Author Flowers speaks on latest book from Indian publisher
Mesmerizing beats resonating throughout Shemin Auditorium kept the audience enthralled for an extended timespan.
The eclectic sounds of “Rickydoc Trickmaster, Hoodoo Lord of the Mississippi Delta” cast a spell that drew spectators closer to the edges of their seats. A performer channeled the Lord by blowing a lambi – a Creole conch shell -, shaking bells and plucking an African kalimba – a traditional thumb piano.
These were the signature sounds of Arthur Flowers, a writer and also a griot – a folk storyteller initiated in this ancient African art.
“Flowers is not only a Renaissance man but also a Harlem Renaissance hoodoo man,” said Carol Babiracki, associate professor of music history and cultures at Syracuse University, where the event took place on March 1.
Flowers also talked about his book “I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr.,” in which he describes Dr. King’s visits to Ghana in 1957 and India in 1959. It was in India that Dr. King expanded his understanding of non-violent resistance, which had been espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, one of his major influences.
Flowers did his own re-enactment of a West-meets-East moment when he traveled to India in 2009 to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. While there, he got an offer that he couldn’t refuse. “I had a call from the U.S. Department of State offering me $300 a day to go on a tour doing performance work from city to city all over India for three weeks.”
He told the audience that Indian people responded very enthusiastically to his blowing a horn, chiming bells, dancing and prancing to the point that he became a celebrity. “I was soon surrounded by people asking me questions about the meaning of life and touching my feet,” he added. “I reciprocated by touching theirs back.
“When I performed I saw myself doing hoodoo rituals, which have a spiritual quality. This is something that in the West has never been done.”
Then a second call continued to alter Flowers’ plans when Gita Wolf, founder and editor of Tara Books, an independent publishing house based in India, contacted him. She asked him if he could write a narrative on Dr. King’s life, primarily for an Indian and global readership.
“I said yes for three reasons: one, I’m a twenty-first century novelist; two, I’m a globalist novelist, and; three, I’m familiar with the life of Martin Luther King since I’m from Memphis, Tenn., where he was assassinated,” he said.
The book provides an account of historical episodes that served as the background of Dr. King’s ministry: the Middle Passage, slavery, the underground railroad, the apartheid South, the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings, the great migration from the rural South to the urban North, etc.
Having set the stage for Dr. King’s journey through life, the book details the milestones of this journey: the Montgomery bus boycott, the Birmingham desegregation campaign, the march on Washington for jobs and freedom, the Selma to Montgomery marches and Bloody Sunday, the Chicago open housing movement, and many others, until his demise in 1968.
A unique feature of the book is that it brings together two disparate narrative styles. In addition to Flowers’ Delta storytelling, it includes a visual Bengali one.
Manu Chitrakar, a Patua illustrator from Bengal, in eastern India, created a painted scroll of Dr. King’s life on a long coarse piece of cloth and gave it to Flowers. “When I unrolled it and went through all of it I was tickled because Manu had captured the essence of King’s struggles,” he said. “I wrote a text based on what Manu had already done.
“He worked with images whereas I worked with words from Delta storytelling, which is something that Western publishers won’t let me do. In contrast, Tara Books told me, ‘Do your thing.'”
Flowers concluded by saying: “The experience of working on this book reshaped my own storytelling practices. It made me a more conscious artist and political intellectual who aspires to be the literary voice of black America and to speak for black culture. In the book I’m speaking for all humanity, I’m speaking to a global audience, and it reflects the tension between the particular and the universal when it goes beyond cultural boundaries. Further, as a result of the book, Martin Luther King has become one motif in India.”
His alter ego, the spirit of the “Hoodoo Lord of the Delta,” seemed to agree from above.
– Article by Miguel Balbuena, Community Correspondent for The Stand