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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.)

Ibura (something special)

By late 1975 with two strong years of organizing and operating our programs under our belt, Ahidiana began to move seriously on dealing with radicalizing our position on the woman’s question. The next book came out early in 1976. Ibura (Swahili for “something special, miraculous or wonderful” and also our third child’s middle name) was dedicated to my mother who had passed on 5 October 1975. The whole book was about women.

            In addition to the poems, Ibura contained two short stories, one of which was later published in We Be Word Sorcerers, an anthology edited by Sonia Sanchez. This would be the last time for fiction for a good stretch.

            There are two poems in this collection which have particular meaning for me: “TOP 40” and “IBURA/COME GET TO THIS”.

            “TOP 40” was written for Maxine Maye, a good friend of mine who lives in Washington, DC and who was a stalwart in the independent Black school movement. “TOP 40” demonstrates one of the techniques I frequently employed: I used the experiences of close friends as both a sign of how deeply I appreciated them as individuals and also to create poems which addressed lessons to our community at large. Almost all of my work, regardless of theme or content, draws on real lives (myself, my friends, our community, the world) for details. Sometimes its as minute as using a color as an image because a friend might wear that color often. In any case, “TOP 40” was a very popular poem at readings. It opens with a cataloging of pain:

babies, no babies           

children, single & multiple           

employment, exploitation           

scar tissue and wounds           

anger, hurt, disappointments           


weary, certainly, of the centuries           

of the necessary but nonetheless crippling           

and often unacknowledged work of forced soloing,           

sometimes seemingly single handedly           

having to handle the process           

of propagating and preserving           

our subjugated race, our           

wounded pride and indeed, our           

historically tested humanness           

you are, i’m sure, tired           

of being cursed and accused           

for the umpteenth million time           

of being damn aggressive           

when not aggressive but human,           

female and Black in a time           

callous & cruelly hard on such a combination           

and too, terribly tired of taking shit           

and knowingly pretending it’s sugar          

. . .           

don’t let her be misunderstood

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            This was a three part poem based on a classic country blues form of AAB, i.e. make a statement, repeat the statement perhaps slightly paraphrased or altered, and then conclude with a statement that commented on the opening two statements. In part two we amplified the opening.

babies, no babies           

house, apartment, bus           

stop, street corner, car           

man, husband, lover           

(scarcely ever three in one)           

and still seldom someone there           

who actually understands           

or even consciously tries to 


the continuous struggle,           

what to do,           

supporting the dead weight           

of unconscious brothers,           

those bad black bodies pressing down           

upon your breasts, but betrayals           

notwithstanding, true to who you           

actually are, you move on           

giving sex, or giving money, or giving love,           

or attention and indeed, giving your whole           

aching life, giving that           

taking that, not taking that           

but moving on, liking life           

hating it, wishing           

you were dead, or joy           

so in love, yet always           

always moving on           

Black woman, black woman           

i hear you          

i see you

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            Then the third part which sharply contrasted with, but did not contradict, the two part litany of realities faced by women. What I was trying to empathize with the real situation faced by women, and especially by single women such as my friend Maxine. Musically, this particular poem has an analog in Bill Whither’s exquisite song, “But She’s Lonely,” even though I actually refer to an Al Green song.


           . . . at a window, looking out           

and looking in and just sitting sometimes,          

 stopped for a short moment           

for a fast minute           

just momentarily resting, catching breath           

just, just basically reflecting           

on the conditions of our collective existence,           

cognizant and courageously critical of           

the serious realities of our struggle,           

unsurrendering, your voice is absolutely           

bittersweet but strikingly strong as you           

sing silently softly along           

with the top 40 song drifting           

pervasively around the solitary sunlit room,           

from the radio…                      

 “…i’m so tired of being alone,                       

i’m so tired…”

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            Where “TOP 40” had been addressed to the sisters, “IBURA” was addressed to both sisters and brothers. It is a “sun song.” There is no way that I can help you hear it except to ask you read it aloud and think of a preacher in the pulpit. There are numerous musical references in the poem, some of them obvious (“Billie singing” referring to Billie Holiday), some of them obscure (“keep our eyes on the prize of life, hold on, hold on” referring to a freedom song from my civil rights days). The dedication is to Yvonne Mason whom I had first met during our civil rights days in the NAACP Youth Council when she and her younger sister Yvette joined our picket line. Later in the mid seventies, I would meet Yvonne when she was working as a typesetter for Edwards Printing Company, the company that first printed Nkombo.

            Ibura was printed in black ink on a aqua blue paper stock. It had art work by Orthello Beck, a Dallas, Texas based artist whose work I came in contact with while I worked at the Black Collegian Magazine as the editor.


(for Yvonne A. Mason & many, many more)

Many of our brothers are actually afraid

somehow of you, feel weak in your presence,

sort of emasculated by your strength or so they say.

Can not stand your corrective gaze, find it near impossible

to move when you are in charge, so they question your femininity.

But is it you who should be questioned or we? Are we really

men, if we can not deal righteously with our women,

our beautiful black women, who have remained toughly

together throughout this terrible tumultuous travel

cross water into new world named america? Our women who

have never stopped getting up, giving birth and supportive

succulent sweet satisfying love, never once stopped walking

home, alone, night after night, carrying big brown bags

full of clothes and used food to feed us, stolen from day work,

or sad hours spent silently suffering degrading labor

in offices and backrooms for chump under the

lecherous eyes and hands of capitalist crackers.


Our women, our women, who, even on pain sometimes of death,

have never denied loving us. Remember Billie singing

“if it’s one thing that I’ve got, it’s my man and I

love him so”! Our black women who will wear their hair

anyway we want it, if only we knew what we really wanted,

our women, Tubman steady, Sojourner strong, Parks steadfast

Big Mama wise, young sister sensitive and song singing soulful.

Our women from town and country, life to death, something sure

to count on, consistent like sun rises, life bringing

life spring rain falling, our women, beauty catching in the throat

and the most nourishing love that a man can have and hold. Do we

understand that they, our women, are a guide given to us

to keep our eyes on the prize of life, hold on, hold on.


What we need now is a saner society, we need to create a place

where life can be lived to the max, enjoyed, improved and made

ultimately much, much better than when we arrived, we need to free

our women from all our own twisted anti-female chauvinistic

thoughts and actions, sad actions, many of which were frosted on

us by dog lovers, johns and assorted other individuals who,

come crawling forth from caves with weird ideas about women,

sometimes refer to themselves as “he-men” as opposed to their

women whom they sometimes call she-men which explains partly

how they really view life. What we need to do is encourage

our sisters growth, encourage our women to get together and

speak out, to rush forward and take the lead on social and political

issues, to form associations that will organize around their concerns,

we need to be there supporting them in each and every way like we

like to envision them supporting us. What we expect of them is the same

as they need to have come from us. Like we need wives, they need

husbands, like we need love, rest and relaxation, they need the same,

need what we need, need us like we need them.

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            After Ibura came Revolutionary Love. Even though Iron Flowers, a short book of poetry inspired by a trip to Haiti, is the tightest thematically, I still think Revolutionary Love is the strongest of all my poetry books from this era. At 114 pages plus fold out illustrations, Revolutionary Love certainly was the largest book of poetry I had every published — it contained more poems than all of the previous books added together. It is also the most overtly political even as it had some of the most “personal” poems I wrote during those years. It contains the clearest articulation of what we came to mean by “art for life” a concept posed as an alternative to “art for art’s sake” which we rejected.

            While none of the sun poems in Revolutionary Love are as strong as “speech” in Pamoja, overall there is a greater diversity and technically, I achieved some alliterations and metaphorical reaches that still make me smile whenever I go back to review Revolutionary Love. Certainly here I have articulated the Ahidiana philosophy more cogently and with greater artistic skill then in any other collection of poetry. In Revolutionary Love the actualization most closely matches the intent, and the articulation is artistic to the max. Two of my favorite poems from Revolutionary Love — actually there are about fifteen or so of the poems in this collection that are my personal favorites of all of my work from this period, but we won’t bore you with our personal preferences.

            “Personal preferences” is an inside joke, making reference to a distinction we used to make in Ahidiana between what we called a “political point” as opposed to a point of “personal preference.” The collective arrived at and agreed upon political points, but each individual had a right to hold points of personal preference. Most of us, of course, would frequently exercise our rights of personal preference to explain why we liked or disliked a certain thing, idea, action, person. This allowed us a way to express disagreement without getting disagreeable.

            Of all the poetry books, I think Revolutionary Love best fulfills the promise of The Blues Merchant. There is a definite diversity of styles in the same way as that first book of poetry had except that I was by then a much better poet, as is exemplified by two of the poems.

            The first poem is part of our ongoing struggle to move beyond race/racism as the sole definition of our condition. The second is example of self criticism.

            At Ahidiana we actively studied political theory — Amilcar Cabral was our most respected theorist. We also were very much into criticism and self criticism. We developed position papers which delineated a methodology for both giving and taking criticism.

            While all of this probably seems strange and a bit far out to people who are used to functioning as individuals, in the context of a collective, there was always a need to monitor the motion of the group less we end up in a state of cultish self delusion. Part of that monitoring process was criticism and self criticism. The balance for us was our iron clad rule that we made decisions by consensus, if and only if, everyone agreed would we establish a rule, take a political position, or commit ourselves to an action. Other organizations and individuals repeatedly criticized us for our rule by consensus, but it served us well and kept the more articulate from brow beating the less articulate into accepting something that each in the group was not prepared to accept. Just the knowledge that each individual had veto power forced all of us to be sharper in presenting our ideas. We knew we had to convince each member.

            Again, this probably seems to be a very restrictive situation for an artist to be in, but exactly the opposite was the case. The majority of my work from that period was sharpened by group criticism and I was emboldened by the knowledge that these ideas were not simply an artistic idiosyncrasy, but valuable insights shared by a close community of committed individuals.

all that’s black ain’t brother           



white people           

come in all colors           

their systems sink           

past skin           

anchoring into bone, mind           

flesh, heart and soul           

it is geno-suicide           

to minstrel aliens           

but some of us do die           

strangled by our own           




some of us           

selfishly think that           

self starts           

and stops           

with i           

dream not of peace           

but money, don’t           

dance, hate           

our energy           

and lust for           

an equal opportunity           

to turn the screws           

see that           

black boy over there,           

he’s white.


Diapers and Dishes


i can thrust           

my hand straight           

into the toilet bowl, expertly           

swirling a soiled diaper around           

shaking loose all the stool           

as I submerge the cotton cloth           

agitating with a firm           

back and forth action


i used to recoil           

from the touch and texture           

of warm masticated corn           

kernel hulls and other leavings           

smellingly ejaculated           

from our babies’ behinds           

but now it is no bother


 i used to be upset           

coming home late at night           

shake my head and suck           

my teeth at the sight           

of dirty dishes in the sink           

now I willingly wash them


these tasks are so simple           

since my thought           

has been reformed           

Tayari can read now at night           

since we share house work           

and mutually develop


now, after much self struggle, i           

too can change           

diapers and wash dishes


i laugh at my old self           

sulking about bowel movement           

and toilet water on my hands           

or dishes that need only           

a little time and hardly any           

trouble to be made clean


i laugh at my old self          

if feels good to improve

In a feature length profile of me published in a local weekly, writer James Borders judged:

More congenial now to dialectics, ya Salaam’s work in ‘Revolutionary Love’ reverberates with a new fullness that is more deeply personal and more deeply social than any of his past attempts. It is all statement and it has found its most effective distance. Published by Ahidiana and printed on the group’s own press, the poems and essays that comprise the text are gorgeously embellished by the drawings of Douglas Redd and the photographs of Kwadwo Oluwale Akpan. If the words don’t grab you, the visuals will.

            Borders was impressed by the total package, which is exactly what we intended. Early on in FST/BLKARTSOUTH, we were using drawings and photographs in our publications as well as text. This was because a number of the members were visual artists as well as writers, and because as we continued, both Tom and I believed it was important to include the visual artists in the presentation of our work. This was another example of our insistence on broad inclusion. We were always looking for ways to hook up with others. Eventually, we would also begin inviting blues and jazz musicians to perform with us.

            This development was not accidental. We aspired to a holistic concept of the arts, even before we had the theories to articulate and rationalize why we did. We felt it and went with our feelings. Later, we would be able to define what our feelings were.

            By the Ahidiana time period we went all the way. Ahidiana had a performing ensemble, composed of musicians and singers as well as poets, called the “Essence of Life.” We produced a weekly radio program for six months of so which was also called the “Essence of Life.” The name was taken from a song by Gary Bartz and Andy Bey whose chorus was “we must get closer to the essence of life.” This was in addition to owning and operating our own press: not just a publishing company, but an actual printing machine which was run by Kuumba Kazi, a member of Ahidiana who had had experience operating a printing press. We were serious about actualizing the principles of self determination and self reliance.

            All of this affected my writing. How could it not? What may sound like fantasies and exaggeration reading it cold on the page, actually had a social basis in that we had an active organization whose total goal was to turn words and ideals into revolutionary deeds. Everything we did was designed to actively raise the liberation struggle to a higher level. We were much more than just talk, we were action — and that action inspired me to write like I had never written before.

<—–Pamoja Tutashinda (together we will win)   Iron Flower & Our Women Keep Our Skies—>

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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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