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.
"A Crown & Castle for George Perry Floyd Jr. No. 1" art by Aberjhani C2020)
EDITORIAL NOTE: Previous installments of the Conversations with the World Series have featured different translations of popular quotations from my books. This one includes two which many have employed over the past few years in protests against social and racial inequality.
The emerging consensus regarding former policeman Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Perry Floyd Jr. appears to be calling not for reduced, but increased advocacy targeting social and police reform in America. President Joe Biden and Minnesota State Attorney General Keith Ellison, along with numerous others, voiced this repeatedly after Chauvin’s three-weeks-long trial ended April 20, 2021 (just over one month shy of a year after George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020). Members of Mr. Floyd’s family have suggested the same. What their calls could mean in Savannah, Georgia, is redoubled efforts to protect voting rights in light of the recent passage of the so-called Election Integrity Act of 2021, even as Governor Brian Kemp urges other state leaders to follow suit. Or it could manifest as yet another push to remove the name of white supremacist Eugene Talmadge from the Savannah River Bridge by staging demonstrations on, and marches across, the bridge until that simple but very consequential action is taken. On the national level, such advocacy increases chances of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 will become an actual law.
Believing What You See
In their closing arguments for Mr. Chauvin’s trial, prosecutors encouraged jury members to believe what they had seen in multiple videos showing the former officer’s knee bearing down on Mr. Floyd’s neck until the latter died. It would not have surprised me if, while deliberating Chauvin’s guilt or innocence, jurists discovered they were not able to believe what they saw. It had taken me, after different videos first began surfacing in late May 2020, more than a week to believe what I was seeing.
"Fusion of Faith & Resilence" art by Aberjhani with quote from the book Journey through the Power of the Rainbow.
My first instinct was to call them deep-fake videos produced by people looking for their shot at social media stardom. Maybe this White man in a police uniform was only pretending to pose like some infamous hunter over subdued game while staring, with a toxic mixture of arrogance and defiance, at cameras recording the insanity. Maybe that other gentle giant of a Black man, who probably could have snapped Chauvin in two had he not consciously chosen to respect his authority as an officer of the law, and who cried out repeatedly to someone whose love he did not doubt, was not really gone after all. Except that he really was.
Global Support for African Americans
Strangely, what broke my frozen-in-time disbelief was another set of images which flashed across the globe over the weeks that followed. Protesters in Pretoria, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney, Berlin, and many more international cities took to streets, plazas, and fields to register their rejection of the hatred documented so thoroughly and horrifically. Their actions, however, also demonstrated something else which many may not have considered.
In different capacities internationally, African Americans have become known to the world as something very different from what Chauvin chose to dismiss with such heinous disregard. And certainly different from what a bridge named after former Governor Talmadge would have visitors to Savannah believe. Globally, various Black performance artists, athletes, members of the military, business partners, and spiritual consultants have become highly-valued members of an extended family. This value was something the policeman could not imagine. As prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell stated repeatedly during opening and closing statements of the trial, “He didn’t get up, and he didn’t let up.”
Questions & Possible Answers
It is worth questioning why Chauvin felt so comfortable murdering someone suspected of having passed on a counterfeit $20 bill and why his subsequent conviction was not a foregone conclusion. The same question bears contemplation when examining circumstances surrounding the deaths of: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, 13-year-old Adam Toledo, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, and 42-year-old Andrew Brown Jr. Not a comprehensive list by any means but only of names which come most readily to mind at this moment. Questions regarding them have also hounded me my entire life in regard to the 1963 death of my adolescent brother Robert Lee, shot in the back and killed by police here in Savannah.
The answers have to do with the casual manner in which too many Americans, until now (possibly), have chosen either actively or passively to sustain a culture which encourages the advancement of one demographic based on the detriment of another. The short name for this is well known: systemic racism. Because it truly is SYSTEMIC, ironically, any number of African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans have been conditioned to perpetuate its devastating consequences in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew he was not going to see the end of racism in his lifetime just as Barack H. Obama knew his election to the U.S. presidency would not accomplish that extraordinary feat. The current U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledges the same. Nonetheless, the conviction of Derek Chauvin has, perhaps like no other single court ruling in U.S. history, confirmed that it can be done. The successful movement to see justice delivered on behalf of George Floyd’s family was accomplished by engaged citizenry applying sustained advocacy at every social level where diverse people happened to find themselves. As impossible as it may seem to end racism at this current history-making moment, perhaps the best way to honor Mr. Floyd’s amazing contribution to the effort is to do all we can anyway to make sure it does end at some point. Otherwise, what good does it do to celebrate such things as a small helicopter called Ingenuity lifting itself for a few moments off the surface of Mars 181.55 million miles away? In what way would it make sense to continue boasting about advancements in artificial intelligence if we refuse to commit our innate human intelligence to healing the world of the life-destroying disease that is racism?
Title-art graphic featuring artist Alonzo Davis in conversation on stage at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts. (Art graphic by Aberjhani)
More than a decade after our first meeting, one afternoon I turned the radio on to catch some jazz music on WHCJ 90.3 FM, Savannah State University's celebrated multi-platform multicultural station. To my surprise, I heard Jackson discussing music with the station's legendary former director of programming, and Jazz Festival Hall of Fame member, Theron "Ike" Carter. Their voices were soon joined by that of the great sculptor and Indigo Sky art gallery founder, Jerome Meadows, and those of two more commentators with whom I was not familiar. Ike Carter's famously-raspy attention-grabbing voice informed listeners this version of his various broadcasts was called LISTEN HEAR and featured a round-table discussion on different music selections brought in by members of the group. Listening to the show in the weeks that followed, it was a kind of revelation to hear Jackson in concert with the others sharing unbridled enthusiasm for classic jazz musicians like: Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, Yusef Lateef, Miles Davis, and numerous others. Her deep appreciation for jazz--often referred to by Carter as African-American classical music--provided hints regarding how the stories, aesthetics, and energy behind the music might, to some degree, influence her own artistry.
Visiting with Carter, Jackson, and various guests through the low-tech efficiency of FM radio waves became a regular pleasure. The easy simpatico between the sensibilities of the commentators and the brilliance of the music they shared made me feel a little proud to have written the article on jazz for the encyclopedia. It was deeply moving to hear them dedicate the April 12, 2016, program to the memory of Luther E. Vann, who had just passed on April 6. During that broadcast, Jackson spoke of first meeting her fellow artist years before at an exhibition in New York City and referred to him as "one of the best painters in Savannah." Carter would later pay similar tribute on Listen Here to Sandra L. West.
Invitation to a Party
Then time passed as time does and another unexpected development occurred: I received an invitation to a launch party to be held on June 30, 2018, for a forthcoming exhibit of the artist's work.
What!? Really!? This was fantastic news indeed.
The idea of an exhibit of her art excited me because I had only glimpsed samples on the internet and knew the general categorization of her as an abstract artist made Jackson something unique (so far as I could tell anyway). What I knew about Black Women artists came primarily from my work on the encyclopedia and from my adoration for Barbara Chase-Riboud, whom I greatly admired because she also wrote some amazing novels. It had been a very long time since I'd attended a party of any kind at all. My empathic nature has been known to overload in such situations and get the better of me. I set this thought aside as I walked up the steps of the artist's home and saw in the window a sign which read: HATE HAS NO HOME HERE.
The sign's proclamation bore out as in every room of the house, upstairs, downstairs, on the back porch, in the back yard, and in the adjoining studio, I encountered friends and acquaintances (far too many to name) I had not seen for years. In addition, I met for the first time curator and editor Rachel Reese, along with members of the team who were already playing such an important role putting together the retrospective.
Taking on a Creative Challenge
The suggestion that I consider writing something for the planned Five Decades catalog caught me by surprise. At the time, I was focused on completing and publishing my nonfiction book Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. It seemed highly unlikely I would be able to conjure enough additional creative energy to write a poem worthy of inclusion in the catalog. Yet the notion of doing so was such a beautiful one it could not be dismissed and I recalled with some small amount of guilt Maya Angelou's statement that the more one used one's creativity the more it increased.
True, the entire volume of ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love contained ekphrastic verse derived mostly from meditations on paintings by Vann. But a large number of the poems I'd written since then were elegies acknowledging and mourning the passing of beloved friends or famous individuals. Here gleaming before me at the Five Decades launch party was an opportunity, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous statement on jazz: to let poetry speak to life by commemorating the ongoing achievements of a largely-unsung s/hero who combined within her person multiple artistic gifts and persuasive passion disciplined enough to infuse those gifts with history-altering purpose.
I therefore promised to consider writing something--most likely an essay but possibly a poem--for the catalog and said I would provide a more concrete yes-or-no answer in a month or so. That was what I said. The almighty multiverse apparently had something else in mind.
"Best Practices & Sweet Serendipity" art graphic by Aberjhani.
I'm a big fan of those moments when a proven best practice confirms its value by yielding the kind of positive results I like to refer to as: sweet serendipity. The best practices in this instance are revisiting, revising, and relaunching a promising book project which stalled for one reason or another. The concluding sweet synchronicity is that instead of engaging readers this summer with just the single newly-released nonfiction title, Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah, I am now able to broaden the spectrum of interaction with the first trade paperback release of my high-fantasy novel, Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player.
The Practice of Persistence
This is how it all happened: about three years ago I announced on LinkedIn that Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Playerhad become part of a then innovative book streaming service. Many readers were therefore able to enjoy the adventures and misadventures of its young offbeat characters online. But those who prefer the experience of holding a physical book while reading were unable to do that with the digital innovation.
Overwhelming competition caused the streaming service to shut down. Should that have meant the end of the book's accessibility as well? Not hardly.
I communicated with members of Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing team about releasing a trade paperback edition of the novel. At the time, the work I'd already started on the Postered Chromatic art galleries combined with deadlines to complete chapters for Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah(ISBN 9789388125956) made it impossible to spend the time needed to make changes requested for Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player (ISBN 9781977037473).
However, once the number of prints in the art gallery reached an acceptable level and DREAMS made its initial debut with a respectable sales ranking and promising focus group feedback, after some three years I was able to turn my attention back to SONGS. Last week, the folks at Kindle informed me the title had gone live and was now available. Even readers who are not lit nerds like me and certain friends can appreciate the virtually simultaneous release of a memoir like DREAMS and a novel like SONGS. Such synchronicity is not completely unheard of in publishing but unusual without the influence of a major traditional organization.
Adapting to Multiple Format
Although the novel's paperback release was delayed, the issues with which it deals makes it exceptionally timely. The impact of celebrities on everyday culture, effects of war on individual lives, the pull of suicide on fragile psyches, and the persistence of love in the face of relentless horror are realities to which many can relate. Even when they unfold on more than one plane of existence.
Imagine combining the new reality TV show Songland with the paranormal series The InBetween with some metaphysical rock and roll and evolving superheroes thrown into the mix. That will give you some idea of what makes the book unique and why different readers have been drawn to it in different formats.
The 514-page trade paperback represents more than just a single win for a single individual. With today's numerous media producers (Hollywood, Netflix, etc.) in constant search of stories adaptable to films, podcasts, and audio-books, the musical component of the title makes for some exciting possibilities.
Hashtags like #StoriesOutOfGeorgia (despite threats of decreased production due to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s controversial “Heartbeat” abortion law) and #ItHappenedInTheSouth have become useful for introducing production reps to the novel as well as to Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. We can call that kind of exceptional combined potential one more example of sweet serendipity deriving from a steady application of best practices.
The original subject scheduled for this post was the 100th anniversary of the "Harlem Hellfighter's" celebratory parade through New York City in February, 1919, following the United States' and allies' successful campaign to end World War I in Europe. For the African Americans who comprised the unit, participation had meant another step toward gaining racial equality and ending unwarranted violence against them at home. With Black History Month only a couple of weeks away and commemorations of the Harlem Renaissance Centennial now kicking off around the globe, the subject would have been timely and appropriate.
However: just as humanity had to address the impact of various forms of violence--such as war, lynching, and race riots--during the Jazz Age Harlem Renaissance, we find ourselves doing the same in 2019, an entire century later. Too often, the casualties you might anticipate hearing about are not the military personnel or police officers who confront danger as part of their profession. They tend to be children in school classrooms, at parties, attending concerts, playing in front yards, immigrating from one oppressive situation to another, or just nestled at home among family members assumed to be dedicated to their safety and wellness.
The beauty of all they were or may have become is gone in the flash of one horrific moment. Rather than revisit yet again the question of why so many of us exercise so little compassion toward children and disregard the potential inherent in every child, I launched the Kaleidoscope Moons Art Series as one way to reclaim with compassion the beauty of lives lost too soon.
A New Perspective on an Old Wound
How to survive and cope with grief over the loss of an offspring is a dilemma I began exploring as a writer through poems in my first book, I Made My Boy Out of Poetry, and then later in essays in The American Poet Who Went Home Again. As the year 2019 slowly gains momentum, I am viewing the subject through a distinctly 21st century lens and re-engaging it as a visual artist via the Kaleidoscope Moons series. Why at this precise time? Largely because of what I expressed in these notes on the series:
STORY BEHIND THE SERIES
"During the holiday season some years ago, I lost a niece and nephew to extreme violence and chose to honor their lives by naming a Christmas tree after them. It was my way of gifting them the joy of which they had been robbed. The Kaleidoscope Moons Series is an extension of that tradition in honor of children lost to such violence around the world as we move forward into 2019. It is also an expression of standing in solidarity with families who have endured these losses as they adjust to something from which they are unlikely to ever fully recover...
“Specifically: The news out of Houston, Texas (USA) was particularly gruesome upon learning that 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes had been shot and killed while in a car with her family the morning before New Year's Eve. Her mother, LaPorsha Washington, was also shot but survived along with 3 other daughters.
"In my hometown of Savannah, Georgia, an up-and-coming 17-year-old rapper named Tyrese Carter and a 20-year-old named Jamar Davis Jr. were shot dead within 24 hours after the New Year got underway. The family of one gun violence victim, former university student Rebecca Foley killed 6 years ago in Savannah, announced plans to fight back. They are suing, to the tune of $35 million, the owners of the apartment complex where Ms. Foley was killed for the 'inadequate security' they feel contributed to her death." (from Fine Art America)
The American media has proclaimed the heroics of 13-year-old Jayme Closs for managing after three months to escape her kidnapper. However, she lost her parents to the abductor's shotgun blasts and in that instant experienced the destruction of her childhood. Clearly the concept of compassion held no meaning for him and a civilized society is obligated to reflect on possible reasons why.
What roles, for example, might the glamorization of hatred and sustained monetization of war play in Closs's abductor's choice to ignore the excruciating pain he would cause a child and her family? How did institutionalized practices which place the well-being of children toward the lower end of any list of priorities possibly intensify his nihilism? When reflecting on likely answers, this much becomes clear: the degree to which any given individual might be held accountable for helping maintain a culture of indifference and, by doing so, contribute to the malevolent destruction of human life is a consideration which can no longer be avoided.
NEXT: Kaleidoscope Moons Reclaim with Compassion the Beauty of Lives Lost Too Soon Part 2
Founder of the 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance Initiative and creator of the Silk-Featherbrush Art Style, Aberjhani's work as both an author & an artist have been acclaimed by critics, readers, and cultural arts supporters around the world.