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)
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Aberjhani is a multi-genre author of history, memoirs, poetry, fiction, and journalism. His most recent book is Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah.
Among the biggest surprises to come my way in 2019 was an invitation to give a talk and sign copies of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah at the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, Georgia. Health issues prevented me from accepting the initial invitation but I am now slated to give a presentation in May 2020. The plan is to also have available for signing a forthcoming book in which I recount adventures and misadventures involving three iconic writers: O'Connor, James Alan McPherson, and John Berendt.
Any literary biographer will tell you writing a book of meaningful depth on an influential author requires a ton of research involving what other writers have already said about the subject. The following are reflections on another scribe's brilliantly-informed perspective, first published by AXS Entertainment as: "Events, Books, Highlight Flannery O’Connor’s Legacy."
Regarding a Gifted Child
One of the words most frequently used to describe Flannery O’Connor is “paradoxical.” Exactly why that word is such an appropriate one is demonstrated with informed passion and masterful skill in Brad Gooch’s finely layered biography: Flannery, A Life of Flannery O’Connor.
The fact that the mystery of O’Connor’s life and work continues to draw increasing attention in the twenty-first century is amazing when considering how steeped it is in the language of her times—the very racially-charged South of the mid-1900s–– and when noting her early death from lupus at the age of thirty-nine.
Gooch begins his story by revisiting a moment which would remain a reference point of both humor and symbolism throughout O’Connor’s remarkable life. He takes us to the author’s childhood home in Savannah, just off Lafayette Square, where in 1930 she was visited by a news cameraman “to record her buff Cochin bantam, the chicken she reputedly taught to walk backward.” While a chicken may have been the first bird to enhance her public profile, in her personal essay about the incident, The King of the Birds, O’Connor noted “My quest, whatever it was actually for, ended with peacocks.”
Her childhood penchant for reversing the accepted order of things might be read as nothing more than weird if attributed to another five-year-old. Because it is O’Connor, it may instead be viewed as one early hint of a creative sensibility which in time would create and coax characters into acting out challenging dilemmas of the human condition as she observed it. Biographer Gooch’s narrative is particularly astute when it comes to his evocation of how that sensibility recognized its own value and instinctively preserved itself within “a regulated and meticulously organized world within a world.”
Her tactics included the creation of poems, cartoons, and booklets in which she presented portraits of Edward O’Connor, her adored businessman father, and the resilient Regina Cline O’Connor, her mother. They also included somewhat restrained rebellions against the authority of the nuns, at St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls, whose job it was to help shape her character into one reflecting modern Catholic grace and values.
Loss and Suffering
Like nearly all Americans who grew up during the 1930s, Flannery O’Connor’s childhood was marked by the economic ravages of the Great Depression. Her father lost first his real estate business, then a succession of jobs until he was forced to accept a position in Atlanta in 1938 and moved his family to Milledgeville, where in time his daughter would become one of its most famous citizens. Even more notable than the family’s financial up and downs was Edward O’Connor’s death from lupus at the age of forty-five in 1941. His daughter was then fifteen.
Each turn of fate in Flannery O’Connor’s life as recounted by Gooch seems to have reinforced her personality with powerful measures of theological insight, focused creativity, and humor. A couple of years following her father’s death, she noted: “A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder.” Most people stop at the “grief” part and allow themselves to simply wallow in it until ready to move on. The mystery of the “wonder” continuously pushed O’Connor forward.
At the age of twenty-five, in December 1950, she was told she was suffering from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, but two years later learned her true condition had been hidden from her. Sally Fitzgerald, one of her closest friends, told her she was suffering from the same disease which had killed her father. By the time she learned her actual condition, she had already distinguished herself as an aspiring writer at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and as one from whom great things were expected at the renowned Yaddo Artists’ Colony. Her status as a professional author rested mostly on a number of short stories published in prestigious literary journals and on her now classic 1952 novel, Wise Blood, published just a month before learning about her medical fate.
Such “devastating knowledge” might have reduced another sensitive soul to a simmering puddle of depression from which they might never have recovered. As Gooch points out:
“She did not know whether she would be allotted the same three years of borrowed time as her father, following his diagnosis, or if indeed ‘the Scientist’ possessed a miracle cure. She had her doubts.
She also had her faith and intellectual passion, both of which helped her to confront the enemy known as lupus. (Gooch’s report on how doctors treated individuals with the disease in the 1950s is particularly interesting in light of the Food and Drug Administration’s 2011 approval of a drug called Benlysta as a treatment option; the authorization marked the first time in fifty-four years a new drug received such an endorsement.)
NEXT: The N-Word Factor: Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor (part 2)
Aberjhani is the author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savanna and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. He is also an accomplished artist & photographer.
More than a decade after our first meeting, one afternoon I turned the radio on to catch some jazz music on WHCJ 90.3 FM, Savannah State University's celebrated multi-platform multicultural station. To my surprise, I heard Jackson discussing music with the station's legendary former director of programming, and Jazz Festival Hall of Fame member, Theron "Ike" Carter. Their voices were soon joined by that of the great sculptor and Indigo Sky art gallery founder, Jerome Meadows, and those of two more commentators with whom I was not familiar.
Ike Carter's famously-raspy attention-grabbing voice informed listeners this version of his various broadcasts was called LISTEN HEAR and featured a round-table discussion on different music selections brought in by members of the group. Listening to the show in the weeks that followed, it was a kind of revelation to hear Jackson in concert with the others sharing unbridled enthusiasm for classic jazz musicians like: Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, Yusef Lateef, Miles Davis, and numerous others. Her deep appreciation for jazz--often referred to by Carter as African-American classical music--provided hints regarding how the stories, aesthetics, and energy behind the music might, to some degree, influence her own artistry.
Visiting with Carter, Jackson, and various guests through the low-tech efficiency of FM radio waves became a regular pleasure. The easy simpatico between the sensibilities of the commentators and the brilliance of the music they shared made me feel a little proud to have written the article on jazz for the encyclopedia. It was deeply moving to hear them dedicate the April 12, 2016, program to the memory of Luther E. Vann, who had just passed on April 6. During that broadcast, Jackson spoke of first meeting her fellow artist years before at an exhibition in New York City and referred to him as "one of the best painters in Savannah." Carter would later pay similar tribute on Listen Here to Sandra L. West.
Invitation to a Party
Then time passed as time does and another unexpected development occurred: I received an invitation to a launch party to be held on June 30, 2018, for a forthcoming exhibit of the artist's work.
What!? Really!? This was fantastic news indeed.
The idea of an exhibit of her art excited me because I had only glimpsed samples on the internet and knew the general categorization of her as an abstract artist made Jackson something unique (so far as I could tell anyway). What I knew about Black Women artists came primarily from my work on the encyclopedia and from my adoration for Barbara Chase-Riboud, whom I greatly admired because she also wrote some amazing novels.
It had been a very long time since I'd attended a party of any kind at all. My empathic nature has been known to overload in such situations and get the better of me. I set this thought aside as I walked up the steps of the artist's home and saw in the window a sign which read: HATE HAS NO HOME HERE.
The sign's proclamation bore out as in every room of the house, upstairs, downstairs, on the back porch, in the back yard, and in the adjoining studio, I encountered friends and acquaintances (far too many to name) I had not seen for years. In addition, I met for the first time curator and editor Rachel Reese, along with members of the team who were already playing such an important role putting together the retrospective.
Taking on a Creative Challenge
The suggestion that I consider writing something for the planned Five Decades catalog caught me by surprise. At the time, I was focused on completing and publishing my nonfiction book Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. It seemed highly unlikely I would be able to conjure enough additional creative energy to write a poem worthy of inclusion in the catalog. Yet the notion of doing so was such a beautiful one it could not be dismissed and I recalled with some small amount of guilt Maya Angelou's statement that the more one used one's creativity the more it increased.
True, the entire volume of ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love contained ekphrastic verse derived mostly from meditations on paintings by Vann. But a large number of the poems I'd written since then were elegies acknowledging and mourning the passing of beloved friends or famous individuals. Here gleaming before me at the Five Decades launch party was an opportunity, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous statement on jazz: to let poetry speak to life by commemorating the ongoing achievements of a largely-unsung s/hero who combined within her person multiple artistic gifts and persuasive passion disciplined enough to infuse those gifts with history-altering purpose.
I therefore promised to consider writing something--most likely an essay but possibly a poem--for the catalog and said I would provide a more concrete yes-or-no answer in a month or so. That was what I said. The almighty multiverse apparently had something else in mind.
NEXT: A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 3 of 3)
Please CLICK HERE to read: Part 1 of A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light.
author of The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois
and Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
Anyone on June 27, 2019, attending the opening of the Suzanne Jackson Five Decades retrospective at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia (USA), or involved in its production prior to that historic evening, could tell something exceptional was happening. In addition to the mesmerizing kind of vibrant textiles and stunning canvases one might expect to discover at such an opening for a contemporary artist, there were seven vitrines (display cases) filled with family photographs, vintage 1960s flyers advertising a "Revolutionary Art Exhibit," sketchbooks, program notes, letters, photographs, and other revealing archival materials from different chapters of Jackson's, and America's, life stories.
The items made available went beyond career highlights to illuminating an artist's considerable immersion in a significant historical moment: the 1960s-1970s Black Arts Movement as it rooted and flowered in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. For those observers of African-American history who contend America's West Coast contributed much less to the Harlem Renaissance than other regions because it lacked, during the 1920s-1940s, a heavy representation of the traditions and institutions then associated with Black culture in the South, the 1960s may be considered the bridge which connected history and geography.
Ideas of how and why that might be the case, within the context of Five Decades, first struck me as apparent while listening to the on-stage conversation between Jackson, fellow artist Alonzo Davis, and Telfair Museums curator Rachel Reese. Jackson's and Davis's stories of establishing art galleries in downtown Los Angeles, building a sustainable cultural arts community, and balancing commitments to careers and political struggle with commitments to family life were not completely unlike what we find in the life stories of East Coast predecessors like Lois Mailou Jones and Augusta Fells Savage.
This observation does not contradict the contexts of ecowomanism and black feminist ethics contexts in which the brilliant essays by Reese, julia elizabeth neal, Melanee C. Harvey, and Tiffany E. Barber place Jackson's work in the forthcoming Five Decades catalog. It simply acknowledges one more powerful aspect of the place she now occupies as an influential contemporary artist of historical importance. In her foreword to the catalog, artist Betye Saar alludes to the significance of Jackson's role as someone whose art and advocacy have bridged gaps:
"In the 1960s, black artists in Los Angeles were struggling to be recognized. Some public venues had integrated exhibitions, but generally speaking black artists were ignored... Suzanne made a concrete imprint when she opened Gallery 32 on Lafayette Park Place..." (Appropriately enough, work by the 93-year-old Saar herself is currently undergoing a kind of revival with forthcoming solo shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.)
After Jackson's, Davis's, and Reese's dynamic conversation, the feeling when walking among the dozens of artworks hung with dazzling appeal in the Steward North and Kane Galleries, absorbing the full impact of the actual exhibit, was like glimpsing a long-hidden priceless American treasure. Those who have yet to treat themselves to the experience still have until October 13, 2019, to do so at the Jepson. Just as importantly, the exhibition catalog is due out September 25 and orders for it are being accepted now.
Continental Crossings & Fortuitous Connections
My journey toward the almost magical evening of June 27 actually began on August 28, 2004, when Ms. Jackson attended my "Harlem Renaissance in Savannah" lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah. Since relocating to the city eight years earlier, she had been surprised to discover the African-American cultural arts scene was as vibrant as it was and included someone who had co-authored (with the late Sandra L. West) the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
I was surprised and impressed to learn she had lived on the West Coast--just as I had in San Francisco--and now taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). If I'd had the slightest prophetic clue of the visual marvels that would be revealed 15 years later, I would have been flat-out amazed.
Mounted wall screen showing video images from life and career of artist and educator Suzanne Jackson. The video was part of the opening for Jackson's Five Decades Retrospective at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Art in Savannah, Georgia, on June 27, 2019. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
That early meeting was genuinely fortuitous because in those days my responsibilities as a caregiver had already started to limit participation in public events. I nevertheless did make it out occasionally and during the years which followed the lecture our paths crossed enough for an acquaintance to become a friendship. As it turned out, we had more than the cultural arts and California in common. We had both also spent time in Fairbanks, Alaska--she as a child growing up there and me some years later as a U.S. military journalist.
We came to know many of the same creatives and shared enthusiasm over their triumphs. Grief, too, demanded acknowledgement when experiencing the loss of such individuals as painter Allen M. Fireall (1954-2014), his fellow artist and friend Luther E. Vann (1937-2016), and author-educator Ja A. Jahannes (1942-2015). More personal, more blood-connected losses inserted themselves into the stories of our individual lives as well, both stalling and fueling painted poems and poemized visions that would manifest in coming years.
NEXT: A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 2): Jazz, Art, & Partying
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player
The original subject scheduled for this post was the 100th anniversary of the "Harlem Hellfighter's" celebratory parade through New York City in February, 1919, following the United States' and allies' successful campaign to end World War I in Europe. For the African Americans who comprised the unit, participation had meant another step toward gaining racial equality and ending unwarranted violence against them at home. With Black History Month only a couple of weeks away and commemorations of the Harlem Renaissance Centennial now kicking off around the globe, the subject would have been timely and appropriate.
However: just as humanity had to address the impact of various forms of violence--such as war, lynching, and race riots--during the Jazz Age Harlem Renaissance, we find ourselves doing the same in 2019, an entire century later. Too often, the casualties you might anticipate hearing about are not the military personnel or police officers who confront danger as part of their profession. They tend to be children in school classrooms, at parties, attending concerts, playing in front yards, immigrating from one oppressive situation to another, or just nestled at home among family members assumed to be dedicated to their safety and wellness.
The beauty of all they were or may have become is gone in the flash of one horrific moment. Rather than revisit yet again the question of why so many of us exercise so little compassion toward children and disregard the potential inherent in every child, I launched the Kaleidoscope Moons Art Series as one way to reclaim with compassion the beauty of lives lost too soon.
A New Perspective on an Old Wound
How to survive and cope with grief over the loss of an offspring is a dilemma I began exploring as a writer through poems in my first book, I Made My Boy Out of Poetry, and then later in essays in The American Poet Who Went Home Again. As the year 2019 slowly gains momentum, I am viewing the subject through a distinctly 21st century lens and re-engaging it as a visual artist via the Kaleidoscope Moons series. Why at this precise time? Largely because of what I expressed in these notes on the series:
STORY BEHIND THE SERIES
The American media has proclaimed the heroics of 13-year-old Jayme Closs for managing after three months to escape her kidnapper. However, she lost her parents to the abductor's shotgun blasts and in that instant experienced the destruction of her childhood. Clearly the concept of compassion held no meaning for him and a civilized society is obligated to reflect on possible reasons why.
What roles, for example, might the glamorization of hatred and sustained monetization of war play in Closs's abductor's choice to ignore the excruciating pain he would cause a child and her family? How did institutionalized practices which place the well-being of children toward the lower end of any list of priorities possibly intensify his nihilism? When reflecting on likely answers, this much becomes clear: the degree to which any given individual might be held accountable for helping maintain a culture of indifference and, by doing so, contribute to the malevolent destruction of human life is a consideration which can no longer be avoided.
NEXT: Kaleidoscope Moons Reclaim with Compassion the Beauty of Lives Lost Too Soon Part 2
Founder of the 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance Initiative and creator of the Silk-Featherbrush Art Style, Aberjhani's work as both an author & an artist have been acclaimed by critics, readers, and cultural arts supporters around the world.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.