"Luther and the Coming of Light" digital art by Aberjhani C2022)
.he last thing I expected to find myself writing about as we moved deeper into the year 2022 was a 3-way war between Russia, Ukraine, and professed defenders of democracy around the world. But write about it I have on the LinkedIn website as well as here at Bright Skylark. Hopefully, the articles have made it clear one of my primary concerns regarding the war has been the brutal erasure of history and culture as well as that of human lives.
The Chronicling Legacies of Black Artists in Savannah series was first published in my AXS cultural arts column as an expression of that same concern. It is reposted at this time both to encourage unwavering support in their struggle for what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called “the right to live,” and, in observation of the 14th anniversary of the publication of ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love:
Contributors to Unique Traditions
Upon his passing on April 6, 2016, Luther E. Vann joined an illustrious group of brilliant contemporary African-American creative artists who, prior to their transitions, produced numerous celebrated works which have added tremendously to Savannah’s (Georgia, USA) reputation and value as a favorite travel destination for lovers of the cultural arts. Vann (b. 1937) and Allen Fireall (1954-2014) bestowed upon the city a legacy of fine visual art that documented daily life in different communities throughout the Low Country in Georgia and South Carolina. Like artist William M. Pleasant Jr. (1928-1997) before them, they also contributed greatly to the unique traditions of Gullah art.
(Digital portrait of late Savannah Gullah artist Allen Fireall by Aberjhani)
In many cases, particularly where Fireall is concerned, their painted canvases depict scenes representative of historic cultural activities rarely practiced as part of everyday living in contemporary times. Making nets and sewing quilts by hand, for example, are more likely to be done for creative enjoyment [or to be sold as cultural artefacts] rather than, as they once were, out of simple necessity. Similarly, men and women carrying bushels of crabs atop their heads, or gathering in parks or alongside roads to wait for job assignments are seen even less rarely (if ever). Nor are you as likely while driving or walking down a lane in the American South to see women in adjoining back yards laughing and talking as they hang freshly-washed laundry out to dry.
Restoring Erased History
The late world-renowned Rev. Dr. Ja A. Jahannes(1942 -2015) was something of a polymath whose exceptional talents included writing plays, poems, novels, and children’s books–– as well as publishing anthologies, producing fine-art photography, composing music, teaching, and delivering inspired sermons. Through his multiple positions as an educator at the HBCU Savannah State University, a minister at Savannah’s now 105-year-old Abyssinia Baptist Church, and a public intellectual, Jahannes empowered many others to pick up where he would leave off.
The names presented here are not done so to invite nostalgic reveries, though studied reflections are certainly appropriate for people familiar with them. They are offered (and a number of others could easily be included) to help prevent their consignment to discarded files marked “erased history, or being deleted, via guerrilla decontextualization by omission, from the more “official” channels of documented acknowledgements.
Whether using the term “erasure of history” or “history of erasure” the final definition points to the same legacy-destroying result: the removal of consequential names and events from their authentic historic context and thus from public awareness. An erasure of history indicates the active or conscious deletion of a subject from various official records. Histories of erasure, as it were, possess the paradoxical distinction of referring to accumulated instances of eradication. The first describes the act of omitting relevant events or biographies. The second describes accounts of such actions.
The late painter William M. Pleasant Jr. surrounded by some of his celebrated works.
Guerrilla decontextualization by omission tends to occur frequently when it comes to African-American cultural arts workers who have not been embraced by certain institutions. Whatever prominence they command stems more from the direct support of, and engagement with, appreciative audiences than from disinterested commercial outlets. Some, such as William M. Pleasant Jr., had the good fortune to produce heirs, like Jalal Pleasant, who also became accomplished artists and have labored to ensure their parent’s work is properly noted.
The Example of Luther E. Vann
All of the people mentioned here have won some level of recognition in their own right. Vann earned his place beside the luminous talents he has joined through a lifetime of dedication to both the spirit and the forms of his craft. It was that dauntless commitment which prompted organizations like the Telfair Museum Friends of African-American Art to back the publication of the ekphratic book, Elemental the Power of Illuminated Love, in honor of his individual genius.