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.
(“Blossoms of Freedom for Kahlil” art graphic by Aberjhani for Bright Skylark Literary Productions C2021)
All controversies and debates over wearing face masks to the side, medical science played a powerful role in the ability of people around the world to survive the tumultuous rollercoaster of cataclysmic events now forever known as the year 2020. Although less spectacular when it came to taking over news headlines, the comfort provided by the timeless voices of cherished literary heroes also helped us endure mandated and self-imposed quarantines. Included among such voices was that of the Lebanese-American poet and artist Khalil Gibran (January 6, 1883 - April 10, 1931). That is not at all surprising considering how generations continue to discover and rediscover the value of Gibran’s shared insights on such subjects as: Pain, Death, Work, Teaching, Joy, and Sorrow. His words embroider with uncommon wisdom and beauty the fabric of life as experienced on levels which transcend single personalities or cultures.
Two Important Titles
With the approach of the 100th anniversary of his classic bestselling book, THE PROPHET (first published in 1923), a number of works by and/or about Gibran were republished this past year. Two of the most important were: Beloved Prophet 2020, The Abridged Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell Her Private Journals; plus, And the Prophet Said: Kahlil Gibran's Classic Text with Newly Discovered Writings, both edited by Dalton Hilu Einhorn. (My own Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah published in 2019 includes a chapter on Gibran and the artists Claude Monet and Luther E. Vann as featured at the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia.)
In his foreword to And the Prophet Said, poet Daniel Ladinsky describes the Arabic word “wali” as one which has “a range of meanings: custodian, protector, helper, friend of the Beloved, friend of all, or saint.” He then adds: “A book can become a wali.” It was my good fortune many years ago while working as a bookseller to come across a 11th-edition copy of Beloved Prophet. It became for me a much-treasured wali. I later, around 2008, published a review of it on Amazon (it can now be read on Goodreads). Several years after that, I was pleasantly surprised to receive the following inquiry about it:
Dear Aberjhani, you posted a review on Amazon of Beloved Prophet edited by Virginia Hilu. Virginia Hilu was my mother, and she died at a young age when I was very young. I know very little about this book and wondered if you could share with me your impression on what she did and what was significant about her book. Thanks! --Dalton Einhorn
The Letter that Became an Essay
Einhorn’s request made me realize how important the book was not only to me but within the expanded context of several important legacies defined by creative spiritual visions of art and love. With that in mind, I responded to his short query with a longer letter which evolved into a personal essay:
Hello Dalton Einhorn--
Sharing my impressions of the full implications of what your mother accomplished with Beloved Prophet would require much more than a single email response. As it is, you might want to print this out and read it at your leisure.
Beloved Prophet’s impact carries a definitive weight in several important areas, including that of my personal life. I first came across the book at a public library in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where I was working on a novel and job-hunting around 1988, shortly after leaving the Air Force. I didn’t get a chance to finish reading it at that time because a family emergency forced me to move back to Savannah. But then more than half a decade later I was working as the sales floor manager for Books A Million and discovered a hardback edition of the book on the bottom shelf of one of our bargain tables. This amazing find came at an extremely important time in my life because Savannah was not where I wanted to be, but then I got to finish reading the book I had started in Fort Lauderdale and toward its end discovered Mary Haskell had also returned to Savannah, and her letters to Gibran from the city along with his to her gave me a sense of purpose and destiny for being there. It also gave me a direct cultural connection to Gibran.
Although there are no references that I recall in Beloved Prophet to Mary Haskell donating to Savannah’s Telfair Museum the largest collection of drawings by Gibran possessed by any American museum, (perhaps of any period) she did in fact do exactly that. Such a collection would obviously represent a major prize for any museum and when scholars lecture on it, they invariably reference Beloved Prophet to verify and even sanctify, if you will, the Savannah/Kahlil Gibran connection. The deluxe brochure entitled “To Discover Beauty, the Art of Kahlil Gibran” begins with one of the letters from Mary Haskell taken from the book. And the footnotes at the end of the brochure’s opening essay do acknowledge the book with your mother’s name in 4 out of 7 notes.
To put the historical literary impact of Beloved Prophet in proper perspective, I believe one has to recognize that Gibran’s works in the mid-twentieth century, in both the Arabic and English-speaking world, were for many people not just books of literary excellence but spiritual/philosophical texts they employed to help them achieve personal spiritual integrity. In short, he really was a prophet/saint whom they placed beyond human passions and many of those who wrote about him before the publication of Beloved Prophet placed any accounts of would-be romantic relationships in this context as well. Your mother may not have been the one to first discover the letters themselves but her book very gently and yet very firmly destroyed the image of Gibran as a spiritual ascetic who had risen completely above earthly needs or desires––even though many still prefer denial over the reality–– and gave the world the authentic man as well as the real Mary Haskell. Yet I suspect her purpose was larger than this.
The American mind has generally been one in which spirituality and sexuality generated personal ambivalence and conflict. It seems to me that Virginia Hilu wanted to help resolve the conflict by presenting one of the most iconic spiritual literary figures along with one of the most revered educators and philanthropists as human beings who in one sense indulged their passions while in another balanced and channeled their energies to achieve something greater than temporary satisfaction.
Moreover, her portrait of Haskell as a woman in command of the sexual, intellectual, and social choices that shaped her life even as she empowered the life of a major creative artist, a portrait sculpted from the letters she chose and sometimes “telescoped to one or two pages,” is a major contribution to American women’s biography. In more practical terms, a lot of biographers and scholars knew nothing about these letters and diaries until your mother revealed their existence in book form and it’s now virtually impossible for anyone to attempt a serious biography of Gibran without reference to them.
At the time that I acquired my 11th edition copy of the book, around 1995, the resurgence of “New Age” ideology had become strong enough that much of it began to blend into popular culture and Gibran was often cited as one of the early authors of such metaphysical perspectives in America. I happened to be writing in those years a column called Visionary Vibes and Beloved Prophet actually helped me to clarify some of the ideas and issues I addressed in different installments. Ironically, people who attended my open mic poetry readings often commented that some of my poems reminded them of Gibran when the truth is my poetry at that time was more heavily influenced by Rumi and it was my prose that was more influenced by Gibran’s and Mary Haskell’s voices speaking through the letters in Beloved Prophet. If anyone (You?) chooses to republish a hardback edition of Beloved Prophet, I hope you will consider adding an index–– that would be extremely helpful. Take care, Aberjhani
While Einhorn’s Beloved Prophet 2020 has been abridged to accommodate contemporary reading tastes, his centennial edition of The Prophet has been expanded in a way that intensifies the text of the original. Both represent important extensions of the legacies previously noted. Possibly of greatest significance in regard to Beloved Prophet 2020 is the portrait it provides at this time in history of two people whose love and compassion for each other served as a kind of shelter and empowerment when desperately needed. More than a few souls on different continents can attest to the value of such life-saving connections during the age of COVID-19.
"Invitation to a Bob Marley Rock-Steady" title art graphic by Aberjhani)
How public celebrations of influential voices impact individual lives is one of the major themes in the book Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind. If you‘ve been checking out previous synopses of the book and excerpts from it, you know already its primary points of focus are on the legacies of three authors: James Alan McPherson, John Berendt, and O’Connor. There are, however, quite a few more compelling figures within its pages, including Reggae master musician Bob Marley. The following except from Greeting Flannery O’Connor is about a remarkable concert Marley gave in Oakland, California, despite the illness from which he was suffering at the time, and which a young aspiring author excitedly attended. Following the excerpt is YouTube video footage of the concert itself:
Rocking Steady in Oakland
“As engaging as his songs were in and of themselves, there emanated from Marley’s raw corporeal soul-on-fire spiritual presence an infectious loving urgency which had nothing to do with being a stunningly innovative rock star. (What if the same could be said of O'Connor's non-threatening physicality for those who had found their way to Andalusia while she lived and coaxed from her enigmatic being something more than the thrill of greeting a celebrated writer?)
“None of those screaming and bouncing wildly up and down as he launched into the songs “Positive Vibration,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Lively up Yourself,” or “Is This Love/Jammin’” could have imagined a mere eighteen months later cancer would end his physical existence. The battle to save it had already started and yet there he was, up on stage, singing and dancing the dramatic pantomimes of a holy griot-prophet: laboring to convince humankind to reconsider its preferences for oppressive actions and paradoxically self-serving self-destructive values.” ––(from Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind now available for ordering)
Aberjhani Author, Poet, Artist Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2020
“…turnin’ nouns into verbs braids into crowns and always fetchin’ dreams from a horizon strewn with bones and flesh of those of us who didn’t make it…” Ntozake Shange (from poem “people of watts”)
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.
Cover of African Voices Magazine Spring 2020 special tribute edition dedicated to the late African-American women authors Ntozake Shange (seen here on the cover) and Toni Morrison. To order magazine on African Voices' website click the image.
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.
Promotional art graphic for director Tyler Perry’s film adaption of Ntozake Shange’s FOR COLORED GIRLS starring: Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Whoopi Goldberg, Macy Gray, Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, and Kerry Washington.
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.
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.