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.
This installment of Conversations with the World takes a new approach to the series by switching from well-known quotes to an additional excerpt from my “Thoughts Unspoken on Flannery O’Connor” lecture. The text will be followed by links to different articles and essays currently examining O’Connor’s depiction of race in her work and how racial bias possibly influenced her personal behavior or attitudes towards African Americans:
“My goal is not to offend but to encourage consideration. Anyone even slightly familiar with Flannery O'Connor’s work knows she was not a woman to bite her tongue. And I’m not talking just about the words she placed in her characters’ mouths. So I'm pretty sure that just like she did not bite her tongue in service to her vision, she would have preferred that, on this particular occasion, I not bite mine. In fact I’m not just pretty sure. I’m absolutely certain because of reasons which will become clearer when I read a couple of passages from Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind.
“This book about the literary cultures and histories we choose to sustain––and the ones which we either aggressively erase, or passively let vanish. In my examination of these ideas, I present three memoir narratives. The first is called ‘Days of Midnight Madness.’ It deals with some fun and not-so-fun times as a bookstore manager hosting book signings with John Berendt and Lady Chablis. The second narrative, titled ‘On Genius and Exile,’ focuses on writer James Alan McPherson’s relationship with his hometown. And the third narrative is the one I will be discussing and reading from today.
“When you read her letters and notice how strongly she defended her ideas, it becomes apparent that having Lupus did not stop her from being a fighter. That’s another way of saying she was a fierce communicator who tackled some very complex issues in ways women were not expected to deal with such topics in the 1950s and 1960s. We’re talking about such things as: the terror of one war after another, racial tensions in America and around the world, the impact of the industrial revolution on American values, the dynamics of intergenerational relationships, the evolving role of women in American society, and spiritual conflicts in a world, seemingly, more devoted to material and intellectual concerns. Those were huge issues which O’Connor tackled in bold innovative ways.” --(Excerpt from 2020 lecture by Aberjhani canceled by COVID-19)
Greeting Flannery O’Connor is now available at a variety of online booksellers, including: Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Books-A-Million. While it does share certain points of discussion with the noted in-progress conversations regarding O’Connor, it also reaches beyond those specific concerns. To learn more about one of the most significant discussions in contemporary letters of a major American author, please check out the following:
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
"Invitation to a Bob Marley Rock-Steady" title art graphic by Aberjhani)
How public celebrations of influential voices impact individual lives is one of the major themes in the book Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind. If you‘ve been checking out previous synopses of the book and excerpts from it, you know already its primary points of focus are on the legacies of three authors: James Alan McPherson, John Berendt, and O’Connor. There are, however, quite a few more compelling figures within its pages, including Reggae master musician Bob Marley. The following except from Greeting Flannery O’Connor is about a remarkable concert Marley gave in Oakland, California, despite the illness from which he was suffering at the time, and which a young aspiring author excitedly attended. Following the excerpt is YouTube video footage of the concert itself:
Rocking Steady in Oakland
“As engaging as his songs were in and of themselves, there emanated from Marley’s raw corporeal soul-on-fire spiritual presence an infectious loving urgency which had nothing to do with being a stunningly innovative rock star. (What if the same could be said of O'Connor's non-threatening physicality for those who had found their way to Andalusia while she lived and coaxed from her enigmatic being something more than the thrill of greeting a celebrated writer?)
“None of those screaming and bouncing wildly up and down as he launched into the songs “Positive Vibration,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Lively up Yourself,” or “Is This Love/Jammin’” could have imagined a mere eighteen months later cancer would end his physical existence. The battle to save it had already started and yet there he was, up on stage, singing and dancing the dramatic pantomimes of a holy griot-prophet: laboring to convince humankind to reconsider its preferences for oppressive actions and paradoxically self-serving self-destructive values.” ––(from Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind now available for ordering)
Aberjhani Author, Poet, Artist Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2020