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
Trends in demographic shifts, progressive grass roots movements aimed at correcting blatant social injustices, and social media have had transformative effects that strongly encourage revisiting and reflecting on images of Black men's realities in 2017. The prototypes identified in "The Many Ways of Looking at Black Man" are still important. They have, however, expanded considerably.
Signs of Our Changing 2017 Times
Both before and during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s through the 1940s gifted African-American actors and performers like Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson at times left the States to find outlets for their talents where they could work without the hindrances of extreme racism. In 2017, that scenario has reversed as performers of African descent from countries outside the U.S. make their way to Hollywood, Broadway, and central strongholds of hip-hop to reap the financial rewards of professional gains made during Blacks' historic struggles for equality.
When giving interviews about his 2013 Academy-award-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen Afro-Britain noted he was able to adapt Solomon Northup’s book for the screen as successfully as he did because of the Transatlantic slave trade common to the history of Black people on different continents in the western hemisphere. That simple acknowledgment underscored an aspect of African American men’s' identity often overlooked: that African Americans are also members of the African Diaspora, or, if you will, African Diasporans. Despite the United Nations-endorsed 2011 International Year of People of African Descent, the profound implications and potential of the McQueen's observation is routinely overlooked.
In addition to McQueen, actors David Oyelowo, Idris Elba, DelRoy Lindo Del, and Chiwetel Ejiofor are only a handful of British actors of African descent whose artistry has been employed to dramatize interpretations of African-American men's lives. Such interpretations have ranged from Elba's portrayal of druglord Russell “Stringer” Bell to Oyelowo's acclaimed performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in the film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay.
Echo Kellum's recurring role as Curtis Holt, a gay Black man married to a Latino on the hit television show ARROW, reflects an aspect of one population subgroup which many in the larger community still have extreme difficulty accepting. Yet, so far as popular television series go, Jesse L. Martin's role as Joe West in The Flash is no less a challenge to stereotypes and assumptions. As the Black adoptive father of a White son––Barry Allen (a.ka The Flash, a.k.a. actor Grant Gustin) who is involved in a romantic relationship with West's biological daughter Iris (Candice Patton )––his is a comic-book world where race is defined not so much by color as by those who have super powers and those who do not.
The Obama Legacy Effect
In his farewell addess, President Barack Obama quoted the late great novelist Harper Lee in which her character Atticus Finch states the following in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Finch's words may contain the wisdom necessary to help members of an increasingly diverse democracy better support one another as Americans rather than continually battle each other as cultural and political separatists. The president also wisely pointed out the need for African Americans to recognize the value of adopting the following practice:
"...Tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change...." (Barack Obama)
Mr. Obama's commentaries on race and the American identity over the past nearly 10 years have not brought about an end to racial divisiveness or violence in the country. But they have played a major role in helping to decrease the magnitude of assumptions and racial bias that seemingly prompt the dismissal of Black folks' lives. His two-term presidency has allowed Americans and citizens of the global community to experience a black man as a "leader of the free world." That singular comprehensive achievement surpasses any categorical way of looking at African-American men that would have been considered possible in 1997.
If, however, someone did feel inspired to duplicate "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" with fresh 2017 faces, it would be easy enough to do with another seven individuals such as: Chance the Rapper, Colson Whitehead, T.D. Jakes, Semaj Clark, Jay Z, Michael B. Jordan, and Tyler Perry. Their celebrity or non-celebrity status would not really comprise the core issue. The main point would be a definitive demonstration that as catastrophic as violence and oppression have been in our lives, they have not and will not erase the most beautiful and essential truths represented by our stories and realities.
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives about race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
Since the publication of "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" special feature story in ESSENCE Magazine, November 1997, perspectives on men of African descent in the United States of America have evolved to cover a lot of ideological territory. That observation rings as true for everyday citizens of the country as it does for mainstream media, in which we have seen a gamut of extreme images, sometimes horrifying bloody, sometimes wonderfully inspiring.
The atmosphere of combativeness generated when the country's President-Elect, Donald Trump, chose to castigate civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) for exercising his right (some might say duty) to voice concerns over political legitimacy, removed any doubt that a lot of work still needs to be done where race relations are concerned. In light of the increasingly disturbing violent deaths of African-American men, women, and children over the past few years, prompting me to wonder if their names inexplicably would soon join the others, and in light of unconcealed attempts at disenfranchisement, an industrial prison complex that gorges itself on Black men's lives, and other irrefutable factors, "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" takes on new and powerful significance in this year marking the 20th anniversary of its publication.
Among other things, it is also, as Black History Month approaches, one more reason to think back with gratitude for the leadership which Susan L. Taylor, now founder/director of National Cares Mentoring Movement, provided as editor-in-chief of the magazine for some 20 years. In the noted classic issue, she reminded readers of this: "Whatever parcels of power we claim today were not surrendered to us willingly or without long and painful struggle. That struggle continues because our oppression continues..."
Nevertheless, the dominant theme for the occasion was more one of celebration than protestation. As such, the following description of the African-American man is from the magazine's contents synopsis and introduction to the original feature:
"From sexual icon to warrior to caretaker--he is our black man. In this annual men's issue, we explore how he handles power, privilege and pain... He is many things to many people: husband and lover, father and son, brother, friend, sex symbol and political nightmare, crossover icon and business mogul..."
Those bright powerful noble words make a poignant contrast to the vivid horror of Black men's and boys' bodies falling in American streets to the repeated blasts of gunfire. That does not mean they are no longer relevant.
On Timelines and Parallel Conditions
We know in 2017 that how Black Men are perceived, perceived, or guerrilla decontextualized, is extremely important because of the various circumstances and events that have led to their deaths, or incarceration, in more instances than anyone can accurately count.
Alleged perceptions of unarmed black males as immediate threats to armed policeman's lives (or a would-be policeman in the case of George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin) has resulted in numerous deaths declared "justifiable" under Stand Your Ground laws. Stunningly, Edward Lewis, who in 1997 was publisher of ESSENCE and CEO of Essence Communications, Inc., wrote in the November issue:
"Some victims of police brutality don't live to tell about it. They die from bullets and blows and choke holds that are found--upon review by higher authorities--to fall roughly within acceptable guidelines. Others, who seek redress, often find their paths blocked."
Could not Lewis's words written 20 years ago have been penned just as easily in 2017? Think Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray,Terence Crutcher, Walter L. Scott, Sandra Bland and, sadly, many more.
A Few Thoughts from Trevor Noah
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.