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.”
A shortage of compelling topics to address via books, blog essays, podcasts, fine art, photography, electronic gaming, and other creative media has not been among the traumatizing events unleashed upon humanity in the year 2020. Painful history-altering occurrences have, however, included the following: a very stubborn and deadly COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, further evidence of climate change in the form of murderous fires in California, riots in cities across America in response to #2ManyLivesGone2Soon, and political unease in the face of an uncertain future.
Detail from artwork titled "Blue Rose of Remembrance for Black Lives Gone Too Soon" by Aberjhani.
Incorporating reports on important public happenings into ongoing projects has long been among the better practices at Bright Skylark Literary Productions. It goes back at least as far to the days of my former AXS National African-American Cultural Arts column when I created art graphics for my news stories. Articles sometimes included original poetry to enhance editorial impact. Where the year 2020 is concerned, the following steps have been taken:
To help combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bright Skylark added face masks to the line of products offered through its Fine Art America storefront.
To help correct social injustices generated by systemic racism and other forms of oppression, the book Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind underwent a timely revision and launched officially in September. Artwork supporting the same goal was posted on Fine Art America.
The Conversations with the World Blog Series launched to encourage dialogues on unifying as well polarizing topics to help bridge the gap between the two.
A previously dormant Facebook author account was reactivated to increase engagement with people concerned about deteriorating social conditions and help identify ways to improve the same.
Works of art presented as tributes to victims of COVID-19 and diverse frontline essential workers were made available at Fine Art America.
Although taking the above steps did not erase the different social, political, and environmental ills currently dogging the world, I like to think they contributed to the process of helping move things in a better healthier direction.
From the time when her first short stories and novel were published, O’Connor was identified as a writer with a rare kind of gift. Her specific brand of genius allowed her to adapt powerful religious principles, aesthetic technique, and social observances to create highly original and often shocking literary art which leaned heavily toward the Gothic and grotesque.
She painted with words in the same manner she painted with colors. Stroke by carefully-rendered stroke, she created broken-soul characters who were oddly warped by the jarring impulses of their own scarred personalities, a condition which could make them as misplaced within the confines of their own skin as it could within society.
The Church of Hazel Motes’ Truth
One archetypal example is Hazel Motes, the anti-hero main character in Wise Blood described by Gooch as “a slightly demented saint in the making.” Motes could also be described as a prototype for any number of O’Connor’s characters driven by pain and confusion to rage against their perception of divine, or human, authority over their lives. Hazel Motes is bold enough to propose starting “the Church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.” His own ambitiousness and the ambiguities of human mortality inherent in anyone’s life defeat his intentions and ultimately lead to his destruction.
It is not only the daring with which O’Connor wrote such tales as Wise Blood that made her an exceptional writer but an ear for true-to-life dialect and a command of language that enabled her to bend narrative prose into lyrical poetry like this:
“The smokestacks and square tops of buildings made a black uneven wall against the lighter sky and here and there a steeple cut a sharp wedge out of a cloud.” Or the following: “The outline of a skull was plain under his skin and the deep burned eye sockets seemed to lead into the dark tunnel where he had disappeared.” Such statements, beaded as they were with strong philosophical nuances, would make any writer in any language an exceptional one.
The N-Word Factor
For many African Americans, O’Connor is not an easy read because her fiction is very true to the Southern rural language of her times. That means the word “nigger” tends to flow like breath out of many of her characters’ mouths with such a total disregard for its social, political, or spiritual implications that their use of the word might prompt many a hardcore rapper to reconsider his or her fondness for it.
The degree to which O’Connor herself may have been racist is an issue biographer Brad Gooch does periodically address: “She had returned to settle in a society predicated on segregation and had taken on its charged voices and manners as the setting of her fiction.”
In short, from O’Connor’s perspective as a literary artist, to avoid racially derisive language, and in some cases customs, would have meant dodging an ugly truth rather than confronting it head-on. Moreover, readers should note she was far from being alone in this regard among white and black American writers in the previous century.
Flannery O'Connor Wonder & Enigma title art graphic for Aberjhani's Postered Chromatic Poetics.
Among the biggest surprises to come my way in 2019 was an invitation to give a talk and sign copies of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah at the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, Georgia. Health issues prevented me from accepting the initial invitation but I am now slated to give a presentation in May 2020. The plan is to also have available for signing a forthcoming book in which I recount adventures and misadventures involving three iconic writers: O'Connor, James Alan McPherson, and John Berendt.
Any literary biographer will tell you writing a book of meaningful depth on an influential author requires a ton of research involving what other writers have already said about the subject. The following are reflections on another scribe's brilliantly-informed perspective, first published by AXS Entertainment as: "Events, Books, Highlight Flannery O’Connor’s Legacy."
Regarding a Gifted Child
One of the words most frequently used to describe Flannery O’Connor is “paradoxical.” Exactly why that word is such an appropriate one is demonstrated with informed passion and masterful skill in Brad Gooch’s finely layered biography: Flannery, A Life of Flannery O’Connor.
The fact that the mystery of O’Connor’s life and work continues to draw increasing attention in the twenty-first century is amazing when considering how steeped it is in the language of her times—the very racially-charged South of the mid-1900s–– and when noting her early death from lupus at the age of thirty-nine.
Gooch begins his story by revisiting a moment which would remain a reference point of both humor and symbolism throughout O’Connor’s remarkable life. He takes us to the author’s childhood home in Savannah, just off Lafayette Square, where in 1930 she was visited by a news cameraman “to record her buff Cochin bantam, the chicken she reputedly taught to walk backward.” While a chicken may have been the first bird to enhance her public profile, in her personal essay about the incident, The King of the Birds, O’Connor noted “My quest, whatever it was actually for, ended with peacocks.”
Her childhood penchant for reversing the accepted order of things might be read as nothing more than weird if attributed to another five-year-old. Because it is O’Connor, it may instead be viewed as one early hint of a creative sensibility which in time would create and coax characters into acting out challenging dilemmas of the human condition as she observed it. Biographer Gooch’s narrative is particularly astute when it comes to his evocation of how that sensibility recognized its own value and instinctively preserved itself within “a regulated and meticulously organized world within a world.”
Flannery O'Connor quotation art graphic by BrainyQuote.
Her tactics included the creation of poems, cartoons, and booklets in which she presented portraits of Edward O’Connor, her adored businessman father, and the resilient Regina Cline O’Connor, her mother. They also included somewhat restrained rebellions against the authority of the nuns, at St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls, whose job it was to help shape her character into one reflecting modern Catholic grace and values.
Loss and Suffering
Like nearly all Americans who grew up during the 1930s, Flannery O’Connor’s childhood was marked by the economic ravages of the Great Depression. Her father lost first his real estate business, then a succession of jobs until he was forced to accept a position in Atlanta in 1938 and moved his family to Milledgeville, where in time his daughter would become one of its most famous citizens. Even more notable than the family’s financial up and downs was Edward O’Connor’s death from lupus at the age of forty-five in 1941. His daughter was then fifteen.
Each turn of fate in Flannery O’Connor’s life as recounted by Gooch seems to have reinforced her personality with powerful measures of theological insight, focused creativity, and humor. A couple of years following her father’s death, she noted: “A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder.” Most people stop at the “grief” part and allow themselves to simply wallow in it until ready to move on. The mystery of the “wonder” continuously pushed O’Connor forward.
At the age of twenty-five, in December 1950, she was told she was suffering from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, but two years later learned her true condition had been hidden from her. Sally Fitzgerald, one of her closest friends, told her she was suffering from the same disease which had killed her father. By the time she learned her actual condition, she had already distinguished herself as an aspiring writer at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and as one from whom great things were expected at the renowned Yaddo Artists’ Colony. Her status as a professional author rested mostly on a number of short stories published in prestigious literary journals and on her now classic 1952 novel, Wise Blood, published just a month before learning about her medical fate.
Such “devastating knowledge” might have reduced another sensitive soul to a simmering puddle of depression from which they might never have recovered. As Gooch points out:
“She did not know whether she would be allotted the same three years of borrowed time as her father, following his diagnosis, or if indeed ‘the Scientist’ possessed a miracle cure. She had her doubts.
She also had her faith and intellectual passion, both of which helped her to confront the enemy known as lupus. (Gooch’s report on how doctors treated individuals with the disease in the 1950s is particularly interesting in light of the Food and Drug Administration’s 2011 approval of a drug called Benlysta as a treatment option; the authorization marked the first time in fifty-four years a new drug received such an endorsement.)
NEXT: The N-Word Factor: Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor (part 2)
Aberjhani is the author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savanna and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. He is also an accomplished artist & photographer.