Any attempt to write a biographical essay about someone as multi-talented and prolific as the late Ja A. Jahannes would be incomplete without immersion––or re-immersion––into a comprehensive sample of his works. In Jahannes’ case that would mean listening to diverse genres of music, going through numerous powerful poems, revisiting provocative essays, and revisiting intensely-original memoirs, novels, and plays.
Getting it all done in the short amount of time allotted by deadlines would not be possible but enjoying the challenge would be. In the course of rising to meet that challenge by penning the essay 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together, Celebrating Ja Jahannes, I naturally looked for suitable quotes to include with the essay. Upon finding more than I could use, I was inspired to create the three quotation graphics posted with the article.
From that point, it wasn’t much of a leap to realize that our modern shell-shocked world could possibly benefit tremendously from a collection of quips and witticisms distilled from the glittering torrent of fiction, sermons, librettos, stories, papers, etc., that seemed to flow with such ceaseless determination from Jahannes’ inspired soul. A good title for the collection might be The Wit, Wisdom, and Genius of Ja A. Jahannes. Moreover, if I were a traditional publisher taking on such a project I would push for both an illustrated hardback edition and a primarily text paperback edition.
The Notion of Being Geniuses Together
The first part of the 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together essay contains a short discussion on my allusion to the notion of collective genius. Specifically, I identity the following as a central theme binding the larger body of multi-discipline works by Jahannes:
Being geniuses together (to borrow the phrase from Kay Boyle’s and Robert McAlmon’s classic memoir) makes it possible for human beings to serve as each other’s heroes rather than simply function as each other’s antagonistic nemeses. (from 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together)
I was fortunate enough to experience Jahannes’ application of that concept through a number of shared projects. We first met when he visited a Waldenbooks store I managed in the Savannah Mall (Savannah, Georgia) during the early 1990s. His careful study of the New York Times bestselling titles on the shelves and the sustained attention he gave to the African-American Studies section told me he was someone of rare intellectual sensibilities. I was not offended when he gently waved me away after I offered my assistance but let him know I was there if he should need it.
The Black Writers Project: Something Magical
The first time we actually worked together on a cultural arts project was probably in 1996 when he was one of the authors profiled in the stage production debut of 4 Native Voices. The play was produced by the Savannah Writers Workshop, with which I worked for a decade to help produce literary events and co-edit the Savannah Literary Journal. The next year his long poem “Communion,” dedicated to photographer Roland L. Freeman, was published in the Journal.
In 1998, 4 Native Voices was revived for the first Savannah Literary Festival, coordinated by Miriam K. Center. As part of that same festival, Jahannes joined Word Sculptor Iris Formey Dawson and me as part of a panel discussion on “Southern People of Color Write about the South.” With our more formal introduction via 4 Native Voices and the literary festival behind us, I accepted invitations in 1999 to join him, author Michael Porter, and Formey Dawson at different venues to share our individual brands of poetry with the community. Jahannes named “our little group” The Black Writers Project.
The group might not have been as large or dynamic as the throngs of authors, poets, painters, and musicians who flooded New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, but as black literary artists sharing our works in public spaces we were doing something new. We were helping create what eventually would evolve into the modern spoken word movement.
One of the group’s first assignments was undertaken in March when we joined him at Abyssinia Baptist Church where he served as pastor. For another, we went to the Hitch Village Library and read to a group of excited children. Jahannes knew I had lived in Hitch Village myself until the age of 10 and had often spent time reading and playing in that very same library. He therefore introduced me as one of their own who was now a bookseller and a writer who had returned to them after having lived and written in other parts of the world.
Something magical happened when I passed out copies of a poem called Black Then as I Am Black Now so the children would be able to follow along as I read. I had written it specifically for the occasion to emphasize that being black meant more than the reports about gun violence and drug-busts taking place in their neighborhood and which they saw on the news almost every evening. Halfway through the poem, they picked up on one particular phrase and turned it into a repeating refrain after each remaining stanza:
“…I was black back then
They had added their genius for rhythm to the poem and made it their own. Each time they repeated the lines following my recital of a new stanza I was nearly overcome with emotion. That kind of transference of creative catalyst from one generation to another gave meaning to a way of being geniuses together that Jahannes seemed to appreciate the most. He was, after all, an exceptional educator who made it his mission to not only inform young people but empower them. In this instance, the children had given me as much through their voices as I had hoped to give them through mine.
Further Adventures in Literary Savannah
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.