As the United States creeps toward November elections in a tumultuous year that has upended the nation’s healthcare establishment, education system, economy, and social fabric, poet and entrepreneur Patrick A. Howell brings us Dispatches from the Vanguard: The Global International African Arts Movement Versus Donald J. Trump. A collection of Howell’s conversations with celebrated Black artists including Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Nnedi Okorafor, Tyehimba Jess, Imani Perry, Jeffery Renard Allen, and many others, Dispatches is an indictment of Trump, authoritarianism, as well as racism perpetrated against Black people across the globe, but it is also a celebration of Black art and resistance.
In this interview, Howell discusses a way forward for America, and why he remains hopeful that racism will be dismantled.
In the title of Dispatches, the “vanguard” is The Global International African Arts Movement (I Aam Global). Why don’t you share a bit about the foundation of I Aam Global and how it led to the creation of Dispatches?
Patrick A. Howell
The vibe was picked up between myself and Marvin L. Mills in 2005 as two African souls in the world. We had the opportunity—with Max Rodriguez, [founder] of the Harlem Book Fair, and publishing genius Malaika Adero—to debut the idea at the 2014 Harlem Book Fair at New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The event was broadcast on C-Span. We were just attuned to the new energy charted in the twenty-first century and noted its strong cosmic currents in the global African community. My late father also had quite a bit to do with the formation of a thought process: “Our folk are some of the most creative and brilliant on the planet,” he would often say.
I was fascinated by your concept of I Aam Global being the fifth (and most powerful) estate. Can you share how the fifth estate idea came to be and how it differs from the fourth estate?
Patrick A. Howell
Established power—judicial, executive, legislative, journalism—is “the system.” Free spirits have nothing to do with man-made systems; although, as the passing of congressman and civil rights architect John Lewis seems to suggest, they are not necessarily excluded from participating in the system to change the system from within, or to bring the system closer to principals [such] as love or justice.
The arts do not derive their primary energy from formalized structures of so-called power. The arts mine the systems of invisible yet powerful principals—patience, kindness, culture, hope, etc.—or, at the very least, “report” on the voices of the unheard; manifest the unseen so that all may participate in those visions. The fifth estate of American and global power is tapped into other systems, or the spirits, energies, ancestors, dreams, and hearts of our entire experience for which the other four estates are but minor slivers.
When I remember watching ancestor Maya Angelou recite “On the Pulse of the Morning” in 1993 at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, it occurred to me, as we approached the new millennium witnessing her regal presentation, that there are great ones who also govern without title, who inspire, lead, and provide a way forward without formally having that power ordained by a governing body. However regal and sartorial in the presentation of their spirits, they offer a fresh vision and a new way forward and up.
The ongoing inspiration of ancestor Muhammad Ali, a poet and unparalleled storyteller, also communicates this truth. There is a who’s who of American culture who have had nothing to do with established man-made forms of power or the four other estates, who are powerful in their spirit and its art, who simply are, who are far more magnificent than the systems that seek to control or stifle the spirit. Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison. Women and men as these and their work are the fifth estate of American power, and, by far, its most powerful modality and system. It’s how we do what we do. For every one of these men or women recognized, there are thousands uncelebrated. These are our systems.
Award-winning poet Tony Medina says, “Dispatches from the Vanguard is James Baldwin’s dream, manifested through art and culture, through porch talks, poetry, and visual debates.” In your discussion with Dr. Imani Perry, you ask whether Baldwin would be surprised at the lack of progress in equality we’re seeing today. Dr. Perry says she felt Baldwin would not be surprised in the least. What say you?
Patrick A. Howell
Isn’t Tony Medina a supranuyoricanfragilisticflyexceldripdropdope poet? I’m blessed to have gotten his endorsement and poem in the book.
I doubt James Baldwin would be surprised one single iota. First off, Baldwin was a prophet—somebody whose relationship with principals as justice and love was uncommonly attuned. While the notions of hope and optimism were also strong within his consciousness, the ancestor really saw America for what America is—blessed and cursed. Secondly, as toxic as this age is, the civil rights struggle of the sixties was culture war by proxy, an iteration of the un-Civil War of the 1860s, which was a reckoning of the hell-birthing of America. Baldwin studied the beast before it ever marched its dysmorphic toxic body to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. James Baldwin is a truth-sayer. His job is not to soothe our sensibilities, but say it real good, you know? We have their example and their work—the freedom fighters of that age. Baldwin saw our voyage on Martin Luther King’s arc of justice. And it’s oblong.
Dr. Imani Perry is as eloquent, distinct, and magical a mind and voice for these ages. I would spend at least a century in a monastery studying before I countered any of her narratives or thoughts.
It struck me with Jeffery Renard Allen’s discussion of the American expectation of happiness, making money, and acquiring wealth that it might not be possible to indict Donald Trump without also indicting the entire country. Are we all guilty? By our very national morals and yearnings, from rapacious foreign policy to the freshest sneakers, from our preoccupation with guns and violence to our apathetic navel-gazing, did we all directly or indirectly vote for Trump?
Patrick A. Howell
Right. Yes, I do not think of Trump as an aberration. He is a product of America. As most American presidents, he is, in many ways, symbolic and reflective of America. As many American presidents, he is America. Cockroach America, but emblematic of the complex ecology nonetheless. Trump is a grand klux spirit of klan American koo-koos.
In some ways, the Trump presidency is revelatory. Like opening the refrigerator and getting a whiff of stale radioactive rancid meat, it stanks—migraine headache bad. However, you are glad you found it rotting before it morphed into something else. It’s horrific. You’re also very excited at the prospects of getting rid of it.
I remember during the Ronald Reagan era, folks [were] always asking if racism was real or if it was just a chip on the shoulder. “C’mon, pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” was the common sentiment. Now, the whole world understands precisely how the evil institution of slavery happened. We can all collectively imagine the psychological configuration of “forefathers” who spoke so eloquently of freedom while structuring its diabolical opposite. So, you know, it’s interesting to study the worms in rotting meat—like, wow!—but you are also glad to get rid of that insidious stank. You do it carefully. Completely. With a hazmat suit on, right? Jettison Drumpf into nowhere land.
We have to deal with this Trump stank. However, I do not believe we all created it.
Abiodun Oyewole stated in your interview with him that we are in a longstanding spiritual war that will get resolved once we realize we are one race—the human race. What do you make of Oyewole’s assessment? Are you hopeful that one day race will be dismantled, that we’ll eventually be one people?
Patrick A. Howell
Elder Abiodun Oyewole is a prophet, although he denies it. That interview was prophetic and inspirational in its optimistic vision, precisely predating the freedom fighters marching for George Floyd’s broken neck.
All I know is love wins. Spirit force wins. So, simply, everything is a function of that. Yes, racism will die as all evil things do.
We are surviving what seems like a really long summer. And I do mean “surviving”, because in the age of coronavirus, when we wake up each day it’s not clear that we will continue to do so next week or next month. U.S. coronavirus deaths topped 150,000 people. George Floyd was killed on-camera for the entire world to witness. Protesters called for the abolition of police departments as we know them. Barack Obama eulogized John Lewis. President Donald Trump floated the idea of delaying the November elections, which many critics had predicted he’d do. What does Dispatches teach us about the run-up to the November elections? How does this text equip us for the uncertain road ahead?
Patrick A. Howell
I am an eternal optimist. Not by nature, but by conscious evocation. So, when I see the worst, I also see the best. Being born in America, I am comfortable with abject opposites. I agree with you, Tamika—we are clearly at a crossroads in American history, a reckoning. As with so many in Dispatches, clear eyed disenchantment with America is a requisite for any sane spirit who survives this spiritual war. I think the fifty-eight interviews in Dispatches have the commonality of free, enterprising souls or woke spirits. We have to see and create as we stand, from where we stand. Now is a time for not only revelation but reinvention. Consistently refresh and renew your spirit. Reimagine the world. It’s always brightest after twilight. And it is time to be artful. It is an age for the artist.
What’s next for I Aam Global? For Dispatches? For you?
Patrick A. Howell
More fun interviews on a virtual tour like this with you, Tamika. Also, I am president and co-founder of Victory and Noble, a storytelling company. V&N duties include several projects such as a documentary film and podcast—“Here’s to Life with Tori Reid,” for which I am executive producer. I have also assembled a book of short stories based on stories published in literary magazines and am polishing a book of creative non-fiction about fathers and sons. Then there is the curation of some soulful playlists and tending to a garden with an ambitious California mango tree and a wicked spider.
Oh, yeah. I’m going to mail in my ballot! Going to vote.
Dispatches from the Vanguard: The Global International African Arts Movement Versus Donald J. Trump
By Patrick A. Howell
Published August 11, 2020
Tamika Thompson is a writer, producer, and journalist. She is author of the novella, Salamander Justice (Madness Heart Press), co-creator of the artist collective POC United and fiction editor for the group’s inaugural anthology, Graffiti (Aunt Lute Books). Her writing has been published by Prairie Schooner, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and PBS.org among others. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children. You can find her online at tamikathompson.com.