“…turnin’ nouns into verbs braids into crowns
The poem from which the above quote was taken, “people of watts,” by the late playwright and poet Ntozake Shange (1948-2018) was originally published in her Wild Beauty collection and more recently in the special spring 2020 edition of African Voices Magazine dedicated to Shange and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison (1931-2019). The quoted lines summarize with agonizing eloquence the work Shange and Morrison have done to resurrect the lynched legacies of African American women. I hope they apply as well to my poem, “A Song of Toni Morrison My Soul Now Sings,” included in African Voices’ celebration of the authors’ amazing lives.
Publisher Carolyn Butts, in her introductory note, spells out the importance of the women’s literary triumphs: “Part 2 of our Ntozake Shange issue honors two Black women writers whose language ignited movements around the principles of self-love, healing and interconnectivity. Toni Morrison and Ntozake Shange freed us from restricting cultural mores while stretching our language and shifting our gaze. We tip our pens in gratitude…”
Balancing Scales of Recognition
Women have always occupied major positions in my nonfiction books, fictional works, essays, poems, and journalism. That may have become more evident over the past year with the inclusion of my work in the art catalogue, Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades, and announcement of my forthcoming lecture at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, Georgia.
Morrison in particular has been a recurring subject. However, by comparison, I’ve written far too little about Shange. That realization comes as a major surprise because I recall clearly the controversies stirred over her iconic play: For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, and the impact it had on me and others.
Described as a choreopoem by Shange in the late 1970s, the play had already become a cultural phenomenon (much like the TV production of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has today) by the time I saw it at Temple University in Philadelphia. The playwright had set astonishing witnessed truths, some of them beautiful and some of them horrifying, to linguistic music, and dressed them up in skirted dancing hues. It was as visually captivating as it was dramatically innovative and exhilarating.
Male friends had declined to go see it with me because they bought into the hype it was “anti Black men.” While there may have been grounds for such an argument, I had grown up with too many sisters and female cousins to fail to recognize the shocking validity of Shange’s voice. I had read the works of too many of her predecessors–like Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, and Lorraine Hansberry––to fail to accept that hers was a major authentic contribution to a dialogue essential to African Americans’ expanded understanding of African Americans. As a young writer looking to develop his own voice, how I could I not be astounded by what she had done with hers?
It is not the destiny of literary sisters like Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Shange to rest in peace. Legacies such as theirs tend to lift our love for and memories of them ever higher in power. That is something for which we can always be grateful.
© Women’s History Month 2020
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
Article art graphic featuring black & white images of musician Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins, author Pat Conroy, author & editor Susan L. Taylor, King of Pop Michael, poet & educator Ja A. Jahannes, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, actor Danny Glover, artist Luther E. Vann, and more. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions)
If you’re a regular reader of my national African-American cultural arts column, you may have noticed that I have not been posting articles as frequently as I once did. The reason is simple enough. Having reached a certain point in the research for my current book-in-progress (at least one of them anyway) I had to reduce as many additional writing obligations as possible to fully concentrate on completion of the work.
For me, this is the part of authorship when the lyrical muse sings and the creative pen dances. The greater bulk of the more rigid tasks of verification and documentation have been satisfied, and imagination may be allowed to take over the processes of narrative construction. The resulting musical flow of image and language stamp the work with its own unique identity. And its own self-defined meanings destined to merge with different readers’ interpretations of the same.
The Writer and the Times
I started the national African-American cultural arts column on July 13, 2009, with a story about the debut of Johnny and Me, Savannah author Miriam K. Center’s play based on her friendship with the late 4-time Academy Award-winning composer Johnny Mercer. That was followed by a profile of acclaimed artist Jerome Meadows. The next month, August, saw the launch of the controversial series on the trial (and eventual execution) of Troy Anthony Davis, convicted for the murder of Savannah policeman Mark Allen MacPhail. Not writing about Davis’s trial, to my mind, would have been a case of gross negligence. Doing so was one early indication of what readers would discover over the next few years: basically, I found it impossible to restrict myself (as asked to do) to the subject of “the arts” as pertaining to African Americans.
How could that have been likely for someone who had already chronicled the global multicultural impact of the Harlem Renaissance in the pages of an encyclopedia, and whose first novel featured a cast of post-Millennials on a parallel Earth? I could no more refrain from engaging political discourse within a column bearing my name than Zora Neale Hurston could have resisted writing black dialect or Franz Kafka could have ignored the absurdities of his existential dilemmas.
Collage of images from the National African-American Art Examiner pages. See here are: King of Pop Michael Jackson, the African-American Family Monument in Savannah, Georgia, author Octavia Butler, slain officer Mark Allen MacPhail, artist Jerome Meadow, author John Lennon, executed Savannahian Troy Anthony Davis, and others.
Moreover, how could it even have been possible in the era that saw such titanic events as these: the two-term presidency of Barack H. Obama, America’s first African-American commander-in-chief, the domino effect of the Arab Spring in 2011, the death of a global pop icon like Michael Joseph Jackson in 2009, the advent of civil war in Syria with its subsequent refugee and migrant crisis, the heart-rending terror of Boko Haram and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the astonishing triumphs of the Marriage Equality Movement, massive shifts in population demographics, and the end of diplomatic estrangement between Cuba and the United States. Just to name a few.
This is not, of course, to say that during the same period I considered the cultural arts any less important than national or international politics. It has been more than thrilling to share with readers through this specific platform essays on such topics as: the poetry of Elizabeth Alexander, the life and legacy of Maya Angelou, the novels and ever-increasing relevance of Toni Morrison, reports on winners of the Nobel Prize, the enduring literary vision of James Baldwin, the annual global triumph of International Jazz Day, profiles of Kennedy Center honorees, and reviews of some of the most important films of our modern times.
Framing the 21st Century with Interpretive Journalism
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.