October 2006


Ronnie Wise retired recently from being Director of the Bolivar County Library in Mississippi. KTLA in Los Angeles featured a superb article about him. Here are some samples from the article.

People call him a librarian, and he surely looks like a librarian, with his sedentary frame, thick eyeglasses, fastidiously trimmed hair and goatee. But, deep down, he feels like something else, something more. He feels like the Sisyphus of Mississippi. He feels like a superhero in one of his beloved comic books, even though he fights the forces of darkness with little more than night classes and meager grants, and he loses more than he wins; 30 years of that would make even Spiderman cranky.
. . .
Some used to hop a train out, but the trains don’t stop here anymore. Some worked their way out, but jobs have gotten scarce. Few dreamed of escaping through books. Then Ronnie Wise came along.

How many have learned to read because of Wise? He lost count long ago. Hundreds, maybe thousands. He doesn’t care. As director of libraries for Bolivar County, one of America’s least literate places, where 41% of 40,000 residents can’t read, Wise keeps his mind on what needs doing, not what’s been done, which might be why he looks so cranky.

He began his library career as a bookmobile driver, and was deeply impressed by the need and desire for books he found on his route.

One day Wise pulled his bookmobile into Pace, a tiny town where the streets ran with raw sewage. He parked across from the abandoned bank. All at once a storm descended. Skies turned hellishly dark; fierce winds kicked up. A young teen, Jennie Washington, came running out. She should have stayed indoors, Wise says, but Jennie just had to have a book. Because Jennie had nothing else.

Whenever Jennie was about to read, she’d say: “I’m going into this book.” Wise recognized her as a kindred spirit, a fellow lover of escape. “The poorer a person is, the more they want escape,” he says. “I think it’s been that way from the beginning of time.”

As Jennie left the bookmobile, hugging her new romance novels, winds pried loose the facade of the bank. Bricks suddenly rained down on Jennie. She fell, curled around her books, killed instantly. “The most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Wise says.

It was Jennie who first taught him that books can be a matter of life and death in the Delta.

He was soon appointed to be the Director of the Bolivar County Library.

His first move was to resurrect Bolivar County’s adult literacy program. Classes were held in the main library, in downtown Cleveland, the county seat. Overnight the library became so crowded with men and women learning to read that some tutoring sessions took place in broom closets. Desperate for more room, Wise asked the mayor to let him have the old train depot, which was sitting abandoned a few blocks away. The mayor agreed, and Wise set about converting the depot into the Cleveland Depot Library — a kind of literacy triage.

Besides being one of the happiest days of Wise’s life, the ribbon-cutting at the renovated Depot was a triumph for everyone in the Delta who cared about books. January, 1994. “Raining cats and dogs,” Wise says. “Dark as a dungeon outside. That didn’t stop the place from being full of people. All day long. They’d come in drenched, soaked to the gills, and we still had a great time.”
. . .
He didn’t stop with the Depot, however. Bolivar County hadn’t added a library branch in 30 years — Wise added four. He hired new librarians too. When he took over as director, every branch librarian was white. As he prepares to leave, all but one are African American. He installed computers with Internet access, the first public library in the Delta to do so, and offered free videos, an innovation that left people agog. He launched summer reading programs, handed out prenatal “literacy kits,” arranged for people to receive free reading glasses and eye exams.

He even persuaded Archie Comics to publish a special comic: Archie, Jughead and the gang visit the Cleveland Depot, where they meet Bertha, a composite of all the real adults learning to read there. Wise, a lifelong collector, knew how effective comic books could be in teaching adult nonreaders — especially if the comic book was about the nonreader.

Despite the local popularity of his actions, he faced huge obstacles.

But after all his preaching about the virtue of “lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness,” darkness was closing fast.

It grew pitch-dark the night someone set fire to Wise’s library in Shaw, south of Cleveland. “Numbness and horror,” Wise says. “Here’s this thing you’ve nurtured, and grown, and now it’s no longer there.” Months later, someone did it again. Then someone set fire to the library in Gunnison. Books that didn’t turn to ashes were ruined by smoke and water. An old man came by days later and loaded the ruined books into his pickup: He burned them for heat all winter.

Three library fires and still no one arrested. With a wry smile, Wise says a few charred libraries don’t seem to be high-priority in these parts. He takes a generally wry view of local law enforcement. “When my house was broken into,” he says, “the policeman who showed up wrote the police report on his hand.”

It’s no easier to bear when nature is the vandal. A tornado once damaged the busiest branch in Wise’s system: the local prison, where 4,000 books, and a sporadic book club organized by Wise, keep the men from going mad. “A mind can be a terrible thing,” says Oscar Lindsey, the prison librarian, “and a book can keep you from twirling around inside it.”

The historical, geographic, and institutional barriers to literacy and library service continue. Bolivar County has much reason for pride as well as reasons for despair. The legacies of slavery continue to this day.

One-third white, two-thirds black, Bolivar County has a long history of ignorance and hate, made doubly tragic by its parallel history of genius and hope. This is where freed slaves — including Isaiah Montgomery, son of a favored slave of Jefferson Davis’ family, who was granted access to the Davis plantation library — founded a landmark community just for blacks. This is where Freedom Riders came in droves during the civil rights era, registering voters and laying the groundwork for all kinds of change, including Freedom Schools, makeshift classrooms where African Americans could finally learn.

This is where the blues was born, and raised. Bolivar County is to blues what Philadelphia is to democracy. The founding fathers — W.C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton — drank and caroused all over this county, and not 10 minutes from the Depot sits a hallowed farm, Dockery Plantation, where musicians from throughout the South came to blend moans and chants and spirituals, all the disparate sounds of an enslaved culture, into one hauntingly American plaint.

Then they all hopped a fast train out.

Launching a literacy crusade from a train depot was an act rich in meaning and irony, one that spoke to the historical contradictions of the Delta. A train whistle is evocative everywhere, but in the Delta that high lonesome note goes straight to the heart, because the Delta wasn’t livable, or leave-able, until the first tracks were laid down.
. . .
The source of illiteracy is slavery, he says, plain and simple: Before the Civil War, Bolivar County had more slaveholding plantations than any county in the South. Slavery begat illiteracy, he argues, illiteracy perpetuates economic slavery, and the cycle simply remains unbroken.

African Gold from the Glassell Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gold work and royal regalia from Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

Details
May 26-Nov. 26:
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Daily
National Museum of Natural History – Smithsonian Institution
10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC
• Information: 202-633-1000
• Price: Free

Editorial Review
A Ghanaian Golden Age That Still Reigns Supreme

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006; Page C01

The soul of the sovereign must be protected. His “soul washers” must see to it, must ensure the purity of their king, the Asantehene.

He is the ruler of the Asante, that most illustrious subgroup of the Akan peoples of modern-day Ghana. In public appearances, he is drenched in the gold that, since the 15th century, has made the Akan famous. It gave Africa’s Gold Coast its name.

The Asantehene wears gold sandals. And gold rings, gold armlets, anklets, bracelets and amulets. He tops it off with gold headdresses and crowns. Gold sculptures surround him. Most importantly, he sits on a gold stool believed to hold the spiritual powers of the Asante monarch.

In his royal retinue are the court criers topped with gold headdresses, the counselors bearing gold staffs, the sword bearers grasping their ornately designed gold hilts, the gong players with their gold-leaf instruments and, not least, the washers of the king’s soul.

They wear large gold plates that dangle from their necks. They are called “soul discs” or “soul washers’ badges,” and they herald the wearers’ singular reason for being: to protect and cleanse the king’s soul.

These lavish gold works of kings and their courts, which went on display last week and remain through November at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, are the portable bricks and mortar of Akan ceremonial culture. More than decoration, these ornaments are signifiers laden with Akan cultural symbolism. Beyond their aesthetic value — and clearly they were made to dazzle — they convey status. They tell of one’s rank in the royal court. And they tell stories based on the proverbial wisdom of the ancestors. They convey the power and entitlement of the monarchy. Wherever the king goes, so goes his gold, including even these “soul discs.”

The discs are sometimes huge, as much as seven inches in diameter, giving them the look almost of breastplates. They are made of cast gold or gold leaf over wood or gold hammered into relief. The discs appear not just around necks, but attached to stools, swords, crowns, sandals. They are among the many talismanic motifs in Akan regalia.

“African Gold From the Glassell Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston” is among the world’s largest collections of African gold. The pieces are dated from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, but they are linked to West African traditions of more than 1,000 years.

Alfred C. Glassell Jr., who made his wealth in the oil and gas industries, collected the objects through art dealers and art auctions of items being sold by Akan royals, says Frances Marzio, curator the Glassell collection. Such sales are common whenever a new leader is installed. He then typically commissions new regalia from the royal goldsmiths. None of the items on show at the Smithsonian was collected through the European pillage of African art and treasures, Marzio said.

The Akan states date to the 15th century. Their rise was fueled by the global demand for gold, both in Africa and abroad.

The Asante kingdom, which dawned at the end of the 17th century, was founded, according to legend, when an Asante priest called a golden stool down from the sky. The stool landed on the knees of one Osei Tutu, thereby selecting him as the first in what would be a line of Asantehene who are celebrated, albeit only ceremonially, to this day.

Of all the adornments of a king or a chief, his sandals are foremost — as important to an Akan king as a crown is to a European one. Just as there are attendants for an Akan king’s soul, so too are there keepers of his sandals, of which there can be many pairs.

It is forbidden for a king to walk barefoot. Some kind of disaster could befall the kingdom if he does. And when a king is dethroned, his sandals are taken from him and he is made to walk away, barefoot, powerless.

On display here in the Glassell collection is a pair of sandals adorned with golden serpents where the straps meet the toe piece. A serpent’s bite is associated with both royal and military power. And the serpents are flanked, on the straps, by rows of gold cocoons.

Cocoons typically are suggestive of an Akan proverb: “It is a puzzle to know how the caterpillar entered its cocoon: Did it build it before entering it or did it build it around itself?” Clearly, the proverb suggests that some things are destined to remain a mystery, writes African art historian Doran H. Ross, who authored “Gold of the Akan From the Glassell Collection.” What is unclear is the proverb’s meaning for a king or chief, he says.

The sankofa bird appears on royal gold gongs, on counselor’s gold staffs. With its head twisted and facing its rear, the bird symbolizes the gathering up of the past to move forward — or, as the simple Akan proverb goes, “Pick it up if it falls behind.”

Today, modern Ghana’s royalty does not govern. But the traditions of its gold-laden pomp have not been allowed to fall behind.

African Gold From the Glassell Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston includes 136 gold objects from the Akan peoples of Ghana, as well as a few from the related Baule people of Ivory Coast. It runs through Nov. 26. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. NW., is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Call 202-357-4600. Admission is free.

Kojo Antwi, Mr. Music Man, has been hugely popular in Ghana for at least two decades. You can find more information, pictures, and purchase his CDs direct from his website, kojoantwi.com, which features this apt description:

Kojo’s music- Afro Pop is a well-tasty, magical blend of West Africa’s Hi Life and Soukous, The Carribean’s Lovers’ Rock, a hint of Afro-America’s Rhythm and Blues, brewed in a large African pot and stirred with well-composed lyrics plus a voice so sweet. Like a polished diamond, Kojo Antwi aka Mr Music Man continues to sparkle, bringing light and joy to many through his sweet music and exciting shows across the globe.

In an exciting career spanning over two decades he has gone from bubbly vocalist through introspective songwriter and lead singer to consummate musician, arranger, producer and enigmatic performer. He is a sheer delight to behold on stage.

You can purchase CDs and DVDs here. The opening page of the site features a sound file, although the kojoantwi.com discography does not yet feature sound files.

Pan African Allstars sells the CD Densu, and you can sample some of the tracks.

From Bob Geiger, enjoy a laugh, and a bit more news than you’ll see on TV.

Due to wrong decisions at every step of the way, and due to outsourcing security to paramilitaries trained and armed by us, we have created a situation which we have no ability or resources to control. So what can we do in Iraq? John Robb at Global Guerrillas sums it up:

What can we do? Nothing but leave. We can neither expect the leadership of US military to develop sound strategies for mitigating the damage done, nor can we reverse drivers of chaos that have been initiated over the last three years. This chaotic system is now running smoothly under the power of its own internal dynamics and continued intervention will only continue to worsen it. Withdrawal is the only option. The faster the better.

Or as Simon Jenkins writes about Iraq in The Guardian:

This country has been turned by two of the most powerful and civilised nations on Earth into the most hellish place on Earth. Armies claiming to bring democracy and prosperity have brought bloodshed and a misery worse than under the most ruthless modern dictator. This must be the stupidest paradox in modern history. Neither America nor Britain has the guts to rule Iraq properly, yet they lack the guts to leave.

There is no question that US journalism completely failed in its job during the run up to the war in Iraq. As Nitpicker puts it:

Journalism is supposed to “change the course of events”! In a free society, journalism should be the means by which an informed public decides which direction they want their nation to take. What is that, if not changing the course of events? In fact, that’s why people like me were so disappointed with the media before the Iraq war. If they’d done their job better . . . 2,800 American service members and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive.
And we’d have fewer terrorists.

From the Reporters sans frontières – Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index – 2006 we learn that Ghana is 19 ranks above the United States in freedom of the press. If you would like to see some of the latest news from Ghana check GhanaWeb News, and select by year, month, and date, for current or archived news. Or choose Headlines, or any other topic from the menu on the left for the most recent stories.

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