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Text and Meaning in T.J. Reddy's Poems in One-Part Harmony (part 4 of 4)

“One should not have to die
to know what death is like,
should not have to eliminate love
from his life because of someone’s confusion
about skin color and esoteric ideologies.”
––T.J. Reddy from “Sky Blue Messages and Wall Hangings”

The brilliant creative literary and visual artist T.J. Reddy
Postered Poetics

The poems are remarkable for the restraint they exhibit. It would have been easy to understand if this book had been filled with one page after another spilling over with militant diatribes condemning the racism responsible for the author’s imprisonment. His pen instead more often chooses to affirm the power of his own spirit to give positive meaning to negative circumstances. These short stanzas from the title poem demonstrate the kind of inner resolve and resilience that made the triumphs of African America’s Civil Rights Movement possible:

Take away my paints and brushes,
I resort to colors in clay and flowers.

Try to limit me from learning,
mind’s eye images keep on transcending…

Lock me away with no way to move,
Body into yoga, my soul is soothed.

––J.T. Reddy

Almost as if to confess that it knew Reddy was a great deal more than it claimed him to be, the North Carolina penal system at various times–– throughout the ordeal of battling for his freedom––allowed him to work in positions that many felt testified to his true character. These included work as: a field representative for the N.C. Cultural Arts Coalition, Artistic Director of the Spirit Square Cultural Center, and counselor for the Offender Aid Program.

Building on Lessons of the Era

Members of the Charlotte City Council in November 1978 concluded that enough had been too much already where the imprisonment of the Charlotte Three was concerned. They submitted a resolution in which they stated, “The turmoil and social upheaval evident in the country during that era can never be eradicated or forgotten. Neither can we erase the history of the so-called Charlotte Three case. But we can build on the lessons that that era of our history has taught us all.”

In their own attempt to build on those lessons, the council members requested commutation of the men’s sentences. “The release of the Charlotte Three,” they noted, “would allow a man of such talent as T.J. Reddy to continue in making the positive contribution to the Charlotte community that has been so evident over the past two years.”

By the time Governor Jim Hunt did commute their sentences in 1979, Reddy had spent nearly a decade battling for his life and freedom. The creative disposition that allowed him to transform those struggles into articulations of poetry and art instead of calculated violence may rightly be described as miraculous.

An Impressive Nelson-Mandelaian Example

As engaging as the writings in Poems in One-Part Harmony are, they represent only a fraction of Reddy’s creative output. In fact, the greater share of his energies would appear to have gone to the visual side of his artistry and into his work as an educator. Where his visual art is concerned, he has proven as steadfast and productive as those heroes of the Harlem Renaissance whose work he admires. His valued achievements as an artist have been acknowledged in many ways, such as with numerous exhibitions, the inclusion of his work in private and public collections, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, and a N.C. Artist Project Grant. Moreover, as an educator he has helped many to forge paths of fulfillment in their own lives.

In one metaphorical sense, Reddy’s most breathtaking literary and visual work of art just might be the life he fought to reclaim and shape into such an impressive Nelson-Mandelaian example of endurance and triumphant grace. That lesson is an important one for the millions struggling to survive these “times of austerity” and it is only one very good reason to make Reddy’s writings and art as accessible through republication and more exhibitions as possible.

by Aberjhani
author of Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black
and co-author of ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love

More on T.J. Reddy and Aberjhani’s Text and Meaning Series

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