The southern landscape has begun its transformation. It’s changing in more ways than one. The first falling leaves are riding the wind to earth. The morning air is chilled by the frigid nights. The sun always seems brighter and more intense in early Autumn. Although I’m not a coffee drinker, this time of year makes the steam swirling up from those mugs appear most seductive. There’s a certain smell in the air. Smells made more relevant by the memories associated with them; warmer clothes brought in from storage, ripe sweet persimmons, my Mother baking in our family’s tiny kitchen, smoke from a few early season fireplaces roasting still green wood. In these memories, I am always a child. Perhaps that is when we see with the most clarity, unencumbered by things to come. Not suggesting that childhood is care free. Mine was far from that. Nevertheless, every year, I vow to be more still, more present like I was as a child, more appreciative of what I have right now in this moment. Each year, I run just as fast, warping speed to get things done. Like the seasons, everything shifts with change. It’s all about perspective, about how we choose to see things. We do, always have a choice you know.
When the green suited foliage change into their vibrant Autumn attire we marvel at the fiery glow and inspiration it brings. Truth of the matter, the leaves are dying, we know. The trees going dormant to rest, to be still and prepare for another season of life giving and production. Through the cold crusted bed of winter to a soggy bottomed spring they lay in restful preparation to brim anew. I see. I am seeing. I will have seen all these things come to pass for many years at no loss to nature. In fact when she returns as pale green in the new season, her adornment will be all the more lively. Try leaving a vine growing on a fence over the winter months and see for yourself. They come back with a vehement fervor to live, to thrive and claim their space on this planet. The dormancy, the quiet still time, the death, as you will, adds to the vibrancy of the life that is to follow.
We… I could do well to take in this lesson so simple in its depth. How each season has its place in the space of life, all in support of that life. I’m reminding myself with these words that periods of less or inactivity are ok. In fact they are beyond okay and into necessary for the balance of life with all the things folding in on itself. I am listening. Listening to the rhythm of Mother Universe calling. Calling her children home to themselves to dance the dance of life on this grassy path in harmony with who we were before we were told who to be.
“When you look at it head on, from just the right distance, the world seems solid. The order of things presents itself as impenetrable. Yet a change in the angle of vision reveals fissures, fusions, flukes – a world of pieces shifting ceaselessly. One vision of the world promises stability and order, the other freedom and creativity. Which of these is more attractive depends on where one finds oneself: pressed upon by the weight of the world, or abraded by the shifting fragments.“
Some years ago, I’d relocated to the edge of the Tennessee valley, just over the Alabama/Tennessee state line. I was there to live the country life that I’d heard about from my parents and pined over in the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Before long my artistic acumen inspired one of the local schools to call me in for a Carreer Day presentation. I was told that the presentation time was 20 to 30 minutes. That was a piece of cake and a scoop of ice cream for me. When I walked into the classroom, children were plastered from wall to wall with waiting eyes. I began and ended my presentation in full sermonic splendor with a clap of hands and preparation to leave after questions and answers. As the room emptied, it simultaneously filled like a human water vacuum. I kept going with even more fervor since I had warmed up. This happened once more before the room was finally left with a spattering of students that teachers were pushing toward the door. That 30 minutes had turned into well over three hours. A tall dark haired man with a short beard to match, walked in with outstretched hand.
“I had to meet the man who kept my students engaged enough to skip lunch.” He said with a toothy smile.
He vigorously grasped my hand with both of his. He was the principal and had been informed that students were skipping lunch to return to my presentation. That explains the repeats and the consistent filling of the classroom. That presentation landed me with a contract with Lincoln County Schools under a grant from the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth to teach life skills while focusing on the the prevention of underage drinking. Yes, a tall order indeed. As an art equipped dreamer, I stepped up to the task and designed an arts based experience that I called P2 (Positive Images, Positive Impact). My assignment was to cover all six county schools in Lincoln County Tennessee, teaching art to students in grades 1-8 for 6 week increments. I was given office space and storage, and the journey began. I was warned by a well meaning woman at the office to be careful in Petersburg and definitely stay out of Flintville after dark. With that, I meticulously planned out my stint in Flintville for April/May, when the days were longest. In case you haven’t figured it out, It was because I’m Black. The county was mostly white and some were whiter than others with a strong predisposition toward all cream, no coffee. I’m bold but not batty, so I adjusted accordingly.
The last session came far too fast. April came in with a muggy spring way-too-early warmth. Over the course of the classes, the woman in the office had repeated her voice of alert to avoid Flintville after sunset. I do admit that her words, also echoed by others had me a bit concerned. I felt like I was about to step back into the 60s and do a segment on desegregation. Man, I just wanted to share art with these children and head on home to my Black family, unscathed.
As I walked up to the school that morning, with armloads of art supplies, alongside cars pulling up to drop off children, the icy stares coming from intentionally rolled down windows, chilled may spine. It was pretty obvious that my presence was unwanted. I scanned the children going in and the cars they left. Not one person of color in the bunch. Oh shit. Here I was, young, gifted, and very Black, replete with locks and a less than southern accent, in an area designated by proxy as white only. I feel you *Ruby Bridges! A cropped-maned brunette greeted me at the door, and led me down a maze or corridors to a well lit room filled with desks and a table up front. She gave me the general run down of daily operations then proceeded to warn me that I might have problems. Yes, challenges based on the fact of my Blackness. She did her best to say it kindly but it still bruised a bit. I took the words and tucked them in my back of my mind. I knew what I could do with the magic of art. This would be another proving ground.
The weeks went by quickly and without incident. There were two older guys who looked more like college students who were present several periods on a given day. One afternoon, as I was preparing to leave, the principal came in and inquired as to whether the two boys were giving me problems. “Not at all. Why do you ask? I inquired. He went on to say they they were trouble makers who rarely came to school. However, they had been skipping other classes to attend mine. Since I’d been there, they had perfect attendance and no write-ups. From my point of view they were a couple of well behaved guys who seemed to love art and sharing stories. He praised my efforts and left. A few days later the counselor sat in the back of my classroom during a session. Afterward she came up and apologized to me for her assumptions on the problems she thought I might have. She also informed me that the principal and office staff had shared the sentiment. I had proved them all wrong. Correction: The students and I had proved them all wrong and proved ourselves to be recipients of that miraculous power of art to elevate and unite. That classroom became a sanctuary for us and a fortress against all that would have come between us. Our daily laughter and experiences was a chorus that went beyond those walls and struck familiar chords. The time at the Flintville Elementary School was one of my best that year.
This experience, among others, consistently repositions art is the proverbial foot of the cross, the safe place of refuge and liberation from those things that set us apart. It is a soul language that runs deeper than all of those fences planted on the landscape of humanity’s refusal to see the we in all of us. The language of creative blossoming speaks from the heart with no detours or flags. It is that attainable space where anything is possible.
*Ruby Nell Bridges Hall is an American Hero. She was the first African American child to desegregate William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana. At six years old, Ruby’s bravery helped pave the way for Civil Rights action in the American South.
Within a minute I was aboard the green line weaving through Chicago going to find the Church where Rev. Jesse Jackson was to speak. By the time I arrived at the church, there was no doubt that it was the right place. About a dozen or so television news vans lined the area across from the Hispanic church. I went in. The cool calm space was inviting. I could hear people talking and made my way toward the voices. From the back of the sanctuary, I could see Rev. Jesse Jackson up front. An arch of camera’s surrounded him as he was closing his address. At least I got a chance to hear a little bit. Even though I was late, I walked in and took a seat on a pew. Less than five minutes later, we were standing again as he walked down the center aisle shaking hands as he came. When he got to me, he reached past my outstretched hand and gave me a fatherly hug with the words.
“Good to see you again, brother.”
He actually remembered. I was a bit more than surprised since I’m sure he sees so many people on any given day. Either way, I fell in behind him and we filed out of the sanctuary. Our interaction apparently pushed people to the conclusion that we were together. They began to ask me questions to which I’m honored to say, I had answers. Some inquired as to whether they could photograph Rev. Jackson. “Sure, I said.” Not really knowing what else to say. Outside we spoke again briefly and took a photo together before he was whisked into a waiting black SUV. Not before I heard one of his assistants say something about an event as the headquarters.
On my way back, I stopped in China Town and purchased a money plant. I hopped on the train with my little tree and headed back uptown. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this part of the journey had more to offer. At the next stop I changed trains and headed south toward the University of Chicago. Reaching the area, I walked a block or two and came to what I thought was the building that housed The Rainbow Coalition. A handsome elderly couple dressed in black and white grand church attire walked by me on the side walk across the street. The man spoke kindly. I returned the gesture with a nod. They looked really good. I knocked on the door a few times to no answer. I thought this was it. Finally I decided that maybe that part of the journey was over. I walked to the end of the sidewalk, headed toward the bus stop. The elder woman, still on the sidewalk across the street for some reason, called out to me.
“There’s somebody at the door, baby.” in that sweet grandmother voice.
I looked back and sure enough, inside the glass reflected the surrounding buildings, I could see the moving form of a man peering out. I quickly retuned to the door. He opened it as I approached. I told him that I’d heard about a meeting or event. He told me that they were taking donations for the situation at the border. I told him I wanted to make a donation. “Follow me.” He said. We entered a long hallway filled with black and white photos of all sizes. Each turn of the spaces had even more images of the movement suspended in time. I felt like I was walking through the pages of a Civil Rights coffee table book. Finally we walked into a large office. Behind a desk to my left sat Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson. He looked up and gave me a slight smile. For the next few hours he invested time and energy in my questions and musings. We talked about life before, during, and after the movement. He eventually signed and handed me three photos. One with he and a smiling Dr. Martin Luther King, one with he and the stately Nelson Mandela, and one with him being embraced by the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali. He shared things that it only seemed a relative might share. He even had me answering his cell phone. In all the photos had I had seen plastered over the span of time, none of them had ever hinted that the Reverend Jesse Jackson had a comedic streak. At one point he nodded to my money plant and joked about me being bold enough to travel publicly in Chicago with a live weed plant. It was all a surreal experience. I knew I had to leave soon. In fact I should have left hours ago. I was supposed to be at the Southside Community Art Center at an event for artist, Eda Wade. I bid my farewells and walked with the gentleman back through the maze. My head and heart were filled with memories and a heaping helping of viable information. As we went though a large open room, I caught a glimpse of a life-size standup photo that flared up a memory. In the picture was Dr. Martin Luther King flanked by Jesse Jackson and Dr. Ralph Abernathy. I couldn’t speak, the wheels in my head spinning to a hum. What did this all mean? I needed to go. “Hey, check out these over here, li’l brother.” The man ushering me out, said. Quickly checking the time on my phone, I followed him to the corner, really needing to go. “Just check these out before you go.” He added. I stood for a few minutes and got lost in images I’d never seen before.
“Jahni.” a familiar voice called out from across the room, pulling me from my thought space. “Let’s take this photo.” I turned to see Rev. Jackson coming down a flight of stairs surrounded by his entourage. He was smiling and motioning for me to come over. “Right here,” he said as we positioned in front of the life sized iconic image of himself, Dr. King, and Dr. Abernathy. I didn’t have adequate words for the moment then…and I don’t have any now. The way all of this connected to my dream was orchestrated to call coincidental. Rev. Jackson is the last one of the men in the photo left walking on this plane. He invested time in me. Ralph Abernathy shared something with me in the dream. And there I stood. Here I stand. All I can say is that I know it was all on purpose. People invest in us for a reason. There are no happenstances. All the words and things planted in us by others are little guiding lights to our place of practice. Those reasons are not always clear in the beginning but, like connect the dots, if we trust the process, they will eventually take on the form of what we need to come into our purpose.
“Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker.” Garth Nix
On Sunday morning, July 14th, 2019 part of my art crew gathered at Lou Mitchell’s in Chicago, for a friend’s birthday breakfast. I was over thirty minutes late due to waiting on the bus which I still cancelled out for the Blue line. Either way, it was working out. A pulled-up chair to our outside table suited me just fine. As we sat there talking art and philosophy, there was a slight pause in the hum of conversation. Someone at the table blurted out “Is that Jesse Jackson?” I looked over immediately and yes, lowering himself into a seated position, was Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson, Sr. himself, in living color. Dressed in Black, with the intensity somewhat softened in his eyes, he seemed oblivious to the whispers around him. I sat there, a bit stunned. Not because he was there at the table next to us, in such a casual manner. Men like Jesse never walk lightly into a space. They bring in their wake, the the span of history that one has come to associate with them. First in Black and white film clips seen during grade schools years, and peppered headlines across the span of years beyond a lifetime. They walk tall because the soles of their feet have picked up miles of clay from the journey, pressed solid into bricks formed into a citadel of hope, promise, and historical precedent.
“Jahni, are you ok?” Someone asked. I must have gone off into an alternative space because the voice pulled me back from somewhere beyond there. My response was,
“Yeah, just let me process this a minute.”
What they didn’t know was that at the end of June, I’d had a dream in which I was in a large edifice with pews so I could only assume it was a church. A man had just walked away from me. Though I only remember him in shadow form, I believe we must have had a conversation. Immediately an elder woman walked up to me, her face pleasant, wide-eyed, honest and make-up free, like the Seventh-Day Adventists deaconesses that I recall from my childhood. She leaned toward me and said in a soft voice, “That was Dr. Abernathy.” At that moment I’d awakened. The sun had not yet risen. Downtown Chicago was still snoring. I grabbed my phone, pecked in Dr. Abernathy in notes, rolled over, and went back to dreamland. When morning came, the remembrance of the dream came heavy with it. I phoned a friend down south with family ties to Oakwood (Seventh-Day Adventists…the woman with the soft voice) and shared the dream with her. A few minutes later she sent me a link to an article, an extended obituary, of a Dr. Earl Walter Moore who had just passed a year before in June of 2018. His funeral had been held at my childhood church home. In his obituary, it stated that he had marched and protested with Civil rights giants, Martin L. King, Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery, Jesse Jackson, and yes, the only Dr. Abernathy, I know of… Ralph. Dr. Moore was also the mentor of my former spiritual father, Robert Leslie Willis (rest in power).
That’s why this moment at the breakfast table was pregnant with intrigue. The familiar image that stood out in my head from historical photos was Dr. Abernathy on one side, Jesses Jackson on the other, and Dr. King between the two. Dr. Abernathy from the dream, now Jesse Jackson in the flesh, at the next table. ” Let’s get a photo with him”, one of my comrades gushed. Being fairly known and knowing how precious moments of peace are important, I wasn’t too keen on interrupting Reverend Jackson’s breakfast. Before I could protest, one of my crew went over and the next thing I knew, Jesse Jackson was at our table for a photo. He shared information about Rainbow Push Coalition’s supply drive for the border situation. None of us caught an address or time.
About an hour or so later, back in my room, I decided to take a nap. Sleep couldn’t get in past my thoughts. I remembered Jesse Jackson saying something about a Rainbow push event. I searched for the information and found where he was speaking at a church on the west side at noon. It was already just past noon. I wasn’t sure I could get there in time. The knawing in my spirit persisted. I logged in the address, and headed for the subway. As soon as I reached the terminal, perfect timing. The train pulled up and I hopped on, headed in the right direction.
Walking through the cavernous rooms of The Art institute of Chicago, I came to a demure painting that struck a different chord. Next to the work and the artist label was a write-up about the actor, Bill Murray. He had been depressed about his career to the point of considering suicide. On his way to the lake to possibly end it all, he was moved to go down Michigan Ave. Soon he was standing in front of the Art Institute. He entered the building and had a transformative moment when he encountered the painting The Song of The Lark by Jules Breton. In the painting a young modest dressed woman stands strong in a field with a sickle in her right hand. Beyond and off to the right rear of her is a sunrise. In his own words, Bill Murray says,
“And I saw it that day and I thought, ‘Well there’s a girl who doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects, but the sun’s coming up anyway and she’s got another chance at it. So I think that gave me some sort of feeling that I too am a person and I get another chance every day the sun comes up.”
Every day the sun comes up. The physical fact of sun rising was not enough to evoke what art did. Why, because the arts is soul speak. It is the illustrious morning song of the lark calling out to the us in us buried beneath too many unfulfilled yesterdays. It is the arc of electricity, the life jolt that activates the deepest part of us where there are no dividing lines of age, race, sex, or class. A place where no one is othered because it is the communion space of a collective subconscious where we are all one. Art is so much more than a things to do. It’s woven into the fiber of what we are at our core for our healing and well being. With that as our guiding light, we can begin the act of making real sense of our world as we would have it.
On that day at the Art Institute of Chicago , I purchased a post card of the painting. It now hangs on the mirror of the vanity in my bedroom. There are those days, some longer than others, that I need a reminder. A reminder that in my hand I hold the tool of my possibilities, buoyed by my will and faith to weather the night until the sun rises again. I can always hear the song when I can get still and listen.
“Do you remember..?” From Phil Collins to Michael Jackson or the question you just asked someone last week, do you remember is an attempt to bring back to someones memory that which took place in the past. As a lover of words, I caress them passionately and sometimes find them somewhat misleading. In the case of remembering, as the word is defined, we are simply recalling, bringing back to an awareness an event, person, place or thing. If you will allow, I’d like usher you into a literary laboratory of word dissection. There’s something much deeper inside the notion of remembering. Please walk with me a little distance, if you please. At any point you feel labored, you may take your leave as you will. Mine is a journey of invitation, not coercion.
This story is shared in the Bible. “As a final and specially prepared Passover supper was ending, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and shared it with his Disciples, saying, “This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) This occasion, with the disciples being admonished to eat, is known as the last supper. For context I am placing next to this one, another passage from the Bible. Stay with me now. Ezekiel 37:1-14. As a child, I was totally fascinated by this strange event that told of dry bones coming back together, replete with sinew, skin, and eventually breath to stand again as a mighty army. AWESOME! The part that somehow made the story hit with even more resonance was that the bones were defined as dry; any semblance of succulence…gone. At the bequest of the spirit of God by way of Ezekiel these bones came back together. Bone to bone, socket to socket, joint to joint, connected with muscle, draped with skin and filled with innards and fluids, all to the right body and form. I would just love to see that animated! James Cameron, are you tuning in? A great and powerful story, illustrative or not, that points to a great and powerful story. One is which you an I are central players, if we choose to be…or in some cases it will just up and choose us.
Remember! Remember! Can we dig into it? Re refers to about, concerning or to do again such as ‘retake a test’ or ‘remake a bed.’ Member refers to a part or organ of the body; a portion or unit of something. In that frame of mind, say the word remember. Remember – to member again. To put back together, to reassemble that which is separated from itself. The dry bones in the valley (the lowest point) were re-membered. Put back together by request of the voice emanating from the mind, powered by the spirit (of God/Divine Life Force) through Ezekiel. Now that we have reconfigured, in our minds, the word remembrance as a re-membering, we can see that it is much more than the limitations of a mental recall. Something is supposed to follow. That which follows in manifestation is far more potent that the mental image. In fact, that is the sole purpose of the mental recall. In the story when Jesus said “This do in remembrance of me” he knew he was going to be no more. No more with them. Therefore at the taking on of food (symbolic of anything that feeds us), of sustenance that sustains and gives LIFE to the body, we are being pushed beyond the ritualistic ceremony that we call communion a few services out of the year. Perhaps it was a real remembering – establishing the power of Divinity back together within us. If we allow it to stop in the mind, the idea remains just that, an idea, a lofty concept, a doctrine, dry at best. But if we act on it, remember it in the true sense of the word and breathe life into, we will bear witness to the unfolding of a power beyond the walls of the mind. Beyond our imagination.
“Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost, we are cut off from our parts” (Ezekiel 37:11) Does that not sound like the state of affairs in our world? What are our parts if it’s not our members. What are our members? Everything that made us who we are, from our ancestors and the soil beneath our feet to the Divine Life Force that courses through our bodies and everything in between. Anything that Life Force is capable of doing we can do too if we would only remember. In order for a remembrance there has to be harmony of the members convening in true communion – the correct placement of each part to the next. Imagine if we took that beyond the symbolic ritual and brought is to life in our waking world. Do you want to remember..?
“None of us really changes over time. We become more of what we fully are.” +Anne Rice
I do realize that words shape thought based on how they are used, from inflection to tone, even beyond meaning. But a question I want to put on the table for you to unpack at your convenience. Do we learn to see in the dark or see through the darkness?
In early spring of 2018, I was in Seattle, WA for an art conference. Visiting Seattle museum of Art, I had the opportunity to see some of my favorite artists on view; Fahamou Pekoe, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Jacob Lawrence, and stand next to the the the Jean-Michel Basquiat “Untitled” piece that had sold at Sotheby’s auction for a sizzling $110.5 million the year before. It was a surreal experience on so many levels. The Moore Hotel was being remodeled. The Moore Coffee house was on the same strip. Then there was Moore Food Seattle with my initials JM in the middle. I went to the Jimi Hendrix museum and walked all along the watchtower (also made some art there). In the shadow of the Seattle Space Needle, I was mesmerized by the MoPop (Museum of Pop Culture). Letters and photos of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain are still imprinted on my psyche. I’d planned to visit Bruce Lee’s gravesite but never quite made it. As intriguing and entrancing as Seattle was, I was ready to go. Too much cold and gray dipped in rain. The best purchase I made there was a pair of Carhartt insulated jeans. Pulled them on like a second skin. When the day came to leave, I was practically running through the airport. I needed some sunshine, desperately.
When my plane touched down in Huntsville, it was evident that the dreary weather had taken the ride with me, from Seattle as well. The gray sky hung over my head like a murder of crows blocking out the sun. I was so desperate for some sun that I accepted an offer to go to Disney World in Orlando. Florida meant SUN. My soul needed some of that good ole skin toastin’ sun. It was drizzly and gray all the way down to the Orlando line. When the sun finally broke through those clouds, my soul just opened up and shouted.
Five days later after a whirlwind of a time at Disney World, we were heading up the coast. I know it’s a major juxtaposition to sum up Disney World in a sentence but this is just the finger pointing to the moon, not the moon itself. We gettin’ there. I had decided in my sun-drenced state, to head up the coast, see St Augustine, where I had an outdoor installation, and head on up and through Savannah. Yup, Savannah was calling again. The St. Augustine stop was brief. When we left, we made calls to to Savannah for a hotel room. There was none. Spring break, Easter Holiday, and some festival, took up all the rooms in Savannah. We finally found a hotel in nearby Pooler, thirteen northwest of Savannah. We hung around Pooler that evening and got up the next day to head to downtown Savannah.
As we neared the city, I could tell by the traffic that it was a really busy time. On the edge of town I stopped at this most enthralling graveyard and walked though. After gathering a small boatload of the Spanish moss, I love so much, we proceeded to the downtown area. ( I was told that the Spanish moss wouldn’t grow in in my yard. I slung it up in the maple tree in front of my house. It lived for about two years, producing flowers and everything, and probably would have live longer if I had watered it over an intense summer drought.) The cars were rolling in bumper close. It was packed! I came up a side street and turned into the square and there about 13 yards across from me was an empty parking spot. Synchronicity at work. I whipped in and a gentleman approached my car and informed me that it was hotel parking but I could park there for $10. No problem here. I’m just happy to find a spot at all. He continued to talk in unofficial tour guide fashion. “And right behind you is the first African Baptist Church…”
I couldn’t believe it. I could but it was hard to process the fact that I had pulled into the first and only spot open and here I was in the parking lot of the same hotel from years back. Talk about a divinity circle. “The tour of the church starts in 20 minutes. You don’t want to miss that.” The gentleman went on. No, I definitely won’t, I thought to myself. We decided to go for a walk and arrive back in time for the next tour. The city was just as beautiful as before. Towering live oaks with wavy arms stretched out in praise for my return. Well, maybe not really but it sounds sublime. The Spanish moss draped and hung like choir robes swaying to the rhythm of a sacred hymn. A gentlemen in a starched white shirt and tie, seated on a bench, stopped up with the strumming of his guitar. He looked up at me and said. “You look like an artist.” “I’ve been called worse”, I replied with a smile. He chuckled and invested the next 15 minutes in us. He called himself Sir Deepy. He was a true son of Savannah, loving her to the core. After exchanging information, we left inspired by his insight and song and continued our sojourn through downtown Savannah.
I knew I was on miracle territory and that this unfolding was another episode in my awakening. The gentleman at the church greeted us like family, reduced the entrance fee to practically free and ushered us in. The sanctuary was cool and inviting. Photos of dignified looking African American men adorned the walls behind the pulpit. No sooner had the moderator began when I received a text…from the same partner that I was in Savannah with two years prior. That’s strange, I thought and sent her a photo of the sanctuary with an accompanying text, “I finally got in that church…in Savannah.” She texted back “Wow, that’s strange. I was literally just looking at these photos.” Immediately she texted back with photos from the previous trip to Savannah. the first one was the exterior of the hotel. Synchronicity. But where is it leading? For the next hour plus we were imbued with priceless history. I ran my fingers across the kosmograms in the basement floor, the dark wood artifacts. Felt a presence I could not explain. And left knowing again that my path is on purpose.
It’s a challenge to wrap up these experiences in words. There are too many parts that fit for it not to make a full picture at some point. I keep walking this path, knowing there is so much more we can experience if we can see past what we are conditioned to see. If we can suspend our limited preconceived notions of what has to be in order for us to accept what is right before out eyes. If we can see with the eyes of a child and feel with the heart of a mother, we can speak with the voice of god. This is a manifesting declaration shaped by an inner sound that’s been playing since before we were born. It accompanied us throughout our childhood serving as the background melody for our unlimited imagination. At some point, it may have been drowned out by the sounds of others imposing their wills over our own. I’m here to tell you, your music is still inside of you. The blueprint to your possibilities are still intact. I invite you to step to the rhythm of the you that you were before they told you who you were supposed to be. That’s where I’m going.
“When you really want something, the whole universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” +Paolo Coelho
On yesterday, Tuesday, August 9th, I went home for lunch. I had invested a large portion of the morning photographing and roughly cataloguing a red clay painting exhibit called Red Clay Invocation. I had two fat packages in the mail when I got home -one I was expecting, had arrived early and one from my editor and long time friend. I had no idea what that one was. The expected one was a small Dior notebook. It appears that Dior and I share a refined taste for floral print and fashion design. I opened the other package. It held a couple of magazine pages, an American Art Collector magazine and a handwritten notecard with a beautiful print on it by Zoe van Djik entitled Dismantling White Nationalism and Protecting Democracy. My Editor/Friend said she was going to send me the two pages but decided to send the entire magazine. The cover art was exquisite. In the note she went on to talk about the fall garden, mowing fields, and celebrating life in gratitude on the farm.
I returned to the studio later in the afternoon in a spotty torrential summer rainstorm. Sitting in the car waiting for a break, I pulled out the magazine and went through it. Loved it. When the rain let up, I went inside. For some reason, maybe it was the rain, I couldn’t get back on task. After bustling around a bit, I sat on the church pew, took out my phone and looked up a case from the late seventies where a young Black man, Tommy Lee Hines was wrongly accused of robbery and murder in Decatur, AL. A lady name Peggy Ann Towns has written a book on it called “Scapegoat: The Tommie Lee Hines Story. I was fascinated, not just because of the story but because it stirred memories of my childhood where his name was a household word for that period in time. Even more profound was that it the case and all of it trimmings once again revealed where America was in her progress…or lack thereof. Sleep eventually took me under.
A loud sound of something falling, quickly ushered me back into the waking world. I sat up and took in my surroundings. It had been one of those stupid naps. You know the kind, when you wake up just…stupid. I surveyed the room for movement. There was none. What had fallen? My studio is like the back of my hand. I know where stuff is and nothing should be falling anywhere. When my senses returned, I walked in the direct from which the sound had come. Near my desk is a row of tables. On the floor over from the tables against my psycho cycle wheel was a fat white envelope. It wasn’t there earlier. I picked it up. There was no logical reason an envelope of that weight should have jumped off of a flat table. It was an envelope from my editor, almost identical to the one I’d opened from the mail just over an hour before. Same size, same address to and from, same handwriting, just different colored inks. The previous one from the floor had 1.80 on the postage paid and the one from earlier in the day had 3.60 on the postage paid. I’ll let you unpack that as I look over my shoulder. A lump welled up in my throat. A revelation was unfolding
I pulled out the contents and sat down at my desk. There was a handwritten note penned in green ink on beautiful pink floral stationary paper and the final edited pages of a novel. This book is a long time dream I’ve dragged around for years like a too-old child. The co-editing process was done over a year ago and the note was dated August 10, 2021. A year ago today. The last part of the note talked about harvest time and the farm life. Often during the year and years previously, something would happen in our world to point me in the direction of finishing the book. It practically begged for me to complete it. Procrastination is a helluva drug, I’m telling you. But this, this I took as a direct divine reminder to finish dressing it and release it into the world. Too many variables over too many boundaries for my sometimes hyper-logical mind to rule out as coincidence.
I walked over, scooped up my computer, found the document, and began to write. Yes, it had been waiting for me. Felt like cooling water on Alabama summer simmered skin. Yes, all of this could have been done already and possibly have been about the work of doing its work. Nevertheless, I am where I am and I’ll take it from here. The past is where it is. I immediately affect the now. The future is still being written. I am reminded to keep the pen in my own hand. We are each in charge of the script for our lives. We decide if we’ll write ourselves in for a leading role, a supporting role, a bit part, or an extra. We can begin that today or a year from now. Mostly it’s a matter of when not if. It’s truly on you as the deciding entity beyond any the factors that can easily arrest your development. Your path is your path, your vision yours. No one can walk it or see it like or for you. Get out of your way and trust the process. You’ll receive all the help you need. I’m no longer just a believer, I know.
“Deep in every heart slumbers a dream.” +Christian Dior.
I dropped my partner off in Atlanta and continued on toward Huntsville, AL. I called my sister in Pennsylvania, so full of stories, our conversation covered the miles. There was still something else I needed to do. Some questions that needed answering. The Congolese kosmogram wouldn’t leave my head, nor would the memory of the voices, the church, the men in the park, or anything else I’d experienced in Savannah that weekend. In the back of my mind I recalled Jean-Michel Basquiat mentioning a book called Flash of The Spirit by Michael Farris Thompson and the kosmogram. I needed to get my hands on that book.
Arriving back in the city that night, I called several bookstores in search of the book. It appears it was out of print. How to get that book? I knew I had to get my hands on a copy of that book. Not later but now. A few miles from my house, a thought entered my head. A former professor and fellow artist, I knew might have access or know of one. He was an older gentlemen, well read and connected to ancestral knowledge. I grabbed up my phone and called him. A sleepy bass timbered voice answered. My enthusiasm made me oblivious of the time. You know it’s late right? he said.
“Yessir.” I replied. Now aware but still caught up in the throes of hope.
I apologized and went on about the book. Asking him for the specific title. There was silence for a minute. I practically held my breath.
“I’m walking over to my shelf, right now,” he said. More silence followed. I was almost afraid to speak for fear that I might knock something off of that baited moment. Finally he spoke again.
I’m pulling said book off my shelf.”
I practically exploded. “Is there any possibility that I can borrow it? My breathing stopped again. More silence. That was the longest hanging silent moment of my life, it seemed. My heart was beating a tune of angst and anticipation.
“You know it’s late, right.” he said again. I could hear a woman’s voice in the background. I recognized it as his wife. Probably wondering who was calling at that hour of the night. He answered her as I hung on.
“Yessir, I know and I sincerely apologize that I had to interrupt your evening with this but…”
“I tell you what.” he cut in . I clamped my mouth shut. “I’ll let you borrow the book if you promise to break bread with me and the misses at some point.”
“Yes, Yes, of course. Just let me know when. I’d bee honored. Just say when.”
“You know how to get to my house, don’t you.” He inquired.
“I’ll need the address again. I know the general area.” I said excited to have potentially closed the deal. He gave the the address and said.
“How far away are you?
“I’m on the parkway. I could be there in less than five minutes.”
“Come on.” he said.
“I’m on my way. Thank you so much.” I couldn’t believe what was unfolding. The one person I’d called actually had the book in his possession. I was giddy with excitement and almost overwhelmed with questions and wonder. I drove fast but careful, not wanting anything to fall between myself and what was in that book that had become the ark of the covenant of the moment. He was waiting at open door before I had even gone up the steps. His look stooped me in my tracks. I stood at the bottom of the steps like a little boy. His look held me there for a minute. Neither one of us spoke. I could feel the fatherness emanating from him.
“You know it’s late, right?”
“Yessir, it is”
“You know you must be special, for me to even answer the phone, not to mention invite you over at this hour. My wife thinks I’ve lost my mind. She knows you’re special too. He finally broke into a smile.
“Come on in.”
I took all of the steps in two leaps. We went upstairs to his library/studio and sticking out on the shelf like a leaning tooth was the book. He pulled it down and leafed slowly through it, peering over the rim of his glasses. He walked over and say down, patting the back of the chair for me to come over. I sat, eyes still on him as he looked through the book. His eyes shifted to me at the moment he placed the book in my hand. I peeled it open. It was an autographed copy, filled with notations and highlighted marks. At that moment the floodgates broke and I spilled the entire story of the Savannah sojourn. He listened quietly. When I was done, he started gingerly. “You’re a special young man, that’s why I answered the phone, invited you over, and am lending you this book. I don’t do that for everybody and my wife will tell you, I don’t lend out my books. Even she is surprised on that one.” He took a deep breath and paused. ” I grew up in Savannah.” All the time I knew him, I thought he was from New York or Jersey. He had the strongest New Yorker vibe ever. Plus he had been in the Black Power movement, the Nation of Islam and all that. my mind darted to a scene from Luke Cage when he told the older guy he was from Chicago. The older guy wasn’t buying it. He finally said, “Savannah”.
“My grandmother lived there and she would take me into the bush and she shared with me some things. There’s something special about Savannah. You connected to it. It connected to you. That’s why this is happening.” I could pick up on the esoteric undertones of his words. They were electrifying. The communion continued and we eventually found ourselves back at the front door. Just before I rounded the corner out of sight he said, standing there like a smaller version of an Egyptian god-king, bald head and all, his tone serious and somewhat somber.
“I’m not your Daddy, but I’m going to say this. Take that book and go straight home.”
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I wasn’t planning on anything else. On my way, I did wonder why and what he meant. Nevertheless, a short while later I was curled up in bed, not believing that the book that had come to mind a few hours ago was now in my hands. I began to read, eating up the words like a man starved. About an hour or so later, I put the book to my chest breathing hard. Something was described in the book, almost identical to what I had sketched out in my journal while sitting on that bench in Savannah across from the First African Baptist Church. I knew then that I had to have that sculpture piece brought to fruition. It would be even more famous than Savannah’s ‘bird girl’. The next day I did a Facebook post with the photos of the footprints on the beach and hinted toward the voices. I did share the “Them comin'” part.
A few days later, the news buzzed about a hurricane brewing in the Atlantic. Eventually hurricane Matthew hit as the most powerful storm of the 2016 Atlantic Hurricane Season. It struck Haiti on October 4, 2016, as a Category 4 hurricane leaving in its wake 2.8 billion in damage and 546 deaths. Matthew then approached the Georgia and South Carolina coast early in the morning of October 8th. Rain bands evaporated over the southern half of the circulation as the storm turned northeastward just off the coast of Charleston, SC. Even in its weakened state, Matthew still produced wind gusts as high as 96 mph on Tybee Island, GA, which had been evacuated. Matthew was the first October hurricane to make landfall north of Florida since Hurricane Hazel did it in 1954.
I heard voices out there that day on Tybee Island. Not sure how or where to make all the connections. That sketch I made in a little golden sketch journal. Next to it, I wrote these words…
“The most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.”
– Robin D.G. Kelley
That sketch and all that surrounded it undergirded my faith to commission a sculpture piece based on it. The figure that is to be installed at a building I will own, is now completed in bronze and waiting…for the building. A building/campus that will embody the philosophy of art as an acronym for A Resurrecting Truth, a basis for a more just society, a way of life beyond mere survival. I moved with intent, trusting the process, in the power of that mysterious Savannah sojourn. I’ve been back in Savannah since then, and yes more was shared. More that I will share later in this unfolding too intertwined to make up. One thing I do know, based on all the things involved that I have shared and not yet shared. It may be present tense or future still but just the same…them comin’…
As I rounded the corner of the Haitian monument in the heart of Savannah, I realized that it was a mirror image of the other side, except behind the monument. It was the identical circular cobblestone area replete with benches…and the unhoused men. There in that space, were the same men that had been on the other side with me about 30 minutes before. I paused and stared around the circle. I really hadn’t meant to walk up on them that way. Hadn’t expected them to be there. For what seemed like an entire minute, no one moved. I looked from man to man. Their eyes were locked on me. Finally, I nodded a greeting and most returned the gesture without taking their eyes from me. I exited the area, preferring to remain mysterious. As I walked the emptying downtown streets, I replayed the entire thing in my head. Why did the men leave? Because I requested it…in my head. It appeared they had shifted their space to allow me mine. I accepted that.
I turned and walked into one of the only places still open. For the next forty minutes or so, I stood in a small gallery talking to a young lady about art and inspiration. It wasn’t my intent for the encounter to turn into a coaching session. I had only inquired about a “Bird Girl” art greeting card. Finally it was well past the gallery’s closing time and I had turned to leave. “You know”, she said. “All day, I haven’t had one full conversation with anyone. And just about closing time, you walk in and all over again, I’m excited about art. I’m going back to school to finish what I started.” I paused a minute and responded, paper bag in hand. “That’s what I came in here for, and maybe next time I’ll see your work in here.” With those words and an exchange of smiles, I left feeling pretty good about the evening. The young lady had come to Savannah years ago on a scholarship and began classes at SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design). Art was her entire life dream. She had gotten distracted, discouraged, and eventually dropped out. A series of odd jobs had finally brought her to the gallery where I met her. Now she was going back to school, her dream rekindled.
The next day my partner and I were eating breakfast when a gentleman we knew from Huntsville approached us. What are the odds? He was there on some engineering official business type stuff. We talked about Savannah and his job connection. He asked where all we had been. “You haven’t been to Tybee Island?!” We had not. Our goal was to eat and hit the road right after. We both had places to be later in the day. “You’ve got to go to Tybee Island. You’re already here, It’s not that far. You won’t regret it if you do. You will if you don’t.” We looked at each other searching for reasons to or not to. This guy was on the hard sell. “We’ll see”, I said. My usual answer when I don’t want to give a definitive answer. After breakfast we both decided that we might as well go. It couldn’t take up that much time. The trip had been good and my mind was invested with good stuff to unpack later.
The drive was nice. The stuff of my dreams. The road grew really narrow at times and the marsh leading right up to it was intimidating. If a person drove right off the edge they would be stuck in the ocean. The ocean. Not a good thought for me. I looked ahead and kept driving. When we reached the Island, it was still early. It was also strangely peaceful. Like in a Stephen King movie kind of way. The area of the beach we walked was fairly empty except for our voices…and the other ones I started hearing. As we walked along, I asked her, “Do you hear that?” “Hear what?” she responded.
“The voices”, I said, a little confused.
“I don’t hear any voices. You hearing things.”
I was. Voices.
From somewhere the distance, I could hear human voices like the sound was being carried. No individual words, just calling voices of people screaming out. My logical mind kicked in and I tried to attribute it to the wind. The only comparison I have is from the classic movie The Ten Commandments, when Moses was in the dessert and all the voices of the people were calling out to him.
“You still hearin’ it.” She asked.
I’m thinking she saw the look on my face and realized I wasn’t playing as I usually do. At that moment, I locked into logic and pointed out to the ships that looked like lego blocks in the distance.
“Maybe they’re coming from out there. The wind is probably carrying the voices from the ships.” I said, wrestling to make sense of it.
“I don’t think so.” she knocked over my justification. Why couldn’t she hear them? We went back and forth a few minutes, then let it go. The voices became background noise to our conversation. Seven geese announced their journey overhead. I took photos and recordings on the beach with my phone. Now I’m wondering if my phone picked up the voices. When I finish writing this, I’ll go check. Looking at the ships, the water, the shoreline, I had a jarring crash thought moment of realization. This shoreline was a place of arrival for enslaved people. Some of my ancestors could have walked this very shore, stood on this very spot, soaked this sand with theirs tears and sweat.
I’ve since learned that (according to SavannahNow, March 29, 2022) in May of 1768, at least 250 enslaved Africans brought for sale in Savannah aboard the ship Constantine took their first steps on dry land on Tybee Island at an area called Lazaretto. The healthy were processed and cleared. Those who had died while chained together below deck in the dank darkness on the month-long journey were buried in unmarked graves. This was hallowed ground. My mind knew of none of this at the time. My spirit did. I had a moment. The voices. The voices. I walked to the waters edge and cut my birthmark crown into the sand. I felt something at work here. Looking over at her, I was about to share, then never minded. I ventured slightly into the water and walked back from the shoreline leaving a trail of foot prints. I took the photo. Many thousand come. Many thousand gone, I thought. I had painted those words in a mural around 2004. As I stared into the footprints, they multiplied in my head. My eyes went back out to the ships, sitting atop the ocean’s edge. The words, ‘Them comin” came to me. “Them comin’, them comin,” just kept repeating itself in my head. Them comin’…