“…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
Receiving feedback about content published on a cultural arts website like Bright Skylark Literary Productions is always a good thing so I appreciate visitors who have expressed disappointment over the lack of posts usually presented every February in celebration of Black History Month (officially ordained by the U.S. Government as African-American History Month). Sometimes we find ourselves too engaged in living the unfolding history of the present moment to address the exemplary achievements of the past. At least that’s how it has been with me lately.
As indicated in the previous post I am currently scheduled to give a lecture at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home in May. Presenting a lecture on such an iconic author, even when preparing to publish a book in conjunction with the same, is not something which can be done (not by me anyway) haphazardly. It has required extensive focus and tapping a few reserves of stored energy. Which is why I’m grateful that while I was concentrating on O’Connor’s work, folks at the WW Law Community Center Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia, were featuring a display of my book Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah along with a poster for it in honor of Black History Month. An administrator asked if I would be willing to take a few photos at the library. I agreed.
A Literary Photo-Op
To accomplish our shared mission, I went to the library (where I have conducted research many times) and took with me about a dozen books which I had either written, co-written, edited, or contributed to, plus just as many literary magazines containing writings by me. I had never assembled my various publications for photographing so was kind of stunned by the variety and quantity, from the slender first paperback edition of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry and early volumes of the Savannah Literary Journal, to shiny hardback copies of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love, and the Civil War Savannah Book Series. Included in the creative mix was a 1992 edition of the African American Review and a more recent poster rendition of the book cover for Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah.
Even more amazing was realizing copies of ESSENCE Magazine and numerous other publications––not to mention online articles, essays, and blog posts––were not included in the display. If ever I felt tempted to criticize myself for not having done more (thus far) as an author, there before me was considerable evidence of a substantial effort. So having put it all together, the librarians took a number of photos, some of them showing me with the books and some of the books by themselves. The lighting was not the best for picture-taking but it turned out to be a good way to continue a very special Bright Skylark Black History Month tradition.
© Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2020
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)
If you missed part 1 of Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor and would like to read it Please Click Here.
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.
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.
The symbolic images seen in Suzanne Jackson's 12-foot award-winning canvas "Passages" (1978, above) are described in the FIVE DECADES exhibition catalog as "associated with love, childbirth, and women painted in expressive acrylic layers." It hangs here in front of 1 of 7 display vitrines and next to other compelling works included in the Five Decades retrospective debut at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Arts. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
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.
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.
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.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.