Somewhere in the digital files accumulated while working with Sandra L. West on Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance is a long poem I wrote--at a time when we were both feeling exhausted by our literary labors--to renew our motivation to finish the book. Having learned earlier this week of Sandra's passing last month on Valentine's Day, I wanted very much to find it.
What I recall about the poem is that it placed our determination to complete the encyclopedia within the context of challenges faced by our Harlem Renaissance heroes to get their work done. Instances such as the historical reality of James Weldon Johnson repeatedly risking his life in different towns to establish new chapters of the NAACP, or Zora Neale Hurston moving a small heater from one room to another in a cold Harlem, New York City, apartment to keep her hands warm while typing, did not invalidate our personal struggles but did diminish the anguish they caused.
For her part in keeping hope alive as we wrote what would become a Choice Academic Title Award-winning volume, Sandra used to conclude all of her emails with several inspiring and empowering quotes. They included this one from the great poet and essayist Audre Lorde:
"When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."
During one low point, when frustration more than fear nearly got the better of us, she grumbled: "...I have never worked so hard. I am still tired from it. My face has lines in it, encyclopedia tracks, I call them, just like the tracks in a junkie's arms."
"Encyclopedia tracks": That was some kind of weariness and addiction. But we were no more about to throw in the towel than Ida B. Wells-Barnett had been about to give up her gun when investigating reports on lynching.
Mission Impossible Accomplished
The obstacles confronting us as we employed every ounce of strength we could command in service to our vision were not minor. In my case, it was a matter of balancing the extensive research and composition of articles with being a full-time caregiver. In Sandra's, it meant continuing the work at the same time she negotiated significant life changes: going through a divorce while also relocating from Savannah, Georgia, to Richmond, Virginia, to New York City and eventually back to her alma mater of Rutgers University in Newark, NJ.
Obviously, with help from a few friends like the late Dr. Clement Alexander Price, who gifted us with a foreword for the book, we did make it to the finish line and enjoyed an amazing launch party for the encyclopedia at Rutgers University in 2003. Not long afterwards, numerous reviews, book-signings, and interviews followed. Below is an excerpt from a spring 2004 interview with Sandra published in the EBONY WATCH newsletter of the Organization of Black Faculty and Staff, Rutgers University-Newark. Her response to the interviewer's question makes it clear why she felt our stress and agonies were worth the battle won:
Q. There are many reference books about the Harlem Renaissance. What makes your volume stand out?
NEXT: Tribute to Harlem Renaissance Chronicler Sandra L. West part 2: Worthy of Our Ancestors' Legacy
100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
The original subject scheduled for this post was the 100th anniversary of the "Harlem Hellfighter's" celebratory parade through New York City in February, 1919, following the United States' and allies' successful campaign to end World War I in Europe. For the African Americans who comprised the unit, participation had meant another step toward gaining racial equality and ending unwarranted violence against them at home. With Black History Month only a couple of weeks away and commemorations of the Harlem Renaissance Centennial now kicking off around the globe, the subject would have been timely and appropriate.
However: just as humanity had to address the impact of various forms of violence--such as war, lynching, and race riots--during the Jazz Age Harlem Renaissance, we find ourselves doing the same in 2019, an entire century later. Too often, the casualties you might anticipate hearing about are not the military personnel or police officers who confront danger as part of their profession. They tend to be children in school classrooms, at parties, attending concerts, playing in front yards, immigrating from one oppressive situation to another, or just nestled at home among family members assumed to be dedicated to their safety and wellness.
The beauty of all they were or may have become is gone in the flash of one horrific moment. Rather than revisit yet again the question of why so many of us exercise so little compassion toward children and disregard the potential inherent in every child, I launched the Kaleidoscope Moons Art Series as one way to reclaim with compassion the beauty of lives lost too soon.
A New Perspective on an Old Wound
How to survive and cope with grief over the loss of an offspring is a dilemma I began exploring as a writer through poems in my first book, I Made My Boy Out of Poetry, and then later in essays in The American Poet Who Went Home Again. As the year 2019 slowly gains momentum, I am viewing the subject through a distinctly 21st century lens and re-engaging it as a visual artist via the Kaleidoscope Moons series. Why at this precise time? Largely because of what I expressed in these notes on the series:
STORY BEHIND THE SERIES
The American media has proclaimed the heroics of 13-year-old Jayme Closs for managing after three months to escape her kidnapper. However, she lost her parents to the abductor's shotgun blasts and in that instant experienced the destruction of her childhood. Clearly the concept of compassion held no meaning for him and a civilized society is obligated to reflect on possible reasons why.
What roles, for example, might the glamorization of hatred and sustained monetization of war play in Closs's abductor's choice to ignore the excruciating pain he would cause a child and her family? How did institutionalized practices which place the well-being of children toward the lower end of any list of priorities possibly intensify his nihilism? When reflecting on likely answers, this much becomes clear: the degree to which any given individual might be held accountable for helping maintain a culture of indifference and, by doing so, contribute to the malevolent destruction of human life is a consideration which can no longer be avoided.
NEXT: Kaleidoscope Moons Reclaim with Compassion the Beauty of Lives Lost Too Soon Part 2
Founder of the 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance Initiative and creator of the Silk-Featherbrush Art Style, Aberjhani's work as both an author & an artist have been acclaimed by critics, readers, and cultural arts supporters around the world.
Presented with the choice between wholly committing my pen to writing about current waves of shock and awe stemming from political shenanigans on the world stage, or sticking to processes for meeting specific goals, I chose the latter. My choice should not be taken as indifference to what many have interpreted as pow-wows between world dictators leading to accusations of treason against at least one of them whose full name currently begins with POTUS. It is in fact a way of responding to those history-making upheavals in a manner which hopefully will last much longer than a 24-hour news cycle.
As promised early in 2018, I have increased the number of images in my online art galleries, continued communication with publishing industry reps about publication of recently-completed manuscripts, furthered development of plays in progress, and extended promotion of observances related to the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance.
Reflecting on all these plans at this moment, I have to admit the get-it-done list assigned to me by me is quite a handful. Even for a workaholic. However, a little pressure can sometimes inspire a lot of rewarding productivity.
Harlem Renaissance Deja Vu
The visual arts component of my cultural labors took over in the inspiration department this summer of 2018 as I found myself immersed in an abundance of visual works--some halting at the first-draft stage, others completed--for different projects. The creative intensity has been comparable to the experience which produced my books, The Bridge of Silver Wings and The River of Winged Dreams, in 2008 and 2010. The obvious difference is the previous results of the creative energy were literary.
But in some ways a number of the new visual pieces are also literary because they have been created as important parts of one of my in-progress plays (those cannot be sold at this time). Creating images for inclusion in a play has prompted me to revise the definition of a literary artist previously applied to myself. Whereas I formerly considered the term as indicating someone producing notable written works within different genres, in the current instance an accurate description would be: an author who is also a visual artist.
One of the new prints, Song of Love and Compassion, marks a divergence in style which surprised me and put a smile on my face. Another, Harlem Renaissance Deja Vu Number 1, is part of the 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance Initiative. Inspiration for it came from several sources, including works by Romare Bearden and Lois Mailou Jones, as well as from old photographs of the model. As indicated by the descriptive "Number 1" in the artwork's title, this is the first of a series.
Whether new prints from the series will also be offered through Fine Art America and Pixels.com has yet to be determined. However, a new blog series titled Art-Notes, which collectors, journalists, bloggers, and readers in general might appreciate has launched on the sites to share background info on images as they are posted. You can check them out by clicking the image below:
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.