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.
"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.
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