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.
Detail "Greeting Flannery O'Connor at the Back Door of My Mind" poster art featuring quote from poem "History and Prophets' Prerogatives." Artwork by Aberjhani now available on Fine Art America and Pixels.com.
Working around the different restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic set back the publication of Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind in more ways than I could have anticipated by almost 6 months. Let’s face, production under these circumstances is a big issue for everybody. The intense events and mounting urgencies of #TheYear2020, however, reemphasized repeatedly the need to keep pushing forward and get the job done. So with the help of a few friends I have done exactly that and am pleased to announce the date of the planned global launch for the title is Labor Day September 7.
Some of you know already that a soft launch recently kicked off with 3 events: 1) the Greeting Flannery (GF)book info page published at Bright Skylark Literary Productions; 2) corresponding artwork posted for sale at Fine Art America and Pixels.com; and 3) fun-type trivia and quiz questions posted on Goodreads. Here’s the current extended schedule of planned launch events:
Schedule of Events
SEPTEMBER 1 - 30: GF artwork available at 35 percent off using PROMO Code GFGJZH at Fine Art America and Pixels.com. Prints so far include “Converging Grace” with and without quotation text; and, a mixed media visual incorporating the cover of the book into a collage composed of different symbolic pieces. Please Note: THE IMAGE SEEN WITH THIS POST IS A DETAIL FROM “CONVERGING GRACE” WITH QUOTATION TEXT (the quote being from the book and by me).
SEPT 1: Multi-language “Conversations with the World” series kicks off with focus on posters featuring in different languages quotes from my writings which have become, or which are becoming, parts of international dialogues on our human condition.
SEPT 1: New GF artwork posting on noted websites plus pages here on FB and at Bright Skylark.
The year 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of an article series I wrote called 5 Notable Women of the Past and Present and which was first published by AXS Entertainment. Included in the series were profiles of: musician and actress Abbey Lincoln, comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley, author Octavia Butler, social justice advocate Dr. Abigail Jordan, and Ms. Simone. It is an honor to recognize Ms. Simone’s brilliant legacy and extraordinary life at this time with two new works of art––titled Ode to the Genius and Good Intentions of Nina Simone Numbers 1 and 2–– and republication my article about her ongoing influence on contemporary musical artists. That influence remains as true now as a decade ago. Lessons from Nina Simone on Love, Music, and Commitment part 1 starts now:
Getting to Know Ms. Simone
Many modern audiences first became familiar with the name Nina Simone in 2005 after Canadian singer Michael Buble’ recorded her 1965 hit song, “Feeling Good,” and which finalists on the popular American Idol television show sang before world audiences in 2007.
However, long before Buble’ or American Idol finalists sang “Feeling Good,” Nina Simone made a lasting name for herself on several continents as one of the great singers, composers, and performers of the twentieth century. The fact that at least a dozen books document her life and work illustrate just how great she was and how enduring her music remains. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, by Nadine Cohodas, is one of the latest such titles just published in February 2010.
The singer herself published in 1991 (the first London edition) an autobiography titled I Put a Spell on You. Describing just how Simone went about working her musical magic, author and former Ebony Magazine music editor Phyl Garland wrote in her in her own book, The Sound of Soul, The Music and Its Meaning, that: “She casts her spell with the fluid but frequently complex patterns of notes she etches on her piano and with the distinctive sound of her richly reedy voice.”
Another way to gauge the impact of Simone’s life and legacy is to look at it like this: whereas the great Aretha Franklin earned, and has worn with dignity, the title “Queen of Soul” for at least four decades, Nina Simone earned and wore for decades the title “High Priestess of Soul.”
North Carolina Beginnings
She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. Both her parents, John Divine Waymon and Mary Kate Waymon, were entertainers when they met but later settled into more stable professions to raise their eight children. Her mother became a devoted Methodist minister, which later prompted Eunice Waymon to adopt the name Nina Simone when she began performing in night clubs and bars. Simone’s talents as a pianist were recognized early and her family supported her goal to become a world-class concert pianist. She was good enough to study for a time at the renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York but her application to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected. This rejection, she felt, was based more on her race than her abilities and it has often been cited as a major source of the political fury that characterized some of her music. The planned career in classical music took off instead in the direction of more popular genres. Recording her first album, Little Girl Blue, in 1957, she enjoyed a hit with the George Gershwin song, “I Loves You Porgy.”
"Ode to the Genius & Good Intentions of Nina Simone Number 1" art by Aberjhani. Please click to learn more about the artwork and/or to order it.
While she was quickly labeled and marketed as a jazz performer, Simone had actually developed into a mistress of diverse musical forms that included not only jazz, but gospel, blues, Broadway show tunes, Black folk songs, and other styles in classic American modes. She could have easily carved out a successful career for herself in popular music and simply enjoyed the wealth and fame that comes with such success. But in addition to her musical sensibilities, she also possessed a social/political consciousness that was magnified by friendships with individuals like the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author James Baldwin, and author Langston Hughes, all of whom at various times lent their artistry to the struggle for racial equality. It was Hughes who said, “Nina Simone is as different from other singers as beer is from champagne.” While he contributed liner notes to at least one of her albums, she in turn wrote with him the hit song “Backlash Blues.”
Commitment and Consequences
The singer once stated that as far as she was concerned, the job of a creative artist was to address the pressing issues of her times. Towards that end, she wrote and recorded a number of songs that addressed individual moral responsibility as well as the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s. Following two events in particular––the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in Mississippi and that of four Black girls in a Birmingham church–– she recorded the now classic “Mississippi Goddamn.”
The composition is in part satire, part social criticism, and part political outrage, which, given the real-world apartheid conditions and context of the times, makes a great deal of sense. She introduced the song by emphasizing its title and pointing out that she meant every word of it, then sang with fierce courage and intelligence: “Alabama's gotten me so upset/ Tennessee made me lose my rest/ And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam…” Aside from expressing outrage, the singer also implored:
“Can't you see it Can't you feel it It's all in the air I can't stand the pressure much longer Somebody say a prayer”
While many championed Simone for her courageous outspokenness at a time when passive endurance was considered the key to civil rights success for African Americans, others vilified her for it. Many radio stations banned the song and the impact upon her career would prove a lasting negative one. Other powerful protest songs, notably music legends Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” were also released during this period but apparently considered less confrontational or threatening than “Mississippi Goddamn.” NEXT:Lessons from Nina Simone on Love, Music, and Commitment part 2
“…turnin’ nouns into verbs braids into crowns and always fetchin’ dreams from a horizon strewn with bones and flesh of those of us who didn’t make it…” Ntozake Shange (from poem “people of watts”)
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.
Cover of African Voices Magazine Spring 2020 special tribute edition dedicated to the late African-American women authors Ntozake Shange (seen here on the cover) and Toni Morrison. To order magazine on African Voices' website click the image.
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.
Promotional art graphic for director Tyler Perry’s film adaption of Ntozake Shange’s FOR COLORED GIRLS starring: Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Whoopi Goldberg, Macy Gray, Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, and Kerry Washington.
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.
Display of books and literary journals featuring writings by Aberjhani with an art poster for Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah in the center. (photo from Bright Skylark Literary Productions Collections)
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.
This is the cover of a well-preserved copy of the 1992 edition of the African American Review featuring Harlem Renaissance artist William H. Johnson’s 1944 oil painting “Moon Over Harlem.” Inside in the review’s first poetry section is “Black Man Sitting on a Rock” by Aberjhani.
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.