Alabama: A Short Story

Alabama: A Short Story


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




we blacks wonder about fate and destiny, justice and karma. sometimes there seems that

there is no god, or rather if there is a god then he is capricious with a macabre sense

of humor—we grant him humor because to think of god without humor would be to

concede that we are at the mercy of a monster who enjoys literally tormenting us to death.




Books by Kalamu ya Salaam


The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement  /   360: A Revolution of Black Poets

Everywhere Is Someplace Else: A Literary Anthology  /  From A Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets

Our Music Is No Accident   /  What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self

My Story My Song (CD)


John Coltrane CDs:

 Ascension  /  Ballads  /  Best of John Coltrane / Impressions / My Favorite Things  / Selflessness  / A Love Supreme  / Giant Steps  Meditations 

Kulu Se Mama  /  Interstellar Space  / The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions  / Stellar Regions  / Expression / Afro Blue Impressions

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A Short Story by Kalamu ya Salaam



it is late in december 1998, the weather is uncharacteristically warm. there is much that is wrong. an old man has killed himself. 

if he had been an airplane and fell from the sky, the forensic engineers might have diagnosed: metal fatigue—the quality of structural breakdown when the weariness caused by the ravages of time destroy an object’s physical ability to bear the weight of existence. but this fellow was not a passenger jet. he was just a chestnut colored, elderly african american whom everyone said looked remarkably good for his age.

his eyesight was fit enough—without glasses he could drive day or night. and he would step two flights of steps rather than wait on a slow elevator. he was sensible about his diet and walked two miles every morning to keep his weight down. plus, any day of the week, he could out bowl his son. no, his age was not a problem.

so what was so disastrous in his life that the permanent solution of suicide was the action of choice to deal with whatever temporary problem he was confronting?

we are not sure what exactly was wrong, but we do know that when he resolved to end it, he was watching television. got up and said something to his wife, who was in the kitchen. shortly thereafter went into his back yard with a gun in his hand—no  one in the house saw him go outside. but what if they had? could they have stopped him? probably not. at best they may have been able to momentarily postpone the inevitable, but eventually life turns cold. or we are deluged with the dreariness of chilly rains. and we die.

what did the slow moving man think as he descended the steps into the back yard? indeed, did he think, or was his mind blank with certainty?

his body died there, but was he already dead in spirit? does it matter what happens to the body, once the spirit has been broken? this is a story about death.


i have often thought about those stark black and white photographs of lynching scenes. we know what happened to the lynchee, but what happened to all the lynchers? the ones standing around. some smiling into an unhidden camera—look, you can see that these people know that a photograph is documenting them. a number of them are looking at the camera full on, challenging the lens to capture something human in the grisly scene. a significant number are children, young boys and girls, leering.

i have heard stories of whites who were repulsed by those death scenes. those who were changed forever by witnessing a lynching, hearing about a lynching, backing away from their parents come back home chatting about the nigger who got what he deserved. ok. but what i want to know is what happened to the lynchers who did not back away. those who took in the murder scene as acceptable. later on in life, how did they raise their children? do they have flashbacks of lynchings—occasionally? often? never?

does watching a man or woman die a violent death diminish the person who enjoys the spectacle? can one revel in the fascinating flame of a human on fire and afterwards remain emotionally balanced? and what about memory, does the extreme violence of mob murder involuntarily replay years later triggered by scenes such as oj maintaining he did not slice nicole’s throat or wesley snipes on the silver screen bigger than life kissing a white woman who favors irma singletary, your daughter’s friend who divorced a black man after he beat her one night and she refused to press charges against him the next morning?

in many of those garish photographs there are a lot of people standing around. i wonder how many among those audiences are alive today, driving america’s streets and buying christmas gifts?


richard hammonds was a handsome man. he was moderately intelligent. could work hard but really didn’t like to exert his body to the point of sweating. believe it or not what he was really good at was leather work. give him a piece of leather and his tools and he could make anything from shoes to hats and everything in between. and he would do it well, so well that a number of people have been buried wearing shoes richard had made—their family knew how proud the deceased had been of richard’s handicraft, so that’s what the corpse wore at the funeral.

for example, brother james sweet—his name was actually james anthony johnson but, with a twinkle in his eye, he would raise his left hand, flashing his ruby and diamond pinkie ring, graciously tip his ever present gray stetson, and, in his trademark rumbling baritone, request that you call him “james sweet, bra-thaaa jaaaames sweee-eat, cause i’m always good to womens, treats children with kindness and is a friend to the end with all my brothers”—well, brother sweet had instructed everyone of concern in his immediate family to bury him in his favorite, oxblood loafers that richard had hooked up especially for sweet. there were no shoes more comfortable anywhere in the world and he, sweets, which was the acceptable short form of brother sweet, certainly didn’t want to be stepping around heaven with anything uncomfortable on his bunioned feet (nor, likewise, running through hell, if it came to that—and he would wink to let you know that he didn’t think it would come to that). of course, at a funeral you don’t usually see the feet of the recently departed but that was not the point.

the point is that people were really pleased with richard hammonds’ handiwork. unfortunately, in terms of a stable income, although richard hammonds excelled at making leather goods, what he actually loved to do was watch and wager on the ponies. and since he lived in new orleans and the fair grounds racetrack was convenient, well, during racing season, which seemed to be almost year round, richard spent many an afternoon cheering on a two year-old filly while his workbench went unused.

fortunately, richard hammonds seldom wagered more than he could afford to lose and on occasion won much more than he had gambled for the month. however, winning at the racetrack was uncertain. no matter what betting system he used, richard could never accurately predict when he would win big or how long a losing streak would maintain its grip on his wallet.

routinely, richard would do enough leather work to pay the house note and give eileen an allotment to buy food and then it was off to the races. needless to say, had eileen not worked as a seamstress at haspel’s factory in the seventh ward, this would have been an unworkable arrangement.

but richard hammonds didn’t drink more than a beer now and then, went to mass every sunday morning, and was moderately faithful, so what could have been a precarious and intemperate social situation settled into a predictable and manageable state of affairs until richard was wobbling home one october evening—he had had a very good day and had indulged in a few drinks at mule’s, in fact, he had even bought a round for the guys and stashed a small bundle in his hip pocket for eileen and still had in his inside jacket pocket enough money to pay for every bill he could think of.

when the police stopped richard his explanations of who he was, where he had come from, where he was going and how he came to have so much cash weren’t sufficient to please the two officers who were looking for a middle-aged colored man who had robbed and raped a woman over in mid-city.

we do not have to go into any details. the focus of this story is not on the beating, the injustice of his subsequent death, or even the condemning of the two police officers. remember we are concerned with death, and the question is: when, if ever, did richard know he was going to die and what was his reaction, or more precisely, what were his thoughts about that awful fact, if indeed he ever realized the imminence of his demise?


everybody, sooner or later, thinks about dying. for many african americans there is even a morbid twist on this universal reflection on the inevitability of mortality. for us, it is not just a question of when we will die but also a more thorny question, a question we seldom would admit publicly but one that at some occasion or another consumes us in private: would i be better off dead? if you had been reared black in pre-sixties white america, sooner or later, you probably looked that thought in the eye?

however, the universality of death thoughts notwithstanding, there is a big difference between abstract speculation about the eventuality of death and the far more difficult task of confronting the stale breath of death as it fouls the air in front your nose. death is nothing to fuck with. indeed, actually facing certain death can make you shit on yourself, particularly if death not only surprises you but also perversely gives you a moment to think about crossing the great divide. like when a lover in the throes of getting it on, sincerity announces through clenched teeth that they are about to come, you respond as any sensible person would by doing harder, or faster, or stronger, or more tenderly, more intensely, more whatever, you increase the pressure and help usher that moment, well, when it’s death coming what do we do, do we rush to it, or do we withdraw from it? don’t answer too soon. think of all the people you have heard of who died as a result of being some place they really shouldn’t have been, being involved in some situation they should never have encountered, at the hands of someone whom they should never have been near. think about how often we die other than a natural death—and then again, what death is not natural, because isn’t it part of human nature to die, and to kill?

richard never expected to die on that day, especially since he had just experienced the good fortune of a twenty-to-one long shot paying up on a fifty dollar bet. even when the tandem took turns trying to beat a confession out of him, even after his jaw was broken and he could only moan and shake his head, even then richard still didn’t think of death. he was too busy dealing with pain. when they put the gun in his mouth, he perversely thought, “go head, pull the trigger, that would be better than getting beat like this,” but even then, richard didn’t really expect to die. he just wanted the beating to be over and if it took death to end it, well, he was feeling so bad he thought that death might be preferable. yet, richard didn’t really think he was going to die. in fact, as is the case with so many of us, richard died before he realized they were going to kill him.

we blacks wonder about fate and destiny, justice and karma. sometimes there seems that there is no god, or rather if there is a god then he is capricious with a macabre sense of humor—we grant him humor because to think of god without humor would be to concede that we are at the mercy of a monster who enjoys literally tormenting us to death.

which brings up another question, would we procreate if it were not so pleasurable? if sex didn’t feel good, would we bother with conceiving children? for many of us the answer is obvious; of course, we wouldn’t. that’s why birth control was created—to protect us from disease and children, to make it possible for us to enjoy the pleasure of sexual procreation with none of the responsibilities of child rearing. which means that the drive to have children may in fact not be as strong as we have been led to believe, or maybe, it’s simply that in modern times we have been conditioned to think only of ourselves—the personal pleasures. but the question i really want to raise is this: what if death were pleasurable would we end ourselves? what if it felt really good to die—not just calming but totally pleasurable?

of course, richard was not thinking any of these sorts of questions as the two officers smashed in richard’s face. formal philosophy is a task engaged in by those for whom survival is not a pressing issue.


every age, every people, every society has an ethos—a defining spirit. and this spirit expresses itself in sometimes odd and fascinating ways. for much of the 20th century the ethos of african americans was one of contemplating the future with a certain optimism. why else march through the streets of birmingham, alabama and sing “we shall overcome” to bull connor, a man who was not known for any appreciation of music?

the birmingham of bull connor was just about half a century ago. during that period when bombs regularly sounded throughout birmingham and the deep south, if you go back and look at the pictures of black people of that era when they posed for a portrait, especially if they were college educated, you will invariable spy among the men what i call the classic negro pose of hand to chin in contemplation. a variation is one temple of a  pair of glasses held close to or between the lips; then there is the pipe firmly grasped, not to mention the college diploma held to the side of the head like a sweetheart—these are iconic images of optimistic negroes, images that capture the ethos of their era.

today, the hand has moved from the chin. we no longer pose in contemplative ways, what is cropping up more and more is the hand to the crown of the head, not in a woe is me posture, but more like: damn, this is some deep shit we’re in.

unconsciously, during a recent photo shoot, i ended up in that pose. when the picture was published i was mildly surprised, i did not remember adopting that look of serious concern. but just because i don’t remember it does not mean that it didn’t happen. clearly it happened. there is my unsmiling portrait. and i see that pose more and more, particularly when i look at the publicity shots of writers. we are children of production—we are shaped and influenced, even when unconscious of it, by the prevailing ethos. a lot of us look like we are gravely weighing the upsides and downsides of both life and death.

and when people tell you how much they like that photo, then that tells you just how much the photo reflects our current contemplation of death. in those photographs rarely are we smiling. our eyes are wide open. we are not dreamy eyed romantics. we are not lost in meditation. we are looking at death. the disintegration of our communities, the fissure of our social structures, the absence of lasting interpersonal relationships, the proliferation of age and gender alienation. the death of a people.

and when i took my photo it was supposed to be a happy occasion. but obviously the myth of the happy negro is long gone.


i wonder when the old man put the gun to his head did he hold his head with his free hand?


richard couldn’t put his hands to his head because his hands were handcuffed behind him.


which story seems more plausible: the old man or richard? is it not odd that by piling up details and framing the story in a believable context it is relatively easy to believe that richard hammonds actually died as a result of a police beating and shooting in the late fifties in new orleans? and that the old man seems to be a metaphor. but an old man (whose name i don’t want to reveal because it would add nothing to our story) actually killed himself during the christmas holidays (of course i speculate and fictionalize a lot of the old man’s story, but the suicide actually happened) and the story of richard hammonds is totally fictitious except for the cops who killed him—cops did kill negroes in new orleans.


the old man and richard hammonds had gone to high school together, and gone to bars together, making merry, drinking and acting mindlessly stupid on a couple of occasions. they had double dated a couple of times, and had once even engaged in sex with the same woman (at different times, months apart, but the same woman nonetheless—she remembers the old man as the better lover because he was more tender, seemed more sincere.

(there had been this untalked about but often expressed rivalry between richard and the old man. close friends are often bound by both love and jealousy, so there was nothing unusual about them being attracted to the same woman. but remember richard was the handsome one. he was also glib, perhaps because he learned how to hold back his feelings. he could talk a woman into bed, or more likely the back of a studebaker—richard’s father worked as a pullman porter and made nice money for a colored man and had bought a car but was often not in town to enjoy the car and richard, though he didn’t personally have much money, did have access to the car. anyway, richard never thought about what the women he bedded in the back seat thought about before, during or after he bedded them. after all it was just a moment’s pleasure.

(but the old man, well, he was a young man then, he thought about how others felt about him a lot, and though he fucked mildred, it was not because she was available but because he was really, really moved by mildred and told her so. told her, “girl you moves me.”

(“i do?” she was used to men wanting to sex her, but not to men admitting that they were deeply affected by her.

(“yes, you does,” and he twirled her at that moment—they were dancing and he was whispering in her ear, dancing in a little new orleans nite club, to a song on the juke box—he twirled her. and smiled. and she had never been twirled quite like this gracefully dancing young man twirled her. and when she reversed the twirl and spun back into his arms, he momentarily paused and said, “i wish i could dance with you all night.”)

the old man had not been angling to get her in bed, he was just genuinely enjoying her company. he liked to dance. she liked to dance. they were having a good time. and when somehow they ended up making love on the sofa in her front room that night while her sister and her sister’s children soundly (he hoped) slept two rooms away, he had been a little nervous at first.

her softness felt so good, before he knew it, a little cry caught in his throat. he was trying to be quiet, but goodness and quiet sometimes do not go together. i mean, you know how good it hurts to hold it in? well the possibility that the sound of your love making will disturb and awaken others nearby, that anxiety about discovery adds to the covert enjoyment. so, instead of surfacing upward through his throat, the cry was redirected down into his chest, but it bounced back and was about to pop audibly out of his mouth. mildred felt that sound about to pour forth like a coo-coo clock gone haywire, and with the mischief that only a woman can summon she cupped one hand tightly over his mouth and with her other hand reached down and gently squeezed his testicles.

ya boy liked to died. he shuddered. he couldn’t breathe. her hand tightly covered his mouth and partially blocked his nose. and he was coming like mad. and he moaned a stifled moan, air yo-yoing back in forth between the back of his mouth atop his throat and the near bursting constriction of his chest. finally, he wheezed gusts of exhales out of his distended nostrils, which flared like those of a race horse heaving after a superfast lap. and then he cried out and tried to call back the sound all at the same time. and that was followed with another terrible quake. in a semi-conscious state, he lay helpless, wrapped up in the murmured laughter of mildred’s playful passion.

but he didn’t hear her soft, soft laughter. he didn’t hear anything. he was totally out of it. he was struggling to catch his breath, in fact had almost slipped off the large couch—if her legs had not clamped around him so firmly, he would have tumbled to the floor. after that he didn’t distinctly remember anything until he woke up the next morning, at home, in his own bed and didn’t know how he got there. he must have walked home or something, but all he could remember was her softness, her touch, his lengthy orgasm (he had never come that long before), and the way her legs held him when he almost fell over. you can easily forget a short walk home, but there are some experiences that are so sharply etched in the memory of your flesh, those encounters you never forget.

a couple of days later when richard asked the old man about mildred, whether they had done it, the old man had said, “no, we just had a good time dancing and i took her home. then i went home.” richard had replied, “you should have got it, she likes you. i got her drunk and got it once but she never would let me get no mo. but she likes you. you should get it.” the old man had said nothing further, merely looked away, certain that richard would not understand that what the old man felt for mildred, although initiated by the sharpness of their sexual encounter, was, nonetheless, a feeling deeper than a good fuck.

many years later, when the old man was watching the house of representatives vote to impeach bill clinton for lying to the american people about the monica lewinsky affair, something terrible took hold of him. although he continued to see mildred for over twenty years and even had a kid with her, the old man had never told his wife. and he felt intensely guilty. intensely.

he felt horrible. felt like he had felt at richard’s funeral. sitting in the catholic church before a closed casket. the body had been too brutalized to have a public viewing. the police had shot his good friend richard, shot him in the head.

while he sat between his wife and two daughters on one side and his young son on the other side, the old man was thinking about his dead friend when he looked up and saw mildred looking over at him with those large, limpid, brown eyes. nearly every time he stole a glance her way, she seemed to be looking directly at him. he could not read her eyes.

but his friend richard was dead. and his wife and legitimate children were at his side and his woman was across the isle staring at him, and the old man felt really guilty about how he was living his life, and he put his head in his hands and just wanted to ball up and die. and he didn’t realize he was crying until his wife daubed his face with her handkerchief.


a murder is a crime against society. we look at pictures of murderers and wonder about them. wonder what led them to do it. wonder do they have feelings like the rest of us.

what motivates one human to lynch another?

in the case of a suicide, everyone who survives wonders not only what led to the murder but also, particularly for those who were close to the victim, we wonder what could we have done, what “should” we have done to prevent the murder.

murder is a crime condemning society and suicide is particularly damning of those who were close to the murderer (who is also the murderee). if you think about someone close to you committing suicide, you have to ask yourself, what did i fail to do that would have prevented that person from committing self-murder? while sometimes we ask that question of a mass murderer—what could have been done to prevent them from acting the way they did—we always ask that question of a suicide. and why? if we can not stop people from committing large and impersonal murders, how can we hope to stop small murders, the most personal of murders: the suicide? the question is perplexing.

after awhile though, you come to an awful realization: maybe it is impossible to stop people from killing each other and themselves. indeed, is it not a certainty that it is impossible to stop suicide?


if you are shot in the head with a large handgun it can be messy.


if you shoot yourself in the head with a large handgun it can be messy.


the old man’s casket was sealed before the funeral mass just like richard’s had been. a closed casket is a terrible death for it is a death which suggests that this death is much more worse than ordinary death. this is a death you can not look in the face. and what can be more horrible than imagining how horrible death looks when the corpse is too horrible to look at?


mildred was at the old man’s funeral. so was their son who favored his mother but had his father’s skin color. mildred had not talked with the old man in over two months, and then it was only briefly over the phone. he had said something about being sorry he had never been brave enough to marry her. and hung up. mildred had waited in vain for him to call back. as anxious as she had been, she had never once broken their agreement. she knew where he lived, knew his phone number, but she never called. never. and now he was dead, gone. life is so cruel, especially when much of your life is lived cloistered in a box of arrangements shut off from what passes for normal life. to everyone mildred looked like the statistic of single mother with one child: a son, father unknown. but what she felt like was a widow, a widow whom had never been married but a true widow nevertheless, her de facto husband’s corpse sequestered in a closed box, not unlike her whole life, lived unrecognized outside of sight. isaacs (mildred and the old man’s son) used to ask who his father was, but he stopped asking after weathering junior high school taunts. and once he was married and had children of his own, he understood that what was important was not who his father had been but what kind of father he would be for his children. when his mother called and asked him to accompany her to the old man’s funeral, issac at last knew the answer without ever having to rephrase the question. mildred and isaacs both remained dry-eyed throughout the service even though inside both of them were crying like crazy.

you can not gauge the depths simply by looking at the surface. printed on the program was a smiling snapshot of the old man. next to the closed casket there was an enlargement of this same posed photograph. but what picture of the old man was in various people’s mind?

moreover, what does a self murderer look like whose death has left the corpse too gruesome to witness? certainly not like the smiling headshot on the easel surrounded by flowers.

was the look in the old man’s eye as he pulled the trigger anything like that wild look in the eyes of white people staring at a lynched negro—of course not? but what did he look like looking at his own death?


have you ever seen a picture of the man who was convicted of bombing the baptist church in birmingham, alabama and killing those four little girls? he looks like a white man. and once you get beyond the racial aspect of the murderer, he looks like a man. and once you get beyond the gender aspect of the murderer—a grown man killing four little girls—well, then, he looks like a human being. murderers are human beings. they look like what they are. it is a conceit to think that murderers look different from “ordinary” human beings. what does a killer look like? look at the nearest human being.


while i admit i have not seen a lot of pictures of white people—and then again i have undoubtedly seen more pictures of white people than of black people when you consider how the image of whiteness surrounds us and bombards us in school, in commerce, in television, in entertainment, in advertisements, everywhere—but anyway, i don’t remember seeing many white persons in the classic negro pose of yore nor in the contemporary iconic hand to the crown of the head pose.

in examining the photos of lynchings i see none of the concern for the future that the hand to the head would indicate. that hand to the head indicates that a person has a heart. that a person is feeling life, and though the life that is felt may not be pleasant, at least we are still feeling.

but when you watch and listen to and smell a person dying, and when you cut off your feelings for the fate of another human being, well . . .—and you know it is not biological. have you read about the civil wars in africa typified by the hutu vs. tutsi conflict? how literally thousands of people are hacked to death. it is one thing to fire a gun or drop a bomb, it is another thing to whack, whack, whack with a machete slaughtering a human being as though assailing a dangerous beast or a tree that was in the way of progress. when any of us, be we white, black, or whatever, when we severe our feelings to the point that not only do we methodically and unfeelingly commit acts of mass murder or acts of ritual murder, when we can watch murder and not feel revulsion then obviously we have moved to the point that death gives us pleasure.

when i first raised the issue about death and pleasure you may have thought, “oh, how absurd.” but the next time you are chomping your popcorn and sipping your artificially flavored sugar water while watching thrilling scenes of mayhem, murder and mass destruction on the silver screen (perhaps i should add that you have paid for the privilege of this pleasure), but the next time the bodies fly through the air, the bullets rip apart a young man in slow mo, the very next time you watch an image of death and get pleasure from it, see if you can remember to say “oh, how absurd.”

i think you won’t be able to, any more than at the moment of orgasm you would holler “oh, how absurd.” for you see pleasure in and of itself is never absurd, perverse perhaps, but never absurd. and taking pleasure in someone else’s death: oh, how . . . what? how do we describe that pleasure? what is human about enjoying death? or perhaps, since deriving pleasure from someone else’s demise seems to be a norm today, maybe i should ask, what is inhuman about enjoying death?

there is much that is wrong.

First published in Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic (2004) edited by F. Brett Cox and Andy Duncan.

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Unfinished Blues

          (featuring Walter “Wolfman” Washington – guitar)

                   By Kalamu ya Salaam

sometimes i never

think of you

other times seems

like i never get through


seasons pass, rain falls

i never think of you

some recorded singer sighs

i wonder how you do


the ache in my heart

got a key

to my mind’s back door

comes and goes

as it please


i don’t miss you all

of the time



2 May 2010

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Reading “Alabama”

By Rudolph Lewis 


Death is one of those events that happens in life that is not easily talked about with friends or strangers, especially with one’s brothers that one has known for decades. Maybe it is easier when one is young and fearless, easier to have such a tryst with one who is young and capable of sitting still with a literary interest.

Death is a startling occasion when one looks in the mirror and sees the gray hair, the sag in the chin, the loss of teeth,  the hang of one’s belly, and the eyes no longer as bright and optimistic as they used to be, as one remembers when one looks ever for the next feminine conquest. The body speaks loudly to one now if one has ears to hear. The love of conquest of a woman’s body has lost its power over one’s impulse and the question rises, “What am I going to do with it?”

Oh one still has memory of those moments when one had to conceal the self in the shadows of a juke joint after a dance (the Georgia Grind) or behind low hanging garments or a jock strap to conceal one’s youthful embarrassment of being exposed as moved uncontrollably by the mere sight of beauty and feel of a woman’s body intimately against one’s thighs. Those moments have flown to the frigid regions of one’s brain to the back door that seldom opens to man or woman. Of course, Cialis and Viagra can keep physical demise at bay. But when masturbation has lost its thrill, you know a change has come.

Death comes and one minds death more as one comes near to it in the flesh. It is of no great import to the man of 20 or 30. He does not really believe in it or its immediacy. He does not believe it when his mentor grey haired, tells him he is dying. He lets it pass as if  he is being put on as some con to manipulate the mind and the imagination. For he expects, especially if they are walking and talking “normal” that all remains of life is ever eternal. And that teacher dies and he passed his moment of saying goodbye. I pray I see you on the other side of the placid blackwater pond. And you don’t know his family well enough as you have known him to be informed of his passing and you hear of that beloved teacher’s death third hand. You don’t even know where he is laid to rest. Or whether he will visit you in dreams.

Well I really did not begin this writing to talk about my lack of ease about  the approach, the stalking. of death in my own life. I want to say a few things about Kalamu ya Salaam’s short story “Alabama,” which is a strange title, for the setting is in New Orleans. I suppose then Alabama is a cultural symbol of death and of those who died for freedom in Alabama. The narrator speaks of lynching and of the four little Negro girls. He might have mention Selma as well as Birmingham. New Orleans is life and the pleasure of living.

But it is difficult what to say about this narrator, whether he really can be trusted. He tells us that his story is about death. But after reading after listening to him one wonders whether he knows what he is talking about. Death is not something one can really get a hold of, get your arms around, understand it. Plus, this cat, this narrator may be a con man. One never knows about such storytelling. He may know what he is saying and really don’t want us to know what he really knows. That one cannot really know what death is unless one has died, gone to the other side, and returns with all the memory of that experience.

That never was and that will never be. One can only tell us how one responds to death. We each do it differently. So we can say that really “Alabama” is about two brothers. They are not really blood brothers . . . well maybe in a way. I mean they don’t have the same mother and the same father, but they brothers in the life they have shared. No one really ever comes between them, other than the narrator. Richard and James were brothers in the deeper sense: they were of the same gold coin. They had something special and intimate between them, something that was rare, that made them each whole and fully of this life. That something that is not talked about with one’s wife or one’s lover. It’s a silent knowledge that they cannot even voice between them. They have a deep respect—a deep love between them.

I like Kalamu’s “Alabama.” I like it very much, Maybe it will have a greater moment with those who are over forty. The young are fearless, especially the black young these days in the hood. They expect very little out of life. That’s the way the white folks of power have organized our lives in the 21st century, organized for the next generations. We still running up against the wall that has been labeled ever in America, “No Dogs or Niggers Allowed.” It’s a great oddity that’s beyond the understanding of the 100 grand blond Tea Baggers who dread the demise of white male superiority: they fear being over-run by the “coloreds.”

Those days of a picnic at a Negro lynching is one of those deadly events counted as a loss at the back door of their deteriorating sense of self, a struggle against cultural dementia. It is in the image of the eyes in  a photograph that these others do not hide from the camera’s reality and the pleasure one takes in the mutilation and  flames consuming the flesh of the hated Other. That alien that foreign being that exists in one’s midst that one never knows truly as a fellow human being. The skin is an eternal wall  for them, that one cannot see through, cannot see beyond, cannot visit in one’s own humanity, that next door neighbor that ever remains the Stranger There is the absence of desire for wholeness. The worship of the material, of wealth.

The narrator raises this issue as part of his wonderment about death and how one deals with this matter of death of a fellow human being, of a brother, of a lover. He questions how one can live with murder, how death can be a pleasure by one’s hand, by one’s participation as spectacle, or as a popcorn eater sitting in the dark before a silver screen. Of course, we can only speculate on the pleasure of death, of dying because there is no return in which one can do a journalistic query on the subject—there are no pundits, really, on death.

Death raises more question than it answers. That too is true about speculations on death. Maybe there are indeed some certainties about death. There is its permanence, except for the Christ. At times it is welcomed, like the suicide bomber, who defeats and throws in reverse today’s Western imagination. The death of others and at times of one’s self is shut down in our creativity in our attempts to take hold of the fullness of our humanity. Evil—which has little resonance in our post-modern reality, except in the rhetoric of demagogues—is the provocateur in these matters of life and death. Hurt too and fear as well—standing in the way of one’s sense of comfort and being in the world. Love too takes its place, its role as well, as an agent provocateur.

I have seen my father and my mother on their death beds—one struggles first against death and then when you know you ain’t gone get no better, when the mind can never be what it was, that memory has altogether lost its pleasure of memorizing, when all of that you knew as yourself is gone, I imagine, death is a welcomed relief.

Such is the case in “Alabama” when Richard (or is it James or both, in a way) is murdered by New Orleans finest—the brotherhood in blue brutalizes the flesh, that skin that wall which they cannot see beyond, or do not want to see beyond, this nigger with money they don’t think he should have, like Skip Gates in Harvard. They love that easy detective work that they crave to mark down “case solved”—the nigger, this nigger, did it (robbed or raped), and the gun goes off accidentally in the nigger’s mouth. But we know torture is no accident.

The last seven months have been tremendous for me in contemplative death. That is what we have in “Alabama.” The narrator contemplates death and the response to death of the Other, one’s brother and one’s enemy. The story was first published in an anthology— Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic (2004) edited by F. Brett Cox and Andy Duncan. But is death really “fantastic.” The horrid fantasy of death makes me think of Poe or such writers of the horror as William Faulkner. They both were Southerners, that species of being who are ever trying to resurrect that which is dead and best left dead. These Euro-American romantics are a special species of being, never seen fully in the light of their true being in the world. They are well concealed by the walls they erect for themselves and for the blindness of others.

Death has no norm in Southern life—this romantic has no place that it is welcomed with open arms, as that which is desired for itself, as it was for Achebe’s Okonkwo (liberty or death), the knowledge there is a greater pleasure of leaving this world and going over that placid pond or walking through that field of grain its head brushed by the hand in anticipation of meeting again those who have gone ahead and they long and look in the distance for your coming. For the faintly civilized, for the medieval romantics, death is a blackness, a wickedness that is ever consuming, they have no faith that the horrors of the life they live can be surpassed by any other reality beyond the horizon of a present misery, beyond the walls they erect in their own image.

There are two deaths in “Alabama.” There are two funerals. One is murdered by the cops while in custody; the other dies at his own hands. Both cases a gun—a bullet—to the brain. That one left behind walks into his back yard and leaves a life no longer to be tolerated. He leaves a wife behind, a lover, and his lover’s son who never really knew his father. (Sometimes a mother is enough.). It is the story again of Okonkwo, again, maybe the narrator knows Achebe, or maybe the reality of the Negro in a white man’s world is universal, that the oppressed wherever knows too well. Maybe Nathaniel Turner knew it too— that is, his murder was a suicide, the use of another’s, an exposure of another’s inhumanity. One can say that “Alabama” is a kind of cultural exposé. 

I had two brothers to die within the last seven months. One I said goodbye on the phone. He had come to see me here in Finksburg. We sat out on the back porch. He faced death boldly, made arrangements to be buried as a Muslim. I wept . . .  I feel the loss of the talks we had about the world. There was a distance in which we never really got beyond to know each other in the intimacy that goes beyond being fellow warriors on the intellectual battle field of maintaining one’s sanity living in a white man’s world.

That was Amin Sharif. I was far away at Jerusalem, too far to go to get back to his funeral, a day after his death. I have been wordless . . .  He had been dying a decade for sometime of cancer. Modern medicine has its limits of keeping death at bay. I have not known what to say about his death. The obituary his family (his mother and his brother) authored is a tiny sliver of the fullness of his life. They never really talked to him, never really read the genius of his imagination, the creativity in creating a self in which one can live as a man in another’s lynching imagination. He had a consciousness that they only had a glimmer. I miss our telephone conversations.

Mama died just before the New Year, just after Xmas. She was 99. Of her five daughters she left two behind, one almost 80. At 90 she could still have her weight and could stand up straight and proud in her blackness. It is extraordinary how quickly the body and the mind can fall apart to nothing to dust. She fought and struggled against her demise until she welcomed death with open arms, an intimate embrace, as greater than the life to which she was reduced. The smile, the storytelling was gone, and she just lay there on her death bed.

There was just a wisp of her life, of her tenderness in holding my hand. I said goodbye without tears. They came later when I sat alone outside in my truck in my tears. I was overcome with the sadness, the knowing that none could replace her in my life—that a bit of me was dead as well. One does not press these mediations too hard, unless one is wholly overcome.

Aubry’s death came suddenly and wholly unexpected. His wife ill for years. I expected she would expire before him. Even in all his misery, Aubry always had a smile, a humor about life and its twist and turns. I went to see his widow and I was in her presence and in his house and I wept uncontrollably. I was surprised in the back of my mind the state I found myself, tears coming down like waterfalls. It was such a contrast to these other deaths I lived through in such a short space of time. I conclude it was the intimacy of me and Aubry: it was something special. His family was from South Carolina and he knew that rural life when he was a boy during summers. He grew up here in Baltimore. He was a lover of dogs and he was a dog trainer. Of course he was others things as well. he was a storyteller and a blues man. What we shared  went beyond that of my mother or that of my fighting-against-the-odds brother, my brother Muslim.

I recommend “Alabama.” Kalamu ya Salaam has done yeoman’s work; that is, he has written a very creative and thought-provoking story about how we respond to death, to the torture of life and our fellow human beings. He has written in “Alabama” about the uniqueness sexual pleasure can be, of love as well—love between man and woman (in this case, among Richard and James and Mildred), man and man (Richard and James), mother and son (Mildred and Isaac). This is a story worthy of contemplation. Ironically, there is a distinctive pleasure in this contemplation of death.

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rudy, fyi: the story is called ‘alabama‘ because i’m a coltrane freak. one of john coltrane‘s most famous musical compositions is ‘alabama,’ which was written as a tribute to the four little girls who died in the birmingham church bombing. and it was written based on and influenced by the cadence and musicality of one of dr. king’s speeches. if you have not already done so, you should check out coltrane’s magnificent composition and his even greater performance, greater in the sense that beyond the notes on the page, coltrane’s sound, the profound sadness of his saxophone, the moving eloquence of his melodic meditation, and the life force of elvin jones’ drums, especially towards the end, all of that, is what i was directly working towards achieving in my writing. i was also cognizant of the seriousness of the issues i wanted to address, and was consciously linking sex and death—another literary conceit up in there is the french reference to orgasm as ‘petite mort’ (the ‘little death’). plus, this is post-modern writing, i.e., it is self referential. in the story i directly tell the reader that i am writing a story and that i am making up part of it and that part of it is a retelling of factual incidents. the suicide actually happened. it was the father of a friend who was a classmate of my younger brother, and who also was a person with whom i worked and who was in one of our writing workshops. but, because this was not a newspaper article, and because of the way i was writing the story, giving the specifics of who the person was would add nothing to the story, in fact, would distract from the story. finally, i wanted to address a deep, deep question about the nature of murder—both ethnic murder and suicide, i think both those forms of murder profoundly affects us and i wanted to write about that as well. i wanted to achieve with words on paper what john coltrane achieved with his saxophone and musical sensibility. as you know, i don’t usually go on too much about ‘how i write’ whatever i write but you have championed my work for so long and so broadly, and now when you write your reflections on ‘alabama’ i feel compelled, nay, almost obligated to share with you a little of the back story. finally, these are notes about how i wrote ‘alabama‘ and should not be misconstrued as a template for how i write in general. sometimes i just be funking around. sometimes i’m writing for other purposes. sometimes i’m on assignment. and sometimes, as in this case, i’m deadly (pun intended) serious. i’m speaking up this time partially because you were so obviously moved by the story and wondered about the provenance of the title. ‘alabama‘ comes from john coltrane, specifically inspired by and named after coltrane‘s great composition/performance. —kalamu

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There is a genuine beauty in wisdom that reaches far beyond the eye can see—a beauty that cannot compare to the one-dimensional figures found on t.v. and in magazines.

Memories of love, being loved, and even lost love will always be deeply cherished in spite of time. Even if wandering someplace in the back of the mind, it still remains—lingering; and can be triggered by the most insignificant moment.

“Most people judge by what they see without knowing the troubles deep-rooted within me…”. I cannot speak for man, only for being black and being a woman that has shouldered more burdens than half the people I know. The thought of death and dying is no stranger to me. For I have come close more times than I care to admit. I, personally, am not afraid to die. I’ve reached many souls in my short lifetime—I have loved effortlessly and given of myself sincerely, expecting nothing in return even when my heart was weary. The world can be a cruel, callous place—not the world, per say, but the people in it. In spite of this, I continue to give of myself and love hard until that day comes when I take my last breath because God has assured me that there is a method to this madness, and I am His angel blessed with a gift.—Terry O’Neal

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I love Dudley Randall’s poem/The Ballad of Birmingham/I want to read all of your work too/I’m tired of reading right now/Thank-you for the never-ending energy—Francy Stoller

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Brother Rudy, I am shooting from the hip here, reading your first four paragraphs on “Death,” an important subject of all aware humans—moved to comment quickly before reaching your concluding argument. Death is a subject that is often evaded by except when dealing with directly with those who are dying; or celebrating the lives of the dead. .Actually your raising of the subject has led me to thinking about the Materialist idea on the death–one that I have not spent much time considering beyond the idea that, “When a Man (or Woman or any living thing) is Dead, it is Dead.” The materialist worldview–as I understand it, is a philosophy about survival in life. Notwithstanding, about two years ago, a colleague suggested that I read the book, Sogyal, Patrick Gaffney, and Andrew Harvey. 1992. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying . [San Francisco, Calif.]: Harper San Francisco. I find the book, different and interesting. It is a non-western perspective on Death–welcomed because in the community of African Diasporans in the West, our perspective on death is influenced by Christian ideas. The fact is, even for materialists or the religious, we do not have a complete idea about death. So we tend to fear the unknown. Notwithstanding, my own position still remains that when a man is dead, he is dead! Hence, I respect life and all living things.—Yao

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Yao, yes, in the materialist sense, you are right, when you dead you dead and you ain’t coming back, no more.Though these things can’t be really argued, as I suggested above, none of us have had the experience of dying and coming back to talk about it. The view also rest on what is it that we call living. Does the materialist view set certain boundaries on the discussion that cannot be overcome. Scientifically, I suppose it does. But is scientific experience all there is too life.

As you suggested in your recommendation of the Tibetan Book, it is not. There are other “experiences.” Whether they can be verified is uncertain. What of the dream world can that be verified scientifically other than by signs. What if I tell you my fathers visited me in my dreams though dead. Of course, you or none other can know this experience and whether it is real or not.

But as I said the discussion must begin where one sets the parameters of life and living. Black people I do not know that they are Western or Eastern, or some combination of both. Surely, those of the East and West have written creatively about life,  living, dying, and death. What is true and false I cannot really wholly tell. I cannot even say with certainty all that I have experienced in the bright sunlight or in the darkness of night.

What is indeed true is that when one can write creatively and passionately and seriously about that which occur in life one can indeed be moved by even that which is fictional. Loving you madly, Rudy


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A Time to Speak: A Speech by Charles Morgan

Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair. Murdered in an act of terrorism on this day in 1963. We will never forget Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins—all 14 years old, and 11-year-old Denise McNair. They were murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in an act of terrorism by a Klan related group on Sept. 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. The Birmingham Public Library has an online digital collection of photos and news clippings—


4 Little Girls is a 1997 American historical documentary film about the 1963 murder of four African-American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, United States. It was directed by Spike Lee and nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Documentary.”  . . . The film covered the events in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 related to civil rights demonstrations and the movement to end racial discrimination in local stores and facilities. In 1963 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King arrived in the town to help with their strategy. People of the community met at the 16th Street Baptist Church while organizing their events.

The demonstrations were covered by national media, and the use by police of police dogs and pressured water from hoses on young people shocked the nation. So many demonstrators were arrested that the jail was filled. A local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan placed bombs at the Baptist Church and set them off on a Sunday morning. Four young girls were killed in the explosion. The deaths provoked national outrage, and that summer the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnsonwikipedia

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music website > writing website > daily blog > twitter > facebook >

Guarding the Flame of Life

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Men We Love, Men We HateSAC writings from Douglass, McDonogh 35, and McMain high schools in New Orleans.

An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men

Ways of LaughingAn Anthology of Young Black VoicesPhotographed & Edited by Kalamu ya Salaam

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New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin James / They danced atop his casket Jaran ‘Julio’ Green

John Coltrane, “Alabama”  /  Kalamu ya Salaam, “Alabama”  / A Love Supreme

A Blues for the Birmingham Four  /  Eulogy for the Young Victims   / Six Dead After Church Bombing 

John Coltrane A Love Supreme  / My Favorite Things—John Coltrane

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My Favorite Things is a 1961 jazz album by John Coltrane. It is considered by many jazz critics and listeners to be a highly significant and historic recording. It was the first session recorded by Coltrane on the Atlantic label, the first to introduce his new quartet featuring McCoy Tyner (Piano), Elvin Jones (Drums) and Steve Davis (Bass) – neither Jimmy Garrison nor Reggie Workman featured as yet. It is classed as another album in which Coltrane made a break free of bop, introducing complex harmonic reworkings of such songs as “My Favorite Things”, and “But Not for Me.” Additionally, at a time when the soprano saxophone was considered obsolete, it demonstrated Coltrane’s further investigation of the instrument’s capabilities in a jazz idiom. The standard “Summertime” is notable for its upbeat, searching feel, a demonstration of Coltrane’s “sheets of sound,” a stark antithesis to Miles Davis’s melancholy, lyrical version on Porgy and Bess. “But Not For Me” is reharmonised using the famous Coltrane changes, and features an extended coda over a repeated ii-V-I-vi progression. The title track is a modal rendition of the Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein’s seminal song “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. The melody is heard numerous times throughout the almost 14-minute version, and instead of soloing over the written chord changes, both Tyner and Coltrane taking extended solos over vamps of the two tonic chords, E minor and E major. Tyner’s solo is famous for being extremely chordal and rhythmic, as opposed to developing melodies. In the documentary The World According to John Coltrane, narrator Ed Wheeler remarks: “In 1960, Coltrane left Miles [Davis] and formed his own quartet to further explore modal playing, freer directions, and a growing Indian influence. They transformed ‘My Favorite Things’, the cheerful populist song from The Sound of Music, into a hypnotic eastern dervish dance. The recording was a hit and became Coltrane’s most requested tune—an abridged broad public acceptance.” A cover of the title track appeared on the OutKast album The Love Below. It is one of the most well-known examples of modal jazz, set in the Dorian mode and consisting of 16 bars of D minor7, followed by eight bars of Eb minor7 and another eight of D minor7. This AABA structure puts it in the format of popular song structure. The piano and bass introduction for the piece was written by Gil Evans for Bill Evans and Paul Chambers on Kind of Blue. An orchestrated version by Gil Evans of this introduction is later to be found on a television broadcast given by Miles’ Quintet (minus Cannonball Adderley who was ill that day) and the Gil Evans Orchestra; the orchestra gave the introduction after which the quintet produced a rendition of the rest of “So What”. The distinctive voicing employed by Bill Evans for the chords that interject the head, from the bottom up three perfect fourths followed by a major third, has been given the name “So What Chord” by such theorists as Mark Levine. While the track is taken at a very moderate tempo on Kind Of Blue, it is played at an extremely fast tempo on later live recordings by the Quintet, such as Four and More. The same chord structure was later used by John Coltrane for his standard “Impressions.”

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02_My_Story,_My_Song.mp3 (24503 KB)

(Kalamu reading “My Story, My Song”

Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

Track List 1.  Congo Square (9:01) 2.  My Story, My Song (20:50) 3.  Danny Banjo (4:32) 4.  Miles Davis (10:26) 5.  Hard News For Hip Harry (5:03) 6.  Unfinished Blues (4:13) 7.  Rainbows Come After The Rain (2:21)/Negroidal Noise (15:53) 8.  Intro (3:59) 9.  The Whole History (3:14) 10.  Negroidal Noise (5:39) 11.  Waving At Ra (1:40) 12.  Landing (1:21) 13.  Good Luck (:04)

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



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#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying  (1992)

By Sogyal Rinpoche, Patrick Gaffney, and Andrew Harvey

In 1927, Walter Evans-Wentz published his translation of an obscure Tibetan Nyingma text and called it the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Popular Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche has transformed that ancient text, conveying a perennial philosophy that is at once religious, scientific, and practical. Through extraordinary anecdotes and stories from religious traditions East and West, Rinpoche introduces the reader to the fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism, moving gradually to the topics of death and dying. Death turns out to be less of a crisis and more of an opportunity. Concepts such as reincarnation, karma, and bardo and practices such as meditation, tonglen, and phowa teach us how to face death constructively.

As a result, life becomes much richer. Like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Sogyal Rinpoche opens the door to a full experience of death. It is up to the reader to walk through.—Brian Bruya:

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. —Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 13 May 2010




Home   Kalamu Table  Short Stories

Related files: A Love Supreme   Breathing Low & Steady  John Coltrane Bio   Blue Train  Kalamu ya Salaam, “Alabama”  Eulogy for the Young Victims 

Letter from Birmingham Jail   Six Killed in Bombingham   A Blues for the Birmingham Four  Clifford Brown: You Get Used to It

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