Quote by Aberjhani with original digital MLK poster: “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was a manifestation of hope that humanity might one day get out of its own way by finding the courage to realize that love and nonviolence are not indicators of weakness but gifts of significant strength.” --Aberjhani
Different roads provide diverse routes to freedom. For many, the path is an interior one. It first requires an individual to the clear from the landscape of inner beingthose areas overgrown with woody thickets of doubt and trauma or buried beneath swamplands of self-imposed limitations.
There are others––like the Americans who struggled for civil rights in the 1960s, and citizens of the Middle East and various African countries currently battling for basic human rights–– who take a more public journey to freedom. Their sense and experience of liberty is defined by interaction with the external dictates of history, evolving cultural persuasions, and dominant political trends. Individuals such as these inspired the article Text and Meaning in Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech.
Whether the journey is undertaken within or without, the impulse to demand, claim, and exercise freedom ––not just as a politicized human right but as a fundamental tenet of human existence–– is as automatic as gulping air when first leaving the womb. It therefore is not particularly surprising that the King Center in Atlanta has chosen to conclude its 50th anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech with a “Let Freedom Ring” international bell-ringing event at 3 p.m. on August 28.
“We are calling on people across America and throughout the world to join with us as we pause to mark the 50th anniversary of my father’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech with ‘Let Freedom Ring’ bell-ringing events and programs that affirm the unity of people of all races, religions and nations,” said King Center C.E.O. Bernice A. King in a news release from the Center.
When considering in 2013 the horrendous number of people who have died in Syria’s civil war over the past several years, those who have lost their lives to domestic gun violence in the United States over the past several decades, and writers and artists who are persecuted daily in different countries for “speaking truth to power,” the idea of ringing bells in the name of freedom might strike some as ludicrous. It is, however, this insistence upon liberty in the face of weighted oppression that has always given self-determination its strength and value.
Freedom rings bells because throughout history silence has too often served as an accomplice to genocide, slavery, and other forms of barbarity.It rings bells to remind humanity that the most precious gifts in life––like children and love and time––must never be taken for granted. Freedom rings bells to wake us from the comfort of beautiful dreams and empower the efforts that turn them into reality.
The PEN American Center turned all of 90 years old in 2012 and recently decided to give itself a very useful digital face lift With such cases like that of the Qatari poet Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, and Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega still rocking international headlines, the PEN American Center’s mission in conjunction with PEN international ––to defend the right to freedom of expression and promote the values of literature and literacy––has never been more valuable than right now.
As much as I’m enjoying its swagging new style, the upgrade came with a price to which I, and other authors who maintained blogs on the site, now have to adapt. My primary reason for joining PEN American Center last year was to participate in and contribute to the legacy of literary camaraderie first established by C A. Dawson Scott and John Galsworthy––and then later sustained by such luminous literati as H.G. Wells, Willa Cather, Richard Wright, Arthur Miller, Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, and many others.
But I also joined to provide an online home for two important series launched last year: Paradigm Dancing and Guerilla Decontextualization. Housing the series at PEN American Center is no longer possible. Most of the articles from the series are still available as part of my Examiner column but I will have to decide on a new home custom-designed for them outside that location. To those who have been visiting the page on PEN to check them out: please accept my apologies for the unexpected interruption.
Both series to some extent addressed the volatile dynamics that characterized the U.S presidential race last year but both also extend quite a bit beyond the realm of politics. The Guerrilla Decontextualization sequence in particular is one that proposes a framework in which to examine cultural trends that appear to be as deadly as they are popular. Paradigm Dancing looks at how deftly we do or do not negotiate the inevitable transitions molding our 21st century lives–– so very much the way sculptors mold clay or the way genetics and wombs mold flesh. As many know already, there is a website designed to document the Guerrilla Decontextualization project so it may very well provide the new digs for the mutually complementary series.
Although the PEN American Center profile no longer hosts an individual blog, it does allow for an RSS feed that will publish headlines and/or excerpts from a blog posted elsewhere. I will probably experiment with a couple of feeds before settling on one. Or maybe even two. Consider it part of the necessary adjustments that come with working out the bugs and glitches after any major website upgrade.
“I really think that one of the profound decisions the American people have to make now is whether they want to be governed by a president, or a boss. And I mean a boss!” ––Bravo Television’s James Lipton in conversation with Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball Show.
Halloween is close enough to the date of the 2012 American presidential election that the idea of the country waking up to either a trick or a treat on November 7 serves as an appropriate metaphor for the intense anxiety that has characterized much of the current campaign for the White House’s Oval Office.
Critics of Democrats have accused them of guerrilla decontextualization trickery in the form of a presidential administration that has delivered less that they believe it should have over the past four years. Likewise: critics of Republicans have charged them with attempting to force upon the country a potential leader whose potential administrative policies seem to shift and adapt to audience preferences.
In one sense, critics of both parties can claim the opposing candidate guerrilla decontextualized himself during the first 2012 presidential debate on October 3. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney did so by passionately presenting his political platform in much more moderate terms on such issues as affordable health care, women’s rights, and taxation than in the positions previously stated in live campaign appearances or the notorious 47 percent video. This penchant for reversing positions has been described by Mother Jones Magazine, Mr. Obama, and the Urban Dictionary as “Romnesia.”
Republicans can claim the president engaged in guerilla decontextualization during the first debate by playing the role of a timid schoolboy allowing a classmate prone to bullying others to, in the consensus of the news media and much of the Democratic base, walk all over him and straight to a first-debate victory. For the second debate on October 16, it was Mr. Obama who executed the U-turn, not so much where his stand on fundamental issues is concerned but in regard to how dynamically he presented and defended his position. Whereas he had previously appeared somewhat reticent or even docile while Romney drove home point after point, in the second debate he repeatedly stood and challenged Romney’s contentions to such a degree that the two men often appeared more as if they were engaged in a boxing match rather than a debate.
After the Dance
Several major poll analyses after the second debate––CNN’s and CBS’ among them–– declared Barack Obama the winner. They generally qualified his triumph as a “narrow” one and some polls indicated nearly a full third of viewers decided it was a draw.
However: anyone listening to the Michael Baisden Radio Show the day after the second debate would have heard one listener after another call in to express astonishment that anyone should have remained undecided or ambivalent after seeing President Obama’s pointed dissection of Mr. Romney’s various assertions and proposed economic strategies. Moreover, very few people of any political persuasion at all have bothered to dispute that Mr. Romney’s demeanor during the debate often was a true and frequently unsettling mixture of bully-like conduct and presumed racial superiority.
Bravo Television’s James Lipton appeared on Chris Matthews’ Hardball program the evening after the second presidential debate. In what he seemed to experience as an “aha moment,” he stated that he finally came to understand what he views as Mitt Romney’s true character: “He is that boss who tells lame jokes and waits for everyone else to laugh or else and who keeps us forever off balance, uncertain and anxious.”
The biggest joke, or trick, on the morning after America’s 2012 presidential election could turn out to be on those who decide their votes don’t matter because neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney are saying precisely what they want to hear. Or: it could be on those who choose to place their trust in Mr. Romney not because his proposed political strategies are better or his integrity beyond reproach but simply put: because he is white.
The following poem is presented here because it is about the struggle people sometimes experience when attempting to exercise clarifying intelligence and advantageous discernment in the face of challenging situations. It is also shared because Halloween, like the election, is now only days away. Fair warning: this poem does contain some crude language and disturbing images in accordance with both its contextual substance and thematic intent. It is taken from the book The River of Winged Dreams:
A COAT AND SHOES FOR HALLOWEEN
Watching his reflection waver
on heat waves of the old man’s soul,
the young man sweated poison and said,
“I’m naked old dawg, give me your coat!”
Twice around the sun like an ancient notion
the old man sailed his wisdom,
then farted a lightning bolt and prayed,
“In the days when hyenas of hate suckle
the babes of men, and jackals of hypocrisy pimp
their mother’s broken hearts, may children
not look to demons of ignorance for hope.”
The young man’s snot-slimy hands pumped
a trigger––click, BOOM, click, BOOM,
click, BOOM, click, BOOM, four times.
Ejaculating a stream of dead fleas, he said,
“I’m sorry old dawg, I need your shoes too.”
Running, dressed in untied boots and a
flapping coat, he fell over a ten-year-old girl.
Her seven-inch knife slit his confusion
as she yelled, “Man you scared me with all
that funky stink comin’ out your heart!”
Watching his reflection weep
in the mirror of the old man’s soul,
the young man listened as the old man prayed,
“In the days when hyenas of hate suckle
the babes of men, and jackals of hypocrisy pimp
their mothers’ broken hearts, may children
not look to demons of ignorance for hope.”
(from The River of Winged Dreams)
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love
Notebook on Guerrilla Decontextualization
Recently I found myself on the verge of crossing over from ambivalence into guilt due to the amount of time and creative energy devoted this year to online journalism and other forms of prose-writing as opposed to a more luxurious immersion into the rich flow of poem-making. There were actually at least two instances in 2012 when I managed to combine the genres: the first came in February when writing about the death of Whitney Houston and the second came, ironically enough, in August when writing about the life of one Michael Joseph Jackson.
Although the poems included with the stories can stand well enough on their own, the fact that they were generated by journalistic concerns instead of employed as an initial means to a necessary end in themselves made me feel somewhat negligent. After all, where journalism was concerned I had written stories on a variety of topics ranging from the creative arts to political battles. And I had even launched two major series projects–– Paradigm Dancing and Guerrilla Decontextualization.
Maybe remorse had crept up on me because in the beginning of my breath-taking literary adventures poetry had been my first great love and journalism a secondary acquired passion. An early reading of essays by Albert Camus, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin had hinted at the possibility of a sustainable marriage between the two.
This being the year America decides whether or not its first black president has earned enough love, trust, and respect to grant him a second term, failing to address the political dynamics of the hour journalistically has not proven a viable historical option. Therefore, I eventually arrived at that precipice of doubt and anxiety where I could hear poetry weeping that I had abandoned it while journalism proudly gloated over its ostensible dominance. Had I been writing political poems––such as Claude McKay’s commanding “If We Must Die” or W.H. Auden’s “Spain 1937”–– I likely would not have experienced this crisis of literary conscience.
Then, looking back over some of the articles’ titles, I stopped at Poetics of Paradigm Dancing in the 2012 Presidential Election Campaign. Out of my natural tendency to bend and mix literary genres the way visual artists sometimes combine compositional media, I apparently had not abandoned poetry at all. In one sense I had suffused a number of articles with it, through titles and narrative text alike, and thereby expanded journalism’s capacity for enhanced creativity. Doing so had not only enriched ––as I practiced it––journalism’s ability to communicate the mundane with stylistic appeal. It had also increased the number and variety of venues in which poetry might be regularly featured in a manner that demonstrated its marvelous and flexible utility. Moreover, it expanded considerably the potential audience for such work.
In the end, journalism had presented itself as a metaphorical framework for poetry-- and poetry had allowed its use as an elegant canvas for journalism. Each clarified and intensified the meaning of the other, which perhaps is exactly what writing of intended significance in any form should do.
author of Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.