ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
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For us being Black was a blessing. As Americans we could learn from, and if we chose
(which few in our collective did), we could even emulate the mainstream literary
world, and, at the same time, as African Americans we could draw on a rich
culture of orature that the literary mainstream knew little, if anything, about. Moreover,
we also had our music (the only indigenous American contribution to world culture)
and our people’s musical usage of English to draw on. We had so much, so much.
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
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five. a decade of development
Hofu ni Kwenu (my fear is for you)
My goal is to uplift people, as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives.--John William Coltrane
By the time Hofu ni Kwenu (my fear is for you), my second poetry book, appeared in 1973, some of the BLKARTSOUTH crew had started Ahidiana, an activist oriented collective. FST closed down for a lack of funds. Due to an argument between John O’Neal, one of the FST founders, and some of us from the workshop, BLKARTSOUTH split off on its own. This was at the same period as Ahidiana was founded.
Ahidiana ran an alternative school for preschool through third grade aged children — and we always made sure that kids from working class backgrounds were the majority of students. We were not interested in operating a little “private academy” populated mainly by the children of Black professionals.
We also had a food co-op to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. We had a small garden. We operated a book store and owned and operated a press. We brought speakers and activists (such as Amiri Baraka, John Henrik Clarke, Mari Evans, Yusef ben Jochannan, Maulana Ron Karenga, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, Owusu Saudaki, and Sweet Honey In The Rock) to the New Orleans community. And finally, we organized around community issues and around Kwanzaa activities.
Our organizing work included demonstrations against apartheid and police brutality, as well as challenges to the mainstream media based on FCC mandated community access issues (which the Republicans dismantled as soon as they got in control at the federal level). Our organizing also included annual Black Women’s Conferences which attracted attendees from around the country.
Our experiences in FST/BLKARTSOUTH helped us understand how to organize and how to dramatize issues. Our experiences as artists raised the qualitative appearance of our political presentations to a very high level. Concomitantly, the political issues sharpened my artistic work. My work became both more explicit and more specific. Even though we had moved pass simplistic sloganeering, I still had a lot to learn about writing poetry. Ahidiana was my graduate program.
Here are two poems which exemplify the merging of the artistic and the political. The first is a poem in support of the political prisoner Dessie Woods who was imprisoned for killing a White man who attempted to rape her. She never denied the shooting. This was one of favorite performance pieces. It is an ironic commentary written in the feminine voice, a technique which I had developed not as a gimmick but rather as a way of making a statement not only about whatever particular issue the poem dealt with but also a statement about how I felt revolutionary male writers should be addressing issues and supporting the feminist anti-sexist struggle. Most often when we performed these type of poems, either my wife, Tayari kwa Salaam, or Shawishi St. Julien voiced the poem.
The second poem is a defense of Ntozake Shange which was published in an issue of Al Young and Ishmael Reed’s Quilt magazine. This poem was written and published during the backlash against Ntozake Shange that many males were whipping up over “Colored Girls.” This was the kind of piece that put me at odds with some of my fellow male writers. That was O.K. with me, in fact I enjoyed the confrontation.
We in Ahidiana believed that confrontation of contradictions among our people was healthy as long as the contradictions were debated and hopefully resolved without resorting to violence among ourselves. I was aware, however, that in certain circles, this piece amounted to “fighting words.”
(for Dessie Woods)
ain’t it enough
he think he own
these hot blacktop hiways,
them east eight acres,
that red Chevy pick up
with the dumb bumper stickers
and big wide heavy rubber tires,
two sho nuff ugly brown bloodhounds
and a big tan&white german shepherd
who evil and got yellow teeth?
Ain’t it enough
he got a couple a kids to beat on,
a wife who was a high school cheerleader,
a brother who is a doctor,
a cousin with a hardware store,
a divorced sister with dyed hair,
a collection of Hustler magazines
dating back to the beginning,
partial sight in his left eye,
gray hairs growing out his ear,
a sun scorched leathery neck that’s cracking,
a rolling limp in his bow legged walk,
and a couple of cases of beer in the closet?
Ain’t it enough
he got all that
without having to mess
Yeah, I shot the
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(to those who wish
she would shut up)
if yr life had
happened to a man, the
whole world would know abt it,
but you a big legged woman
breaking the monopoly of male writers
talking bold about what has kept
you from walking off the ledge of life
and what drove you out the window
in the first place, about to
silently hit the sky falling
like a dropped drum stick
during the middle of the big number
talk abt yrself
in the midst of a land caught up in
worshipping twentieth century minstrels
talk about womanness and exaltations
and never uttering the lie about being
sorry not to be born a boy, talk
like you think, like you feel,
like you move through decaying urban america
pass fashions, kitchen recipes, modern romances
and mythical holy vaginal orgasms
talk like our moses spake
in the middle of headin’ north night
pressing a slack-jawed man who
couldn’t keep his pants dry:
“once we get started, ain’t no turning
talk like that lil sister, can’t
remember her name, who shot hot
breath all up in a white boy’s face
and double dared him to fuck with her
in the hallway, in class, after school, on
the bus or any other goddamn time, back in
1958, in one of their schools when,
at the time, you did good just
to stay proudly black and defiantly sane
talk like you an oracle
bearing witness to changing times
or the sphinx sitting on the secret
in the desert, not only was you blk
but, yes, possibly you were woman
when napoleon saw that he barked
the order for his battery
of cannons to commence
and left pat of your nose,
and a piece of lip
pulverized and floating
a dusty cloud toward the nile
talk that talk
when the truth is revealed to the
light, the shysters will all scream
‘taint fair, they’ll cry
foul, say yo strikes smokin
clean down themiddle are misses,
say you high, or low, or wide,
or you got spit on the ball,
you see you just ain’t allowed
on the mound and there you
are talking like you ain’t
never heard of being
quiet and pretty in the bleachers
talk Shange, talk
like a lioness putting
her jaw around a jackass’ throat
to some men
the sound of blkwomansong
but no matter,
many of us are dancing anyway
and in time most all of us will be waving
red bandannas and shouting: “amen,
amen, sister, amen”
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Ahidiana was a product of its time. Today there is no similar pan-african movement, no similar Black liberation struggle in the 90s. Yes, there is the Afro-centric movement, but that movement is far from community based. The majority of the Afro-centricity leadership is based on college campuses, and mainly predominately mainstream campuses at that. While I hear and understand a lot of the theory, the practice is not community rooted and community dependent. Nor is this movement linked to international struggles, which was another driving force supporting and encouraging our efforts in the early seventies.
Hofu was the first book produced by Ahidiana and it reflected our activist orientation. We described it as “A collection of essays and poetry written by Kalamu ya Salaam which explains and defines the natural functions of men and women and the relationship between men and women.” From Hofu on, every poetry book I wrote during the Ahidiana years came out of specific social contexts and was meant to influence our community at large and to directly affect those of us engaged in the Black liberation struggle.
Those who have never volunteered to be a cultural guerrilla at war with the dominant and dominating culture probably can not understand both the exhilaration and the freedom involved in creating socially committed literature.
The exhilaration is perhaps more obvious than the freedom. It is both humbling and uplifting to present your poetry and witness people react in honest and deep-felt ways: to see people laugh and, sometimes, even cry; to have people come up to you their eyes shinning about how your work helped them make it through the semester, through a marital dispute, while in jail, while in the army, etc.; to hear people chant your poems back to you, hear them clap and pat their feet as the audience participates; to hear them shout out to you “teach,” “right on”; to be there at the creation of a new consciousness, that is exhilarating, an exhilaration unknown to the literary poet whose work is appreciated in solitude. For here we have the circle completed, the feedback loop is immediate. Here we have the actualization of one of the cardinal tenets of the Black aesthetic: immediate “call and response.”
The calabash of community is reconstructed, the circle is unbroken. At the deepest level one must ask what is art without an audience? Furthermore, if audience is necessary for art to exist than should not the involvement of the audience be as timely as possible? Moreover, the audience responding not only exhilarated us it pushed us to produce more and better art, art that was cleaner, leaner and more pure in its connection with the audience.
No matter what “thought” we had, the test was to find a way to communicate it. How to convey the concept of dialectics in a poetry reading at a community center, on a playground, to preschoolers, at the college campus. Our audiences were wherever our people were and our challenge was to reach all of them. Of course this required crafting and composing different poems for different segments of the community, and also required us to expand the general conception of poetry, but, as we became better and better at it, we perceived each challenge not as a problem but rather as an opportunity. This was an exhilarating time.
The freedom of it is less obvious but no less real. Essentially it boils down to the fact that we had no masters. We had broken off the plantation of literary poetry and had no maps, no set destination, no preordained models to which we had to adhere.
We had to be truly creative. We had to improvise. Our freedom was precisely that we could use any and everything we wanted to in whatever way we wanted to.
Some of us wrote in rhyme, others of us didn’t. Some of us had a college education and had been exposed to all kinds of literature, others of us were people with a deficient public school education (when integration came, the quality of education which we had received at schools like Phyliss Wheatley and Rivers Frederick suffered a serious decline). Some of us were writing in dialect, others of us weren’t. But again, the principles of the Black aesthetic guided us: it’s not what you do but the way that you do it.
Moreover, because our people are human beings who represent the broadest spectrum of emotions and intellectual proclivities of any community in the United States, there was always an audience for almost any style of poetry we wanted to write. Plus we had numerous poetic examples to draw on within our own culture: from the jazzy surrealism of Bob Kaufman (who was from New Orleans), to the formalism of Robert Hayden, from the hip street talk of Don L. Lee/Haki Madhubuti and Sonia Sanchez to the literary arcaneness of Melvin Tolson and the classical rigor of Gwendolyn Brooks, it was all there for us.
Sonia would be killing with her signifying pieces one minute and kissing us with the awe inspiring quiet of a haiku the next. Baraka could make us scream out loud or send us scurrying to a dictionary to figure out what he was talking about. And that was just on the creation side.
On the audience side, the people who came out to hear us were so hip. Some of them knew more poetry than we did. They would give us tips. Tell us about poets, some of them locals whom we had never heard of and whom we needed to know. Whatever idea we dropped, usually there was somebody in the audience who would pick up on it and afterwards want to rap about “that thing you said, well, you know I was thinking…”
In our audiences you might find a person who had ardently studied Shakespeare sitting next to a barroom bard for whom toasting, signifying and reciting his own version of “Shine” was the highest form of poetry. Our task was to reach both of them, to feel free to draw on both of their experiences, and to use all of that and more of that in everything we did.
For us being Black was a blessing. As Americans we could learn from, and if we chose (which few in our collective did), we could even emulate the mainstream literary world, and, at the same time, as African Americans we could draw on a rich culture of orature that the literary mainstream knew little, if anything, about. Moreover, we also had our music (the only indigenous American contribution to world culture) and our people’s musical usage of English to draw on. We had so much, so much.
In addition to our abundance of influences and the dual traditions we had to draw on, we also had the seventies atmosphere of revolutionary freedom. In our poetry everything was permissible. There were no scared cows. We could quote anyone we wanted to, or quote no one. We could use techniques from traditional poetry or invent techniques based on music. With so much happening daily around you, there was no excuse not to write.
In this context work just poured out of me. I would write about everything: hanging my foot out the window after making love, a demonstration against police brutality, hair styles, dance styles, Pan-Afrikanism, sexism. The window was throwed up high and fortunately, by the seventies I had been writing for over a decade so I had a degree of facility that comes from practice, practice and more practice — plus, I had an audience.
I was writing for the members of Ahidiana: I wrote wedding poems, praise poems, poems and songs for our kids who were now appearing with regularity. I was writing for the community: all kinds of demonstrations were happening and a rally wasn’t a rally until at least one poet was called upon to give some “poetic inspiration.” All kinds of Black journals were popping up and there was always a need for a cogent and timely or topical poem. I was also writing for myself.
As I worked out ideas, theories and understandings of whatever I was experiencing or grappling with, I would know I had reached a degree of understanding when I could put it in a poem and communicate it to others. Eventually I called these poems “sun songs” because they were partly sermons delivered in the style of Baptist preachers and partly because they invariably relieved heavily on musical motifs, musical metaphors, and musical organizational methodologies and techniques. I would beat on podiums, stomp on floors. Sing. Shout. Jump up and down. Dance. After all I was a poet.
If I couldn’t express myself in poetry it just meant that whatever I was trying to express was unclear in my own mind, or else what I was thinking was out of phase with what I was feeling. In that sense my poetry was very, very private in its origins and orientation at the same time that it was public in its expression. That was the dialectic that made the most sense to me.
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#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#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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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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By Rita Dove
This 12th collection from the former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize recipient is her third book-length narrative poem: it follows the real career of the violin prodigy George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (17801860), a former pupil of Haydn, as well as the grandson/ of an African prince, or so his promoters and teachers in England said. Moving to Vienna during the Napoleonic Wars, the violinist met and befriended the famously moody Beethoven, who was prepared to dedicate his famously difficult Kreutzer Sonata to Bridgetower until a rivalry for the same woman drove them apart. Dove tells Bridgetower’s story, and some of Beethoven’s and Haydn’s, in a heterogenous profusion of short poems, some almost prosy, some glittering in their technique. In quatrains, a double villanelle, what looks like found text, short lines splayed all over a page and attractive description, Dove renders Bridgetower’s frustrated genius: Music played for the soul is sheer pleasure;/ to play merely for pleasure is nothing/ but work. Dove does not always achieve such subtletiesthose who loved her early work may think this book too long: few, though, will doubt the seriousness of her effort, her interest at once in the history of classical music and the changing meanings of race.Publishers Weekly
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By Walter Rodney
The late Guyanese writer, Walter Rodney had left us his great insights regarding the reasons for the underdevelopment of the African continent. His work finds equal footing with those of Frantz Fanon and to an extent that of the late Brazilian author and social activist, Paulo Freire in attempting to provide a critical insight, and a gainful analysis to the situation and reasons for the poverty on the African continent. This analysis, whether one agrees with its conclusions or not provides a means towards looking at the stalk realities of African underdevelopment. Rodney thesis that the trans-atlantic slave trade diminished the African manpower to attain development cannot be easily pushed under the carpet. Development is how a people within the means available to them, within their eco-context utilize their knowledge for the good of the totality. When their people is afflicted with disease or mass uprooting there is bound to be both biological and social ripple effects that would affect both the pace and nature of development. It is here that we realize that Rodney’s proposition underlines a crucial factor in explaining the reasons for the African state.
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By Manning Marable
Years in the making-the definitive biography of the legendary black activist. Of the great figure in twentieth-century American history perhaps none is more complex and controversial than Malcolm X. Constantly rewriting his own story, he became a criminal, a minister, a leader, and an icon, all before being felled by assassins’ bullets at age thirty-nine. Through his tireless work and countless speeches he empowered hundreds of thousands of black Americans to create better lives and stronger communities while establishing the template for the self-actualized, independent African American man. In death he became a broad symbol of both resistance and reconciliation for millions around the world.
Manning Marable’s new biography of Malcolm is a stunning achievement. Filled with new information and shocking revelations that go beyond the Autobiography, Malcolm X unfolds a sweeping story of race and class in America, from the rise of Marcus Garvey and the Ku Klux Klan to the struggles of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties.
Reaching into Malcolm’s troubled youth, it traces a path from his parents’ activism through his own engagement with the Nation of Islam, charting his astronomical rise in the world of Black Nationalism and culminating in the never-before-told true story of his assassination. Malcolm X will stand as the definitive work on one of the most singular forces for social change, capturing with revelatory clarity a man who constantly strove, in the great American tradition, to remake himself anew.
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake.
She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
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By George Lamming
Natives of My Person focuses on slave traders of the sixteenth century. The novel reconstructs the voyage of the ship Reconnaissance, which is led by a character known as the Commandant. To atone for his past cruelties and barbarism, the Commandant plans to establish a Utopian society on the island of San Cristobal. The enterprise fails for many reasons: fighting amongst the crew, loss of interest, greed, and an inability to erase the past. The novel argues that an ideal society cannot be built by those who have committed moral atrocities and unnecessary bloodshed in their past. . . . Although
has a historical setting and deals with the voyage of the Reconnaissance, a vessel ostensibly engaged in the slave trade, a specific historical phenomenon, it is only partly accurate to describe it as a work of historical realism. Its realist component is not to be found in its fidelity to period costume, living conditions, or similar revealing detail. Instead of the veneer of verisimilitude that such usages provide, the novel locates its realism in the way in which it elaborately recapitulates an outlook.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 14 August 2012