"Luther and the Coming of Light" digital art by Aberjhani C2022)
.he last thing I expected to find myself writing about as we moved deeper into the year 2022 was a 3-way war between Russia, Ukraine, and professed defenders of democracy around the world. But write about it I have on the LinkedIn website as well as here at Bright Skylark. Hopefully, the articles have made it clear one of my primary concerns regarding the war has been the brutal erasure of history and culture as well as that of human lives.
The Chronicling Legacies of Black Artists in Savannah series was first published in my AXS cultural arts column as an expression of that same concern. It is reposted at this time both to encourage unwavering support in their struggle for what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called “the right to live,” and, in observation of the 14th anniversary of the publication of ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love:
Contributors to Unique Traditions
Upon his passing on April 6, 2016, Luther E. Vann joined an illustrious group of brilliant contemporary African-American creative artists who, prior to their transitions, produced numerous celebrated works which have added tremendously to Savannah’s (Georgia, USA) reputation and value as a favorite travel destination for lovers of the cultural arts. Vann (b. 1937) and Allen Fireall (1954-2014) bestowed upon the city a legacy of fine visual art that documented daily life in different communities throughout the Low Country in Georgia and South Carolina. Like artist William M. Pleasant Jr. (1928-1997) before them, they also contributed greatly to the unique traditions of Gullah art.
(Digital portrait of late Savannah Gullah artist Allen Fireall by Aberjhani)
In many cases, particularly where Fireall is concerned, their painted canvases depict scenes representative of historic cultural activities rarely practiced as part of everyday living in contemporary times. Making nets and sewing quilts by hand, for example, are more likely to be done for creative enjoyment [or to be sold as cultural artefacts] rather than, as they once were, out of simple necessity. Similarly, men and women carrying bushels of crabs atop their heads, or gathering in parks or alongside roads to wait for job assignments are seen even less rarely (if ever). Nor are you as likely while driving or walking down a lane in the American South to see women in adjoining back yards laughing and talking as they hang freshly-washed laundry out to dry.
Restoring Erased History
The late world-renowned Rev. Dr. Ja A. Jahannes(1942 -2015) was something of a polymath whose exceptional talents included writing plays, poems, novels, and children’s books–– as well as publishing anthologies, producing fine-art photography, composing music, teaching, and delivering inspired sermons. Through his multiple positions as an educator at the HBCU Savannah State University, a minister at Savannah’s now 105-year-old Abyssinia Baptist Church, and a public intellectual, Jahannes empowered many others to pick up where he would leave off.
The names presented here are not done so to invite nostalgic reveries, though studied reflections are certainly appropriate for people familiar with them. They are offered (and a number of others could easily be included) to help prevent their consignment to discarded files marked “erased history, or being deleted, via guerrilla decontextualization by omission, from the more “official” channels of documented acknowledgements.
Whether using the term “erasure of history” or “history of erasure” the final definition points to the same legacy-destroying result: the removal of consequential names and events from their authentic historic context and thus from public awareness. An erasure of history indicates the active or conscious deletion of a subject from various official records. Histories of erasure, as it were, possess the paradoxical distinction of referring to accumulated instances of eradication. The first describes the act of omitting relevant events or biographies. The second describes accounts of such actions.
The late painter William M. Pleasant Jr. surrounded by some of his celebrated works.
Guerrilla decontextualization by omission tends to occur frequently when it comes to African-American cultural arts workers who have not been embraced by certain institutions. Whatever prominence they command stems more from the direct support of, and engagement with, appreciative audiences than from disinterested commercial outlets. Some, such as William M. Pleasant Jr., had the good fortune to produce heirs, like Jalal Pleasant, who also became accomplished artists and have labored to ensure their parent’s work is properly noted.
The Example of Luther E. Vann
All of the people mentioned here have won some level of recognition in their own right. Vann earned his place beside the luminous talents he has joined through a lifetime of dedication to both the spirit and the forms of his craft. It was that dauntless commitment which prompted organizations like the Telfair Museum Friends of African-American Art to back the publication of the ekphratic book, Elemental the Power of Illuminated Love, in honor of his individual genius.
Honoring educator, author, & community activist Sandra L. West. Title art graphic by Aberjhani.
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. I know you are writing your next books. But, when you come up for air, maybe you can plug in an item or two so that by the end of the year, this will be in formal order and will be a very decent line of defense, etc.
P.S. I think we are going to win the Before The Columbus Foundation Award.
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 signing at Rutgers University, Newark, NJ. West and Dr. Clement Alexander Price presented formal papers on Harlem Renaissance. Includes interview on area cable tv show, Literary Forum. Host. Dorothea Moore.
OCTOBER 2003, BOOK SIGNING. Sandra L. West hosts book signing during historic 2nd Street Festival at Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, Richmond, VA.
RADIO INTERVIEW. Sandra L. West is guest on "Jazz Tracks" WPLJ-FM, Cleveland, OHIO. Spoke about Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
BOOK SIGNING/PRESENTATION. Sandra L. West book signing host. Delivered presentation on Harlem Renaissance at Sisters Uptown Bookstore, NYC.
BOOK SIGNING. Sandra L. West signed books at Hue-Man Books in Harlem.
BOOK SIGNING/PRESENTATION. Sandra L. West book signing host. Delivered presentation at Countee Cullen Library, Harlem.
NOVEMBER, BOOK SIGNING. Sandra L. West signed books at Gospel Brunch with Vickie Winans, at Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, NJ.
PHONE INTERVIEW. Sandra L. West was interviewed by students at Denver School of the Arts in Colorado re Harlem Renaissance artists. Students are preparing a documentary film.
EXCERPT ON WEB. Excerpt from book, article on Harleston's written by Sandra L. West, included on Goucher College Website, as part of Alumni Showcase.
BOOK SIGNING/PRESENTATION. Sandra L. West and Dr. Clement A. Price hosted book signing and presented formal papers on Harlem Renaissance at Newark Public Library.
BOOK SIGNING. Sandra L. West signed books at Barnes & Noble, Libble Place and Broad Streets, Richmond, VA.
BOOK SIGNING/PRESENTATION. Sandra L. West signed books and spoke about Harlem Renaissance at Rare Wear Bead Shop, event co-sponsored by Sister Circle and Sacred Women, two community groups in Richmond, VA.
DECEMBER, BOOK AUCTION. Sandra L. West will auction off one signed copy of ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE at fundraiser Radio-Thon for WBAI-FM, New York.
KWANZAA. Sandra L. West one of several featured authors to present speeches on topic of Umoja/Unity at Kwanzaa Celebration sponsored by African Voices magazine, New York.
So what does all of this mean? Simply that no matter what notes or accounts might suggest anything to the contrary, Sandra was one of the most brilliant committed wordsmith's to ever glance in this writer's direction. The gift she labored to present this world is one I have no doubt put smiles on the faces of our Harlem Renaissance ancestors, that greatest of African-American generations which led our people through the barbaric wilderness of the post-Civil War Black Codes and Jim Crow apartheid toward the more democratic civil rights realizations of the 20th century. I can hardly say how honored I was--and how grateful I remain--to share with her such powerful work filled with meaning, overflowing with splendid vision, and so truly blessed with purpose.
Aberjhani 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
Literary and political gadfly Miriam K. Center. (photograph by John Zeuli)
Members of the U.S. Congress rarely make it a point to enter an acknowledgment of a writer’s birthday into the official Congressional Record. Why should they? Writers have birthdays, get stomach aches, laugh through good days, and moan through bad days just everybody else. No big deal.
But author, poet, playwright, and social activist Miriam K. Center is far from typical and U.S. Representative Earl L. “Buddy” Carter felt her 90th birthday, on August 10, was worth officially noting during the second session of the 114th Congress on July 18, 2016 (See complete statement below).
While I may not see eye-to-eye with Congressman Carter when it comes to political matters (I admit to being challenged that way when it comes to Republicans) I do appreciate his cultural instincts where Miriam K. Center is concerned.
Literary Adventures in 1990s Savannah
Front cover of the novel Scarlett O'Hara Can Go to Hell by Miriam K. Center. (First published in 2000 by Black Skylark Singing Press)
It was my blessed good fortune to befriend Ms. Center during the mid-1990s in Savannah, Georgia. We shared a lot of good classically-themed literary adventures together, including, as members of the Savannah Writers’ Workshop, organizing and producing the city first literary festival in 1998. Participants on that notable occasion included authors Terry Kay, Rosemary Daniell, Bruce Feiler, Iris Formey Dawson, and Michael Porter.
We were also fortunate to still have with us at the time: the late Margaret Wayt DeBolt (1930-2009), Arthur Gordon (1912-2002), Ja A. Jahannes (1942-2015), and Tom Coffey (1923-2015).
Center also served with Robert Keber, Carolyn Siefferman, and me on the editorial board for the 1999 Savannah Literary Journal. In 2000, I had the honor (some might say “nerve to”) of publishing her boldly-titled maybe-or-maybe-not autobiographical novel Scarlett O’Hara Can Go to Hell as part of the developing Black Skylark Singing imprint. One has to give Rep. Carter kudos for mentioning the book in his birthday acknowledgement and resisting any urge to modify the title:
RECOGNIZING MIRIAM CENTER'S 90TH BIRTHDAY ______ HON. EARL L. ``BUDDY'' CARTER of Georgia in the House of Representatives Monday, July 18, 2016
Mr. CARTER of Georgia. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize Miriam K. Center of Savannah, Georgia, for her 90th birthday on August 10th.
At 90 years old, Ms. Center continues to be an impressive member and contributor to the coastal Georgia community.
She graduated from Savannah High School in 1944 and promptly joined the Savannah volunteers to help American troops fighting in World War II. After the war, Miriam married Leo Center and helped him found a prominent, local Savannah business. Miriam and Leo had 3 sons together,Henry, Tony, and Scott.
Since then, Miriam has been greatly involved in public service as she served as Chair of the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Planning Commission, ran for election to the Georgia State Senate, and for Savannah Alderwoman. In 2000, she wrote a book entitled Scarlett O'Hara Can Go to Hell and produced the currently showing play, Johnny and Me, which chronicles her friendship with Savannah's Academy Award winning songwriter, Johnny Mercer. She is also a frequent guest writer to the Savannah Morning News.
Miriam has traveled the world, visiting England, France, Spain, Greece, Israel, Russia, and much of North America. Ms. Center, I hope you have a happy 90th birthday. (2nd Session of 114th Congress)
Knowing Ms. Center, and barring any unforeseen extraordinary occurrences, she will not only have a happy 90th birthday but an outright party-thumping blast of a celebration.
Having shared as many cultural escapades with the author as I have, she’s bound to make one or two guest appearances in the pages of my current book-in-progress. More than likely they will take place in the sections dealing with my days of working as a bookseller when John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil made him a bestselling author and encouraged people in Savannah extend general interpretations of the word “nutty.”
Johnny Mercer and Miriam
Given all that Center has accomplished up to this point, it’s not surprising that her play Johnny Mercer and Me is currently slated to open September 22 at Savannah’s stately Lucas Theatre. Part of the proceeds from the ticket sales will go toward helping preserve and maintain the theatre.
“Everything he touched he made better'.” --Historian Lonnie Bunch.
The brilliant and much-celebrated Dr. Clement Alexander Price inside the Newark Library. (photo by Nick Romanenko and Rutgers Magazine)
The celebration held at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, NJ, on November 14, 2014, honored the city itself as much as it did the life of historian Clement Alexander Price, who passed on November 5.
Political leaders such as Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (D–N.J.) expressed similar observations about the great educator following his death. So did members of the community at Rutgers University where he taught, fellow associates on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, administrators at the Smithsonian Institute, and those at the National Endowment for the Humanities.
A Prodigiously Productive Life
Dr. Price’s exhaustive list of accomplishments includes co-founding (with the late Giles R. Wright) the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series in 1981, taking on the directorship of the Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, chairing the New Jersey State Council on the Arts from 1980 to 1983, and authoring some four books on different aspects of American and African-culture, including Freedom Not Far Distant: A Documentary History of Afro-Americans in New Jersey (1980). Despite his own demanding schedule and prodigious output, as various speakers at his funeral service attested, Price somehow made time to accommodate requests from those who needed some fragment of his genius to lend weightier substance and dignity to their specific projects. Along those lines, he contributed a foreword to Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File), and an essay to the book Small Towns, Black Lives: African American Communities in Southern New Jersey (Noyes Museum of Art), both published in 2003. On behalf of the citizens of his beloved Newark, he accepted the title of City Historian near the beginning of 2014. In an official entry into the U.S. Senate record, Sen. Booker noted Price’s capacity for giving to others as well as his dedication to Newark:
“…He served not only as our leading historian, but as a powerful spiritual force in our state’s largest city. He was invested in Newark, and – ever generous with his time - was known to arrange tours for visitors that highlighted not only the city’s rich history, but its considerable promise. Clem always recognized the vital truth that charting a brighter course for the future requires a comprehensive understanding of the past.”
Among the most compelling commentators at the service for Price was Mayor Ras Baraka, whose impassioned poetic delivery evoked memories of his poet-playwright father, the late Amiri Baraka. Mayor Baraka credited Price with helping to shape his political and social vision of Newark:
“…Newark is one of America’s oldest metropolises that wears the scars of Western democracy all over her face, tragically beautiful, complex and proud. If you stop on our streets for a second and listen, you can hear Clem’s voice, beckoning us, forcing us all to deal with each other.”
Moreover, in his official statement as mayor following the announcement of Price’s death, Baraka announced the following:
“…Our celebrations of Newark’s 350th Anniversary in 2016 will be a tribute to his love of Newark and his vision of its greatness as our nation’s third-oldest city. He defined the transformation we are making to turn Newark into a City we can all believe in.”
Clement Alexander Price in Newark. (photo by Jim Pathe for The Star Ledger)
The acknowledgements of Clement Price’s highly-prized singular genius for intellectual scholarship and down-to-earth compassion were so deeply compelling––drawing tears and laughter alike––that one is left wondering why more of the world did not share in more of him. Possibly that would have spoiled the unique pure-gold rarity of his academic and spiritual gifts. Possibly it would have removed him too far from the reach of those whom Pastor Moses William Howard referred to as the “little Clement Prices” that God will send and “who will usher us into this city’s great future.”
Words Sung, Spoken, and Written
The song “There is a Balm in Gilead” sung in his honor by the powerful baritone Kevin Maynor, and Norman Lewis’ brilliant rendition of “Oh What a Beautiful City” were perfectly executed double salutes that could have referred as easily to the historian’s release from the physical world as they could have to the vision of Newark’s rebirth viewed by many as the centerpiece of his legacy.
Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s description of Price as “a speaker of grace and a narrator of hope,” historian Lonnie Bunch quoting his mother’s declaration of him as “the patron saint of Newark,” student Andrea Barton Reeves acknowledgement of her “beloved teacher… a man of immeasurable integrity,” Price’s cousin Randall Kennedy’s description of him as “a cultivator of grace,” and the words of numerous others combined to produce something rarely seen publicly in America in the year 2014.
Their spoken and written words offered as tribute to Dr. Price produced a portrait of a black man who had been unreservedly cherished for the contents of his character and the balanced weight of his once-living presence on Earth. The contrast was a brutally stark one compared to the images and implications that followed the deaths of so many black men in America in 2014. Whereas the tears shed for numerous others this year have been from inconsolable aggravated grief and political outrage, those wept for Clement Alexander Price were clearly tears of joy and gratitude.