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:
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
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.”
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
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.
NEXT: Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor (final part 3)
If you missed part 1 of Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor and would like to read it Please Click Here.
Aberjhani is a multi-genre author of history, memoirs, poetry, fiction, and journalism. His most recent book is Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah.
Just before I took off running from Hurricane Matthew as it slammed the southeastern United States in 2016, presumably courtesy of the still-raging global climate crisis, I wrote the following notes on Duncan McNaughton's contemporary poetry classic, Valparaiso (Listening Chamber publishing, 1995):
As seen through the lens of this reader's experience of his work, McNaughton is a hunter and gatherer of significant meanings, and names, obscured by time and human negligence. Both a dissector and a sculptor of forms (as well as formlessness), a skillful translator of elusive moments crammed as much with pointless absurdity as with essential insights.....
Three years later, following a very narrow miss from Hurricane Dorian, I opened a copy of his SOMEWHERE IN THE STREAM (Blue Press Books, 2019). With this latest addition to the impressive and too often overlooked corpus of McNaughton's titles--now in fact time is the time for publication of a volume of his collected works--for some reason I felt a little less threatened by upheavals of physical-world conditions. Hurricanes seemingly indicative of negligent environmental stewardship, flaming tempests of political corruption, and suicidal addictions to war and hate fueling suicidal addictions to drugs and violence all took less of a toll on my personalized corner of the world. Maybe there was a reason for that.
A reader contemplating the title of this most recent volume of grace, wit, wisdom, and genius from someone often dubbed a poet's poet might suddenly ask: "Somewhere in the Stream" of what exactly? Potential answers--at least for those unfamiliar with McNaughton’s earlier works or unaware of his connections to genre-influencing poets like Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Diane di Prima--could turn out to be as ambiguous or obscure as they might precise and informative.
Since the poet is McNaughton, stream of individual consciousness gives us one good possibility. So does stream of collective memory, or of human comedies, absurdities, tragedies, antipoetic ironies, and language. It makes sense also to consider the stream of life, or existence, in general. How it manifests, flows, diverges, halts, dims, or glows to the rhythms of its own self-determining frequencies with seemingly little, if any, regard for human intentions constitutes a recurring observance, if not an actual theme, in many of the 51 poems contained in this collection.
So why does any of this matter? Because McNaughton's sensibility is one which surfs brilliantly through history, layered philosophical concepts, and rhythms of multiple languages with startling ease to collect observations well worth the attention of Gen-Z, Millennials, Baby Boomers, and Traditionals alike. Tagging along gives the feeling at times of accompanying an interdimensional space explorer seeking confirmations of intelligence and civilizations outside boundaries of known planetary systems. Or popular literary conventions. As such, his poemized captain's log (if you will) documents the many strange contradictions of what it means to be human.
Read the short title poem at the volume's beginning and you are immersed instantly in a sense of intimate familiarity:
Always an empty space out
Here, space in the physical (on the page) sense appears to underscore prominence in the emotional sense. A thorough embrace of human intimacy, romantic and otherwise, unimpeded by space or time, is one of the great gifts of McNaughton's poetry--and also one of its respectable challenges. On a planet home to billions where so many still find themselves condemned to a strangling sense of alienation, the poem lets readers share in the luxurious comfort of knowing a place exists where one is always expected and always welcome. It allows the narrator to become anchored in affirmations of community tinted with soul-sustaining beauty.
This sense of community as represented in McNaughton's poetry has never been restricted to zip codes, national boundaries, or even a single period of history. It has always welcomed the voices of different poets and thinkers grappling with the frequently-cruel and yet often-humorous demands of existence itself. With that in mind, his poems may read as engaged conversations, private letters, public editorials, or notes to a singular self taking inventory of a singular life. Many of those "who matter" the most do indeed "drop in" for cameo appearances in the pages of SOMEWHERE. Among them are both historic and more contemporary poets and authors such as: Bill Berkson, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Jack Collom, Robert Grenier, Sunnylyn Thibodeaux, Jack Kerouac, Jack Spicer, Osip Mandelstam, Colin Christopher Stuart, Walt Whitman, and D.H. Lawrence--just to give a quick sense of the wide range of literary territory this astonishing title covers.
How a given society judges or misjudges some of the most powerful, if not necessarily most influential, voices humanity has produced is not always encouraging. In "AT THE HOUSE OF COMMONS,"(caps McNaughton's) for example, the narrator observes:
The small man alone in the corner is
With Blake, one of the original titans of Romanticism, sitting ignored in a corner, the elephant in the room is the huge unasked question about our modern times. When an over-dependence on technology methodically shortens attention spans and ruling oligarchs pass demagoguery off as democracy: how wise it not to care about the sustained life-example of a poet-artist such as Blake?
NEXT: Floating along: A Review Essay on Duncan McNaughton’s Somewhere in the Stream Part 2
This coming November 2016 will mark the second anniversary of the dedication of the historical marker for the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia. Moreover, as it now turns out, that dedication also represents one of the city’s more notable acknowledgements of the life, work, and legacy of James Alan McPherson (September 16, 1943 – July 27, 2016). The iron-lettered text for the historical marker concludes as follows:
“…One of only two Carnegie library projects for African Americans in Georgia, this was the home library to James Alan McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer and essayist and Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
The story presented below was previously published in my former AXS Entertainment National African Cultural Arts Column. It is shared here in honor of what later this month would have been Mr. McPherson’s 73rd birthday; and, in recognition not only of the role that one particular library played in his life, but in recognition of the immense value libraries around the world continue to contribute to humanity as a whole.
Savannah community marks 100th anniversary of a legacy of knowledge
Community leaders, patrons of the arts, and enthusiastic readers gathered at the historic Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia, on November 13, 2014, to commemorate with a new historical marker the legacy established by its African-American founders in 1914.
Among those assembled on the lawn beside the majestic front steps of the library, located at 537 East Henry Street, were: Senator Lester G. Jackson (D-Savannah and Chatham County), cultural arts advocate Dessie Baker, librarian Mark Darby, author and composer Ja A. Jahannes, historian Charles Lwanga Hoskins, Library Board of Trustees Chairman Dr. Daniel Brantley, Georgia Historical Society Executive Director Todd Groce, founder descendant Ursuline Dickey, Dixon Park Neighborhood representative Helen Washington, Library Foundation Director Lester B. Johnson III, Dixon Park Neighborhood representative Helen Washington, Library Foundation Director Lester B. Johnson III, the library’s current branch manager Adriene Tillman, and many others.
In his remarks on the historical significance of the library, Sen. Jackson noted that one of the reasons his father first moved their family many years ago from Statesboro to Savannah was to gain access to the library. They settled in a house only two blocks away: “He said son, this neighborhood will be an investment in your future. It has a library… Every Saturday morning before I could go out to play, I had to visit this structure…”
Sen. Jackson added the following:
“A hundred years ago, 11 men got together and invested in this community’s future by gathering books. And that’s what this marker here stands for today, an investment those men made in the future of not only young people but everyone. It gave them access to knowledge, it gave them access to history, but most importantly it gave them access to the world… where they could come read books, where they could come collect books, where they could come to understand what was [happening] in the world. And that knowledge is still needed today.”
The men to whom he was referring established themselves in 1906 as the Colored Library Association of Savannah. With a grant from American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the group was able to build the unique facility at a cost of $104,041.78 but drew on its own resources and community support to provide operational funds and actual books. Construction of the facility, which stands as the only recognized example of Prairie Style architecture (generally associated with Frank Lloyd Wright) in Savannah, got underway in early 1914. Dedication observances were held for it in August of the same year and construction was completed in 1915.
Harlem Renaissance Connections
The date of the library’s construction and opening is particularly significant in light of the Harlem Renaissance that would get underway just as World War I drew to a close. Placed in that context, members of the Colored Library Association of Savannah may be rightly viewed as southern counterparts to such historians and bibliophiles as “the father of black history” Carter G. Woodson and scholar Arthur Schomburg. Like New York’s famed Schomburg Center for Black Culture, the Carnegie Branch Library is an exceptional repository of works related to African-American history and culture on local, state, and national levels.
In more recent times, structural damage forced the library to close in 1997. It reopened in August 2004 with a slate of programs that included a lecture and book signing based on Facts on File’s Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to modern technology resources, the renovated library also featured a new east wing dedicated to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The text of the new historical marker notes the significance of its role in the intellectual development of both Justice Thomas and Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Alan McPherson.
To learn more about the Carnegie Branch Library’s history, it hours or operation, or current programs please call (912) 231-9921 or visit the Live Oaks Public Libraries website.
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and Journey through the Power of the Rainbow: Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry
The Harlem Renaissance has long been a favorite subject of discussion and exploration during Black History Month. One of the reasons that make a lot of sense is because the observations of African-American history first proposed by historian Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950) were started during the Harlem Renaissance. In more recent years, the celebrated era has also become a popular topic for students and teachers participating in National History Day.
Now also known as a nonprofit organization, National History Day (NHD) got its start when the late historian David Van Tassel (1928-2000) established History Day in 1974 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Prof. Tassel’s hope at the time was to provide a corrective response “to numerous reports focusing on the decline in scholarship and inadequate teaching in American school systems. At that time, History Day was only a pilot project involving 129 secondary school students in the Greater Cleveland area” (Encyclopedia of Cleveland History).
The initiative since then has grown to engage participants on an international scale:
“Today, in every state, the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa, and international affiliates in several countries, NHD contestants become writers, filmmakers, playwrights, web designers, and artists as they create unique, contemporary expressions of history.”
The theme for the 2016 National History Day is one particularly suitable as a lens through which to view the Harlem Renaissance: Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange in History.
A Digital Notebook
Commentators are accurate when they point out that documentation of these different aspects of the movement got off to a good start with the publication of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File/Infobase Publishing) in 2003). However, quite a few articles since then by this author (as well as others, many of which are currently available to read online free of charge) have expanded on that original contribution to affirm the Renaissance’s relevance to studies of contemporary history, cultural diversity, and the cultural arts. Taken together, these works comprise a digital notebook on the Harlem Renaissance. The following sections link to articles and essays which observers of National History Day and Black History Month might find useful:
The Global Scope (2015)
The Harlem Renaissance Dialogues Series
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.