Thanks to the troublesome “magic” of instant communication which informs us about what happened prior to its spatial and temporal manifestations, we might welcome the rest and recuperation that a centennial can offer. Yet, remembering and reassessing what happened one hundred years ago can only make going from the new frying pan to an old skillet a paradoxical exercise in hopeful despair.
Consider this year’s Margaret Walker Centennial, the shuttling between the strengthening message of “For My People” and the agony-laden news of “Jackson State, May 15, 1970.” Implacable, absurdly hungry Death triumphs over the godless trinity of class, race, and gender in the twenty-first century. Rereading Walker is to suffer knowing our young are “Not rich with gold but priceless truths of life and death, of/ giving self and sharing love for this is all there is.” Lives of all colors matter, with or without hash tags, dog tags, car tags or tags period. Margaret Walker was one of many poet/bridges between the oral traditions of the enslaved Africans and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and the multi-ethnic break beat voices of 2015. All, including refugees straight out of Syria, Palestine and Iraq, are compelled to voice and revoice Walker’s closing stanza from “Jackson State…”:
Now all may see their faces in a marble monument, and
walk this plaza where they died in vain; but we will not
forget, for nothing is the same; never ever be the same
since that blue-reddened night.
The specific “where” in the stanza is Lynch Street (named for John R. Lynch not for an obscene verb). The name bleeds, however, in the fates of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas (1916) and Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi (1955); it casts a lurid gloom on daily violence and death in the streets of the United States of America, in the global landscape. Death must be proud of how effective it is in making our remembering of the past an uncanny projection of our futures as it clobbers John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X: “Death be not proud.”
After December 31, 2015, centennials may provide hours of hope and ancestral celebration for some African Americans and twelve months of anguish for others. We can use what is left of free will to select angles of vision and revision. 2016 is time for remembering Alice Childress, John Oliver Killens, Frank Yerby, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The population of ancestors to remember will be increased in 2017 by Gwendolyn Brooks, Ossie Davis, Thelonius Monk, Jacob Lawrence, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, Lena Horne, Bruce McMarion Wright, and Ella Fitzgerald. I beg the unnamed and forgotten to pardon my lack of omniscience.
The spiritual centennial locus for 2017 shall be near Ferguson and its hypertension-inviting conditions — East St. Louis, July 1917, replete with democratic American hatred, riots, and death. There people will be saturated with music, visual art, theatre, and poetry yoked the prose of Killens and Yerby from 2016. People will recall how jazz swept the United States in 1917; that Freud published “Introduction to Psychoanalysis” and only 38 Negroes were lynched; that migration was in motion as the Original Dixieland Jass Band made the first jazz recordings for somebody’s Jazz Age, and F. W. Mott proposed a theory of shell shock to account for the odd behaviors of some WWI soldiers.
If we are lucky, we may be renewed and empowered from observing centennials. May!! As with all things influenced by time and the emotional gravity of moon and sun, absolutely nothing is guaranteed.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. September 4, 2015