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
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.