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.
With April 2021 being the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month, it is also the perfect time to share a shortened re-post of the article ‘Tis the Season for the Magic of Poetry Part 2: Angels and Poets. It was first published in 2014 as part of a series for my AXS National African-American Cultural Arts column. When considering the recent shooting deaths of 13-year-old Adam Toledo and 20-year-old Daunte Wright, as well as mass shooting in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Atlanta, Georgia, poetry might seem to lack any real kind of serious significance in 2021. But as pointed out in the original first part of this series: One important reason poetry matters is because it often helps to expand humanity’s capacity for putting brutal and sublime experiences alike into usable, meaningful, contexts.
A Significant Utilitarian Role
The publication of an anthology such as Black Gold (compiled and edited by the late Ja A. Jahannes) is always an important event for a number of reasons. For one, it contributes to the preservation of a powerful literary tradition which has served to document the diverse poetic voices of different eras. Another is because it helps secure a niche market known to make traditional publishers somewhat nervous from a business perspective when it comes to investing in that same market. However, this being the digitalized information age, new traditions have formed in which established poetry organizations such as the Academy of American Poets will email subscribers poems on a daily basis.
In addition, online publications like Poetry Life and Times, edited by Robin Ouzman Hislop, publish contemporary poets on a fairly regular weekly to biweekly basis. Moreover, its sister digital venue Poetry Lifetimes, edited by Sara Russell, delivers poetry titles and headlines on a daily basis via the popular Paper.li content aggregation platform. Each of these, and others like them, demonstrates the significant cultural and utilitarian role that poetry continues to play in the lives of numerous individuals, organizations, and communities.
Angels and Poets
The book The River of Winged Dreams has gained some popularity since its publication in 2010 partly because more than half a dozen of the poems take their themes, and sometimes titles, from different holidays and other special occasions. The following, however, is presented at this time for its evocation of grace and compassion, two of humanity’s better qualities which even those who are fairly humbug on the holidays can appreciate when extended to them:
1. Neither had been invited but both were welcomed. They spoke through wordless intuition, cool nods of “Peace-Be-Still,” and, “As-Goes-Love-So-Goes-Life.” Their quiet burned my brain with inklings of wonders to come––as I set my table with what I had: half of a cheese sandwich left over from a lucky day.
2. From the eyes of one, my meager offering drew liquid letters and symbols that splashed into goblets until they overflowed with flavors of wine. The second stranger laughed. As he howled, their sorrow and their joy set my table anew—laid it heavy with glazed yams, marinated dreams, and aromatic breads.
3. Then their wings spread and revealed feathers painted with the names and words of poets known and unknown. Echoes of vows and prayers exploded blinding songs of light. By the time I could see again, my guests had gone. I stared at the bountiful table they left, too stuffed with awe, to feast on the generosity of their grace. 4. A knock at the door made me think they’d returned. It was instead an old grandfather, homeless, with three children whose parents had been lost to war and disregard.
They had not been invited but all were welcomed. I nodded through tears of wordless intuition: “Peace-Be-Still,” and, “As-Goes-Love-So-Goes-Life.”
“Considering Green on a Global Scale” art graphic by Aberjhani for Bright Skylark Literary Productions.
The question of how to move forward is not one which has been weighing heavily upon citizens of the United States only since the January 6, 2021, domestic terrorism attack on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. It is also one which people in communities around the world continue to contemplate deeply after a year of battling the COVID-19 pandemic, and, as mutant variants of the virus have started emerging across the globe. To date, some 417,538 people have died from the coronavirus in the United States and 2,122,872 have died globally.
As part of a collective strategy for moving forward, Americans have placed new leadership in the White House in the form of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Vice President Kamala Harris. Populations worldwide are also employing a strategic philosophy popularized by African-American civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson at the 1988 Democratic National Convention when he urged attendees to: “Keep hope alive... On tomorrow night and beyond, keep hope alive!”
Keeping Hope Alive on Social Media
Hopefulness became the theme of a popular social media post when the Filipino ABS-CBN News channel chose on the U.S.’s presidential Inauguration Day to share the quote below with more than 5 million followers on Twitter and almost 3 million on Facebook :
ABS-CBN News “Final Word Tonight” for January 20, 2021, featuring quote on hopefulness by Aberjhani.
The quote is from a poem which has become my most-frequently quoted: “Angel of Healing: for the Living, the Dying, and the Praying” (published in The River of Winged Dreams). Given the circumstances of the times, that people quote it frequently enough to make it a trending topic is not very surprising. Aside from the quote seen here, it is also the source of, among others, the well-known “Dare to love,” and “Compassion crowns the soul” references. The poem is a blend of haikus and free verse.
Screenshot of Global Trendsetting page for ABS-CBN News on Twitter January 20, 2021, “Final Word Tonight” quote on hopefulness by Aberjhani.
In addition to the quote shared on January 20, 2021, ABS-CBN News the next night presented these powerful words by presidential inauguration poet Amanda Gorman:
ABS-CBN News “Final Word Tonight” for January 21, featuring quote from presidential inauguration poet Amanda Gorman’s poem, The Hill We Climb.
Ms. Gorman’s inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb,” is as heavy on determination as it is on hope. The two combined are what give the word resilience inspired meaning and applicable substance. That, perhaps more than anything else, is the way to continue moving forward.
Aberjhani Co-author Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance Creator of the Silk-Featherbrush Artstyle Collection
This installment of Conversations with the World takes a new approach to the series by switching from well-known quotes to an additional excerpt from my “Thoughts Unspoken on Flannery O’Connor” lecture. The text will be followed by links to different articles and essays currently examining O’Connor’s depiction of race in her work and how racial bias possibly influenced her personal behavior or attitudes towards African Americans:
“My goal is not to offend but to encourage consideration. Anyone even slightly familiar with Flannery O'Connor’s work knows she was not a woman to bite her tongue. And I’m not talking just about the words she placed in her characters’ mouths. So I'm pretty sure that just like she did not bite her tongue in service to her vision, she would have preferred that, on this particular occasion, I not bite mine. In fact I’m not just pretty sure. I’m absolutely certain because of reasons which will become clearer when I read a couple of passages from Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind.
“This book about the literary cultures and histories we choose to sustain––and the ones which we either aggressively erase, or passively let vanish. In my examination of these ideas, I present three memoir narratives. The first is called ‘Days of Midnight Madness.’ It deals with some fun and not-so-fun times as a bookstore manager hosting book signings with John Berendt and Lady Chablis. The second narrative, titled ‘On Genius and Exile,’ focuses on writer James Alan McPherson’s relationship with his hometown. And the third narrative is the one I will be discussing and reading from today.
“When you read her letters and notice how strongly she defended her ideas, it becomes apparent that having Lupus did not stop her from being a fighter. That’s another way of saying she was a fierce communicator who tackled some very complex issues in ways women were not expected to deal with such topics in the 1950s and 1960s. We’re talking about such things as: the terror of one war after another, racial tensions in America and around the world, the impact of the industrial revolution on American values, the dynamics of intergenerational relationships, the evolving role of women in American society, and spiritual conflicts in a world, seemingly, more devoted to material and intellectual concerns. Those were huge issues which O’Connor tackled in bold innovative ways.” --(Excerpt from 2020 lecture by Aberjhani canceled by COVID-19)
Greeting Flannery O’Connor is now available at a variety of online booksellers, including: Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Books-A-Million. While it does share certain points of discussion with the noted in-progress conversations regarding O’Connor, it also reaches beyond those specific concerns. To learn more about one of the most significant discussions in contemporary letters of a major American author, please check out the following:
Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black poetry collection by Aberjhani .
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:
Eli-jah! My handsome, my twin I long to see you again. Is your heart safe in love? Did your war ever end? There’s a storm in the mountains. Here’s a cross painted blue. Lots of holes in my shoes but I’m still looking boy for you, yes I’m looking brother for you.
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 meowed the melodies of angels playing violins.”
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.”