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.
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
“When considering how the practices of slavery, philanthropy, and rebellion could all converge behind the exquisitely-rendered doors of the Telfair Museum, it becomes less difficult to imagine the different implications of it housing works by artists as diverse as France’s Claude Monet (Nov 14, 1840 – Dec 5 1926), America’s Luther E. Vann (Dec 2, 1937-April 6, 2016), and Lebanon’s Kahlil Gibran (Jan 6, 1883 – April 10, 1931)... There is a kind of unrecognized kinship between their painted meditations on the layered realities of human existence and the ever-unfolding wonders of time’s relationship with space, and light’s eternal dance with shadows and hues.” (from Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah)
The above reference to “practices of slavery” (hopefully obviously) should not be taken as allusion to those associated with today’s Telfair Museums of Art. It refers rather to past practices which made possible the foundation upon which the museum was founded. It is nevertheless painfully relevant to our modern times because of the current pandemic of human trafficking. That makes the work and function of the modern Telfair Museums, which often bridges cultural divides and celebrates human diversity, all the more essential.
100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
April 2019 will mark the first anniversary of Patton’s death and the third of Vann’s. Both were former members of the onlineCreative Thinkers International Initiative.
Trees Down Everywhere
“Following announcements of life-threatening hurricanes likely to directly strike Savannah, residents and tourists alike have often commented on how fortunate the ‘immortal city’ has been to defy these predictions. However, though nearly all agree it could have been much worse than it turned out to be, with Hurricane Matthew the luck ran out in 2016. Throughout the night when Matthew hits, the narrator struggles to prevent a friend’s house from flooding and the next day walks through city parks photographing uprooted trees. In addition, he shares what it was like to experience the psychic pressure of dealing with the hurricane while simultaneously…”
Ms. Patton’s choice and how it impacts all involved (including her recently-deceased son Moses Trappio III) makes for a compelling narrative to which many hurricane survivors around the world can relate. Her story is also one of the primary examples of how and why Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah is proving appealing as regional and world literature.
NEXT: The Month of April and Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah (part 2)
100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
"On our temperate side we have a series of songs in us, guarding us, wings of communication between our calm breath and our highest fevers..."
(R. Char from Put on Guard)
The hope to establish a balance between temperance and its opposite, heedlessness or chaos, so that a "series of songs" may flow unimpeded, is an important theme in "A Brazilian Thanksgiving in Georgia," the second story in Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah (ISBN 978-9388125956). In fact, the story might also have borrowed from Char's quote the phrase "Between Our Calm Breath and Our Highest Fevers" for an alternate title. This is the synopsis for it:
"One Thanksgiving holiday when people all over the country are gathering with family members to enjoy a good meal and each other’s company, the narrator makes peace with the fact that his estrangement from certain relatives will make the occasion a challenging one: for the widowed family matriarch he looks after, and, for himself. Having already resolved to make the best of a sad situation, he is surprised by a visit from two friends, a brother and sister from Brazil. In addition to several boxes loaded with traditional Brazilian food, they bring with them much-needed inspiration."
Determining the best strategies and practices when it comes to caring for aging populations is something impacting the lives of people around the world. While Traditional Elders may be the primary recipients of this care, Millennials, members of Generation X, and Baby Boomers are largely the ones charged with providing it. And members of Generation Z eventually will inherit the same responsibilities.
How well we accomplish the task before us with love and compassion or how miserably we fail has become one of the true 21st-century tests of what we like to call-- our humanity.
100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
Read More Blog-Notes on Dreams from the Immortal City Savannah:
“It is true that a person always remains a person and utterly separate and apart from every other person. But it is equally true that each person is destined to reach with others an understanding and a unity which transcend individuality…” (T. Merton from A Life in Letters)
These wise and useful words from Merton illustrate one of the primary themes of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah (Cyberwit.net Publishing) which is the necessity of individuals and social groups to reconcile themselves with one another to achieve sustainable peace and mutually-beneficial progress. Merton referred to that necessity as though it were/is an inevitability described as "an understanding and a unity."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) called it "an inescapable network of mutuality" and the "inter-related structure of reality.” I have tended, for some years now, to think of it as a convergence of historical confluences which either align the priorities of individuals and societies with historical trends or place them in conflict with the same.
Navigating the Dynamics
One of the great compromises people sometimes have to make in life is accepting that plans do not always work out as preferred. In Cities of Lights and Shadows and Dreams, the author becomes preoccupied by a strange false memory of being in Paris, France, just after World War II, a time when a number of African Americans had made their way to The City of Lights. Tears in the fabric of this memory allow him to see himself in another later time in his hometown of Savannah where he talks with singer India Arie and others about the visit to Paris but which in fact has never taken place.
The story introduces the parallel themes of displacement, expatriation, attempted escape from painful conflict, and unavoidable return as the narrator imagines what it was like for author Richard Wright (Native Son, Black Boy) upon his arrival in Paris and struggles to make peace with the reality of his actual life in a very different time and place.
Or we can look at it this way: journeys and destinations are not one and the same. The first has to be engaged with a great deal of committed flexibility and enthusiastic perseverance before the other can be enjoyed with any amount of secured satisfaction whatsoever.
Co-Author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Creator of Silk-Featherbrush ArtStyle
Gift of Redeemed Integrity
I had spent many years staying as far away as I could avoiding a city that I associated more with fear, grief, and pain than I did with love or joy. It is no secret that we have first to claim the injuries that antagonize us before we can release the suffering caused by them. Claiming my own was further compounded by newer challenges that continued to pile up in real-time. These too had to be endured, rejected, screamed about and cried over, confronted, and then finally claimed before healing growth could take place.
For a century and a half, my city––and my country––had been like me. They had tried––like me––to avoid pain at all conceivable costs. Not only did this prove, in the end, impossible, but neither was it (as one finally realized) at all desirable.
Terror can sometimes surprise us by eventually revealing itself as a gateway to beauty, just as ineluctable destiny can––sometimes––unlock doors to freedom. Very possibly, more than the transformative grace it can bring to your own life is the gift of redeemed integrity it can present to the lives––and deaths––of many others.
I like the phrase 'gift of redeemed integrity' from the previous sentence because for those struggling with adverse circumstances it reaffirms the all-important value of "keeping your eyes on the prize." That kind of focus can be difficult to maintain during chaotic times in tumultuous environments. Daring to believe it was even possible to do so played a major role in constructing for readers over the period of a decade the writings and visual art presented in the pages of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah.
Co-Author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Creator of Silk-Featherbrush ArtStyle
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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