic evening, could tell something exceptional was happening. In addition to the mesmerizing kind of vibrant textiles and stunning canvases one might expect to discover at such an opening for a contemporary artist, there were seven vitrines (display cases) filled with family photographs, vintage 1960s flyers advertising a "Revolutionary Art Exhibit," sketchbooks, program notes, letters, photographs, and other revealing archival materials from different chapters of Jackson's, and America's, life stories.
The items made available went beyond career highlights to illuminating an artist's considerable immersion in a significant historical moment: the 1960s-1970s Black Arts Movement as it rooted and flowered in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. For those observers of African-American history who contend America's West Coast contributed much less to the Harlem Renaissance than other regions because it lacked, during the 1920s-1940s, a heavy representation of the traditions and institutions then associated with Black culture in the South, the 1960s may be considered the bridge which connected history and geography.
Ideas of how and why that might be the case, within the context of Five Decades, first struck me as apparent while listening to the on-stage conversation between Jackson, fellow artist Alonzo Davis, and Telfair Museums curator Rachel Reese. Jackson's and Davis's stories of establishing art galleries in downtown Los Angeles, building a sustainable cultural arts community, and balancing commitments to careers and political struggle with commitments to family life were not completely unlike what we find in the life stories of East Coast predecessors like Lois Mailou Jones and Augusta Fells Savage.
This observation does not contradict the contexts of ecowomanism and black feminist ethics contexts in which the brilliant essays by Reese, julia elizabeth neal, Melanee C. Harvey, and Tiffany E. Barber place Jackson's work in the forthcoming Five Decades catalog. It simply acknowledges one more powerful aspect of the place she now occupies as an influential contemporary artist of historical importance. In her foreword to the catalog, artist Betye Saar alludes to the significance of Jackson's role as someone whose art and advocacy have bridged gaps:
"In the 1960s, black artists in Los Angeles were struggling to be recognized. Some public venues had integrated exhibitions, but generally speaking black artists were ignored... Suzanne made a concrete imprint when she opened Gallery 32 on Lafayette Park Place..." (Appropriately enough, work by the 93-year-old Saar herself is currently undergoing a kind of revival with forthcoming solo shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.)
After Jackson's, Davis's, and Reese's dynamic conversation, the feeling when walking among the dozens of artworks hung with dazzling appeal in the Steward North and Kane Galleries, absorbing the full impact of the actual exhibit, was like glimpsing a long-hidden priceless American treasure. Those who have yet to treat themselves to the experience still have until October 13, 2019, to do so at the Jepson. Just as importantly, the exhibition catalog is due out September 25 and orders for it are being accepted now.
Continental Crossings & Fortuitous Connections
My journey toward the almost magical evening of June 27 actually began on August 28, 2004, when Ms. Jackson attended my "Harlem Renaissance in Savannah" lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah. Since relocating to the city eight years earlier, she had been surprised to discover the African-American cultural arts scene was as vibrant as it was and included someone who had co-authored (with the late Sandra L. West) the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
I was surprised and impressed to learn she had lived on the West Coast--just as I had in San Francisco--and now taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). If I'd had the slightest prophetic clue of the visual marvels that would be revealed 15 years later, I would have been flat-out amazed.
Mounted wall screen showing video images from life and career of artist and educator Suzanne Jackson. The video was part of the opening for Jackson's Five Decades Retrospective at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Art in Savannah, Georgia, on June 27, 2019. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
That early meeting was genuinely fortuitous because in those days my responsibilities as a caregiver had already started to limit participation in public events. I nevertheless did make it out occasionally and during the years which followed the lecture our paths crossed enough for an acquaintance to become a friendship. As it turned out, we had more than the cultural arts and California in common. We had both also spent time in Fairbanks, Alaska--she as a child growing up there and me some years later as a U.S. military journalist.
We came to know many of the same creatives and shared enthusiasm over their triumphs. Grief, too, demanded acknowledgement when experiencing the loss of such individuals as painter Allen M. Fireall (1954-2014), his fellow artist and friend Luther E. Vann (1937-2016), and author-educator Ja A. Jahannes (1942-2015). More personal, more blood-connected losses inserted themselves into the stories of our individual lives as well, both stalling and fueling painted poems and poemized visions that would manifest in coming years.
NEXT: A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 2): Jazz, Art, & Partying
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player
"Simply by allowing its darker-hued brothers and sisters to openly discuss ideas without having to constantly justify, defend, or survive the color of their skin, whether in classrooms of the great Sorbonne or while walking un-hunted down a boulevard, Paris [France] made a crucial contribution to what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance and to the legacy of African-American intellectual traditions in general." from Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah quote, art graphic, & new 2019 book by Aberjhani. Click image to pre-order.
The basic image in this quotation art graphic was derived from visual studies prepared for the works of art which have become known as Harlem Renaissance Deja Vu Numbers 1 and 2 canvases. The work seen above was modeled after a famous photo (photographer unknown at this point) of a young James Baldwin holding a copy of his essay collection, No Name in the Street. In the poster graphic viewed here, this author is seen holding a copy of the forthcoming title, Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah (ISBN 978-9388125956) currently slated for release May 1, 2019. It is also now the focus of a new blog-site you can check out by clicking either the art graphic or this link: Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
With actress Regina King having won Golden Globe and Academy Awards for her portrayal of Sharon Rivers in the film adaptation of Baldwin's classic novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, plus the critical acclaim garnered by the 2016 biopic, I Am Not Your Negro, the iconic Baldwin is possibly more famous now than ever before. And No Name In Street, of course, has gone on to become an American literary classic.
The personal essay style utilized in Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah may or may not reflect some of Baldwin's influence. He is referenced in the stories "Cities of Lights and Shadows and Dreams," and "Trees Down Everywhere" but any stylistic similarity is not intentional. Contemporary authors who grew up reading Baldwin, as I did, are more likely than not to have been influenced by him to one degree or another on one level or another.
Connecting and Disconnecting
The observation noted in the above quote about the city of Paris's connection to the cultural arts revolution known as the Harlem Renaissance might seem out of place in a book titled Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. In fact it is not. One reason is because the book is being published during the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance.
Another is because Savannah, like Paris, also has strong ties to the event which is generally recognized as having lasted throughout the 1920s going into the 1930s, but which endured to a lesser degree well into the 1940s. That such an unlikely connection can be identified between the Harlem Renaissance, Paris (France), and Savannah (Georgia, USA) is one more example of how the phenomenal movement transcended geographical boundaries and strengthened the case for harmonious interactions between multicultural communities.
I first explored that three-way connection in an essay titled The Harlem Renaissance Way Down South, and now revisit it in the aforementioned story, "Cities of Lights and Shadows and Dreams." The narrative stands as a good metaphor for one of the primary concerns highlighted in Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah: how we connect and why we sometimes disconnect during disruptive, or stagnant, moments in our personal lives and shared public histories. Measuring, determining, and applying the value of such awareness holds possible advantages for many more than the denizens of just one city or region.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.