ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Today, I am a poet, but I did not choose poetry; poetry found me. I was in eighth grade,
Mrs. O. E. Nelson baptized me. I had been in the water before, but till that day
I had never gotten religion.
Books by Kalamu ya Salaam
My Story My Song (CD)
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Art for Life: My Story, My Song
By Kalamu ya Salaam
this is my story
my song, i will sing these blues,
tho they stole my tongue
I was born Vallery Ferdinand III on 24 march 1947 in New Orleans, Louisiana. My early publishing is done under the name of Val Ferdinand. In 1970, I changed my name to Kalamu ya Salaam (Pen of Peace).
Because I do a great deal of writing as a journalist, music producer (radio programs, album liner notes and artist bios), dramatist, cultural critic, propagandist for various issues, fiction writer, and advertising executive, I usually shy away from identifying myself with any one genre of writing. Poetry is, however, my most developed, and my most comfortable, voice.
I consider poetry the song of literature and consider myself a griot, an African American praise-singer through whom sounds the voice and vision of my people.
one: in the beginning
I think the best thing I can do at this time is to try to get myself in shape and know myself. If I can do that, then I’ll just play, you see, and leave it at that. I believe that will do it, if I really can get to myself and be just as I feel I should be and play it.
–John William Coltrane
Today, I am a poet, but I did not choose poetry; poetry found me. I was in eighth grade, Mrs. O. E. Nelson baptized me. I had been in the water before, but till that day I had never gotten religion.
I was familiar with poetry through church, as well as through segregated public schools where Black, mostly female, teachers imparted culture in both subtle and overtly obvious ways. I will never forget the opening lines of the poem “Invictus”: “out of the night that covers me / black as the pit from pole to pole / I thank whatever gods there be / for my unconquerable soul.”
“Invictus” is not a “Black” poem but the poem has special meaning when done “Blackly” as it was under the tutelage of Mrs. Wilson, my sixth grade teacher at Phyliss Wheatley elementary school.
Although our rowdy class had once sent a student teacher fleeing out of the classroom literally in tears, Mrs. Wilson had the power to render us dumb, to leave us literally holding our breaths, and not daring to say a mumbling word when she confronted us. One day after lunch, as we settled into our seats, she wrote “pussy” in big, shockingly bold letters across the blackboard. She asked us, any of us, to define “pussy”.
I don’t know why she choose that word, but it was a powerful lesson which culminated with one of the young ladies in the class reading out loud the dictionary definitions about pussy willows and pet names for cats, etc.
We all knew the meaning of the word according to Webster was not the issue. Mrs. Wilson cared enough about us to force us to deal with defining ourselves. Even though after school we laughed and exchanged, in whispered conspiracy, other definitions, still from that moment, we became, probably for the first time in most of our young lives, conscious of the need to define what we meant when we used a word. We had been challenged to take responsibility for every word we said.
Far more than solely academics, Mrs. Wilson taught pride to a classroom of Black youngsters who ranged in hue from the light-skinned “Creoles” (as mulattos are generally referred to among Blacks in New Orleans) to dark skinned folk.
I had classmates who would pass for White on the buses after school. We’d get on together, however the darker skinned of us, would sit in the back, behind the “colored” signs. We sometimes threw those “colored screens” out the window, but those were the rare sometimes. In general we just trooped on to the back of the bus and followed the convention of the day, which convention also meant our fairer skinned schoolmates sat up front passing for White. Somehow we knew there was no hard feelings. Some people could run faster than others. Some people were smarter at spelling or English or whatever, and some people were light enough to pass for White.
At the time we did not see “passing” as a particular pathology because this was still public school and everybody was from the same or similar economic strata. Later, that would change, but for now we were all laughing, awkward adolescents who were made to stand in the front of the classroom and recite, with feeling, the concluding lines of “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”
By eighth grade, while I had already been ushered into poetry as a social upliftment device, I did not yet have a conscious knowledge of “nommo” even though I had felt “the force of the orated word” as manifested by preachers in the church and by the brothers talking shit on the block, and also by the recitations which were an integral part of our education at that time.
We were taught Black poetry such as “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay, “God’s Trombones” by James Weldon Johnson, and “When Malindy Sings” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Additionally, there was school and church oratory contests and spring festivals.
I did not define all those oratorical touchstones, which I knew by heart, as poetry. They weren’t poetry like the poetry we studied from books, the Shakespeare and stuff. Our textbooks concentrated on White worlds and I associated poetry with that world.
The stuff I learned by heart and loved didn’t come to me via a book. Most often those works came by word of mouth and by listening. Occasionally, a poem was runoff on a sheet of paper and passed around for us to learn and recite.
Moreover, I never thought of reciting Shakespeare in the same way that we recited James Weldon Johnson. This is probably the beginnings of my belief that Black poetry must be heard to be fully appreciated. I know there are people who feel that way about Shakespeare, but Shakespeare’s rhythms did not quicken my blood.
At the gut level — the blood pounding, getting excited, aroused, your heart literally racing, and you be grinning — for me there’s no poetry like spoken Black poetry. When you experience a good Black poetry performance, the audience actually becomes a “congregation” joining in a quasi religious cultural experience. I identified with that collective emotional experience and I didn’t know poetry attained that. I thought poetry was read alone, very intellectual, very far removed from emotive emotional involvement, and totally devoid of a collective experience. I thought I did not like poetry.
Mrs. Nelson changed that.
She dipped me deep beneath the waters by simply laying Langston Hughes on me. I received the word not from a book, not from my reading Hughes, but rather from hearing him, and hearing him with music, jazz no less, and blues.
“Put your books away. I want you to listen to something.” I was not prepared for the Langston Hughes recording because if this was poetry then poetry was me.
Until that moment I had a disdain for “poetry.” Given the total psychological schema of segregated America, my dilemma was but a minor example of the schizophrenia that marks the Negro’s being.
As I became conscious — or, as we often say, as I “woke up” — and tried to figure a lot of this out, I was confounded. In my ignorance I came up with some awfully dumb theories. I didn’t know that all people had poetry, just had different ways of expressing it. Most of all I didn’t know that given who I was, there were ways of poetic expression that I preferred to others.
Although I had been taught and had absorbed certain lessons, I didn’t “consciously” understand my people and my culture. Yes I was Black. I could feel my culture and be moved by my culture, but “feeling” is not “knowing.” It is not enough to experience, we must also understand if we are to become subjects, and not just objects, of culture and history.
Not only was I ignorant of myself, but even worse, I did not know that there was such a thing for Black people as “knowing thyself.” In school when I read Shakespeare saying “to thy own self be true,” I thought it profound. What was truly profound is that I didn’t know that “know thyself” was a maxim found on the temples of ancient Egypt and in the folk tales of West Africa, indeed, found around the world.
For me, and most Black people, the very process of traditional mainstream education is alienating and engenders a psychological sense of both individual and racial inadequacy. That’s why I had not ascribed philosophy nor poetry to Black people, even thought it was all there. I was not only truly ignorant, I was the perfect product of America’s educational system which confuses Black people by rewarding those Blacks who evidence that they can “think” like Whites and who have an “understanding” of White culture, and fails those who do not evidence receptivity to and absorption of mainstream pedagogy regardless of what else that person knows and can do.
Fortunately for me and my junior high school peers, Mrs. Nelson knew something her students didn’t know. Mrs. Nelson knew we young Blacks needed to be put in touch with ourselves. She knew we needed intellectual self-empowerment that wasn’t referenced to Europeans and American Whites as the paragons of culture, beauty, excellence and achievement. I recognize now that this self pride, or “race consciousness,” was not accidental in my development. Nevertheless, at the time I wasn’t thinking about philosophical questions of self esteem. I was thirteen.
I attended Rivers Frederick junior high school, a public school named for a New Orleans physician of color. Because my mother was an elementary school teacher I had not gone to a neighborhood school, but rather went across town to the schools where she taught: first Fisk elementary for kindergarten through fourth. For fifth and sixth grades I attended Phyliss Wheatley (named for one of the first published African American poets whose work I think of as a perfect example of Negro schizophrenia). I was sent to Frederick because, at that time, my parents judged Frederick the best of the Black, public junior high schools. Frederick more than lived up to its reputation.
My first year at Frederick I got into photography via Mr. Conrad, the industrial arts teacher who set up a small darkroom in the industrial arts shop and started an after school photography club. There were only about a half dozen or so of us who regularly participated. The impact of that experience has lasted throughout my life. After buying my first Yashica twin lens reflex camera in 7th grade, there has never been a time when I did not own a camera.
Up until the time I got deep, deep into performance poetry and drama via the Free Southern Theatre, photography was a major, and more often than not, “the” major form of self expression for me. At Frederick I became so identified with photography that many of my classmates referred to me as “the picture man”.
Mr. Conrad taught photography as an avocation and as a social development mission. He probably received little, if any, school funding, and, for certain, he supplemented our shortfalls in the money to buy camera, film, paper and chemicals with funds out of his own pocket. Likewise, I’m sure, Mrs. Nelson had purchased that Langston Hughes record with her own funds.
My three years at Frederick were a cultural breakthrough for me. I learned myself in a conscious way that was a culmination of all that had come before via my parents and my years in my grandfather’s church. This was also a fitting prelude (and perhaps a critical spur) to my involvement in the civil rights movement and my conscious break with Creole and European goals and orientations.
I became conscious of myself as a positive and culturally active human being — I formed friendships that lasted far longer than those created at any other period of my formal education; I got involved in artistic self expression; I experienced puppy love and first kissed girls; became conscious of the blues and of jazz; realized that there were languages other than English and began to learn French; traveled for the first time by myself to and from school; went out for the school football team (I didn’t make it but found out later that even the coach who told me I “didn’t have to come back” to practice expected me to show up the next day); fractured my leg playing sandlot football; became conscious of the petit bourgeoisie and the mind-set of Catholics; met kids who didn’t simply pass for White but who, as the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers, educators and business people, actually acted White; made decisions about how to spend my time after school; and, all in all, had a ball growing up through what is generally the most tempestuous period in the coming of age saga. In short, at Frederick I became myself. Conscious self development spared me the maiming conceptualization of myself as an intellectually and psychologically inferior victim of racism in America.
I know the exact moment I was saved as a writer: it was when I heard Langston Hughes reading his poetry with a jazz piano player in the background — all praises due Mrs. Nelson.
I have searched for but never found that record. Today I realize the record itself is of small consequence because, as is usually the case with such events, the memory is more potent than the reality.
I remember now and was absolutely astonished then by the concluding line of a poem about the death of a poor man in Harlem — too impoverished to afford a funeral, his widow went around begging for money to pay for the man’s burial: “a poor man ain’t got no business to die.”
After school I went straight to the main public library on Tulane Ave. Over the following weeks I checked out everything I could find by Langston Hughes. I was as excited and as self-absorbed with Langston Hughes as a crib bound baby playing with its newly discovered hands and feet. Captivated by Langston —>
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By Charles C. Mann
Im a big fan of Charles Manns previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Its exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that its anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, Im proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, globalized entity.
Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple. We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.
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By Randall Kennedy
Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama . . .
The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism. Recalling some of the criticisms of Americas past made by Mr. Obamas former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved. His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him boy, and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedys father relished Muhammad Alis quip that the Vietcong had never called him nigger. The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 3 May 2009