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.
INTRO: This installment of Celebrating the PEN Centennial was first published in May 2012. What it addresses in regard to writers’ relationships with language as well as such issues as immigration and genocide are as irrefutably relevant now as then. Possibly even more so. To read part 1 of this series please click here. Part 2 begins now:
Whether language is shyly uttered, fiercely written, or fearfully thought, it creates an inherent rhythm which invites the soul to dance to such intoxicating melodies as truth, anger, inspiration, fear, and love.
Human beings most often accept that invitation to dance in many different ways. Sometimes we do so by following the lead of an initial small or large realization until it whirls voluptuously into an unyielding idea that persuades us to take a certain action or cautions us against another.
Sometimes other pronouncements, spoken or un-, follow the first. But in languages of different kinds. They spring back and forth between diverse grammars and revelations of universal symbols or archetypes, as strangely enthralling formulations and poetic constructions creating what many might recognize as: a song of some kind. The music is not always beautiful and the dance it inspires may appear more macabre than graceful. As much as we might prefer to choreograph our lives to hip-hop ballads of genuine democracy, various populations throughout the world community endure their existence instead to the soundtrack of something closer to a nonfiction nightmare dystopia.
Ours is an age in which thousands are driven daily from their homelands by the unforgiving brutalities of war, terrorism, political oppression, starvation, disease, economic piracy, and the relentless suffocation of that singular breath which makes human beings individuals. In the United States, Latinos once secure in their identities as Americans discover they are in fact something referred to as “illegal aliens.” They then have to make their way south across the Mexican border and reestablish their lives to the tune of conditions and customs which previously had been little more than the subject of tales shared by grandparents and other interesting relatives.
Leaving Somalia, refugees struggle to reach neighboring countries like Kenya and Ethiopia or, increasingly, to cross the Atlantic to the United States to escape rape, mutilation, and genocide. People indigenously at home in rain forests and other native locales find themselves driven out by the encroaching demands of commercialism [and climate change]. In each of these scenarios human beings have to adapt to choices made by someone other than themselves and dance frantically, as it were, to a beat not their own. The forced nature of these cultural migrations burden language with a vocabulary of tears steeped in grief and desperation. And they challenge writers to retrieve out of these everyday tragedies any beauty worth singing–– without glamorizing the horrors involved or betraying the lives so despicably at risk.
The Pattern of Dynamics
An author accepting language’s invitation to dance steps onto the floor of his or her sensibility-charged consciousness and begins to move instinctively––even if with much dread––in ways which synchronize images, ideas, emotions, sounds, smells, ignorance, and knowledge. Subtle energies crackle insistently along intersecting horizontal and vertical lines to occupy each other repeatedly and compose a vision which at some point may be called a story, a poem, an essay, or a play. The pattern of dynamics might alter where different authors are concerned but the nature of this paradigm dancing remains essentially the same. Such is the culture, if you will, of the dance shared between vernacular and writers that others––passionate readers, curious friends, fellow authors, tribes on the run––are always encouraged to join them. Many, in fact, will say the dance is not a true one until they do.
Detail "Greeting Flannery O'Connor at the Back Door of My Mind" poster art featuring quote from poem "History and Prophets' Prerogatives." Artwork by Aberjhani now available on Fine Art America and Pixels.com.
Working around the different restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic set back the publication of Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind in more ways than I could have anticipated by almost 6 months. Let’s face, production under these circumstances is a big issue for everybody. The intense events and mounting urgencies of #TheYear2020, however, reemphasized repeatedly the need to keep pushing forward and get the job done. So with the help of a few friends I have done exactly that and am pleased to announce the date of the planned global launch for the title is Labor Day September 7.
Some of you know already that a soft launch recently kicked off with 3 events: 1) the Greeting Flannery (GF)book info page published at Bright Skylark Literary Productions; 2) corresponding artwork posted for sale at Fine Art America and Pixels.com; and 3) fun-type trivia and quiz questions posted on Goodreads. Here’s the current extended schedule of planned launch events:
Schedule of Events
SEPTEMBER 1 - 30: GF artwork available at 35 percent off using PROMO Code GFGJZH at Fine Art America and Pixels.com. Prints so far include “Converging Grace” with and without quotation text; and, a mixed media visual incorporating the cover of the book into a collage composed of different symbolic pieces. Please Note: THE IMAGE SEEN WITH THIS POST IS A DETAIL FROM “CONVERGING GRACE” WITH QUOTATION TEXT (the quote being from the book and by me).
SEPT 1: Multi-language “Conversations with the World” series kicks off with focus on posters featuring in different languages quotes from my writings which have become, or which are becoming, parts of international dialogues on our human condition.
SEPT 1: New GF artwork posting on noted websites plus pages here on FB and at Bright Skylark.
“…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.
Title art-graphic with Suzanne Jackson, Rachel Reese, and Alonzo Davis on stage at Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Arts. The screen above them is showing archival images from the Suzanne Jackson Five Decades art exhibit. (photo by Aberjhani for Bright Skylark Literary Productions)
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.
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.
Cover of Suzanne Jackson Five Decades retrospective catalog. For information on closing tour of the retrospective and book signing with artist Suzanne Jackson click the image. (Cover art courtesy of Telfair Books)
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.
Table of contents from Suzanne Jackson Five Decades retrospective art exhibition catalog. In addition to artist Jackson and editor Rachel Reese, catalog contributors include: Betye Saar, Aberjhani, Melanee C. Harvey, julia elizabeth neal, & Tiffany E. Barber. (Page image courtesy of Telfair Books)
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.