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.
"A Crown & Castle for George Perry Floyd Jr. No. 1" art by Aberjhani C2020)
EDITORIAL NOTE: Previous installments of the Conversations with the World Series have featured different translations of popular quotations from my books. This one includes two which many have employed over the past few years in protests against social and racial inequality.
The emerging consensus regarding former policeman Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Perry Floyd Jr. appears to be calling not for reduced, but increased advocacy targeting social and police reform in America. President Joe Biden and Minnesota State Attorney General Keith Ellison, along with numerous others, voiced this repeatedly after Chauvin’s three-weeks-long trial ended April 20, 2021 (just over one month shy of a year after George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020). Members of Mr. Floyd’s family have suggested the same. What their calls could mean in Savannah, Georgia, is redoubled efforts to protect voting rights in light of the recent passage of the so-called Election Integrity Act of 2021, even as Governor Brian Kemp urges other state leaders to follow suit. Or it could manifest as yet another push to remove the name of white supremacist Eugene Talmadge from the Savannah River Bridge by staging demonstrations on, and marches across, the bridge until that simple but very consequential action is taken. On the national level, such advocacy increases chances of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 will become an actual law.
Believing What You See
In their closing arguments for Mr. Chauvin’s trial, prosecutors encouraged jury members to believe what they had seen in multiple videos showing the former officer’s knee bearing down on Mr. Floyd’s neck until the latter died. It would not have surprised me if, while deliberating Chauvin’s guilt or innocence, jurists discovered they were not able to believe what they saw. It had taken me, after different videos first began surfacing in late May 2020, more than a week to believe what I was seeing.
"Fusion of Faith & Resilence" art by Aberjhani with quote from the book Journey through the Power of the Rainbow.
My first instinct was to call them deep-fake videos produced by people looking for their shot at social media stardom. Maybe this White man in a police uniform was only pretending to pose like some infamous hunter over subdued game while staring, with a toxic mixture of arrogance and defiance, at cameras recording the insanity. Maybe that other gentle giant of a Black man, who probably could have snapped Chauvin in two had he not consciously chosen to respect his authority as an officer of the law, and who cried out repeatedly to someone whose love he did not doubt, was not really gone after all. Except that he really was.
Global Support for African Americans
Strangely, what broke my frozen-in-time disbelief was another set of images which flashed across the globe over the weeks that followed. Protesters in Pretoria, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney, Berlin, and many more international cities took to streets, plazas, and fields to register their rejection of the hatred documented so thoroughly and horrifically. Their actions, however, also demonstrated something else which many may not have considered.
In different capacities internationally, African Americans have become known to the world as something very different from what Chauvin chose to dismiss with such heinous disregard. And certainly different from what a bridge named after former Governor Talmadge would have visitors to Savannah believe. Globally, various Black performance artists, athletes, members of the military, business partners, and spiritual consultants have become highly-valued members of an extended family. This value was something the policeman could not imagine. As prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell stated repeatedly during opening and closing statements of the trial, “He didn’t get up, and he didn’t let up.”
Questions & Possible Answers
It is worth questioning why Chauvin felt so comfortable murdering someone suspected of having passed on a counterfeit $20 bill and why his subsequent conviction was not a foregone conclusion. The same question bears contemplation when examining circumstances surrounding the deaths of: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, 13-year-old Adam Toledo, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, and 42-year-old Andrew Brown Jr. Not a comprehensive list by any means but only of names which come most readily to mind at this moment. Questions regarding them have also hounded me my entire life in regard to the 1963 death of my adolescent brother Robert Lee, shot in the back and killed by police here in Savannah.
The answers have to do with the casual manner in which too many Americans, until now (possibly), have chosen either actively or passively to sustain a culture which encourages the advancement of one demographic based on the detriment of another. The short name for this is well known: systemic racism. Because it truly is SYSTEMIC, ironically, any number of African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans have been conditioned to perpetuate its devastating consequences in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew he was not going to see the end of racism in his lifetime just as Barack H. Obama knew his election to the U.S. presidency would not accomplish that extraordinary feat. The current U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledges the same. Nonetheless, the conviction of Derek Chauvin has, perhaps like no other single court ruling in U.S. history, confirmed that it can be done. The successful movement to see justice delivered on behalf of George Floyd’s family was accomplished by engaged citizenry applying sustained advocacy at every social level where diverse people happened to find themselves. As impossible as it may seem to end racism at this current history-making moment, perhaps the best way to honor Mr. Floyd’s amazing contribution to the effort is to do all we can anyway to make sure it does end at some point. Otherwise, what good does it do to celebrate such things as a small helicopter called Ingenuity lifting itself for a few moments off the surface of Mars 181.55 million miles away? In what way would it make sense to continue boasting about advancements in artificial intelligence if we refuse to commit our innate human intelligence to healing the world of the life-destroying disease that is racism?
Postered Chromatic Poetics title art graphic by Aberjhani.
Many of my blogs on the Charter for Compassion website address an international audience on why the practice of conscious global coexistence is crucial to humanity’s survival and how we can work towards achieving it. It is something diplomats from different countries have been trying to help nations accomplish for centuries, so the concept is not new. But we continue to get blindsided in the 21st century by biases and phobias which do more to perpetuate divisions than strengthen unity.
Among the quotations from my work employed the most to help transform international antagonism into global cooperation is the following:
“Individual cultures and ideologies have their appropriate uses but none of them erase or replace the universal experiences, like love and weeping and laughter, common to all human beings.” (from Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays)
These words were first published as part of the essay “For Love of Paris and a More Compassionate World” following terrorist attacks on the city November 13, 2015. The quotation has since been adopted by groups ranging from students’ civic clubs and online study groups to social service nonprofits and political organizations. It has proven particularly popular in different countries on the continent of Africa. Here are two examples:
Individual Cultures quotation social graphic posted in South Africa
Sign featuring quote on Individual Cultures by Aberjhani created by Facebook user in Kenya.
This third social graphic comes from the United States’ Kearsarge Food Hub in New Hampshire.
Many additional artsy social graphics employing the same words indicate a hunger for something other than the tensions which exist between members of different demographics on different continents in different communities. More importantly, educators, conference speakers, various thought leaders, and men and women from diverse backgrounds are not just quoting the words. They are living the truth behind them and demonstrating the greater unifying possibilities which come with embracing our shared humanity. Few realizations could be considered more important during a COVID-19 pandemic which apparently does not play favorites.
Aberjhani Author, Poet, Artist Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2020
This is a continuation of the classic 2010 article excerpted from "5 Notable Women of the Past and Present" first published by AXS Entertainment:
Simone’s composition, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," written for her friend Lorraine Hansberry, became one of the major anthems of the civil rights struggle and the title of Hansberry’s autobiography. Her “Four Women” is a marvel of minimalist art in which she deftly dramatizes the impact of racism upon the lives of four different women. In all, Nina Simone composed more than 500 songs and recorded more than fifty albums throughout her prolific career.
The singer’s achievements were celebrated with, among others, awards like the 1966 Jazz at Home Club’s “Woman of the Year,” and the 1967 “Female Jazz Singer of the Year.” As if to help make up for the anguish in her tortured genius soul, the committee for Human Kindness Day in Washington, D.C., selected her as the day’s honoree in 1974. None of these, however, proved sufficient enough to compensate for the wounds inflicted by racism or the grief experienced over the death of peers who understood her best. Like Josephine Baker, Abbey Lincoln and others before her, she left the United States in 1978 in search of greater artistic and political freedom. Her journey over the next seven years took her to Barbados, Liberia, England, Switzerland, and France, where she eventually settled. Relocation, however, did not solve all of her problems and she sometimes engaged in widely-reported public battles with stress and depression.
She returned to her homeland in 1985 to perform and record for six years before going to the Netherlands, then moving back to South of France.
The great performer revealed in her 1991 autobiography that she once attempted suicide. Since the publication of I Put a Spell on You, at least two biographers have explored the theory that she suffered from a bipolar disorder and depression. Some have taken this as the reason she sometimes appeared combative towards unruly audiences or certain critics and described it as the cause of her “downward spiral.” Others have interpreted the possibility as one of the sources of her phenomenal talent. Moreover, that fact that she evidently won battle after battle against the illness to produce the triumphant award-winning works that she did, make her in the eyes of many that much more heroic.
"Ode to the Genius and Good Intentions of Nina Simone No. 2" art tribute by Aberjhani available at Fine Art America. Please click image for more details or to order.
Before her death in Carry-le-Rouet , France, on April 21, 2003, Nina Simone enjoyed the satisfaction of receiving honorary degrees from the Julliard School and The Curtis Institute (the very school that had previously denied her application) and honorary doctorates from the University of Massachusetts and Malcolm X University. Consequently, she is often referred to as Dr. Simone.
The Legacy from 2010–2020
One of the greatest confirmations of the value of a musician’s work is the passion with which peers and following generations embrace it. From 2010–2020, Nina Simone has become one of the most covered, remixed, frequently rediscovered, reinterpreted, and generally honored musicians in music history. The sheer diversity of artists––ranging from hip hop and rock stars to Broadway and jazz divas–– who have either “sampled” her work or recorded versions of it, prove her contention that she was an accomplished artist of multiple genres. Among those who have linked their creative visions to that of Simone’s are: hip hop artists Common, Lil Wayne, Timbaland, and Kanye West; the groups Faithless , Walkabouts, and the Animals; and European cabaret singer Barb Jungr as well as American jazz diva Randy Crawford, in addition to many more. The music icon was also a favored subject of photographers while she lived and is a treasured focus of fine artists now. Sculptor Zenos Frudakis worked with the Eunice Waymon-Nina Simone Memorial Project to create a life-sized bronze statue of the singer. A dedication ceremony was held for it February 21, 2010, in Simone’s hometown of Tryon.
This Mother’s Daughter
Nina Simone was married to her manager and business partner Andy Stroud when she gave birth to her daughter and only child, Lisa Celeste Stroud in 1962. Like her mother, Stroud also developed into an exceptional entertainer. Known simply as Simone, she has starred in such major Broadway productions as Rent and Aida. She made her recording debut in 2008 with Simone on Simone, a CD of covers of her mother’s music. A second album reportedly is set for release in spring 2010. Following Nina Simone’s death, Simone the Second (more recently listed under credits as Lisa Simone Kelly) established the Nina Simone Foundation (NSF) as s a non-profit organization dedicated both to preserving the performer/composer’s legacy and to spearheading initiatives to establish various education opportunities and cultural resources. From April 16-25 in Atlanta, Georgia, the Foundation will present The Nina Simone Experience. In addition to performances and a fashion show, the event will feature a fine arts exhibition of works depicting images of Nina Simone and visual interpretations of her music.
In an interview with Jet Magazine in 2008, Simone pointed out, “I am keeping my mother’s name out there in a positive light, which she deserves because she sacrificed a lot and she stood for a lot. She deserves to be recognized and honored for that.” She accomplished that mission to critical acclaim as executive producer of the 2015 Netflix biopic on her mother titled: What Happened, Miss Simone?
Title-art graphic featuring artist Suzanne Jackson in conversation on stage at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts. (Art graphic by Aberjhani)
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
Artist Suzanne Jackson (right) speaking with librarian Mark Darby (left) at historic 2004 "Harlem Renaissance in Savannah" book signing and lecture presented by Aberjhani (center) at the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia (USA). (Photograph Bright Skylark Literary Productions Collection)
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.
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.