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The autobiography of an idea.

The purpose of this essay is to support the premise that an idea is born, nurtured, and raised to maturity just as an individual is. That idea is death, the cessation of life - or death-in-life - as the sole source stream in a writer's world. That idea was/is a gift. For me, it is a second-handed gift, because I was influenced by a certain group of writers via the influence that this group exerted on my first mentor in creative writing.

I received the ideas pandered by my mentor from many writers, even Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first professional African American poet, and the American poet Edgar Allan Poe, but more readily from the pre-romantic writers of English literature. Some of the pre-romantics belonged to the eighteenth-century Graveyard School of writing. Back-story reveals that my mentor occupied his mind with the thoughts of others to buttress the "brutal dilemmas" of his own existence, dilemmas that had in part faced the writers of his favorite literary works, especially Robert Burns and Edgar Allan Poe. Catherine Haich, after experiments and experiences with spiritualism, expresses the view in her book Initiation that "... it is possible to receive the thoughts of another human being" (90). After years with Sweet Mary by "Sweet Afton," the tragic child bride Annabel Lee, the "Raven" quoting "Nevermore," and the man without a country (but with a "dead soul") sauntering the deck of ship after ship, mumbling, "I can never say again, |This is my own native land,'"(1) I became an initiate of "tragedy" as my mentor envisioned it, and was eventually baptized as a true believer.

My mentor was my father, Calvin Shepherd Jackson (1880?-1947) of Winsborn, South Carolina. He became my mother country as a writer. His spirit, his consciousness, his thoughts permeated my being so completely that it is fair to say that he was my god from 1923 to 1930. This man, who became a Christian minister, believed in the efficacy of fate. His classical studies at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, in the field of Greek literature introduced him to the Greek mind/spirit that held fate as the grand arbiter in human affairs. He never came to terms with the idea that Jehovah God could man the affairs of the being created in his own image with justice and mercy. He, somehow, did not ingest the ideas that, though the tragic hero moved to catastrophe because of his flaw in character, he maintained his moral courage and spiritual prowess. A line from Calvin's poem "The Apple Man" reads, "All my themes become discord." Since Calvin was my god, I worshipped at his shrine of "tragedy," unconsciously bringing a predilection for doom and gloom into my stories and verse.

When Lance Jeffers, the revered African American poet, read my short stories in the mid-1980s, he said in a letter, "Several of your stories are realistic tragedies. There is often in |Rena' in Such Things from the Valley, |Silas,' |Little Jake,' and |Runetta' in Seeds Beneath the Snow, that element that sobers and brings tears to the eyes."(2) My few faithful critics have never become tear-struck on reading my fiction,(3) although they do note some characters who are struggling to alleviate inordinate justice. Lance, however, set me thinking.

I knew Aristotle's "imitation of an action" definition of tragedy. I knew about Shakespeare's tragedies. But Lance's words came across to me as "What have I to do with Hecuba?" in terms of my having an affinity with tragedy as a writer. Me? Tragedy? Then, I remembered Linda's conversation with her sons in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Her inference that a small boat has as much need for a harbor as a large one shows us the "brutal dilemmas" in the life of the humble man, whose life counts as well as the life of a mighty ruler. The death of Linda's husband Willie Loman is a metaphor of fallen humanity. For the first time I was moved to examine my own stoies to see why my people were always falling. I was surprised to learn that my characters of note were set to fall.

In 1990, I found "My Last Affair," a short story that I wrote in the spring of 1947 in Langston Hughes's class when he was guest professor of creative writing at Atlanta University. My father had died a few weeks before that spring semester started, so I was full of grief because I had wanted my father to visit the Oxford University of the South, the Atlanta University system.

Hughes tried to market "My Last Affair" with no success. He said that people coming from work were reading the magazines he approached. He said a tired person would not want to deal with a forlorn character who could find no way out of depression. Hughes could see that he had provoked me. He asked, "Arthenia, aren't you happy about anything?" I failed to understand his ignorance in regard to my need to suffer. Had not the people who influenced my father been "blessed to suffer"?

Celeste, the protagonist in "My Last Affair," apes my sorrowful experiences as a dethroned "debutante" of sixteen. She is determined to (and with the help of a sister, an aunt, and an uncle does) attend her Senior Class Day Reception even though her mother had commanded her to stay at home. But her mother arrives on the scene and demands that she leave the reception while teachers and students look on with surprise.

The popular song of that season, "My Last Affair," is her favorite, and it becomes more precious to Celeste as she dances to the time (her first dance) with the Romeo that she sights with one eye (a tall, skinny, half-fed-looking youth). She is the "old apple man" whose theme has become discord once her mother crashes the scene. Her heart sings as she trails her mother back to the house before sundown:

"Tragedy just seems to be the end of me, my happiness is misery, this is my last affair." Actually, it was a first glimpse for the girl into a world where young people wore pretty dresses, new hair styles, whole suits - dark suits, white shirts and ties - just to sit down to eat good food, cake, ice cream, drink punch, and dance.

As I read over and over again in 1990 the sentence "This is my last affair," I began hearing my father's voice speaking of the 1927 flood: "We will drown; we will starve, there is no way out. God has broken His promise by destroying us again with water instead of fire." Tragedy? The father who was god appeared to me now as an "inevitable pessimist." Hopefulness is essential to tragedy, but fate had deleted that element from his book of life.

Then Langston's voice became clear. I could at last buy Lance's idea of the "realistic" in my stories. Hughes told me to examine my own life as a black person, and to deal with African Americans in my milieu and with the tenor of their lives. He stressed the value of humor in literature as a means to obliterate the soreness from difficult bruises to the soul. My father now became a man in my view, not my god of seven years in our West Street home in Sumter, South Carolina.

"Striking incongruities" claimed Calvin's consciousness when he was a Benedict College student in the 1890s. And he had, in a way, found his Langston Hughes. His English teacher, an Anglo-American lady from New England, asked Calvin to stay after class one day. She asked: "Calvin, did you write this?"

"Yes, Miss Livingston," he replied.

She did not allow them to say "Yes, mam."

"My boy," she continued, "God has given you a gift. Always write."

He did, though most of his writings are lost, and he never published a word. Like Hughes, this woman became a friend to her students. When she learned that he was an orphan working to secure an education, she asked all of her friends to use his hack services.

Calvin would have a different experience with his mathematics teacher. This prominent African American minister became his role model, the kind of man that he would be as an educator. He gave his students assignments that required hard, laborious preparation. The assignment that determined whether or not a senior would finish his term was the main conversation at the preparatory school. This was Calvin's challenge for excellence. He fought sleep until late in the night to work the algebra problems. He passed his work in certain that he had won his professor's respect. He would graduate.

Calvin waited with "bated breath" to hear the words of praise. The professor had asked him to remain after class.

"Calvin, I kept you after class to reprimand you for stealing the problems from your roommate. He solved the problems and you became the copycat. You will not graduate."

"No, sir," Calvin replied, "my roommate was out on the town; I did the problems."

The Reverend Professor smiled down on the so-called offender and said, "Do you think I would take your word against that of your roommate? He is somebody's son." Calvin knew that he was a child of fate - a cursed being. Legend has it that his father Primus, who was named for a saint, became a living devil in life. Through some deed, it is believed that he brought down a curse on his progeny.

In 1981, the Calvin Jackson heirs joined the Jackson clan with roots in Winsboro and Fairfield County, South Carolina, in a sizeable gymnasium in Philadelphia. It was full of people. I met ministers, educators, artists, land barons, entrepreneurs - you name it. But no one would call the name of Primus Jackson. I faced this impenetrable barrier to self, the backstory of my existence that Calvin had known, no doubt, most of his life.

Robert Bly explains "stuckness" as a paternal phenomenon: "The wound a man receives from his father, or from life, [hurts]. Through that hurt, his way of dealing with the world was damaged. He is enveloped in a mood of "stuckness'" (71-72). Bly's Iron John: A Book about Men was/is a gift. It is a second-hander. The father, Bly continues, "does not exist, as the hero through his heroism nor through his invincibility, as the warrior does, but he exists through his wound" (73).

I realize that this "stuckness" my father experienced is, through him, a part of my experience. Finding the evidence of the experience is another task to assume as I examine my canon rife with the old influence - especially in Seeds (1969, 1973, 1975) and Valley (1977).

"Striking incongruities" exist in my life. Conflict is an eternal verity.

I understand why my father wrote, "And all my themes become discord." But I have kissed the darkness hello. And as I move, I search through that darkness for the most brilliant fight.


(1) Edward Everett (1822-1909), a clergyman and author, wrote the realistic story The Man Without a Country. (2) My Jeffers file was misplaced during one of the hurricanes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (3) Several reviewers have made pertinent remarks about my works, but the "faithful critics" are Charles Rowell, Jerry W. Ward, and Rita B. Dandridge.

Works Cited

Bly, Robert. Iron John: A book about Men. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1991. Haich, Elizabeth. Initiation. London: Allen and Unwin, 1965.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Section 1: Black South Culture
Author:Millican, Arthenia Bates
Publication:African American Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:The black South in contemporary film.
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