black history month, post 3 – african american literature

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano

This will be my last post in honor of Black History Month, and since I will be looking at literature, it will also be my most personal. One of the important things behind Black History Month (and one which I feel has been woefully neglected in the public eye this year) is for all of us to take a moment to reflect on some of the contributions that African Americans have made to the United States. Since my greatest love is reading, I have most definitely been impacted by some of the great works by African American authors. I’d like to mention just a few of those works in this post.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison – I read this book in an American Novel class while pursuing my undergraduate degree in Literature. As a white, middle-classed male born in the 1970s, there’s no way on earth that I can truly comprehend what the life of a slave must have been like. Morrison, however, gave me the closest glimpse of that which I think is humanly possible. [Spoiler ahead] When the main character, Sethe, is faced with being caught and returned to slavery, she chooses kills her own daughter by severing her head with a saw in a shed (she also tries to kill her other children, but is caught before she can) – this was how badly she wanted to preserve them from the life of a slave. I had a fairly young child of my own at this time, and I remember how I shook as I read those lines. I put the book down; it was beyond my ability to comprehend what I would have to be faced with to take the life of my child. I spent several days just thinking about that scene – I can’t imagine ever having a more personal understanding of what slavery must have been like for those enslaved. No, that doesn’t give me much, perhaps, but that knowledge is forever burned into my heart and my mind. Morrison’s other works are magnificent as well…this is just one scene from one novel that connected with me in a real and visceral way.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African – This autobiography, though not nearly as well known as it should be, was a powerful work for me to read. Instead of slavery being an evil institution I learned about, or read about in a fictional work, this book put a face and a name and a true story on slavery. Olaudah Equiano’s life was amazing, and he chronicles the entire thing in this work. He was captured in Africa as a child (his sister was taken at the same time) and brought to the New World on a slave boat (his description of this is another of the most jarring things I’ve ever read). He is enslaved, teaches himself to read by studying the Bible, and he eventually succeeds in gaining his freedom. He becomes a businessman, does very well for himself, and writes this magnificent autobiography to share his journey with us all. If you have not read this book, please take the time to pick it up and read it (depending on edition, it’s only about 200 +/- pages long).

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison – This was one of the books on my reading list from high school. I don’t remember it nearly as well as I should, and I’ve decided to go back and re-read it (since I thought of it while writing this post). I do remember it being another very powerful work, looking especially at social issues as well as issues of place and self-understanding, personality and individualism for the main character. The whole notion of invisibility is also central, especially thinking about the way white America was largely relating to black America during the 1930s-50s – basically refusing to see them, to acknowledge them, and to relate. The scene that has always stuck in my mind is when the narrator is given a scholarship: he is first forced to fight with other black students, all blindfolded, and then they are set loose to pick up as many gold coins as they can. The coins are fake, and the rug they are on, as well as the coins, are electrified, so all of the boys are continuously shocked as the scramble to pick up the coins they mistakenly think are precious.

There are so many other great African American authors that could be discussed: Maya Angelou the great poetess, Langston Hughes the jazz poet, Alice Walker, Phillis Wheatley, Richard Wright the author of Black Boy…the list goes on. Their contribution to literature in America is second to none, and I’m proud to remember that in this small post today.

book review of 1Q84

1q84I consider it a great privilege that I get to write a review of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. No, I’ve not been asked to do this by anyone – I mean that it is a privilege that I am alive in this time, and able to read the remarkable fiction written by this master. My review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was very positive, but that was the first of Murakami’s books I’d ever read. Now that I’ve lived through the reading (live is a great word for it…you live his story as all of reality, or at least I do, as I’m reading) of a second novel, I know that no praise could be effusive enough.

Perhaps the words of one of the reviews, quoted in the back pages of the book, says it best – “1Q84 is a gorgeous festival of words arranged for maximum comprehension and delicious satisfaction” (Alan Cheuse, NPR). 1Q84 spans over 1,100 pages, and I felt that there was not so much as a single phrase which was superfluous or out of place. I poured over the words of this book, and they supported me like a perfectly firm mattress fitted with Egyptian cotton sheets. I know I’m reading in translation, but if Murakami’s use of language comes through this wonderfully in translation, I can only image what it must be like in the original Japanese. He manipulates the written word to carry the reader exactly where he needs to be – this is a profound gift that many of the greatest writers don’t even possess.

In addition to the beautiful writing of Murakami, his story telling is just as perfect. This particular book follows two main characters, each chapter alternating between which we get to peek in on. He gives me a new favorite name, Aomame (green peas, related to edomame, of course, and supplanting Dostoyevsky’s Alyosha as my favorite name in literature). He doesn’t try to hide all of the links between the two – we all know that they are headed toward each other, though how they’ll arrive there is a mystery until the end. We see their meeting in childhood, their thoughts about one another over the years, their separate lives since grade school. We meet them in a particular moment, and Murakami makes us care about these characters as we follow them through their daily routines. When we reach the end of the novel and many of the questions have been made clear, I still wish I had a few hundred more pages, to see what happened next in the lives of Tengo and Aomame.

As with Murakami’s other books, he continues to explore personality and individuation, loneliness and fulfillment. This opus also asks us to look at reality (particularly parallel realities), spirituality, fate and circumstance…virtually all of the aspects of daily life are brought out and examined under the microscope of Tengo and Aomame. He helps us pose the questions, and he does it brilliantly.

If you need a good book to pick up, grab anything by Haruki Murakami – the reward is beyond all effort.

1Q84 may be purchased HERE (though, if you have a local indie bookstore, that’s an even better option!)

Matthew Jackson

black history month, post 2 – st. moses the black

mosesFor my second post in honor of Black History Month, I have chosen to post a religious sort of tale today. Any look at the people of Africa will reveal a people deeply religious, in one way or another. The men, women, and children kidnapped from Africa to become slaves in America brought with them significant religious traditions, especially seen (at least by the outward observer) in their songs. As many adopted the Christianity which was so prevalent in America, the songs they sang changed in general content, but not in majesty or beauty. We have all read about the “Negro Spirituals” – songs sung by the slaves, influenced by the music of home (Africa), yet keeping to the general tunes of the hymns themselves. [A wonder site on Negro Spirituals can be found HERE] Our story today is not set in America, but is a tale of religious conversion set on the African Continent, in Ancient Egypt.

I have always loved the story of the life of St. Moses the Black, also known as “the Ethiopian.” He has a cathardic experience while seeking refuge in a monastery (or trying to rob it, as another version of his life goes), and his experience there changes his life from that moment forward. Things really do change…even very bad and difficult things…and St. Moses has always inspired me with that thought.

I hope you enjoy his life as much as I do.

St. Moses the Black (reposted from THIS SITE, with some modifications)

“One of the more exciting of the early monks in the period of desert Christian monasticism was a Black African (Nubian) now honored as St. Moses the Black. The Lausiac History of Palladius is the main historical source for his life. There is also an account found in the “Bibliotheca Sanctorum” by J. W. Sauget, and approximately 49 apophthegmata found in “The Desert Christian” by Sr. Benedicta Ward. The life of Moses is well documented.

“He had been a slave of a government official in Egypt who discharged him for theft and suspected murder. He became the leader of a gang of bandits who roamed the Nile Valley and had the reputation for being associated with terror and violence.

“Moses was a large and imposing figure; he became rather notorious for his escapades. On one occasion, a barking sheep dog prevented Moses from executing a planned robbery, so he swore vengeance on the owner. Carrying out his threat, he approached the hut of his victim from the opposite side of the Nile and, placing his weapons between his teeth, swam the river. The owner of the dog heard the approach, so he hid along the river bank, thus escaping disaster, Moses, not finding the shepherd, took four rams from the flock, towed them back across the river, flayed them, sold the skins for wine, cooked the best parts, and feasted before walking back 50 miles to his camp.

“On one occasion, when he sought to hide from local authorities, he took shelter with some monks in a monastic colony in Skete in the western desert near Alexandria. The dedication of their lives and their peace and contentment seem to have influenced him deeply. Eventually, he gave up his old way of life and became a monk himself. [There is another version of the story of his conversion at this monastery that I personally prefer. This story says that he came to the monastery with some of his gang of bandits, with the intention to rob the monks. Some of the monks moved to put up a fight, but the Abbot wouldn’t let them. Instead, he instructed his monks to help the robbers pack up anything they wanted. Both Moses and his followers were amazed by this man, especially his peace and love in the face of danger, and so decided to stay and become his disciples.]

“The conversion of Moses was not instantaneous, he had a rather difficult time adjusting to regular monastic discipline. His flair for adventure remained with him. Once, while living in a small cell, he was attacked by four robbers. Much to their surprise, Moses fought and overpowered them, tied them together and dragged them to the chapel where the other monks were praying. He dumped the crew in front of the other monks and exclaimed that he did not think it “Christian” to hurt the intruders. He asked what he should do with them. According to tradition, the overwhelmed robbers repented, were converted, and themselves became monks under the influence of Moses.

“He was zealous of everything he undertook, but became discouraged when he concluded he was not becoming a perfect monk advanced in all the degrees of spiritual perfection. Early one morning before dawn, St. Isadore, abbot of the monastery, took Brother Moses to the roof and together they watched the first rays of the dawn come over the horizon. They stayed there until the new day had begun. Then Isidore said, “Only slowly do the rays of the sun drive away the night and usher in a new day and, thus, only slowly does one become a perfect contemplative.”

“The humble Moses also proved to be effective as a prophetic spiritual leader. One day the abbot ordered everyone to fast during a particular week. During that time, some brothers came to visit Moses, and he cooked a meal for them. Seeing the smoke, the neighboring monks told the abbot that Moses had broken the command. But knowing his remarkable way of life, these same monks, when they came to confront Moses, observed, “You did not keep the commandment of men, but it was so that you might keep the commandment of God.” Some see in this account, by the way, one of the earliest allusions to the Paschal fast which developed in the fourth century and later became the Lenten fast.

“In another incident related in the sources, one of the brothers committed a fault. A council met and Moses was invited, but refused to attend. Someone came to him to let him know the others were waiting, at which Moses went to the meeting. He took a leaking jug filled with water and carried it on his shoulder (another version has him carrying a basket of sand with a hole in it). When he arrived, the others came out to meet him asking, “What is this?” Moses replied, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, but today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” Hearing that, they said no more to the erring brother, but forgave him.

“A favorite incident of many is the story of the hospitality of a certain Arsenius toward a visiting monk. Arsenius received the monk in absolute silence. Moses, however, greeted the visitor with joy. When someone asked for an explanation, the answer was in the form of two visions. One has Arsenius in a boat with Angels in silence, another saw Moses in the boat with the Angels eating sweetmeats.

“Moses became the spiritual leader of a colony of hermits in the desert near Skete. At some time, he had been ordained a priest — an uncommon phenomenon at that period for desert monks. When he was 75 years old, about the year 407, word came that a group of renegades planned to attack the colony. The brothers wished to defend themselves, but Moses forbade such action. He told them to retreat rather than take up the sword. He and seven others stayed on to greet the invaders with open arms, but all were martyred by the bandits. A modern interpretation honors St. Moses the Black as an apostle of nonviolence.”

Matthew Jackson

client article published in newspaper

Since this is my author blog, I think that anything I happen to have published should, in some way, be represented here. I intend to do a post about the various types of writing I do, but I’ll mention one to set up this article. I do a good deal of content/copy writing at my job (Project Manager, thinkWEBSTORE), and a lot of that writing is in the form of articles to be published in various papers and magazines. Our company operates differently than many agencies, and one of our pushes is to actually have content articles in publications, not just simple advertising. There are many constraints in writing like this – low word counts, limited topics, tenor of the publication, and client approval over everything. Still, it gives me the chance, several times a month, to work creatively within those restraints to construct a quality content article that benefits both the reader and my client as well.

Click here to read my most recent article:
Remote Deposit: Unveiling the Secret (Crockett Rocket issue XLIII of vol IV)

Accessed from the thinkWRITEguild website

Matthew Jackson

black history month, post 1 – rosa parks and freedom

parksI am a few days late in getting started, but I intend to post a few reflections in honor of Black History Month. The list of dates and general topics will follow this post on Rosa Parks and freedom.

I posted the image present in this reflection on my Facebook wall on February 5. By then end of the day I was actually angry – of my 528 “friends,” only 4 had bothered to like the image. I’m not the kind of Facebook user who expects lots of likes and comments and shares on my postings. I realize that people have real lives, and the things I post might not be of any interest to them. This post was different to me – not only is the quote something we should ALL resonate with, the quote was said by a woman who suffered to be free so that others also could share in that freedom. We study Rosa Parks as a hero in our schools. Her initial action was simple – she refused to give up her seat in the colored section of a public transit bus to a white passenger. She later went on to lead the bus strike, and to work for equality for all people in America. She stood up to the evils of racism and segregation. These evils have haunted our country for many years, and what we honor this month are the efforts of the men and women who have fought for these evils to be overcome. We have come a long way, but we aren’t all the way there yet. Many of us seem to have forgotten that there are still fights for freedom and civil liberty today.

“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free…so other people would also be free.” What do we honor, as a people, more than freedom? America was founded on the idea that people are born to be free. Our suppression of freedom is [in my opinion] the largest stain on the history our country. We have attacked the freedom of so many – Native Americans, African slaves and their children, Japanese Americans during WW2 – those are some of the most visible, but the list could go on. Today, we continue to suffer from the notion that those who are different should not be allowed to exist in perfect freedom. When will we finally come to see that ALL people deserve to share the exact same degree of freedom? Will it take our being oppressed for some reason before we come to understand the value of freedom for all?

Rosa Parks gives us a wonderful example – fighting for freedom not only for herself, but so that everyone could be free. I particularly love that about her, that her fight was not purely for herself, not purely selfish, but was so that all people could one day be free. Think about the freedom to live as you choose that you enjoy today – it is a freedom both worth fighting for to maintain, and also fighting so that all people can enjoy that same freedom. We all fight in our own way, but fight for this most precious right we must.

The posts in honor of Black History Month generally will be:
2-11 On Civil Rights
2-18 A Religious Post
2-25 Something Literature Related

Matthew Jackson