Anyone on June 27, 2019, attending the opening of the Suzanne Jackson Five Decades retrospective at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia (USA), or involved in its production prior to that historic evening, could tell something exceptional was happening. In addition to the mesmerizing kind of vibrant textiles and stunning canvases one might expect to discover at such an opening for a contemporary artist, there were seven vitrines (display cases) filled with family photographs, vintage 1960s flyers advertising a "Revolutionary Art Exhibit," sketchbooks, program notes, letters, photographs, and other revealing archival materials from different chapters of Jackson's, and America's, life stories.
The items made available went beyond career highlights to illuminating an artist's considerable immersion in a significant historical moment: the 1960s-1970s Black Arts Movement as it rooted and flowered in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. For those observers of African-American history who contend America's West Coast contributed much less to the Harlem Renaissance than other regions because it lacked, during the 1920s-1940s, a heavy representation of the traditions and institutions then associated with Black culture in the South, the 1960s may be considered the bridge which connected history and geography.
Ideas of how and why that might be the case, within the context of Five Decades, first struck me as apparent while listening to the on-stage conversation between Jackson, fellow artist Alonzo Davis, and Telfair Museums curator Rachel Reese. Jackson's and Davis's stories of establishing art galleries in downtown Los Angeles, building a sustainable cultural arts community, and balancing commitments to careers and political struggle with commitments to family life were not completely unlike what we find in the life stories of East Coast predecessors like Lois Mailou Jones and Augusta Fells Savage.
This observation does not contradict the contexts of ecowomanism and black feminist ethics contexts in which the brilliant essays by Reese, julia elizabeth neal, Melanee C. Harvey, and Tiffany E. Barber place Jackson's work in the forthcoming Five Decades catalog. It simply acknowledges one more powerful aspect of the place she now occupies as an influential contemporary artist of historical importance. In her foreword to the catalog, artist Betye Saar alludes to the significance of Jackson's role as someone whose art and advocacy have bridged gaps:
"In the 1960s, black artists in Los Angeles were struggling to be recognized. Some public venues had integrated exhibitions, but generally speaking black artists were ignored... Suzanne made a concrete imprint when she opened Gallery 32 on Lafayette Park Place..." (Appropriately enough, work by the 93-year-old Saar herself is currently undergoing a kind of revival with forthcoming solo shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.)
After Jackson's, Davis's, and Reese's dynamic conversation, the feeling when walking among the dozens of artworks hung with dazzling appeal in the Steward North and Kane Galleries, absorbing the full impact of the actual exhibit, was like glimpsing a long-hidden priceless American treasure. Those who have yet to treat themselves to the experience still have until October 13, 2019, to do so at the Jepson. Just as importantly, the exhibition catalog is due out September 25 and orders for it are being accepted now.
Continental Crossings & Fortuitous Connections
My journey toward the almost magical evening of June 27 actually began on August 28, 2004, when Ms. Jackson attended my "Harlem Renaissance in Savannah" lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah. Since relocating to the city eight years earlier, she had been surprised to discover the African-American cultural arts scene was as vibrant as it was and included someone who had co-authored (with the late Sandra L. West) the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
I was surprised and impressed to learn she had lived on the West Coast--just as I had in San Francisco--and now taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). If I'd had the slightest prophetic clue of the visual marvels that would be revealed 15 years later, I would have been flat-out amazed.
Mounted wall screen showing video images from life and career of artist and educator Suzanne Jackson. The video was part of the opening for Jackson's Five Decades Retrospective at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Art in Savannah, Georgia, on June 27, 2019. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
That early meeting was genuinely fortuitous because in those days my responsibilities as a caregiver had already started to limit participation in public events. I nevertheless did make it out occasionally and during the years which followed the lecture our paths crossed enough for an acquaintance to become a friendship. As it turned out, we had more than the cultural arts and California in common. We had both also spent time in Fairbanks, Alaska--she as a child growing up there and me some years later as a U.S. military journalist.
We came to know many of the same creatives and shared enthusiasm over their triumphs. Grief, too, demanded acknowledgement when experiencing the loss of such individuals as painter Allen M. Fireall (1954-2014), his fellow artist and friend Luther E. Vann (1937-2016), and author-educator Ja A. Jahannes (1942-2015). More personal, more blood-connected losses inserted themselves into the stories of our individual lives as well, both stalling and fueling painted poems and poemized visions that would manifest in coming years.
NEXT: A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 2): Jazz, Art, & Partying
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player
A few years ago while writing my former National African-American Cultural Arts column for AXS Entertainment, certain bloggers in Hong Kong started referring me to as a writer of conscience and commitment. They saw in my work strong parallels between the mission French authors––like Simone De Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus-- who emerged during and after World War II, had assigned themselves, and that which I had adopted in a relatively more peaceful time.
The defining elements in each case were uncontrollable currents of history. They convinced us in our separate eras and geographical regions, and in our determination to secure democracy and advocate struggles against tyranny, that apathy was not an acceptable option. That sentiment is a principle driver behind what many now refer to as the resistance movement in the United States.
The Hong Kong bloggers seemed to also like the fact that I was committed not only to the pursuit of social justice but to creating poems with a more expansive #creative or #spiritual concerns. Some were moved enough to translate some of my haiku verse, like Angel of Earth Days and Seasons, into Hans Chinese.
Then along came 2017 and the current debate over what to do or what not to do about Confederate Monuments in America’s public spaces. Amazingly enough, I knew nothing about the one in Forsyth Park in my hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA), while growing up in the city. An informed awareness of what it represents came only after becoming a veteran of a kind myself.
Invitation to a Different Perspective
I first began giving serious thought to the implications of its gargantuan presence in such a public space after author George Dawes Green made reference to it in the inscription he included when autographing for me a copy of his novel, The Caveman’s Valentine. Later, when writing about reinterpretations of urban slavery in Savannah for Connect Savannah, the weekly entertainment news magazine, I delved more deeply into the subject. And then of course went to a completely different level while working on the Civil War Savannah Book Series project.
Consequently: the outlook and proposals expressed in my article, “Re-envisioning the Confederate Monument as a Portrait of Diversity”, is very different from what many are voicing about the subject. But I invite you to check it out along with the comments that follow by CLICKING RIGHT HERE.
Aberjhani's most-recently completed work is a book nonfiction on the cultural arts, race relations, and history in Savannah, Georgia (USA). He is currently at work on a play about how history and social movements such as the effort to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge intersect with family dynamics.
The first time I became aware of the name Al Jarreau was when receiving a letter (of the old-school variety penned by hand) from a former college roommate exclaiming how thrilled he and his girlfriend had been to attend one of his concerts. Despite my former roommate's enthusiasm, which rarely bubbled over so heatedly for anything other than football and slightly-older women, I did not really understand all the fuss over Jarreau.
Then a couple of years later, in the early 1980s, I got to see the rhythm-bending phenomenon myself in Berkeley, California, on a bill that also featured Carlos Santana and Frankie Beverly and Maze. The world by then had come to know him as the Grammy Award-winning talent behind the albums Look to the Rainbow (1977) and All Fly Home (1978). For my part, I finally got to experience the truth of a statement Jarreau would make many years later:
“I have missed the boat over my career by not doing every second or third CD live, because things happen on stage that don't happen in the studio.” (Al Jarreau Biography.com)
By its accommodating democratic nature, live jazz is often a music of improvisation. And by his brilliant fluid aesthetics, Al Jarreau was able to adapt his vocal vibrations to whatever genre he chose. But he was also, in essence a flesh, blood, and soul embodiment of jazz. It would not be absolutely wrong to describe him as a male Ella Fitzgerald or as a contemporary Cab Calloway, both of Harlem Renaissance fame, rolled into one. It might be more accurate, however, to say he was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of talent.
Among the things to which he alluded that could "happen on stage" was for him to suddenly turn his chest and rib cage into a drum set, transform his clapping hands into tambourines, or absorb an inspiration from the improvisational moment and blast it out of his lungs like a laser cannon lighting up multiple Sonny Rollins solos.
What happened on the stage was the kind of inexplicable enchantment that made music journalists rush to describe the "quintessential jazz musician" who could duplicate the superlative performance of a brilliant quartet, or even an entire orchestra, with just his singular voice and body carved from music. Think of him this way--Al Jarreau did not just perform his music: right before your astonished eyes and heart he brought it to kicking, shouting, dancing, holy cosmic life that left you breathless with wonder.
Forced to Make a Difficult Decision
The horrible dilemma with which I had to deal the night I saw Jarreau at the Berkeley Coliseum was that he had already been onstage for an hour, took a very short break, then came back for an additional set that lasted even longer. Dependent as I was on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway system to get me back to San Francisco, I could not ignore the fact that it was close to midnight and, according to my schedule, the last train to the city would leave at that time.
Thoroughly immersed in the essential work of channeling raw creative energy into musical genius, the singer himself clearly had no use for clocks or schedules and the band seemed happy to match him song for song. Knowing no one from whom I could beg for a ride if I chose to stay, I forced myself to leave and head for the subway.
Just as I was about to enter the station some blocks away, something incredible caught my attention. It was his voice. Whether due to the unique acoustics of the coliseum or the undiminished intensity of his performance, I could still hear him. It was if the night itself with the surrounding buildings, street lamps, trees, and sweet cool air had become his microphone and speakers. I smiled, then laughed out loud, and then laughed some more while simultaneously trying to sing along with him and hurry down the subway steps.
NEXT: Jarreau Jazz-riff Earth-tunes for the Angel of Compassion: Essay with Poem (part 2)
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives about race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
Trends in demographic shifts, progressive grass roots movements aimed at correcting blatant social injustices, and social media have had transformative effects that strongly encourage revisiting and reflecting on images of Black men's realities in 2017. The prototypes identified in "The Many Ways of Looking at Black Man" are still important. They have, however, expanded considerably.
Signs of Our Changing 2017 Times
Both before and during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s through the 1940s gifted African-American actors and performers like Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson at times left the States to find outlets for their talents where they could work without the hindrances of extreme racism. In 2017, that scenario has reversed as performers of African descent from countries outside the U.S. make their way to Hollywood, Broadway, and central strongholds of hip-hop to reap the financial rewards of professional gains made during Blacks' historic struggles for equality.
When giving interviews about his 2013 Academy-award-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen Afro-Britain noted he was able to adapt Solomon Northup’s book for the screen as successfully as he did because of the Transatlantic slave trade common to the history of Black people on different continents in the western hemisphere. That simple acknowledgment underscored an aspect of African American men’s' identity often overlooked: that African Americans are also members of the African Diaspora, or, if you will, African Diasporans. Despite the United Nations-endorsed 2011 International Year of People of African Descent, the profound implications and potential of the McQueen's observation is routinely overlooked.
In addition to McQueen, actors David Oyelowo, Idris Elba, DelRoy Lindo Del, and Chiwetel Ejiofor are only a handful of British actors of African descent whose artistry has been employed to dramatize interpretations of African-American men's lives. Such interpretations have ranged from Elba's portrayal of druglord Russell “Stringer” Bell to Oyelowo's acclaimed performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in the film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay.
Echo Kellum's recurring role as Curtis Holt, a gay Black man married to a Latino on the hit television show ARROW, reflects an aspect of one population subgroup which many in the larger community still have extreme difficulty accepting. Yet, so far as popular television series go, Jesse L. Martin's role as Joe West in The Flash is no less a challenge to stereotypes and assumptions. As the Black adoptive father of a White son––Barry Allen (a.ka The Flash, a.k.a. actor Grant Gustin) who is involved in a romantic relationship with West's biological daughter Iris (Candice Patton )––his is a comic-book world where race is defined not so much by color as by those who have super powers and those who do not.
The Obama Legacy Effect
In his farewell addess, President Barack Obama quoted the late great novelist Harper Lee in which her character Atticus Finch states the following in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Finch's words may contain the wisdom necessary to help members of an increasingly diverse democracy better support one another as Americans rather than continually battle each other as cultural and political separatists. The president also wisely pointed out the need for African Americans to recognize the value of adopting the following practice:
"...Tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change...." (Barack Obama)
Mr. Obama's commentaries on race and the American identity over the past nearly 10 years have not brought about an end to racial divisiveness or violence in the country. But they have played a major role in helping to decrease the magnitude of assumptions and racial bias that seemingly prompt the dismissal of Black folks' lives. His two-term presidency has allowed Americans and citizens of the global community to experience a black man as a "leader of the free world." That singular comprehensive achievement surpasses any categorical way of looking at African-American men that would have been considered possible in 1997.
If, however, someone did feel inspired to duplicate "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" with fresh 2017 faces, it would be easy enough to do with another seven individuals such as: Chance the Rapper, Colson Whitehead, T.D. Jakes, Semaj Clark, Jay Z, Michael B. Jordan, and Tyler Perry. Their celebrity or non-celebrity status would not really comprise the core issue. The main point would be a definitive demonstration that as catastrophic as violence and oppression have been in our lives, they have not and will not erase the most beautiful and essential truths represented by our stories and realities.
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives about race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
Since the publication of "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" special feature story in ESSENCE Magazine, November 1997, perspectives on men of African descent in the United States of America have evolved to cover a lot of ideological territory. That observation rings as true for everyday citizens of the country as it does for mainstream media, in which we have seen a gamut of extreme images, sometimes horrifying bloody, sometimes wonderfully inspiring.
The atmosphere of combativeness generated when the country's President-Elect, Donald Trump, chose to castigate civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) for exercising his right (some might say duty) to voice concerns over political legitimacy, removed any doubt that a lot of work still needs to be done where race relations are concerned. In light of the increasingly disturbing violent deaths of African-American men, women, and children over the past few years, prompting me to wonder if their names inexplicably would soon join the others, and in light of unconcealed attempts at disenfranchisement, an industrial prison complex that gorges itself on Black men's lives, and other irrefutable factors, "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" takes on new and powerful significance in this year marking the 20th anniversary of its publication.
Among other things, it is also, as Black History Month approaches, one more reason to think back with gratitude for the leadership which Susan L. Taylor, now founder/director of National Cares Mentoring Movement, provided as editor-in-chief of the magazine for some 20 years. In the noted classic issue, she reminded readers of this: "Whatever parcels of power we claim today were not surrendered to us willingly or without long and painful struggle. That struggle continues because our oppression continues..."
Nevertheless, the dominant theme for the occasion was more one of celebration than protestation. As such, the following description of the African-American man is from the magazine's contents synopsis and introduction to the original feature:
"From sexual icon to warrior to caretaker--he is our black man. In this annual men's issue, we explore how he handles power, privilege and pain... He is many things to many people: husband and lover, father and son, brother, friend, sex symbol and political nightmare, crossover icon and business mogul..."
Those bright powerful noble words make a poignant contrast to the vivid horror of Black men's and boys' bodies falling in American streets to the repeated blasts of gunfire. That does not mean they are no longer relevant.
On Timelines and Parallel Conditions
We know in 2017 that how Black Men are perceived, perceived, or guerrilla decontextualized, is extremely important because of the various circumstances and events that have led to their deaths, or incarceration, in more instances than anyone can accurately count.
Alleged perceptions of unarmed black males as immediate threats to armed policeman's lives (or a would-be policeman in the case of George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin) has resulted in numerous deaths declared "justifiable" under Stand Your Ground laws. Stunningly, Edward Lewis, who in 1997 was publisher of ESSENCE and CEO of Essence Communications, Inc., wrote in the November issue:
"Some victims of police brutality don't live to tell about it. They die from bullets and blows and choke holds that are found--upon review by higher authorities--to fall roughly within acceptable guidelines. Others, who seek redress, often find their paths blocked."
Could not Lewis's words written 20 years ago have been penned just as easily in 2017? Think Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray,Terence Crutcher, Walter L. Scott, Sandra Bland and, sadly, many more.
A Few Thoughts from Trevor Noah
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.