Today, December 30, 2020, is the first anniversary of the first inter-agency announcements regarding what would later be identified as COVID-19. Two weeks later, on January 14, 2020, a team from BlueDot, a Canadian software company on a mission to “create a global early warning system for infectious disease,” published the following statement in the Journal of Travel Medicine:
“On 30 December 2019, a report of a cluster of pneumonia of unknown aetiology was published on ProMED-mail, possibly related to contact with a seafood market in Wuhan, China.1 Hospitals in the region held an emergency symposium, and support from federal agencies is reportedly helping to determine the source of infection and causative organism.”
Who among us would have thought such a definitively geeky statement would have indicated life as we knew it, hampered by myths and delusions or not, was about to be seriously hijacked and held hostage by a nightmare for the rest of the year? This author certainly did not. But yes, like many other Americans, I began paying closer attention to reports on the weird new coronavirus beginning to infect headlines on the internet, radio, newspapers, and finally television network news.
Well, I thought, this is something different. Soon, soon following stories the microscopic beast had started spreading its invisible mayhem on both coasts of the United States, I began writing my own reflections.
What Exactly Does This Thing Mean
Emerging reports on the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 repeatedly have confirmed observations made by authors like Albert Camus writing in The Plague, Thomas Mann in his novel Death in Venice, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 100 Years of Solitude: pestilence on a global scale can prompt human beings to act with either the most courageous and benevolent inclinations, or, with the most cowardly and heinous. Somewhere in the mix of those extremes, individuals in these socially-distant times are discovering what it means to have or not have a soul and the difference it makes when speaking of things like communities, love, or the future.
The indifference with which pestilence can compromise human life on a worldwide scale is one of its most attention-grabbing qualities. It is not slowed by ethics or a guilty conscience but only by the combined wisdom, knowledge, courage, and dedicated actions of men and women working to defeat it. It pays no heed to flags, gender-conflict issues, skin color (although the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 upon people of color in different countries has been well-documented), declarations of self-righteousness, or speech accents. Its single impulse is a vampiric one: to devour humans so its own lifeform can continue thriving.
Adapting, Evolving, and Persevering
It hardly seemed possible that in our ultra-modern technologically-advanced era we would find ourselves, at the end of 2020 going into 2021, stunned by nearly 2 million deaths worldwide and a steadily increasing overload of more than 82 million cases. At the time of this writing, it is estimated that someone somewhere on the planet dies of the disease every half minute.
It was a struggle, at the beginning, to adapt to the social distancing restrictions imposed by the pandemic. I grumbled about having to cancel book signings and lectures previously scheduled to support the launch of Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind. That self-absorbing regret was soon dumped in favor of a determination to encourage others to support efforts to defeat COVID-19 and help protect those vulnerable to it.
Moreover, there was clearly a new and essential kind of work to get done. The introduction to Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind had to be rewritten before the rescheduled Fall 2020 launch. Functions artwork suitably designed for face masks needed to be produced (something accomplished through partnership with Fine Art America).
And, perhaps most importantly, I needed to decide the form which my extended documentation of the pandemic would take. Neither a blog nor a podcast nor a single world of fine art would be enough in itself. So I decided, and began work, on a full-size book of full-page color art and texts presented in a unique format. Something like that was very much in line with one of the words used most frequently throughout 2020: unprecedented. Given the intense nature of the subject, I am hoping that upon completion and publication, it will prove appropriate and worthy.
Here's to a Happier COVID-Free New Year 2021.
Creator of Silk-Featherbrush Artstyle
Co-Author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
Having refrained for years from attending any kind of party at all, I relaxed my self-imposed tension by mixing in a little work with a lot of fun. In a room next to the kitchen (which itself resembled an art installation) I saw a stack of books and, being the bookaholic I am, could not resist their pull.
Picture my surprise when discovering in the pages of Daniel Widener's Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (2010), and Kellie Jones's South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s (2017), extensive references to the woman of the hour. Also nearby was a copy of ELEMENTAL and seeing it made me feel like the spirit of our friend Luther had dropped in to support the launch with his blessings.
By the time of the party, I had already learned that as well as being a visual artist, Suzanne was a poet who had studied with the phenomenal Lucille Clifton (1936-2010). At least two volumes featuring poems by her had been published: What I Love: Paintings, Poetry, & a Drawing (1972), and Animals (1978). Her writing had also been included in notable anthologies like the Nikky Finney-edited The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (2007). Maybe I was hoping to find those among the stacked books as well but, to avoid becoming self-absorbed to a point of rudeness, I forced myself to step away and began taking photographs of Suzanne, different guests, and the lush greenery outside the house.
The symbolic images seen in Suzanne Jackson's 12-foot award-winning canvas "Passages" (1978, above) are described in the FIVE DECADES exhibition catalog as "associated with love, childbirth, and women painted in expressive acrylic layers." It hangs here in front of 1 of 7 display vitrines and next to other compelling works included in the Five Decades retrospective debut at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Arts. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
I tried to avoid cameras myself, not because I felt shy but because for some unknown reason I had begun to sweat--not daintily "perspire" but ferociously SWEAT, like somebody fully-clothed in a sauna--and my shirt was getting soaked. No one else appeared to be having this problem. Reluctantly, when informed that Suzanne wanted an assistant to take a black-and-white photo of me for potential use in a publication, I consented. Soon afterwards, the sweating became too ridiculous and I couldn't figure out why so I said my good-byes and started walking toward my residence, located at the time on the other side of town.
About halfway there, an energized psychic push-and-pull began stirring in my skull and words started to assemble themselves in flashes and clusters. Phrases such as "painted star-fire" and "unmapped territories" swirled and glowed like special effects in a movie. Is this, I wondered, what all the heat which had started flowing through me at the party and forced me to leave before I was ready was all about? A ball of winged language was preparing to reveal itself in one form or another and left me no choice but to stop walking, grab from my shoulder bag a pen and piece of paper, and write the fragments down.
Such experiences were not new to me but the way they sometimes manifested could still come as an unsettling disruption. This was such an instant and every other block I had to stop walking and start scribbling. By the time I got home, I had written a rough draft which looked like it could be the beginnings of a poem. Okay, I thought, I'll just leave it in this folder and go back to it next week sometime.
Except that it refused to wait.
Polychromatic Inked Pages
Over the next few days I kept feeling drawn back to the folder and added to the lines already written in black ink, more lines composed in green, red, and purple ink. Sometimes I wondered: was I writing a poem or painting one?
Eventually, the evolving draft was complete enough to take on the title Syllables Painted on a Suzannian Canvas. It was enough to type up and print a second, then later third and fourth drafts before finally settling on: Suzannian Algorithm Finger-Painted on an Abstract Wall. It fit, I thought, the words which had sweated themselves out, the polychromatic inked pages, and the artist in whose honor the work had been composed.
My hope to come up with an idea for an essay or poem for the planned catalog in a couple of months appeared instead to have become an accomplished mission in a few weeks. It seemed the poem, which in time would be accepted for the pages of the catalog, had started writing itself the moment I read the words HATE HAS NO HOME HERE on the sign in Suzanne's window. Or it may have started long before then, upon that first meeting during my 2004 Harlem Renaissance lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library.
Contemplating how the poem had unveiled itself, I considered it a direct response to the dynamic creative presences gathered that day in Suzanne's home, and to my observances of the current Harlem Renaissance Centennial. This was appropriate enough given the way Harlem Renaissance artists, musicians, writers, educators, and leaders often inspired and empowered each other's creative efforts and political agendas.
Countering Toxic Bigotries & Heinous Practices
The unprecedented advancements of the Harlem Renaissance on multiple cultural fronts helped counter the toxic bigotries and heinous practices of a time when many Americans, if not most, were still entrenched in unyielding mindsets forged during the death-throes of slavery as it was practiced in the 19th century. They remained so even as social, legislative, and technological progressions in the 20th century indicated those who insisted on holding onto delusions of white supremacy were doomed to agonizing personal and collective implosions.
Our present 21st-century hour bears a lot of similarities to the previous time-frame. Works by black artists supportive of progressive change mattered then as they do now because often found within them were/are important ingredients for remedies to what ails our bleeding and burning world the most. Ingredients like symbols of life-sustaining values and language encouraging actions motivated by compassion and mindfulness.
The recognition and celebration of Suzanne Jackson's achievements in this modern era when chaos and enmity command so much attention on a daily basis is a recognition and celebration of some of our better options for moving toward the next century. Her painted, poemized, and otherwise choreographed meditations offer us touchstones of remembrance and awareness. Those touchstones inspire individuals and communities to consider more deeply and more efficiently the choices which have brought humanity to this 2019 moment of quivering uncertainties, and, the options most likely to help us regain the advantages of higher ground and hopes now seemingly lost.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Elemental's 10th anniversary inspires mindful reflections & renewed hopes (part 2 of 2): illumination
That Elemental, the Power of Illuminated Love, would prove a challenge to get published had always been known. Potential traditional publishers had no problems admiring its bold creativity and uninhibited spiritual intensity. What most could not accept was something traditionally troublesome when it comes to artists and the marketplace: the financial risks involved.
With all respect to healthy doubts and sensible reservations, so far as Luther and I were concerned the years of energy, labor, and determination already invested in Elemental by the time 2006 rolled around equated to something more than a calculated transactional value. From the perspectives of our deepest meditations and intentions, the completion of Elemental meant contributing to the cultural legacies established by creative artists like those who made possible such movements as Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and the Harlem Renaissance. This last, especially, was one which had already stamped our destinies as Luther had studied with artists of the Harlem Renaissance and I had already co-authored Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
The center image for this art graphic features the first two stanzas of a poem by Aberjhani from ELEMENTAL (p. 22) titled "Past, Present & Future Are One" based on a Luther E. Vann painting of the same title. The third-eye illustration seen above was drawn by Jason Maurer when the poem was published in the former SCAD newspaper The Georgia Guardian in 1993, 15 years prior to the publication of ELEMENTAL. The combined creative synergy demonstrates how ELEMENTAL has helped to inspire and empower others from the beginning.
But once creative passion and committed partners empowered us to finally produce a physical book, we reached two important conclusions. First: we recognized the need to articulate, both for potential buyers and booksellers, as definitively as we could, the goals and values inherent in Elemental. Secondly: it seemed obvious the work could be adapted for different mediums. These considerations resulted in the following statements:
When envisioning Elemental as a staged musical or as a video production, I described it thus:
...An exploration and documentation of the way human beings occupy public spaces in interpretative contrast to how they experience inner spaces... It illustrates the way collective intention makes communal interaction possible while individual need and impulse maintain the integrity of a person's separate being.
For example, the Luther E. Vann painting "Christ Listening to Stereo" (p. 27) is of a youth on a bus in New York City (please see image below). The image reveals how the youth is at once physically part of a larger setting while remaining, via his personal stereo, completely apart from it. Immersed in his music, he claims a connection to the artist who made the music and who allows him to not only share in the expressed creative passion, but to utilize the same as a kind of soundtrack for his own anticipations, memories, desires, needs, or fears of the moment. Very similar and yet very different scenes are enacted in such public spaces as parks, malls, back yards, office buildings, clubs, and street corners. They all make the individual part of a larger whole even while many individuals continue to exist primarily as isolated fragments of that whole.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.