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
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“Men and women who dedicate their lives to the realization of their gifts tend the office of that communion by which we are joined to one another, to our times, to our generation, and to the [human] race.”
––Lewis Hyde (The Gift)
I am ending the year 2017 the same way I started it: by recommitting myself to life-affirming values and productive best-practices. The hope is such commitment will help me and others continue to steer our way past the debris of political chaos and social nihilism which characterized too much of 2017 and thereby make 2018 a time of much greater unity and productivity.
In 2017 this translated into doing anything and everything necessary to complete a nonfiction book project on which I had been working for nearly a decade. It also meant increasing efforts to encourage the use of compassion as a primary tool for nonviolent conflict resolution.
Being able to say I met with significant measures of success on both fronts is a good feeling. These individual accomplishments, however, become much less satisfactory when considering how little an impact the call for compassion had on those who throughout the year 2017 convinced themselves that mass murder, as uselessly insane as it is, was a viable approach to achieving some kind of victory. Or some form of favor with divine authority.
Historic Tipping Point
While striving to reach certain goals (about which more will be said a little later) that component of history known as current events frequently interrupted my plans with its own agenda. Like authors, journalists, and artists all over the world watching the clashes between political uprisings and humanitarian urgencies, I responded in the best ways I could.
Some, like the massacre of 305 people at the al Rawda Mosque in Egypt on November 24 and the killing of 58 people (along with the loss of millionaire gunman Stephen Craig Paddock’s life) on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada (USA) on October 1 (just to give two examples) left me speechless for days; I was astounded at our collective inability to evolve beyond an apparent addiction to the cruelest kinds of pandemonium.
In addition: extreme alt right politics (often equated with white supremacy), scary fluctuations in the climate, and the ongoing disclosure of unacceptable sexual aggressiveness within business environments have created what many consider a historic tipping point for humanity. The question is whether we’re going to tip forward toward healing progression or tumble screaming backwards into even more aggravating mayhem. A certain president’s—that would be U.S. POTUS Donald Trump’s––decision to re-tweet inflammatory anti-Muslim videos and repeatedly bate unstable dictators has not been particularly comforting.
Various transgressions stirring furious indignation are not new. Does this mean they must remain unceasing? The level of expanded public outrage prompting corrective responses to perceived, and often confirmed, injustices represents a powerful shift in humankind’s shared awareness of its potential plight. And that in itself is reason to keep hope alive and kicking.
A Bridge of Silver Wings Reconsidered
Of all the issues worth pausing my writing and art projects long enough to join fellow citizens in public protests and advocacy, the one which actually prompted me to do so was the historic Renaming the Talmadge Bridge Symposium sponsored by the social justice advocacy group Span the Gap and the Beach Institute of Savannah, Georgia. Originally, I was slated to join participating panelists on stage at the Savannah Theatre along with the moderator, former Mayor Otis S. Johnson. Health issues, however, forced me to limit my participation to taking a front-row seat in the audience and accepting Span the Gap’s gracious acknowledgment of my contributions to the ongoing campaign.
The panelist who did go on stage included: civil rights attorney, pastor, and educator Francys Johnson, president of Georgia state NAACP; community organizer Bernetta B. Lanier; Connect Savannah’s community editor Jessica Leigh Lebos; former Chatham County commissioner John McMasters; Savannah Morning News columnist Dr. Mark Murphy; community activist Pamela Oglesby; and chairman of SCAD’s Architectural History Department Robin Williams.
My participation in discussing the need to change the name of the bridge from that of someone who openly championed white supremacy to one less racially antagonistic was less robust than I had preferred but I took some consolation in knowing I had helped create this momentous event through the publication of various essays and articles prior to it taking place. Among them:
The Renaming the Talmadge Bridge symposium did not end with any kind of firm commitment to immediately change the name of the causeway. The event did help raise public awareness of what’s at stake if it remains unchanged. It also inspired me to begin work on a play about the dynamics of inter-generational legacies and embracing the battle to correct social injustices.
Vigorous Applications of Compassion
The practice of compassion sat either at or near the top of the list of most crucial life-affirming values to which I re-committed myself in 2017. Working with partners at Charter for Compassion, I strove to drive home the point that a vigorous application of compassion in daily personal or professional encounters, the composition of government policies, and religious considerations could go a long way toward solving many of our most egregious dilemmas.
The following is a list of blog essays in which I attempted to present my case for advantages of applying a philosophy of universal compassion to everything from global warming and violent conflicts (domestic as well as international) to creative maladjustment, poem-making, and the agony of historic cultural shifts.
So: why all these diverse explorations of the application of the golden rule? Because there’s a lot more wisdom in doing unto others as we would have them do unto us than most people take time to consider.
NEXT: Chaos of 2017 sets stage for growth and greater unity in 2018 (part 2 of 2)
On any given day of the week, the creator of Postered Chromatic Poetics and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Aberjhani, may be found wearing any number of hats: historian, visual artist, poet, advocate for compassion, novelist, journalist, photographer, and editor. Having recently completed a book of creative nonfiction on his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA) he is currently writing a full-length play about the implications of generational legacies as symbolized by efforts to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
In his lifetime, Dick Gregory (1932-2017) achieved the distinction of becoming a celebrated athlete, conscientious comic, civil rights leader, devoted (in his own singular way) family man, philanthropist, American icon, and author of more than a dozen books.Publisher Harper Collins released his most recent title, Defining Moments in Black History, Reading Between the Lies, on September 5, 2017. The event was a highly-significant one for a 21st-century America in which racial conflicts continue to fuel social and political division. It also represented the extension of a major literary legacy begun at the height of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
‘For Black Folks and White Folks’
Gregory possessed an uncanny ability to transform the soul-crushing anguish of racism and poverty into healing inspiration. As rare as such a gift can be, it is on full display in his first triumphant publishing venture: the classic autobiography titled Nigger, (written with Robert Lipsyte).
My used paperback edition of the book was published in 1964 and has a cover price of $1.94. On its now-famous front is a beautiful black and white photograph of Gregory beside a red starburst with bold white text announcing in all caps: OVER ONE MILLION COPIES SOLD. The copy in my possession has been so thoroughly read and re-read by different people that the cover has started coming off and had to be reinforced with cellophane tape.
As impressive as the book’s 1 million-plus sales figures are, equally noteworthy is an observation shared by Gregory in its pages about the history and future of the struggle to which he would dedicate so much of his life:
“It started long before I came into it, and I may die before it’s over, but we’ll bust this thing and cut out this cancer. America will be as strong and beautiful as it should be, for black folks and white folks” (p. 209).
Few in 1964 would have imagined those words retaining the relevance which they have for more than half a century. Yet the #TakeAKnee and Black Lives Matter movements, both of which owe some ideological debt to the icon’s legacy, indicate they have never been more applicable. In addition, Mr. Gregory has indeed passed on while the struggle has not halted but intensified in ways unpredictable before the advent of social media.
On August 20, the day before the great eclipse of 2017, I learned that Gregory had died on the 19th at the age of 84. Prior to learning about his death, my plan for the day had been to spend some time constructing an outline for an article or an op-ed in response to suggestions the Confederate Monument in Savannah’s (Georgia, USA) Forsyth Park should be removed. But news of the great satirist’s demise prompted me once again to pick up his brilliant autobiography.
‘More Hope in Laughing’
In his own way, Richard Claxton Gregory, who was born on Columbus Day, was as politically dynamic as Malcolm X, as spiritually motivational as Martin Luther King Jr., and as socially revolutionary as Nelson Mandela. Yet his talent for coaxing laughter out of the most brutally inhumane situations set him apart as an astonishingly unique and painfully necessary individual.
He said his genius for employing comedy in the face of humor-less oppression derived from a lesson taught by Lucille Gregory (1909-1953) his mother, whom he saw cruelly beaten by Presley Gregory (b.?-1964) his father: “She taught us that man has two ways out in life—laughing or crying. There’s more hope in laughing” (p. 25).
In regard to the highly-controversial word chosen for the title of his autobiography, he examined it from many different angles and concluded it said more about people who used it to express hatred that it did about people who were targets of its use. He himself employed it in different situations, such as in 1963 during a protest demonstration in Greenwood, Mississippi, when threatened by a white policeman: “Nigger, you want to go to jail?” (p. 172). By that time, when he was 30 years old, Gregory had already become one of the most successful comedians in America and responded to the policeman as follows:
His words represented more than just a furious retort. Gregory felt a deep compassion for humanity as a whole; one of his early mentors was the white Southern Illinois University track and field coach Leland “Doc” Lingle. Like many of the great civil rights activists of his time and now, he believed racism was at least as injurious to those who practiced it as it was to those dis-empowered by it.
In the universe as the comically-inclined author saw it, whether certain words cause an individual’s soul to bleed or help it to heal depends on the emotional intent expressed behind its use. Hatred can turn a beautiful poem into a curse. Love can transform an expletive into a benediction. Therefore, the same word which word which sustained an intense encounter between him and a policeman could make others smile: such as when reading this dedication to his mother:
“Dear Momma––Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”
Maintaining that fine-line balance between humor and rage never became easy. In light of the author’s commitment to eradicating social injustice, however, the ability to do so remained critical.
NEXT: Text and Meaning in Dick Gregory’s ‘Nigger’ part 2: Unyielding Commitment
On any given day of the week, the creator of Postered Chromatic Poetics and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Aberjhani, may be found wearing any number of hats: historian, visual artist, poet, advocate for compassion, novelist, journalist, photographer, and editor. Having recently completed a book of creative nonfiction on his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA) he is currently working on a play about the implications of generational legacies as symbolized by efforts to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
April, when both Jazz Appreciation Month and National Poetry Month are observed, is always a special time at Bright Skylark Literary Productions. This year it is doubly special because in addition to featuring several re-posts of classic articles and essays about poetry and jazz on this site, we have also teamed up with our Charter for Compassion partners to present the timely new 4-part series: Poetic Traditions of Compassion and Creative Maladjustment.
The celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month actually got underway with Jarreau Jazz-riff Earth-tunes for the Angel of Compassion, the poem and essay published in tribute to the late great Al Jarreau after his passing earlier this year. Jarreau in recent years had been among the headliners for the annual International Jazz Day concert and one of the premier talents of the modern jazz era. You can check out part 1 of the tribute by clicking here and part 2, which includes the poem, by clicking this Postered Poetics artwork:
A Confluence of Compassionate Sensibilities
In addition to commemorating NPM 2017, the series showcased on the Charter for Compassion website does two important things:
1) It explores the conceptual relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for a creative-maladjustment approach to civil disobedience and author Karen Armstrong’s recommended strategy for living a compassion-empowered life.
2) It utilizes as lens through which to examine poetic traditions of compassion, short biographical profiles of the Sufi genius Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great Pulitzer Prize-winning Harlem Renaissance and Chicago Renaissance poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and the Prague, Czech Republic-born author of Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke.
You can begin enjoying the series by clicking either of the following graphics:
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives addressing race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
The United Nations may have officially tagged 2017 as The Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development and the Chinese dubbed it Year of the Fire Rooster, but I am inclined at this point to declare it: Year of the Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices.
Sounds a little awkward I know. However, it is fairly accurate and the poetic quality lends to the description an aspect of hopefulness as opposed to a smell of certifiable doom.
The tones of the Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices range from the humanely compassionate and passionately engaged to the apathetically detached and dangerously dictatorial. They include, but certainly are not limited to, the following:
Add to the above chorus Native Americans and committed environmentalists taking a stand against the on-again Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, women across the globe convinced they have been cheated of their time to shine in history, and Millennials struggling to find the right balance between trust placed in technology and the flaring passions of their innate humanity.
In truth, members of any number of various demographic groups who thought they had gained solid social and political ground on which to stand for the rest of their lives during former U.S. president Barack Obama's administration are now screaming "Oh hell no!" as the new commander-in-chief --doing exactly as he promised to when campaigning for the job--steers America toward the far right.
Allowing Ourselves to Hear Each Other
Probably the biggest mistake anyone can make when wishing for his or her voice to be heard and respected is to ignore the voices of everyone else. That observation helped drive the launch and growth of the Creative Thinkers International (CTI) online community 10 years ago.
The sharing of visions and voices for the purpose of inspiring unity in a world turned morbidly cynical by 9/11 was what made the community possible and drove it to thrive for nearly a decade. At a time when hatred threatened to permanently erase the potential for any meaningful cooperation between cross-cultural populations, Creative Thinkers International demonstrated the exact opposite: unity in the name of shared humanity.
The glorification of hatred is predicated on a foundation of fear-induced ignorance venomous to haters and those they believe they hate. Without awareness of root causes inflating their fears, prejudices, and destructive actions, it is easy for someone such as an alt-right terrorist, or a jihadist more faithful to a love of violence than love for Allah, to misinterpret aggravated frustrations as saintly devotion. Given the chance to do so, their own hearts can provide the insight necessary to correct themselves.
For Creative Thinkers International in 2007, allowing ourselves to hear each other and work together to identify the common ground on which we could build trust and cooperation was a matter of working to either: 1) sustain humanity; or 2) watch it simultaneously implode and explode. It is not so different at this 2017 moment in history when words like "polarization," "fake news," and "alternative facts" shape stories heard, viewed, and read every day.
Most people understand achieving unification is more complicated than sticking labels on entire populations and trusting in bias or bigotry to solve the world's most existential dilemmas. Many, however, do not bother to consult any kind of discerning social or political analyses of the turmoil raging around them like the very real tornadoes that slammed New Orleans East on February 7, 2017 (twelve years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused historical damage from which the city is still recovering). To them it is a simple matter of opposing dichotomies: good versus evil, white versus black, the past versus the future, the aged versus youth, East/West, Christian/Muslim, nationalism/globalism, and so on.
What does it take for us to hear each other clearly enough to not only respect what is being said but understand that often the concerns of one group or individual mirror those of "the other." How do we recognize and remove the most unyielding roadblocks to harmonious coexistence between nations and communities?
We begin by acknowledging the reality of the need to do so. We begin by setting aside denials of truth blazing like wildfires right in front of our faces.
In addition, for example, to xenophobia and cultural bias, we know the so-called wealth gap and insufficient education all fall in the same category of oppressive strategies that do not work. We know also that a predatory instinct prompts some power-brokers to use divisiveness as a tool to manipulate social unrest for personal financial benefit. That is a sadly-cruel non-alternative fact we are able to improve with the kind of empowered consciousness represented by the 2017 Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices.
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.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.