Ja A Jahannes, Evie Shockley, Sonia Sanchez featured in Top of the Mountain at The Barnes Foundation

By Gloria Dulan-Wilson

Hello All:

God and Mother Nature were definitely smiling down on Philadelphia in Sunday, February 22, 2015. It was the date the Barnes Collection had set to host TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN, an homage to contemporary and revolutionary Black writers and poets – just a scant 24 hours previously, on Saturday the 21st, Philadelphia and the entire eastern seaboard was under a blizzard that threatened to blank the entire area – in fact, it started at 12:00 noon and by 8:00PM had reached nearly ten inches in New York and New Jersey with Philadelphia at eight inches.However, by 2:00 the following Sunday afternoon, the sun had melted 80% of the snow, it was a beautiful clear day, and the audience came out in full force.

BLAKE BRADFORD , who served as host for the afternoon's events gave a brief historical perspective of Albert C. Barnes, founder of the Barnes Foundation: “Barnes had been criticized for being part of the nouveau riche – and for squandering his money on African American artwork, which apparently his peers saw little value in. That is, of course until it was found that it was worth billions of dollars. Barnes was a supporter of African American culture from the inception of his foundation, which was established in 1922 and opened in 1925. He was 50 years old at the time. Support for African American culture was central to the activities of the foundation from the very beginning, long before the physical form of the foundation opened in 1925. Support for African American culture was deeply embedded in the foundation. Apparently Dr. Albert Barnes was regarded as an eccentric – {which is what they call crazy rich people} – and was reputed to have had a terrible temper. He actively fought to support the culture of African Americans – there was a lot of behind the scenes fighting with his contemporaries who did not value the artwork the way he did. 

 Barnes, being his own person, had specific requests for how his collection was to be handled and through a friendship with then Lincoln University President, Horace Mann Bond, whom he had met a the funeral of a mutual friend, decided to bequeath the considerable collection to Lincoln University. The collection is now housed in a facility dedicated to his collection in Philadelphia, PA. Back in 1923 Dr. Barnes said “When the foundation opens Negro art will have been one of the great art manifestations of all times. He viewed the study of African Art as an important form of creative cultural expression – insured a way of racial advancement and equality. That gets to the centrality of the Black collection as centric to the Barnes Foundation.

Evie Shockley, who served as moderator is an Associate professor of English at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. The author of The New Black - esthetic in African American Poetry. She has two books of poetry: the new black winner of the 2012 Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for Poetry; and half red sea, published by Carolina Wren Press in 2006.

Tall, slender and quiet spoken, she served as a perfect foil for the two author/activists: “Why have a poetry reading in an Art Museum? These two creative practices have long standing connections – and are sometimes deemed sister arts. Sometimes despite of, or because of, their focus they are deemed rivals – with the ability of visual arts to paint pictures, figures and scenes, pitted against the ability of poetic or spoken art to make the representation in speech – poets have been able to bring visual arts to life by giving them voice. Or meditating on the context or story behind the scenes.
Barnes did an essay on “Negro” Art and America,” {which was edited by Alain Locke} – on a page largely devoted to those images, under the heading of “The Art of the Ancestors,” noticed value of artistic art and versatility in African culture from the consideration that ancient classic art.”

Shockley made visual comparisons with African art that Barnes had collected with artists with whom she was already familiar – Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, etc. The African Artwork that appeared in Countee Cullen's poem courtesy the Barnes Foundation – *Heritage (poem) he compared it to his African roots:

*What is Africa to me?
A copper sun; a starlit sea? …”

He romanticizes his African ancestry while simultaneously distancing himself from it. The Black Arts Movement which coincided with the Black Power and Civil Rights Movement was a break from traditional Black poetic idioms, and embraced their African cultural heritage in a way that was never done before. The turn to Africa went far beyond the cultural grounds and also took political inspiration from various successful African independence movements in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya. The images were considered problematic and ultra avant guarde – but succeeded in shifting the focus.”

"Two poets who began writing during the Black Arts Movement – one who felt the impact from far away while teaching in the military overseas – the other was an artist and activist at the forefront of the movement here at home. You will hear in the work they're going to share with you impress from the Black Arts movement – and combinations from the literary traditions from which they emerged -also the visual art and musical tradition which inspired them: 

{PLEASE NOTE:  I will only be paraphrasing the poems by these great writers - not presenting them in their entirety - I leave to you  the pleasure of obtaining them, reading them and enjoying them for your self - } 

Ja Jahannes is a novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, librettist, composer, spoken word artist, music producer, social critic, psychologist, and educator. He received a B. A. degree with honors from Lincoln University (PA), two Master's degrees from Hampton University, postgraduate studies at The College of William And Mary, and received a Ph.D. from the University of Delaware. He is a frequent writer, columnist, and contributing editor for numerous national and international publications. Jahannes has received many awards. He has written and produced twelve plays and published four books, a collection of essays, over two hundred articles, reviews, and poems, two oratorios, two symphony librettos, two opera librettos, a song cycle, and editor of Black Gold, Anthology of Black Poetry, and the novel, Big Man.  NOTE: Black Gold an anthology of 109 Black poets most of whom are poet laureates of their city or state in the US or Africa.

 Ja Jahannes ever animated, assured the audience: “Jesus preached the sermon on the mount in 13 minutes – I never try to exceed the master - I hope that I'll be able to be brief and also to the point.” Of course, that didn't happen. He's too information rich to contain that wealth of creativity in that small span of time – and actually, no one wanted him to. He shared some of his poetry and writing as well as poems he specifically composed for the Barnes Collection. “I hope to give you new words to capture that are outside your vocabulary and give you visions and images that you have never seen before. And almost scientifically to explore new ways of seeing the world.” He began with his classic poem

Neckbones, Pigtails and Chicken Feet:”

We got the food that I just couldn't eat.
WE had the love in beans and rice,
made them delicacies, made them nice;
now thrown out the door with what was once something less, not more;
we added love and beans and rice; made them delicacies, made them nice;
they steal our muscles for their cultural olympics;
recognizing our genius was something and they forget the strength from Black blues;
the prisons are filled with my people...”

Jahannes continued: “In October 24, 1946, it was the funeral of Lincoln University Alumnus Dr. Nathan Mosel, Horace Mann Bond met with Albert Barnes – the two men formed a very close friendship. And a lot of what is here today is because of that particular relationship. Three months later Albert Barnes came to visit Lincoln University, he saw what he liked and he made a major contribution to Lincoln University. From that point on the two men were very good friends. A lot of people were jealous of that relationship – especially the people who were the “monied people in Philadelphia, because they thought Barnes was kind of out of it. He was noble and nouveaux riche and he was buying this art that no one had ever seen or had any appreciation for; and they just thought that he should not be in the Art community – his background was not in that monied Philadelphia. He was just new money. But it didn't bother him; he continued to collect art and bring that art together at a place called Merion, PA.”

Jahannes related how he became an expert in art appreciation via classes he took at Lincoln University under an adjunct professor, Tom Coble, who “taught one course a week, one night a week. The way Coble taught his class was very interesting. And I picked up from it – I spent 40 years in academia, and I try to pick some of the things from the best people I had. Coble not only gave you the history of the art form, but he always gave you the salacious and almost semi-pornographic aspects of the artists' life. So when it came time for them to test you, you would say “yeah that's that fool that slept with that woman and ended up painting her in the nude. It was a good cuing mechanism. So whenever somebody mentions a name, I say “Oh yeah, he's the one who cut off his fool ear!” (Vincent Van Gogh). It gave you a lot to think about. All art has voice; art should speak to you. It shouldn't be just on your wall for decorative purposes. There is decorative art – if you just want a little splash of green here, pink there, black there – there's nothing wrong with that – and a little purple and a little gold (referring to the colors of Omega Psi Phi fraternity) – or Crimson and crème ( Kappa Alpha Psi colors) – or whatever colors you choose. That's still decoration, and not art. I always advise my students early in life find the other people from your community – especially the young, your contemporaries, who are artists; buy their work then; prize their work; and value it over the years – but buy it only from people that you like, because there's nothing worse than having a piece of art on your wall and find out later you don't like the person, and you paid for it.”

A Lincoln University Alumnus for the class of 1965, he relates how he was the designated driver one evening for Langston Hughes (who was Lincoln man) and Earl Winderman, who was the vice president and associate for development at Lincoln at that time – while they hung out and did some serious reveling at a little club down on Rte 1. Though he didn't partake, he ended up promising to pick up six boxes of books Hughes was donatint to Lincoln University, which entailed his driving to his brownstone in Harlem on W. 127th Street. A five story walk up with no elevator, and no one to help him! “Nobody told me that his apartment in that brownstone had no elevator, and he lived on the fifth floor. And when I got up there with six big boxes of books, Langston wasn't even there. So I had to lug those books back down to the campus. That year the Hughes award went to Lincoln University poet Everett Hoagland.

Later when I was on the faculty at Hampton University, I was given a grant to write a play on Langston Hughes. I spent a lot of time studying Hughes – but I could never get the play done. So one night I wrote a poem that was one of the first published poems I had in the national magazine; and I gave the University their money back. The poem is dedicated to Langston, and is called
Most Of My Life.”
Most of my life has been spent moving from Bakersfield to Baltimore, though Harlem is my home.
Most of my life has been spent traveling – sometimes weary and sometimes – from Moscow to Asterbad ….
And now all of my life has been threatened. Yet America, Harlem still is my home. “

Langston Hughes was perhaps one of the greatest alumni of Lincoln University. But we have so many extraordinary people from Lincoln University. Thurgood Marshall, Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamde Azikewe – head of the TV Station for soap operas Duma Ndlovu (South Africa), Kaeropetse Willie Kgositsile – it goes on and on and on. But those guys were also friends of mine and they helped inspire my literary tradition.

Jahannes wrote a poem in response to Langston Hughes poemBLUES”
Hey Mr. Blues player; play me a love song and
make it heard deep down in the deserted streets where Blues comes to play;
Hey Mr. Blues player play me a mood song that moans and –
up on abandonded bridges.....
Play me a love song and make it hurt real, real, real sweet”

Sunday in Savannah by Ja A. Jahannes includes fifty photographs on churches – just to capture the peculiarities of Black churches -not only practices, but the architecture, and history.Now you know that Black folks can really dress for church. So this one is called

Lord these Glad Ladies look mighty pretty
in full color
in full spirit
in the second pew pouring forth Jesus' …...”

Per Jahannes, "One of the poems that I am most proud of is:"
If we forget, who will keep the dream; who will celebrate ancient poetry reaching forward, reaching back from Zimbabwe to Timbuktu
If we forget, who will keep the dream if people celebrate if we forget who will care, who will share our pyramids, store our paths, …...if we forget, who will remember us?”

If there is any doubt about the depth of African centered poetry and its direct connect between us in the diaspora and our motherland, one need only check out “Dinquinesh” which tries to connect the Africanity of all us on the planet.  Dinquinesh – the name that the Ethiopians gave for the oldest fossil remains of a humanoid on the planet in Hadar. All people have been linked to that particular fossil. We call her Eve – Dinquinesh means the wonder – and I wrote this poem to connect us and our hair. “Touch your hair. Touch your hair ...Listen, this is about the hair.”
I am Dinkrinesh mother source –
my course, dark, strong crown
covers my head like twisted dreds of creation.
Boldly I went up the Nile turning black dark red...

By the way, Jahannes' anecdotes are as spellbinding as his poetry – he regaled the audience with “...how I met sister Sonia. And I always call her Sistuh Sonia. She has a great presence “s-u-s-t-u-h” - a sistuh! I am a psychologist and a behavioral neuroscientist. And I was at a conference in New York. And I had specifically gone to hear Dr. Ruth – another extraordinary woman in psychology. And as I looked at the program the program for that conference was which thick as a telephone book, I looked through and next to those distinguished psychologists was Sonia Sanchez. I said, 'now what is Sonia doing here at a conference on psychology?' So I went to Sonia and she held forth – the topic was something on Bigger (Thomas) – the emergence of the female Bigger Thomas. And she was absolutely spellbinding. After that he went and had coffee and wrote the rest of the conference off.

Which is a perfect segue` to poet activist, Sonia Sanchez:

Sonia Sanchez was selected by Mayor Michael Nutter as Philadelphia's first Poet Laureate. She's a poet, mother, professor; national and international lecturer on Black culture, literature; women's liberation – peace and racial justice. Former Weil Cornell Chair of English and Woman's Studies at Temple. Author of over 20 books including “We A Bad People;” “ Home Girls and Hand Grenades;” “ Does Your House Have Lions?” “ Morning Haiku.” Recipient of the Langston Hughes Award for Poetry in 1999; Alabama Distinguished Writer in 2004; National Visionary Leadership Award in 2006; and currently one of 20 African American Women featured in Freedom Sisters – an interactive exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution and traveling throughout the US.

Sonia Sanchez who's just about 4'10 stepped up to the podium, which, it turns out was taller than she was. She definitely would have benefited from a step stool or a milk crate or something to stand on – you could hear her but not see her behind the podium. Undaunted, she knows how to make her presence known and felt.

Sonia Sanchez: “One of the things that I was asked, at some point, had I been in any way interconnected with art as writers, and I said, most certainly. Many of us who moved in the 1960s that one of the things that we did in a very real sense is that we sought out of the artists. A brother by the name of Ademola (Olugbefola) – my first book was called HOMECOMING. And brother Henry, who was a member of the Black Panther Party did a picture of this little girl with a spear in her hand, and it was called HOMECOMING. But because of some problems with the Black Panther Party and many of those writers and the people who considered “cultural nationalists” - whatever – he was not allowed to do my second book. And so I came home to a place called New York City, and I went to this gallery where brother Ademola was, and one of the first books that we have in the Black Arts Movement will be on the using of the African influence in art. And this is called WE A BAdddDDD PEOPLE. Can you see that? (holds up book over podium)   Well people don't know that unless you study it; and most of the time you don't study it because the power people consider that they are superior."

Cover of We A BadddDDD People

They sent me the pictures I had up on my walls at home. But here you can see the African influence.
The second book I did for Dudley Randall was IT'S A NEW DAY. And that's a child in it. Look at the modernistic kind of art that is happening here. The third book I did A BLUES BOOK FOR BLUE BLACK MAGICAL WOMEN – So all of the African art that I was looking at and the Black arts that I was looking at – as we talk about the arts, we always talk about the connection of the arts and the artists; always the art and the word. 
Cover of Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women


Cover of It's a New Day

Someone said to me “well did you ever go to museums and see art?” I said I saw my grandmother in a place called Alabama, in her white, in a church called AME Zion Church. I saw all those brown women in those white dresses – you know what I mean? Those gowns and I also saw the preacher when he started to get down and talk about Eve and how bad she was; and how she misled Adam. All of those Black women went to the back of the room and crossed their arms – they became big white birds, you know, looking at that preacher talking against them. So I've seen Black art.”

And that is that kind of realty that we must truly understand at some point that what we have done and what we do at some particular point. I had some shades I will be reading; and I think I have my book with me - 
One of the poems from A BLUES BOOK FOR BLUE BLACK MAGICAL WOMEN – "It took me three years to do that book – and that book began because I began to have, and I started to study African art – I began to have the same dream every night. And the same dream of this woman in Blue – that's why when the artist sent me the cover, I said no, it has to be blue – of this woman in a tomb. And she was blue with white in the center of her forehead. And every night, I actually accelerated my self so that it seemed that I could actually go and see this woman who began to talk to me about her herstory. And at some point I figured out it was my mother talking to me. You every now and then “duh!” You know every night I would listen to her and she would warn me and tell me about things. And she told me how she was also buried alive – and so that's why that cover got to be that cover. And that's why when I began to write that book I talked about something called tasks. EARTH MOTHER POEM.

Understand that when I began to write about Africa, I had to learn some of the language – and so the book you know that that book also will begin to – I called all my friends – who were African who spoke the languages, and they said, “Sonia what are you up to?” And I said I am writing and I need for you to tell me that I think that where I come from it was lost- and I need for you to help me a great deal – so the book.  She recited a piece for Black history –

Wangichi you hear me don't you?“

During the question and answer period, In response to a query from the audience about the possibility of contemporary Black poets and artists expatriating to France to follow their creative muse, Sonia stated: “There's a straight line from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement to what is happening to young people today – you can call it HipHop, you can call it what you want to – but I tend to call it poetry. It is that long line, it is a continuation – and that's important – very much so. There are some differences, of course, as you noted at some particular point. DuBois would talk about a double consciousness, would he not? I call him the greatest scholar of the 20th century – you should read him. He was brought to a place called Philadelphia They would not allow him to teach at U Penn but gave him money to go out into the neighborhoods and prove that the reason there was so much crime was because it came out of the Black neighborhoods – and of course he disproved that. I say every year to every mayor (of Philadelphia) that is that the one book you should read is THE PHILADELPHIA NEGRO by W.E.B. DuBois, so it can truly put to rest crap amongst us as a people. And maybe you ought to write the next mayor and the one who is in here now – I have said it in front of him – you need to read the Philadelphia Negro – and he should read it and understand how DuBois disproved it also too, and how you go on and find out what it means to be found to be really human. Philadelphia misses every time. You know we could be a great city – and it's like we're fearful of becoming great, you know?”

One of the organically integral secrets of Sonia's work is her ability to get inside the message or messenger and let the message or messenger likewise get inside of her spirit.  It's nothing short of magical!

Acknowledging the spirits when they speak to her
You always have to acknowledge that there are people around you to protect you.” She mentioned that in reference to a piece that she was working on that while she was writing she could hear in her subconscious mind the sounds of gunshots and screams for help. So when she asked what had happened on the site, she was informed that there had been a massacre long ago. “As you travel throughout this country – America – there are so many places where there have been massacres; and if you are a sensitive, you can certainly tune into it. At other periods in my life I realized that there were things that had save my life.

That there points and periods that someone (spirit or person) pulled me back from someplace, and I finally had to acknowledge that “Thank You so very much!” – but certainly, in writing that book, at some point – you open up at some point and – and you say okay, people will think I'm cookoo, you know, or some people will say “ooogagooogaooogabooogah!!” But a very well known writer says what we always have to do is acknowledge that there are always people around you to protect you! And you just have to open your eyes, open your heart, open your soul."  The audience totally enjoyed the fact that Sanchez could accept the skepticism of those who were less well versed in understanding spiritual impulses and laughed with her as she made light of their reactions.

L-R:  Ja A. Jahannes, Sonia Sanchez & Evie Shockley
Other members of the audience were former Deputy Mayor Oliver Franklin, Poet Joyce Joyce in the audience, Kenny Poole Vice President Lincoln University National Alumni Association.

l-r Oliver Franklin, Ja A Jahannes, Sonia Sanchez, Gloria Dulan-Wilson, Kenneth Poole, Evie Shockley

This was so well done, enjoyable and information rich, it is hoped that the Barnes Foundation will present this again in the near future.

Stay Blessed &


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