Geographically, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was closer than that of Elijah McClain because it occurred only an hour’s drive from where I grew up and where people who mean a great deal to me have family members. But for some reason McClain’s death, although it occurred all of 1,600 miles away in Aurora, Colorado, felt closer. I did not understand why until recalling two poems written more than a decade ago. The memory of both forced me to sit down and wonder how it was something written so far in the past was having such a powerful impact on my life in 2020.
The first composition is a song lyric titled “ELI-JAH” originally published in the first edition of the novel Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player (sung by a character named Ruzahn), and later in the poetry collection titled Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. It is about a man who refuses to accept reports his brother has been killed so he keeps singing his name, Eli-Jah, to let him know he’s committed to finding him. The complete lyric is too lengthy for the purposes of this post but these are the last 2 verses:
The second text which surprised me with an unexpected emotional connection to McClain is 2 lines at the end of the poem “Vampire Song: The Last Bloodfeast,” also from Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. I recalled when writing the lines that they sounded strange and I changed them several times but always switched back because somehow they felt honest. Reading them, now, I’m stunned at how close they come to an image combination frequently associated with Elijah McClain: the violin and kittens, for his compassionate practice of playing for them on his lunch breaks. This is the quote from “Vampire Song”:
“Soft upon my right thigh, an oddly-colored kitten
There is a possibility I’m making more of these parallels than I should and some might even argue I am forcing them where there are none. They would have a right to that belief.
Before identifying the subconscious links stirring within me such a strong response to the shooting death of McClain, I considered writing a blog titled Music for a Black Skylark in Mourning to express the lingering grief. So I looked for a music video with the words “Black Skylark” in the title and found two. Either one, I felt, could serve as a worthy tribute to McClain and believe he would have appreciated either. The one with which I’ve chosen to close is from volume 5 of the China Meditation Ethno Music Project and titled “A Black Skylark.”
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
“Men and women who dedicate their lives to the realization of their gifts tend the office of that communion by which we are joined to one another, to our times, to our generation, and to the [human] race.”
––Lewis Hyde (The Gift)
I am ending the year 2017 the same way I started it: by recommitting myself to life-affirming values and productive best-practices. The hope is such commitment will help me and others continue to steer our way past the debris of political chaos and social nihilism which characterized too much of 2017 and thereby make 2018 a time of much greater unity and productivity.
In 2017 this translated into doing anything and everything necessary to complete a nonfiction book project on which I had been working for nearly a decade. It also meant increasing efforts to encourage the use of compassion as a primary tool for nonviolent conflict resolution.
Being able to say I met with significant measures of success on both fronts is a good feeling. These individual accomplishments, however, become much less satisfactory when considering how little an impact the call for compassion had on those who throughout the year 2017 convinced themselves that mass murder, as uselessly insane as it is, was a viable approach to achieving some kind of victory. Or some form of favor with divine authority.
Historic Tipping Point
While striving to reach certain goals (about which more will be said a little later) that component of history known as current events frequently interrupted my plans with its own agenda. Like authors, journalists, and artists all over the world watching the clashes between political uprisings and humanitarian urgencies, I responded in the best ways I could.
Some, like the massacre of 305 people at the al Rawda Mosque in Egypt on November 24 and the killing of 58 people (along with the loss of millionaire gunman Stephen Craig Paddock’s life) on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada (USA) on October 1 (just to give two examples) left me speechless for days; I was astounded at our collective inability to evolve beyond an apparent addiction to the cruelest kinds of pandemonium.
In addition: extreme alt right politics (often equated with white supremacy), scary fluctuations in the climate, and the ongoing disclosure of unacceptable sexual aggressiveness within business environments have created what many consider a historic tipping point for humanity. The question is whether we’re going to tip forward toward healing progression or tumble screaming backwards into even more aggravating mayhem. A certain president’s—that would be U.S. POTUS Donald Trump’s––decision to re-tweet inflammatory anti-Muslim videos and repeatedly bate unstable dictators has not been particularly comforting.
Various transgressions stirring furious indignation are not new. Does this mean they must remain unceasing? The level of expanded public outrage prompting corrective responses to perceived, and often confirmed, injustices represents a powerful shift in humankind’s shared awareness of its potential plight. And that in itself is reason to keep hope alive and kicking.
A Bridge of Silver Wings Reconsidered
Of all the issues worth pausing my writing and art projects long enough to join fellow citizens in public protests and advocacy, the one which actually prompted me to do so was the historic Renaming the Talmadge Bridge Symposium sponsored by the social justice advocacy group Span the Gap and the Beach Institute of Savannah, Georgia. Originally, I was slated to join participating panelists on stage at the Savannah Theatre along with the moderator, former Mayor Otis S. Johnson. Health issues, however, forced me to limit my participation to taking a front-row seat in the audience and accepting Span the Gap’s gracious acknowledgment of my contributions to the ongoing campaign.
The panelist who did go on stage included: civil rights attorney, pastor, and educator Francys Johnson, president of Georgia state NAACP; community organizer Bernetta B. Lanier; Connect Savannah’s community editor Jessica Leigh Lebos; former Chatham County commissioner John McMasters; Savannah Morning News columnist Dr. Mark Murphy; community activist Pamela Oglesby; and chairman of SCAD’s Architectural History Department Robin Williams.
My participation in discussing the need to change the name of the bridge from that of someone who openly championed white supremacy to one less racially antagonistic was less robust than I had preferred but I took some consolation in knowing I had helped create this momentous event through the publication of various essays and articles prior to it taking place. Among them:
The Renaming the Talmadge Bridge symposium did not end with any kind of firm commitment to immediately change the name of the causeway. The event did help raise public awareness of what’s at stake if it remains unchanged. It also inspired me to begin work on a play about the dynamics of inter-generational legacies and embracing the battle to correct social injustices.
Vigorous Applications of Compassion
The practice of compassion sat either at or near the top of the list of most crucial life-affirming values to which I re-committed myself in 2017. Working with partners at Charter for Compassion, I strove to drive home the point that a vigorous application of compassion in daily personal or professional encounters, the composition of government policies, and religious considerations could go a long way toward solving many of our most egregious dilemmas.
The following is a list of blog essays in which I attempted to present my case for advantages of applying a philosophy of universal compassion to everything from global warming and violent conflicts (domestic as well as international) to creative maladjustment, poem-making, and the agony of historic cultural shifts.
So: why all these diverse explorations of the application of the golden rule? Because there’s a lot more wisdom in doing unto others as we would have them do unto us than most people take time to consider.
NEXT: Chaos of 2017 sets stage for growth and greater unity in 2018 (part 2 of 2)
On any given day of the week, the creator of Postered Chromatic Poetics and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Aberjhani, may be found wearing any number of hats: historian, visual artist, poet, advocate for compassion, novelist, journalist, photographer, and editor. Having recently completed a book of creative nonfiction on his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA) he is currently writing a full-length play about the implications of generational legacies as symbolized by efforts to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
Compassion provides the means by which we walk a mile in each other’s shoes and learn to value our common humanity enough to invest in its immense potential. This is something many of us know very well, but which a lot of people choose to avoid for different reasons.
One motive behind the choice to sidestep this awareness is because when walking, or recognizing the value of, the path of another person’s life we sometimes discover tracks leading back to our own door. When such trails take us to the beginning of a joyful or healing experience in someone else’s life, it is easy to smile at the revelation and quietly celebrate the triumph.
But if they guide us to a point of disempowering trauma which our actions, words, or biases helped trigger in the existence of an individual or the collective being of a nation, acknowledging one’s role in the creation of their suffering can become more difficult. Apply this idea to a variety of scenarios and we begin to see why many might have a problem approaching situations from a perspective based on compassion:
Shaka Senghor and the Transformational Power of Compassion
A second reason someone might hesitate to embrace exercising compassion as a basic component of their daily practices is the perceived price we pay when holding ourselves accountable for causes as well as effects. That price may be viewed as an existential risk, or a stress-laden sacrifice that could comprise anything from hard-earned financial resources to time-consuming labor and fragile relationships.
Why? Because practicing compassion in the 21st century means going beyond logging accusations of social, political, or domestic injustices, and taking the additional step of volunteering ways to correct them. Holding oneself accountable for producing a healing or restorative effect upon deteriorating lives or conditions can be a difficult thing to do. And yes: a challenging sacrifice to make.
Settling into the Year 2017
As the world settles into 2017, opposition opposed to presidential administrations even before they get underway, war-hawks eager to assert dominance over distant lands, increasing disease, and expanding poverty provide many opportunities for modeling what President Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Taking the risks and confronting the agonies, however, is not something we do to proclaim ourselves as heroic or saintly. We do it in answer to the needs and demands of our times, following the examples set by so many before this present hour.
For men and women to comfortably adapt to a state of nihilistic indifference is to declare hope itself a sad delusion and compassion a spiritual fantasy. None of us are wealthy enough to pay such a fatal cost.
We declare a partnership in mindfulness with citizens of the global community because these words remain true: Compassion saves lives, builds communities, and restores nations by minimizing tendencies to glamorize hatred, and by maximizing the capacity for manifesting love. Compassion––keeps hope alive.
January 1, 2017
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
As much as we might talk about looking forward to the beginning of one year in order to forget about the atrocities accumulated during the previous 12 months, the truth is that all calendar years bring with them an arsenal of exploding curve balls. They are ready-made to fire off in our individual, or collective, directions at some point before the just-arrived year ends and totally demolish our carefully-designed plans and strategies.
I never expect anything less but am also inclined to hope for better. With all the awareness raised during the last several years to correct gun violence in American communities in general, and as a major cause of death among African Americans in particular, it was not unreasonable to think 2016 might show some significant improvements. It hasn’t.
Mounting death tolls in cities like Chicago and Savannah are one part of the reason 2016 has not proven any more promising than 2015. Accumulating deaths from excessive force used by police, as in the cases of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, NC, and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is another. Growing interest in Campaign Zero does offer a reason to believe in better possibilities but the best ideas are only as valuable as an individual’s or community’s willingness to commit real time and resources to its application.
At this point marking three-quarters of the way through the year 2016 and inching ever-closer to the election of a new president in the United States, I feel as if more than the usual number of curve balls have been blazing like meth-infused comets from corner to corner of the global community. From the refugee crisis and the never-ending heartbreak known as Syria to the political uncertainty presented by Brexit and the forthcoming presidential election in the United States, the word volatile seems a fairly good one to describe the current 2016 state of affairs.
The Job Facing Voters in 2016
Any number of political pundits have offered theories on why and how Donald Trump was able to secure the Republican nomination for the presidency. Most Americans know it came down to one thing: money.
In the U.S. and elsewhere overflows of cash, stock, and real estate often equate to political clout and social influence. Yet even with that awareness I was among those who found it incomprehensible that millions of people were supporting his bid for the highest office in the land and could actually put him there. What were/are they thinking? That he would revive his Apprentice reality show and invite them on as contestants?
A particularly scary moment came when Mr. Trump’s team received a suggestion that it adopt one of my quotes as a campaign slogan. How was that supposed to work? But whereas one political strategist proposed use of a certain quote to promote the Great Donald, cartoonist Vishavjit Singh adopted a different quote from my work to use in his #SendSikhNoteToTrump campaign. Funny how quotations lend themselves to different interpretations and applications.
And Then There’s Madame Secretary Clinton
Is Hillary Rodham Clinton necessarily a better candidate for the U.S. presidency than Donald Trump? Polls indicate many Americans feel she is the better available option but also imply the best possible choices are currently not on the ballots. Maybe that’s worth thinking about.
Maybe it is also worth considering that, at some point, history is bound to have its say regarding the matter of a woman president in America. How is that Germany, Great Britain (twice now), Australia, Brazil, Liberia, and any number of others all reached that point before the country so frequently proclaimed as the greatest democracy in the world?
Looking at her work as a first lady, senator, and secretary of state, it becomes hard to refute the proposal that Hillary Clinton truly is the better option. President Barack H. Obama spoke more than hyperbolically when he stated during the Democratic convention that her qualifications while running for the presidency surpassed those of both himself and former President Bill Clinton when they ran for the office.
In addition, I have long believed that in order for a democratic republic like the United Sates to have any true right to call itself a democracy, its leaders should reflect the diversity of the population. The glass ceiling blocking women’s path to the White House has to break sometime and right now would probably be an especially good one.
© September 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Welcome to part 2 of Presenting A Poem for the Earth and Al Gore’s Unwavering Optimism. To read part 1 with the accompanying poem, titled The Earth in Rapture, Our Earth, please click here. Part 2 featuring a continuation of the transcription of Al Gore’s Ted Talk video, begins now:
Speaking of the North Pole
This is also connected to the extinction crisis. We're in danger of losing 50 percent of all the living species on earth by the end of this century. And already, land-based plants and animals are now moving towards the poles at an average rate of 15 feet per day.
Speaking of the North Pole, last December 29, the same storm that caused historic flooding in the American Midwest, raised temperatures at the North Pole 50 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal, causing the thawing of the North Pole in the middle of the long, dark, winter, polar night. And when the land-based ice of the Arctic melts, it raises sea level.
Paul Nicklen's beautiful photograph from Svalbard illustrates this. It's more dangerous coming off Greenland and particularly, Antarctica. The 10 largest risk cities for sea-level rise by population are mostly in South and Southeast Asia. When you measure it by assets at risk, number one is Miami: three and a half trillion dollars at risk. Number three: New York and Newark.
I was in Miami last fall during the supermoon, one of the highest high-tide days. And there were fish from the ocean swimming in some of the streets of Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale and Del Rey. And this happens regularly during the highest-tide tides now. Not with rain -- they call it "sunny-day flooding." It comes up through the storm sewers. And the Mayor of Miami speaks for many when he says it is long past time this can be viewed through a partisan lens. This is a crisis that's getting worse day by day.
We have to move beyond partisanship. And I want to take a moment to honor these House Republicans [Applause] who had the courage last fall to step out and take a political risk, by telling the truth about the climate crisis. So the cost of the climate crisis is mounting up, there are many of these aspects I haven't even mentioned. It's an enormous burden.
The Number 1 Risk to the Global Economy
I'll mention just one more, because the World Economic Forum last month in Davos, after their annual survey of 750 economists, said the climate crisis is now the number one risk to the global economy. So you get central bankers like Mark Carney, the head of the UK Central Bank, saying the vast majority of the carbon reserves are unburnable. Subprime carbon. I'm not going to remind you what happened with subprime mortgages, but it's the same thing.
If you look at all of the carbon fuels that were burned since the beginning of the industrial revolution, this is the quantity burned in the last 16 years. Here are all the ones that are proven and left on the books, 28 trillion dollars. The International Energy Agency says only this amount can be burned. So the rest, 22 trillion dollars -- unburnable. Risk to the global economy. That's why divestment movement makes practical sense and is not just a moral imperative.
The Exciting News
So the answer to the first question, "Must we change?" is yes, we have to change. Second question, "Can we change?" This is the exciting news! The best projections in the world 16 years ago were that by 2010, the world would be able to install 30 gigawatts of wind capacity. We beat that mark by 14 and a half times over. We see an exponential curve for wind installations now. We see the cost coming down dramatically.
Some countries -- take Germany, an industrial powerhouse with a climate not that different from Vancouver's, by the way -- one day last December, got 81 percent of all its energy from renewable resources, mainly solar and wind. A lot of countries are getting more than half on an average basis.
More good news: energy storage, from batteries particularly, is now beginning to take off because the cost has been coming down very dramatically to solve the intermittency problem. With solar, the news is even more exciting! The best projections 14 years ago were that we would install one gigawatt per year by 2010. When 2010 came around, we beat that mark by 17 times over. Last year, we beat it by 58 times over. This year, we're on track to beat it 68 times over. We're going to win this. We are going to prevail.
The exponential curve on solar is even steeper and more dramatic. When I came to this stage 10 years ago, this is where it was. We have seen a revolutionary breakthrough in the emergence of these exponential curves. [Applause] And the cost has come down 10 percent per year for 30 years. And it's continuing to come down.
Now, the business community has certainly noticed this, because it's crossing the grid parity point. Cheaper solar penetration rates are beginning to rise. Grid parity is understood as that line, that threshold, below which renewable electricity is cheaper than electricity from burning fossil fuels. That threshold is a little bit like the difference between 32 degrees Fahrenheit and 33 degrees Fahrenheit, or zero and one Celsius. It's a difference of more than one degree; it's the difference between ice and water. And it's the difference between markets that are frozen up, and liquid flows of capital into new opportunities for investment.
This is the biggest new business opportunity in the history of the world, and two-thirds of it is in the private sector. We are seeing an explosion of new investment. Starting in 2010, investments globally in renewable electricity generation surpassed fossils. The gap has been growing ever since. The projections for the future are even more dramatic, even though fossil energy is now still subsidized at a rate 40 times larger than renewables. And by the way, if you add the projections for nuclear on here, particularly if you assume that the work many are doing to try to break through to safer and more acceptable, more affordable forms of nuclear, this could change even more dramatically.
An Answer in 3 Parts
So is there any precedent for such a rapid adoption of a new technology? Well, there are many, but let's look at cell phones. In 1980, AT&T, then Ma Bell, commissioned McKinsey to do a global market survey of those clunky new mobile phones that appeared then. "How many can we sell by the year 2000?" they asked. McKinsey came back and said, "900,000." And sure enough, when the year 2000 arrived, they did sell 900,000 -- in the first three days. And for the balance of the year, they sold 120 times more. And now there are more cell connections than there are people in the world.
So, why were they not only wrong, but way wrong? I've asked that question myself, "Why?" [Laughter] And I think the answer is in three parts. First, the cost came down much faster than anybody expected, even as the quality went up. And low-income countries, places that did not have a landline grid -- they leap-frogged to the new technology. The big expansion has been in the developing counties.
So what about the electricity grids in the developing world? Well, not so hot. And in many areas, they don't exist. There are more people without any electricity at all in India than the entire population of the United States of America. So now we're getting this: solar panels on grass huts and new business models that make it affordable. Muhammad Yunus financed this one in Bangladesh with micro-credit. This is a village market. Bangladesh is now the fastest-deploying country in the world: two systems per minute on average, night and day.
And we have all we need: enough energy from the Sun comes to the Earth every hour to supply the full world's energy needs for an entire year. It's actually a little bit less than an hour. So the answer to the second question, "Can we change?" is clearly "Yes." And it's an ever-firmer "yes."
Last Question: "Will we change?" Paris really was a breakthrough, some of the provisions are binding and the regular reviews will matter a lot. But nations aren't waiting, they're going ahead.
China has already announced that starting next year, they're adopting a nationwide cap and trade system. They will likely link up with the European Union. The United States has already been changing. All of these coal plants were proposed in the next 10 years and canceled. All of these existing coal plants were retired. All of these coal plants have had their retirement announced. All of them-- canceled. We are moving forward.
Last Year: if you look at all of the investment in new electricity generation in the United States, almost three-quarters was from renewable energy, mostly wind and solar. We are solving this crisis. The only question is: how long will it take to get there? So, it matters that a lot of people are organizing to insist on this change. Almost 400,000 people marched in New York City before the UN special session on this. Many thousands, tens of thousands, marched in cities around the world. And so, I am extremely optimistic. As I said before, we are going to win this.
To Quote Poet Wallace Stevens
I'll finish with this story. When I was 13 years old, I heard that proposal by President Kennedy to land a person on the Moon and bring him back safely in 10 years. And I heard adults of that day and time say, "That's reckless, expensive, may well fail." But eight years and two months later, in the moment that Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, there was great cheer that went up in NASA's mission control in Houston. Here's a little-known fact about that: the average age of the systems engineers, the controllers in the room that day, was 26, which means, among other things, their age, when they heard that challenge, was 18.
We now have a moral challenge that is in the tradition of others that we have faced. One of the greatest poets of the last century in the US, Wallace Stevens, wrote a line that has stayed with me: "After the final 'no,' there comes a 'yes,' and on that 'yes', the future world depends." When the abolitionists started their movement, they met with no after no after no. And then came a yes. The Women's Suffrage and Women's Rights Movement met endless no's, until finally, there was a yes.
The Civil Rights Movement, the movement against apartheid, and more recently, the movement for gay and lesbian rights here in the United States and elsewhere. After the final "no" comes a "yes." When any great moral challenge is ultimately resolved into a binary choice between what is right and what is wrong, the outcome is fore-ordained because of who we are as human beings. Ninety-nine percent of us, that is where we are now and it is why we're going to win this. We have everything we need.
Some still doubt that we have the will to act, but I say the will to act is itself a renewable resource. Thank you very much.
––Applause for Al Gore
A Bright Skylark Literary Productions Post
Earth Day Weekend 2016
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.