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Art for Life: My Story, My Song

By Kalamu ya Salaam



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)


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five. a decade of development (contd.)

Pamoja Tutashinda (together we will win)

After Hofu came Pamoja Tutashinda (Together We Will Win) in 1973, Ibura in 1976, Revolutionary Love in 1978, and Iron Flowers in 1979. Those were the books of poetry written during the decade of my Ahidiana years. I also co-wrote with my wife, Tayari kwa Salaam, two children’s books, and Our Women Keep Our Skies, a collection of essays “In support of the struggle to smash sexism and develop women.” Skies included three poems, two of which became among my most popular poems.

            Hofu will always be fondly remembered. It was my first poetry book that was more than just poetry. The cover was a symbolic piece created specifically for the book. Inside we had symbols as well as text. We also mixed essays with poetry. And the poems included both tender and tough pieces. The book was printed in green ink on ivory stock. It set the tone for all the other Ahidiana publications which followed.

            You could see growth happening in this book, but you could also see glaring blemishes, particularly a vehement strain of homophobia which Ahidiana would directly tackle within the next four or five years. I know that some people say that “homophobia” was part of the times, but there is no need to hide from the truth. On that account we were backward. Other poems and essays which tackle homophobia head on would follow over the next few years, and thusly demonstrate through both criticism and self-criticism that regardless of where we started from, we kept on developing.

            In 1973 we were what I would now call classic Black nationalists. Even though we thought we were being progressive, our position on the woman’s question was suspect. That too would change over the next couple of years. Hofu would have been stronger artistically, if I had been more progressive politically. The feeling was there, the ideas were lagging behind.

            Hofu was then both experimental and limited, but it was an attempt to move past status quo examples of what a poetry book should be like.

            Here are two selections which demonstrate where we were at in 1973. The first piece, “Lament” is written in the feminine voice and actually had been written somewhere between 1967 and 1968; it was published in the first issue of Nkombo and, because of its subject matter, I choose to include it in Hofu. Audiences used to get really, really quiet when we did this one.

            The second “INSPIRATION” is an example of some of the most progressive thoughts cohabiting with some of the most regressive. I used both the word and the image “faggot” in a negative sense. In later years, I would continue using the poem but substituted the word “freak.” Also, in performance this poem was built on a chain gang chant, “Be My Woman” which Nina Simone also used a variation of in her song “See Line Woman.” The chant metamorphosed into a Curtis Mayfield-like ballad, “Love A Good Woman” and ended on a Pharoah Sanders tip. Of course the music is not on the page, but this is an example of how I wrote poems which were designed to be sung, as well as spoken, lyrics.


/for black men everywhere/



   will our men be men                       

            not of fear and trembling                       

            feeding dark soil with their own               

   dark blood or                       

            crying yes sirs and halting steps               

   of broken airs about               


but men:               

   simply able to love their lives               

   as men are said to do?           

God can you possibly              

   replenish that lost seed               

   who were once lovely African chieftains,                       

            princes and such, loving                       

            their queens               

   Can pride be restored               

   or must they suffer forever               

   attempting a shield of their               

   impotence from our knowing eyes.

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love a good woman           

love a good woman           

for all the time there is           

for all the life there is           

for all the best we are           

love a good woman           

love a woman           

love love a good woman           

in sunshine, in rain, place           

yr house in order, in           

balanced on the tear drop of her happiness           

on the hair back from her geled* head           

on the soft steps she makes          

moving toward you being the flower in the house           

yr oxygen, yr gettin up fuel           

yr no nonsense and strength to do what you got to do           

the love of a good woman           

loving you love a good woman           

yr choice, companion and soul mate,           

yr maker really, if you be man           

then woman is yr maker, yr woman is yr maker           

yr black woman is yr creator, woman           

is what you should love yr good woman           

is what you need yr good woman to love, to live           

yr pleasant voice in the evening and smiles in yr morning           

yr soft fingers touch on yr chest calling you king           

calling you man, calling you god           

you god the giver come on now love yr good woman           

she creator the maker, love yr good woman           

no man makes himself           

woman makes man and love           

love a good woman           

sister i am incomplete           

without you, i am vessel full           

of holes, i am spirit begging           

substance, i am shadow with           

our form, i am baby wait           

ing to be born, i am that faggot           

walking down the street           

not knowing what to do with myself           

like singers without song          

i need yr tender touch 


*head wrapped respectfully Afrikan styled

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            In January of 1973 Ahidiana published my third book of poetry Pamoja Tutashinda (Together We Will Win). In advertisements for Pamoja we described it as “A collection of political poems with an introductory essay by Kalamu ya Salaam which is a beginning projection of the ideology of Pan-Afrikan Nationalism.” This was the most didactic of all the books. Strictly an organizing and conscious raising tool. One of the poems, “give a speech/talkin abt ‘da problem’ ” is five typeset pages long in 9 point type. The five part poem was read at many a rally.

            Part one poetically asks the question:

give a speech to reach           

the masses, to reach this, to reach us           

who are tired of words?           

give a speech

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            Part two responds to the question with cynicism which is itself responded to:

somebodies, some bodies are sayin           

that’s the problem nah           

niggers talk too much           

but is it? is that           

really the problem now                       

               is talk why our life expectancy is so short                      

               is talk why we eat so badly                       

               is talk why we work a week for one day’s wages                       

               is talk why everybody laughs at us on television                       

               is talk why we spend so much time in jail                       

               is talk why we have no money, no power, no land                       

               is talk why all our schools are dumb, our teachers dumber                       

               is talk why nobody likes us                       

               nobody likes the Negro                       

               is talk the cause of that                       

               are we here because of talk                       

               think about that,                       

               did talk rape your grandmomma, red?                       

               did talk make you eat pork, abdul?                       

               did talk cut off the gas&lights last night, rhetta?                       

               did talk do this or was it organized people                                   

                            taking advantage of our ignorance

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            Part three rhetorically asks the question: “do we want out of this” and, assuming the answer is yes, goes on to suggest:

then organize           

organize to control           

control the space we occupy,           

control all that space as best we can           

the first space being of course, the body, the flesh and           

muscle, brain and mind body, control that from hair tip           

to toenail, discipline it i.e. self control it           

exercise power over it i.e. self-determine it,                       

self-defend it, self-respect it

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            Part four speaks directly to how to organize:

start with the easy, give a dime a day                       

start with the easy, run one block a day                       

start with the easy, read for five minutes a day                       

start with the easy, eat one fruit a day                       

start with the easy, volunteer fifteen minutes a day                       

start with the easy and organize to do the undifficult                       

don’t worry about the heavy problems                       

all the heavy problems ain’t goin nowhere                       

just develop self step by step and one by one                       

we’ll get to everything in due time

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            Of course, many, many people reject this as poetry, especially people who are not overwhelmed with social problems and actively seeking a solution. Similarly, people who are relatively comfortable with the status quo reject this as poetry. But what difference does the theme or content of a poem make in terms of whether we are dealing with poetry? It is not the content that makes a poem a poem, but rather the style and presentation.

            Pamoja had a cover by Fred O’Neal who had done the cover for Hofu and was printed in black ink on a light tan paper.

            In 1973 I made another major move. For two years I had worked as the first director of the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Health Center. I had also been a founding member of The Black Collegian Magazine in 1970. Both the health center and the magazine were growing. I was offered the assistant directorship of the whole neighborhood health care system with the promise of becoming the director within the next year. I was offered a salary of over $25,000 per annum with benefits. I enjoyed the work of directing an outpatient health care facility located in the neighborhood where I had grown up. So, I quit.

            By then, I knew: what I wanted to do more than anything was write. I never will forget, right after signing the contract papers to work at The Collegian, I went to the city welfare department, applied for food stamps and based on the small salary I was drawing at The Collegian I was eligible. I never regretted the move.

           The Collegian offered me the opportunity to develop my writing and editing skills. Additionally, I had the opportunity to offer activists in the movement a platform to speak to Black college students across the country. I interviewed a wide variety of activists, artists, and politicians. Sometimes I had three or four interviews and/or articles in each issue. I was even able to help Hoyt Fuller when John Johnson closed down Black World and fired Hoyt. One of the early issues of Hoyt’s new publication, First World, was published in the The Black Collegian as a special insert. My stay as an employee of The Black Collegian paralleled my membership in Ahidiana which had been officially founded in the summer of 1973.

            The following year I was selected as a delegate to the Sixth Pan African Congress held over the summer in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania in East Africa. That trip marked the beginning of an on going pattern of traveling around the world as either an activist, a writer of socially committed literature, or a journalist. Before long, I went to the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, Surinam, and numerous destinations in the Caribbean. At the same time that I was developing as a poet and performer, I was also traveling around the world meeting, being inspired by and learning from activists and artists across the globe. My outlook was expanding quickly as a result of these developments and the interaction I was having nationally and internationally.

<—-Hofu ni Kwenu (my fear is for you)    Ibura (something special)—>

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s 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. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s 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, I’m 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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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

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 America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s 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. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s 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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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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update 3 May 2009




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