A loud collective gasp of disbelief was almost as tangible as it was audible when Savannah’s Mayor Van Johnson II announced March 10, 2020, he and other city leaders had opted to follow the example of those in other major cities around the world––Dublin, New York, and Boston among them––and cancel the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Festival due to concerns over the COVID-19 virus. The St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Savannah is generally considered one of the largest in the world and anywhere from half a million to more than a million visitors usually crowd the city’s downtown Historic District to join the festivities.
The economic boost from the event is substantial and for many businesses operating in the downtown area it represents their first-quarter Black Friday. Economic gain, however, is only advantageous if one is alive to enjoy it. With the World Health Organization reclassifying what started out as the Coronavirus epidemic as a full-blown pandemic, Mayor Johnson reached the same conclusion others did: “We must put the health, wealth, and safety of our citizens first.”
The Power of Resilience
The ability of citizens of Savannah to bounce back from major disasters is a primary inspiration behind the title of the book Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. The word Immortal of course is a hyperbolic description meant to honor citizens’ collective spirit of resilience demonstrated over the centuries. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been an annual guaranteed good time with only half a dozen cancellations since its establishment in 1824, almost 200 years ago, so resilience is something on which citizens are relying heavily at this time.
COVID-19 might be a new version of age-old plagues which have struck humanity from time to time but, throughout the 1800s, Savannahians had to deal with a succession of devastating “yellow fever” epidemics. Caused by virus-transporting mosquitoes originally found in Africa, the disease took the lives of: 4,000 people between 1807 and 1820; 580 people in 1854; and 1,066 in 1876.
The more apparent existential threat to the city in modern times has come from seemingly more intense and more frequent hurricanes often attributed to climate change. Readers have gotten a powerful sense of what that means from the story “Trees Down Everywhere” published in Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. Where COVID-19 is concerned, they might draw some encouragement from these words from the introduction:
“Almost 300 years after a succession of wars, hurricanes, plagues, fires, migrations, and the Emancipation Proclamation, [James] Oglethorpe’s original basic physical design of the colony has proven enduring even while the city as a whole has morphed into a cosmopolitan center of commerce, diverse demographics, cultural arts, military facilities, and scientific research dedicated to preserving the surrounding natural environment as well as further developing means to leave earth’s boundaries altogether. Consequently, if he were able to see his masterful cityscape as it stands now, the founder might very well, as some have suggested, recognize it based on his plan. But he would also have to make some serious adjustments in regard to how society itself has evolved…”
Such an adjustment unquestionably would represent a very difficult challenge for the state of Georgia’s founder. Very difficult. But it is easy to imagine he would somehow manage to rise to the occasion and meet that challenge. Rising to the occasion the meet the deadly challenge of COVID-19 is really the only option Savannahians and humanity as a whole have at this moment in history. It’s good to know we possess the capability to do exactly that.
Despite all the benefits which modern technology has made possible for humanity to enjoy in the 21st century, many have observed that in some ways on certain days we seem to be taking more steps backward than forward. News reports and film documentaries contrasting volatile social and political conditions in the United States during the 1960s, for example, often point out similarities between the two eras when it comes to racial oppression and gender inequality.
At the same time, various present-day technological triumphs are undeniable. One of the greatest is that of the telephone, which has evolved from a shoe-box-sized two-piece device used solely for voice communication to a single hand-held unit capable of functioning as a camera or miniature computer.
Riding the Bus with Man-Boy and Shaniquananda: And Then Not
The sixth story in Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah, titled "Riding the Bus with Man-Boy and Shaniquananda: And Then Not." It presents readers with a partly-humorous and somewhat serious study of how well we are learning (or not learning) different lessons taught by history when it comes to personal behavior in public places and how technology impacts such behavior. This is the synopsis for it:
"It is not news that technology and innovation continue to impact our personal and public lives in unexpected ways. How that observation plays out proves a matter of some concern when a passenger compares riding the public bus system in Savannah both prior to the opening of a new transportation hub in 2013 and afterwards. In addition, the narrator ponders what it must feel like for a group of elderly African-American women, who decades ago fought for the right to sit at the front of the bus, to listen to Black Millennials Shaniquananda and Man-boy seated further back loudly discussing on cell phones intimate details of their sex lives."
Interestingly, this story was inspired in part by Luther E. Vann's great painting, "Christ Listening to Stereo," featured in the book ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love. For that painting, Vann sought to capture the essence of a young couple on a bus in New York City. Armed with headphones, they shut out surrounding distractions and appeared immersed in a world of private tranquility, thus the title of the painting. It makes for a strong study in contrasts when set beside "Riding the Bus with Man-Boy and Shaniquananda."
C2019 Harlem Renaissance Centennial
The funny thing about my response to Hans Rosling’s brilliantly innovative book, Factfulness, is I purchased it while completing revisions of my own book: Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. However, I then promptly set it aside until Dreams was in the hands of my publisher and well on its way to the printer.
Given Microsoft founder Bill Gates’s exceptional endorsement Factfulness (co-authored by Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund), there was little reason to doubt its examination of “Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think" was fully worth my committed attention. The cautiousness I felt stemmed mostly from concern the Factfulness in question might be overloaded with an excess of data and abstract theories while ignoring the intent behind my own work.
The journalist in me always welcomes insightful research anchored by documented trends. The poet in me welcomes even more strategies and proposed solutions informed by compassion plus analytical insight. Therefore, acknowledging the hearts and souls that give often-referenced numbers their significance means a lot to me.
Developing a New Perspective
Doubt and apprehensiveness lingered throughout my reading of the first chapter on “The Gap Instinct.” I accepted easily enough Rosling’s proposal that for purposes of public discourse we should do away with the term “developing countries” and instead adopt language suitable for “sorting countries" into 4 income levels. Level 1 would be home to the most impoverished and Level 4 comfortably occupied by the wealthiest. Levels 2 and 3 could be considered the international middle classes.
Upon reading the following, the only thing I could do was smile: “Since you are reading this book, I’m pretty sure you live on Level 4” (p. 37). In fact, at this specific point in my life, I'm nowhere near it. But just by reading the book, it would seem, I at least possess Level 4 instincts, or qualities, and have adopted practices which may yet elevate my economic status.
Rosling’s notion, nevertheless, appealed to me. Factfulness essentially provides us with a framework and set of lens through which to view and assess the evolving realities of nations and individuals. Moreover, how could anyone not admire the depth to which the good doctor's reasoning was by informed by his many years of service to humanity? Given my passion for real-life historical literary heroes who, somehow, managed to beat the odds against them in order to produce compelling classic works, I had to admit he just might belong on the same level as those very heroes. He had, after all, devoted his final breaths to completing it.
Instinct & Realization
Going from one chapter to the next, Rosling points out how our worldviews may be distorted by 10 factors, or tendencies, categorized as follows: the Gap instinct, Negativity, Straight Line, Fear, Size, Generalization, Destiny, Single, Blame, and Urgency. What astonished me was how often he presented stories of himself giving in to these instincts. In one such account, by way of demonstrating the Fear Instinct, he mistakes a Swedish pilot for a potential Russian fighter pilot and almost needlessly destroys an expensive air force G-suit to treat him.
In another, illustrating the Urgency Instinct, he endorses a suggestion to prevent the spread of a contagious disease in Nacala, Mozambique, by setting up a military roadblock to prevent buses from entering the area. The result is one of unexpected deadly consequences. The unreserved humility with which this world-class educator and medical researcher shares his hard-won lessons is admirable. Although humanity's capacity for compassion IS not been included as a resource for making "things" better, and the word compassion does not appear in the index of Factfulness, the various elements of which is is comprises--like empathy, mindfulness, forgiveness--are evident enough.
Necessity & Recognition
The need to confront and learn from mistakes, combined with the compassion often required to accomplish precisely that, is a major theme which runs throughout the text and art of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. Some of the errors examined I considered my own. Some I did not. All required adapting to the demands of reevaluation and change.
The story "Trees Down Everywhere," for example, presents a meditation on the consequences of denying the realities of climate change. It further considers the necessity to exercise compassion not just for people currently suffering the consequences of it and for "future generations," but for the Earth itself.
In addition: “The Bridge and the Monument: A Tale of Two Legacies” contrasts the racially-inclusive social vision of the late Dr. Abigail H. Jordan with the racially-oppressive politics of former Georgia (USA) governor Eugene Talmadge. (Included in the appendices are statements are statements on community efforts to change the name of the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge spanning the Savannah River.)
The title story looks at how the horrors of human trafficking exemplified by America's historic Civil War continue to haunt world populations in 2019. It further suggests how exercising compassion and forgiveness toward an unexpected population segment impacted by the war could play a significant role in finally healing from it. Anyone questioning the relevance of such an observation need only recognize calls for reparations for the descendants of Blacks who toiled in slavery in America for centuries continue to increase as the 2020 election for the next U.S. president grows closer.
Other stories in Dreams, "Like A Brazilian Thanksgiving in Savannah" and "Savannah by the Twenty-first Century Numbers" look at ways a sense of compassion informs our approaches to such issues as immigration, caregiving, the historic impact of demographic shifts, dynamics of inter-generational interactions, and embracing diversity.
NEXT: Hans Rosling’s Factfulness and the Search for Compassion Behind the Numbers Part 2
Because original versions of artwork included in the international first edition of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah remained available for sale throughout process of publishing the book, there was some doubt about whether they should be listed in the Table of Contents. They are properly identified at the beginning of corresponding chapters but to further augment readers' experience of the connection between the book and its collectible illustrations, links to the original versions are included below in the enhanced Table of Contents.
When clicking the link to art on Dr. Abigail Jordan it will become apparent that the book illustration is a black and white detail of a much larger original. Moreover, the sole non-original exception to the listed artworks is a cartoon employed at the beginning of the story titled 'Riding the Bus with Man-Boy and Shaniquananda: And Then Not.' The cartoon is borrowed from a now defunct 1949 publication known as Riders Reader.
Enhanced Table of Contents for
The phrase “Immortal City” as used in this chapter is borrowed from the title of the first volume of the four-book Civil War Savannah Series (by historian Barry Sheehy, photographer Cindy Wallace, and historian Vaughnette Goode-Walker) which in 2011 was published in commemoration of the American Civil War sesquicentennial.
Possibly the most important function served by dreams is that during periods of social, political, or personal stagnation, they can provide the catalyst for continued progressive movement forward. It was what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream did for America at a time when the developing practices of democracy were stalled by racism, gender inequality, class prejudice, and other forms of social injustice. It is what the innovative visions of diverse creative thinkers around the world may be doing for humanity right now.
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About the Author:
A passionate reader, committed writer, artist, photographer, dedicated practitioner of mindfulness, hurricane survivor, maker of poems, believer in the value of compassion, historian, award-winner, journalist, adherent of beauty, and student of wisdom.
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