“…turnin’ nouns into verbs braids into crowns
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.
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.
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.
© Women’s History Month 2020
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
Among the many literary marvels for which the world can be grateful to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison are the numerous interviews she’s given over the years. Her inspiring genius sparkles as brilliantly in conversation as it does in her novels, librettos, children’s books, and lectures. In one such interview conversation, she expressed as her biggest fear that of being stranded somewhere without a book of some substance to keep her company. That makes flawless sense to those of us addicted to books at an early age.
I would not go so far as to call myself an abibliophobe but I am far more comfortable in spaces and places that accommodate books with some degree of delight than in those which ban them from the premises. To avoid such a potentially traumatizing condition, I try to stay as well-supplied with more books than I am likely to read––for pleasure that is––in a month, as a Beverly Hills fashionista remains stocked up on shiny shoes, bags, and credit cards.
El Nino on the Way
So with meteorologists predicting a 2015 - 2016 winter El Niño that could make some of us spend more time indoors than usual, lining up reads for the chilly wet days and evenings ahead is not a bad idea. My own mixed bag of pages includes biography, literary fiction, history, poetry, and social criticism. A couple of the titles I’ve already read once or twice but feel the need to revisit; several have been on the bookshelf for several months and patiently awaiting my attention. They now have it.
The list, which features a comment or two on why I chose a given title, could change over the next month or so. But, for now, you might call those already on it my literati posse for the duration of the 2015-2016 winter El Niño. The numbers are not to imply any kind of ranking but may say something about how my cerebral passions and priorities tend to cross-pollinate:
MY 2015-2016 EL NINO WINTER READING LIST
1. Tiny Windows (poetry) by Duncan McNaughton. One of the founders of San Francisco’s New College of California Poetics Program, McNaughton’s work as an educator and poet has long captivated and empowered many. Tiny Windows is his latest and to me that makes contemporary poetry a lot more interesting than before its publication.
2. Black Prophetic Fire (history and social criticism) by Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf. This book follows the same tradition as the great volume of dialogue between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (as well as those with Baldwin and other profound thinkers). It’s also reminiscent of the excellent Literary Conversations series, but with the dialogue centered by Cornel West’s expansive brilliance it obviously reaches beyond literary concerns.
3. Jean-Paul Sartre: A Life (biography) by Annie Cohen-Solal. I’ve read novels, plays and essay on philosophy by Sartre but this will be my first time reading a full-length comprehensive biography on him. As it happens, Cornel West wrote the foreword for this “Sartre Centennial” edition so that had some influence on my decision to buy this specific title.
4. The State of the World Atlas (globalization reference) by Dan Smith. This is the ninth edition of Smith’s book. He finished it in London in 2012 and it was published in 2013, which means significant changes have already occurred since it the last printing. It makes a good comparative reference though for helping to place current events in a developing historical context.
5. God Help the Child (novel) by Toni Morrison. I actually started reading this before the official publication date earlier this year. Because it is Morrison I chose to save it for a special occasion and El Niño popped up it so here we are.
6. Life of William Blake with Selections from His Poems & Other Writings (biography plus) by Alexander and Anne Gilchrist. This was the first major biography on Blake and is still considered among the best because the Gilchrist husband and wife literary duo met with contemporaries of Blake to complete it.
7. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (philosophy of education & social criticism) by Paulo Freire. This modern classic by a highly-revered author has been recommended to me many times over the years. With the various demographic shifts and cultural migrations currently taking place, now seems like a good time to give it some serious attention.
8. Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling (criminal justice, comics, graphic novel) by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer with a foreword by Michelle Alexander. There’s no such thing as overstating the crisis of oppressive human rights violations represented by the so-called “high school to prison pipeline” in the United States and its devastating impact upon African-American communities. The modern industrial prison complex is dangerously emblematic of apartheid-like practices. Dismantling it means coming to terms with how it came to be and why it continues to expand.
9. American Poets: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets (Vol. 49). True, this is not an actual book in the literal sense but it just arrived in the mail so feels right to place on the list. A quick peep inside indicates an interesting interview with U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, some new poems by Joy Harjo and Yusef Komunyakaa, and notes on some older ones by Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Sylvia Plath, and W.B. Yeats. There’s a big announcement also from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation regarding their acquisition of Mark Strand’s personal library.
10. Dark Faith: New Essays on Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away edited by Susan Srigley. That title kind of says it all doesn’t it. Reading of course is not the only way to stay pleasurably engaged during cold soggy El Nino days and nights. It is, however, for this author one of the most sweetly enduring and warmly compatible.
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Article art graphic featuring black & white images of musician Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins, author Pat Conroy, author & editor Susan L. Taylor, King of Pop Michael, poet & educator Ja A. Jahannes, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, actor Danny Glover, artist Luther E. Vann, and more. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions)
If you’re a regular reader of my national African-American cultural arts column, you may have noticed that I have not been posting articles as frequently as I once did. The reason is simple enough. Having reached a certain point in the research for my current book-in-progress (at least one of them anyway) I had to reduce as many additional writing obligations as possible to fully concentrate on completion of the work.
For me, this is the part of authorship when the lyrical muse sings and the creative pen dances. The greater bulk of the more rigid tasks of verification and documentation have been satisfied, and imagination may be allowed to take over the processes of narrative construction. The resulting musical flow of image and language stamp the work with its own unique identity. And its own self-defined meanings destined to merge with different readers’ interpretations of the same.
The Writer and the Times
I started the national African-American cultural arts column on July 13, 2009, with a story about the debut of Johnny and Me, Savannah author Miriam K. Center’s play based on her friendship with the late 4-time Academy Award-winning composer Johnny Mercer. That was followed by a profile of acclaimed artist Jerome Meadows. The next month, August, saw the launch of the controversial series on the trial (and eventual execution) of Troy Anthony Davis, convicted for the murder of Savannah policeman Mark Allen MacPhail. Not writing about Davis’s trial, to my mind, would have been a case of gross negligence. Doing so was one early indication of what readers would discover over the next few years: basically, I found it impossible to restrict myself (as asked to do) to the subject of “the arts” as pertaining to African Americans.
How could that have been likely for someone who had already chronicled the global multicultural impact of the Harlem Renaissance in the pages of an encyclopedia, and whose first novel featured a cast of post-Millennials on a parallel Earth? I could no more refrain from engaging political discourse within a column bearing my name than Zora Neale Hurston could have resisted writing black dialect or Franz Kafka could have ignored the absurdities of his existential dilemmas.
Collage of images from the National African-American Art Examiner pages. See here are: King of Pop Michael Jackson, the African-American Family Monument in Savannah, Georgia, author Octavia Butler, slain officer Mark Allen MacPhail, artist Jerome Meadow, author John Lennon, executed Savannahian Troy Anthony Davis, and others.
Moreover, how could it even have been possible in the era that saw such titanic events as these: the two-term presidency of Barack H. Obama, America’s first African-American commander-in-chief, the domino effect of the Arab Spring in 2011, the death of a global pop icon like Michael Joseph Jackson in 2009, the advent of civil war in Syria with its subsequent refugee and migrant crisis, the heart-rending terror of Boko Haram and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the astonishing triumphs of the Marriage Equality Movement, massive shifts in population demographics, and the end of diplomatic estrangement between Cuba and the United States. Just to name a few.
This is not, of course, to say that during the same period I considered the cultural arts any less important than national or international politics. It has been more than thrilling to share with readers through this specific platform essays on such topics as: the poetry of Elizabeth Alexander, the life and legacy of Maya Angelou, the novels and ever-increasing relevance of Toni Morrison, reports on winners of the Nobel Prize, the enduring literary vision of James Baldwin, the annual global triumph of International Jazz Day, profiles of Kennedy Center honorees, and reviews of some of the most important films of our modern times.
Framing the 21st Century with Interpretive Journalism
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.