Reflections on Ode to the Good Black Boots that Served My Soul So Well (poem) by Aberjhani

“But why exactly were these shoes so important to Vincent? Why had he carried them with him for so long, beaten and worn as they were?” – Ken Wilber, from the essay A Pair of Worn Shoes (“A Pair of Shoes” painting by Vincent Van Gogh from Southern Review.org)

The story and intent behind my poem, Ode to the Good Black Boots that Served My Soul So Well, is not extremely different from the story and likely intent behind Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, A Pair of Shoes (see image above). In philosopher Ken Wilber’s book, The Eye of the Spirit – An Integral Vision of a World Gone Slightly Mad, the author retells a story first shared by the painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) about a pair of “enormous worn out misshapen shoes” painted by his friend Vincent.

The now-iconic Van Gogh (1853–1890) created the image after serving as a caregiver for 40 days and nights to a miner who had been so badly burned that doctors gave him up for dead. Vincent Van Gogh could not accept that prognosis. He had not gone to the mines to paint but had traveled there in well-made boots as a young pastor intent on ministering to whoever might have need of him. 

After laboring with love to nurse the man back to some degree of health, the scars that remained on the miner’s brow and face looked to Van Gogh like scars from a crown made of thorns.

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Reflections on Ode to the Good Black Boots that Served My Soul So Well (poem) by Aberjhani on AuthorsDen.

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Dimensions of Time and Creative Vision

Cover story on ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Loved  

Cover story on ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Loved

After receiving an invitation from Amazon to add an author’s note to the site’s product pages for my books, I accepted and found myself having quite a bit of fun looking back on the experiences of writing different books. The following reflections are on ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love (which btw is on sale right now):

Dimensions of Time and Creative Vision

If we accept the description of painting as a form of language, then it should be said that Luther E. Vann began composing ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love with the oldest images in the book, which date back to 1970 and 1972. My pen started the process of catching up with his brush strokes in 1991, when I attended an exhibit of his work at the Beach Institute in Savannah, Georgia, and almost immediately started scribbling descriptions of the images that seemed to glow, shout, and sing at me from the canvases.

A little later, a chance encounter with the artist himself led to discussions about the possibility of creating a book together, one in which my writings-poetry and essays-would strive to articulate the essence of the paintings. Visually, Luther’s work already spoke very powerfully for itself and I had doubts about being able to match in words what he so masterfully had already accomplished with painting and sculpture. How would I even begin such a formidable task?

The idea of such a book itself went all the way back to Bohemian Paris, if not further, when artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall joined in creative partnerships with poets like Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars.  Who was I to fail to live up to such a noble tradition without at least giving it all the best shots I could muster?

I started by first borrowing small prints of the artist’s work and studying them. It would be a mistake, I knew, to simply describe the images. So I meditated instead on the creative and spiritual energies that inspired the artist himself and led to the works’ composition. Then I took the pressure off myself by writing only when struck by an impulse to do so as opposed to sitting in front of a blank page and trying to force a flow of words that were not there. With that point settled, the poems then seemed to arrive of their own accord, dropping out of the night sky like message-bearing meteor showers or greeting me with entire stanzas as I woke up in the morning.

Creative work has a way of unfolding in one dimension of time while everyday life progresses in another. My fateful beginning on ELEMENTAL evolved into a journey that took all of some seventeen years. While ELEMENTAL continued to grow and mature at its own pace, my first three books were completed and published. Periodicals on a national level, like ESSENCE Magazine, as well as those on more regional levels, like the Savannah Literary Journal, began to publish poems from the work in progress. Likewise, Vann continued to produce award-winning paintings which eventually made their way into the book as well.

The most phenomenal part of the journey came when members of the community banded together to champion the publication of the book and in May 2008, almost seventeen years to the day from the first time I saw Vann’s exhibit, actually made it happen.  What follows is an excerpt from a letter (first published in Connect Savannah, January 2, 2008) that I wrote to thank the people of Savannah for their support of the celebrated work:

…This is, after all, the same city that gave the world such stellar talents as poet Conrad Aiken, rapper and actor Big Boi, photographer Jack Leigh, author James Alan McPherson, lyricist Johnny Mercer, author Flannery O’Connor, actress Diana Scarwid, and many other gifted men and women.

At a time when war and various forms of violent discontent are so much a part of our daily consciousness, I believe it crucial to engage creative alternatives. This is not to say that ELEMENTAL is nothing more than an aesthetic indulgence to appease the sensibilities of two artists. It is in a fact a work that speaks very much to the heart and soul of our times: to the need for global political agendas that anchor humanity in peace rather than ensure its demise with war; and to the power of individuals to persist in exercising love in a world where people no longer seem certain of love’s meaning or value.

We are as grateful as we are honored for the support being provided. We hope that in time the book comes to represent more than just the achievement of one creative team, but a collective contribution towards the triumph of art and a spirit of community devoted to [celebrations of] life over the chaos and intolerance that so often ends in life’s tragic destruction.

Aberjhani

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Ben Okri’s “Famished Road” Leads to Thrilling Reading Pleasure (Part 1)

Ben Okri’s “Famished Road” Leads to Thrilling Reading Pleasure (Part 1).

Dear James Baldwin (in lieu of) Dear Barack Obama

U.S. Postal Service tribute stamp featuring author James Baldwin

U.S. Postal Service tribute stamp featuring author James Baldwin

Dear Mr. Baldwin-

If I were not writing this letter to you as one of my favorite authors, I would probably be writing it to Barack Obama because there is a great deal about him which tends to remind me of a great deal about you. The sentence structures he employs in his memoir, Dreams from My Father , often curve in and out of passages that virtually sing with eloquence and yet, at times, shout with an unruly detachment  in defense of truths many people generally prefer not to hear. The first time I heard such courageous music pour from the pages of a book or witnessed syllables explode like miniature bombs of revelation was when I read your Notes of a Native Son, then later The Fire Next Time.

Your birthdays are very close too-his on August 4, only two days after yours. But he was born in 1961, just after you turned thirty-seven. In that same history-forging year when you published the book of essays titled Nobody Knows My Name, addressed members of CORE in Washington, D.C., met with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, traveled all the way to Israel and Istanbul, Turkey, and then, by the end of the year, completed what some still consider one of most controversial novels ever published in the North America: Another Country.

Mr. Obama reminds me of you also because he could have easily chosen for himself and his family a fairly quiet life in which he might have enjoyed the comforts of substantial earnings and the respect of his peers minus the constant public jabs he now endures while working, seemingly unceasingly, on behalf on his countrymen. By the same token, you in 1954 could have elected to enjoy a nonstop bohemian party in Paris, France-hanging out with mega-diva Josephine Baker, fellow author Chester Himes, and the disturbingly brilliant artist Beauford Delaney– instead of returning home to be spat upon while dodging rocks and bullets as you marched beside Martin Luther King Jr. and many thousands more to confirm, with spilled blood and weeping souls, our country’s commitment to the ideals of Democracy.  Through essays, plays, and novels, you wrestled as naked as naked gets with the operational dynamics of race relations, sexual identity, and social imbalances as you witnessed them. Such a quintessential artist-activist did you become that it was impossible to ignore you.

President Obama appears to me have elevated and implemented the artist-activist concept to the role of empowered servant-leader, as creative in his vision of the world’s possibilities as you were in yours, and as dedicated to the battle to help humanity liberate itself from the collective fears, prejudices, and ignorance that has yet to contribute anything of functional value to the world community. He is also impossible to ignore; so much so, in fact, that an entire new would-be political party/movement has formed to generate automatic negative criticisms of his every move or spoken word, whether instinctively brushing aside a fly or placing his well-traveled feet atop his desk. And you know what else? He said his favorite novelist is your old friend, Toni Morrison , and that he is particularly fond of The Song of Solomon, which just happens to be one of my all-time favorites as well.

Speaking of Ms. Morrison, I recall your description of her (in the late 1970s I believe it was) as “This rather elegant matron with quite serious intentions.” You had already been resting in peace for six years when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, but I had no doubt that on that day you, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and a gang of others were all slurping celestial champagne and dancing to the glorious boom of Mahalia Jackson’s gospel-anointed voice.

Sorry, I kind of got off track. I wanted to say the reason I’m writing this letter to you today instead of to Barack Obama is because, for some reason, last night I was thinking about my own literary works and suddenly recalled your statement that you wanted mostly, “to be an honest man and a good writer.” And then today I received an email from the folks at Red Room suggesting members consider writing a letter to a favorite author, living or deceased. Just like that, you popped into my head and I heard myself talking with you, somewhat similar to the time I was writing my novel, Christmas When Music Almost Killed the World, and got stuck somewhere about halfway through it. I saw you in a dream when you said, “Shit baby, you slamming those keys like I used to! Don’t stop now, it’s getting better than you know.” The dream-I always remember it because you were dressed like a guru with long strings of colorful Mardi gras-like beads around your neck– dissolved my writer’s block and I pushed on to the novel’s completion.

Author James Baldwin getting the job done. (UPI file photo)

During the four years I was stationed with the Air Force in England, you were still alive, and I was tempted every pay day to spend the rent money and car payment on a ticket to fly or float across the English Channel and see if I could track you down in the village of St. Paul de Vence. I was always proud of myself when I resisted the temptation, even while I shook like a junkie hungry for a fix in the worst way, and placed the endangered funds in my wife’s hands.  I told myself I would get there at some point, and clearly had no way of knowing that less than a year after getting out of the Air Force, I would be in Florida, collecting unemployment checks and working on a book, when the news would hit that you had died from stomach cancer. I didn’t get pissed about never having spent the rent money to visit your home in France. I simply got drunk and read random passages from your books.

Once, I came across a response from Maya Angelou to critics who compared your works in fiction unfavorably to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Angelou said there was no question that Invisible Man is a masterpiece but she held you in great esteem because you “did the work and produced the books.” At the time, Invisible Man was Ellison’s only published novel and would remain so for the rest of his life.  By the time of your death, you would have published some eight novels, at least as many volumes of nonfiction, four plays, and a collection of poetry.

Despite stones aimed at your head, guns pointed at your heart, or nooses tied with hopes of hanging you burning from one of them, it was just like Angelou said: you got the work done in a fantastically and indisputably admirable manner. And the fact that Mr. Obama is currently your homeland’s president demonstrates that none of your words or works, on or off the page, were produced in vain. This letter comes to say Thank You for the example provided, and to acknowledge that although I cannot confirm any definitive results at this point, I continue trying very hard to get the work done because you proved it is not only possible, but worth the aggravating labor required, worth the numbing anguish so often endured, and worth the miraculous joy that sometimes-just sometimes-follows in the end.

by Aberjhani
©June 2010

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Barack Obama, African-American Legacies, and American Public Policies

Nancy Pelosi holds up newly-signed Health Care Bill. (AP photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Nancy Pelosi holds up newly-signed Health Care Bill. (AP photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta)

While campaigning for the presidency of the United States of America, Barack Obama was often asked why he felt he was qualified for the job and he would answer that, according to supporters and colleagues, he had a gift for building effective coalitions capable of accomplishing difficult tasks. The value of such a talent was proven March 21, 2010, when the House of Representative passed the then Health Care Bill with a vote of 219-212, and again on March 23, when Obama signed the bill into law.

Even before the bill was passed, opponents of it had already started to prepare strategies to challenge its constitutionality, claiming it unlawfully imposes obligations upon both states and individuals which the government has no such right to impose. After its passage, Republicans vowed to seek its repeal and attorney generals in fourteen states filed suit against the federal government to overturn the historic health care overhaul. Even so, on March 25, Congress completed a set of addendums to Health Care Bill and paved the way for 32 million Americans who previously lacked adequate healthcare coverage to obtain it.

Change and Racism

Noting criticism of specific provisions or the lack of specific provisions from both Republicans and Democrats, Obama acknowledged the following after the first vote:

“This legislation will not fix everything that ails our healthcare system, but it moves us decisively in the right direction. This is what change looks like…

“Tonight we answered the call of history as so many before us. We did not fear our future. We shaped it.”

More than a few commentators -such as Stephen L. Goldstein of the Sun Sentinel and Chicago radio host Ray Hanania-have addressed the appearance that much of the reported resistance to healthcare reform-via “Tea Parties,” violent demonstrations on Capitol Hill grounds, and threats against members of Congress– likely have more to do with expressions of racism directed at Barack Obama than genuine disapproval of the health care reform. Julianne Malveaux, the president of Bennett College for Women, made this observation:

“It occurs to me that the very Tea Party protestors who so strongly protested the passage of health reform might be prime beneficiaries of it… They aren’t so much against health reform as they are against folks they chose to describe in words Congressman Clyburn says he had not heard since the ‘60s. Their language reveals the origins and intent of the Tea Party movement. It also suggests that these folks need a health care intervention.”


Dr. Julianne Malveaux (photo courtesy of PBS)

President Malveaux could be speaking literally or satirically when she suggests “a health care intervention” for those suffering from displaced racism. Either way, her statements help illustrate a historical legacy of public policies rooted in, or influenced by, African-American social and political advocacy, and which have gone on to serve the larger democracy embodied by American people in general.

A Gift of Legacies Still Intact

One of the first such public policies was implementation of the country’s public school system. Black congressmen who held office during Civil War Reconstruction (1865-1877) like Georgia’s Jefferson Franklin Long, were among the strongest champions for a public school system that has since served generations of children and adults from different racial backgrounds. That system –as problem-ridden as it may be in 2010–is one of the primary reasons the United States has been able to maintain a strong middle class to bridge the divide between the wealthy and the impoverished. Between those Blacks who had long been denied education because of their former status as slaves, various missionary societies, and the Freedman’s Bureau, more than 3,000 schools were established in the American South during Reconstruction.

Another example is one that was established during the 1930s Scottsboro Trial, when nine Black youth were falsely accused of raping two young White women and spent more than a decade in prison before gaining release. As a result of their ordeal, the Supreme Court ruled that any accused individual standing trial not only had the right to counsel, but the right have counsel present during court proceedings. While this is taken for granted as common sense in 2010, it was a different story in 1931. The ruling, obviously, does not end with African Americans but extends to all Americans.

Although the much-referenced Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s were established after long decades of public protests, courtroom appeals, and volumes of published works by African Americans, the legislative acts themselves were passed as much as for the United States as a whole than simply one segment of its population. President John F. Kennedy put it this way when outlining the 1964 Civil Rights Bill: “I therefore ask every Member of Congress to set aside sectional and political ties, and to look at this issue from the viewpoint of the Nation.” A little later, in preparing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote: “Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”

Please click to read part 2:    Barack Obama Extends Historical Legacy “Astride the Promise of Change”

by Aberjhani

Continue the discussion on redroom.com

The Furious Passage of Nina Simone

Nina Simone in concert. (AP file photo)

Nina Simone in concert. (AP file photo)

Many modern audiences first became familiar with the name Nina Simone in 2005 after Canadian singer Michael Buble’ recorded her 1965 hit song, “Feeling Good,” and which finalists on the popular American Idol television show sang before world audiences in 2007.

However, long before Buble’ or American Idol finalists sang “Feeling Good,” Nina Simone made a lasting name for herself on several continents as one of the great singers, composers, and performers of the twentieth century. The fact that at least a dozen books document her life and work illustrate just how great she was and how enduring her music remains.  Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, by Nadine Cohodas, is one of the latest such titles just published in February 2010.

The singer herself published in 1991 (the first London edition) an autobiography titled I Put a Spell on You. Describing just how Simone went about working her musical magic, author and former Ebony Magazine music editor Phyl Garland wrote in her in her own book, The Sound of Soul, The Music and Its Meaning, that:

“She casts her spell with the fluid but frequently complex patterns of notes she etches on her piano and with the distinctive sound of her richly reedy voice.”

Another way to gauge the impact of Simone’s life and legacy is to look at it like this: whereas the great Aretha Franklin earned, and has worn with dignity, the title “Queen of Soul” for at least four decades, Nina Simone earned and wore for decades the title “High Priestess of Soul.”

North Carolina Beginnings

She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. Both her parents, John Divine Waymon and Mary Kate Waymon, were entertainers when they met but later settled into more stable professions to raise their eight children. Her mother became a devoted Methodist minister, which later prompted Eunice Waymon to adopt the name Nina Simone when she began performing in night clubs and bars.

Simone’s talents as a pianist were recognized early and her family supported her goal to become a world-class concert pianist. She was good enough to study for a time at the renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York but her application to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected. This rejection, she felt, was based more on her race than her abilities and it has often been cited as a major source of the political fury that characterized some of her music. The planned career in classical music took off instead in the direction of more popular genres.  Recording her first album, Little Girl Blue, in 1957, she enjoyed a hit with the George Gershwin song, “I Loves You Porgy.”

While she was quickly labeled and marketed as a jazz performer, Simone had actually developed into a mistress of diverse musical forms that included not only jazz, but gospel, blues, Broadway show tunes, Black folk songs, and other styles in classic American modes. She could have easily carved out a successful career for herself in popular music and simply enjoyed the wealth and fame that comes with such success. But in addition to her musical sensibilities, she also possessed a social/political consciousness that was magnified by friendships with individuals like the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author James Baldwin, and author Langston Hughes, all of whom at various times lent their artistry to the struggle for racial equality.

It was Hughes who said, “Nina Simone is as different from other singers as beer is from champagne.” While he contributed liner notes to at least one of her albums, she in turn wrote with him the hit song “Backlash Blues.”

Commitment and Consequences

The singer once stated that as far as she was concerned, the job of a creative artist was to address the pressing issues of her times. Towards that end, she wrote and recorded a number of songs that addressed individual moral responsibility as well as the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s. Following two events in particular–the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in Mississippi and that of four Black girls in a Birmingham church– she recorded the now classic “Mississippi Goddamn.”

The composition is in part satire, part social criticism, and part political outrage, which, given the real-world apartheid conditions and context of the times, makes a great deal of sense. She introduced the song by emphasizing its title and pointing out that she meant every word of it, then sang with fierce courage and intelligence: “Alabama’s gotten me so upset/ Tennessee made me lose my rest/ And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam…”

Aside from expressing outrage, the singer also implored:

“Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air
I can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer”

While many championed Simone for her courageous outspokenness at a time when passive endurance was considered the key to civil rights success for African Americans, others vilified her for it. Many radio stations banned the song and the impact upon her career would prove a lasting negative one. Other powerful protest songs, notably music legends Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” were also released during this period but apparently considered less confrontational or threatening than “Mississippi Goddamn.”


Performing artist Nina Simone and daugher Lisa Celeste.
(photo courtesy of the Nina Simone Foundation)

Her composition, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” written for her friend Lorraine Hansberry, became one of the major anthems of the civil rights struggle and the title of Hansberry’s autobiography. Her “Four Women” is a marvel of minimalist art in which she deftly dramatizes the impact of racism upon the lives of four different women. In all, Nina Simone composed more than 500 songs and recorded more than fifty albums throughout her prolific career.

To Read More Please Click Here : The Nina Simone Legacy in 2010

by Aberjhani

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5 Notable women of the past and present (special series part 2): The journey

5 Notable women of the past and present (special series part 2): The journey

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