Art for Life13

Art for Life13


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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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.) 

Iron Flower & Our Women Keep Our Skies

The final book of poetry in the Ahidiana period was Iron Flowers. A trip to Haiti in August 1979 affected me so strongly that I started writing the book during the last couple of days in Haiti and finished everything within a matter of days upon returning. For this book the cover and borders were done by Douglas Redd, who by then was the main artist I worked with. But the book also included photographs which I had taken in Haiti. Next to Revolutionary Love, I like this one the best from cover to cover. In fact, in terms of consistency, unlike Revolutionary Love, I like all of the poems in the Iron Flowers. Again, there are two poems which stand out. One is the last piece selection in the book titled “Tomorrows’ Toussaints”. The other is “Beyond The Boundaries”, the poem I most often read from the book. Iron Flowers was printed in black and red ink on the cover with black only on the inside, on a translucent, semi-parchment eggshell white paper.

Tomorrows’ Toussaints           

this is Haiti, a state           

slaves snatched from surprised masters,           

its high lands, home of this           

world’s sole successful           

slave revolt, Haiti, where           

freedom has flowered and flown           

fascinating like long necked           

flamingoes gracefully feeding           

on snails in small pinkish           

sunset colored sequestered ponds


despite the meanness           

and meagerness of life           

eked out of eroding soil           

and from exploited urban toil, there           

is still so much beauty here in this           

land where the sea sings roaring a shore           

and fecund fertile hills lull and roll           

quasi human in form


there is beauty here           

in the unyielding way           

our people,           

colored charcoal, and           

banana beige, and           

shifting subtle shades           

of ripe mango, or strongly           

brown-black, sweet           

as the suck from           

sun scorched staffs           

of sugar cane,           

have decided           

we shall survive           

we will live on


a peasant pauses           

clear black eyes           

searching far out over the horizon           

the hoe motionless, suspended           

in the midst           

of all this shit and suffering           

forced to bend low           

still we stop and stand           

and dream and believe


we shall be released           

we shall be released           

for what slaves           

have done           

slaves can do


and that begets           

the beauty


slaves can do

*   *   *   *   *

Beyond The Boundaries           

(meditating on the meaning of life)



who am i           

who visits           

who stares at sights           

who strains to catch the           

drift of conversations           

who bathes           

who dresses           

who eats           

sometimes two or           

more times a day?           

what does my black skin           

mean to similarly skinned people           

when there is money           

in my pockets           

and no pockets           

on their pants           


when I glide pass           

at a hundred kilometers           

an hour as they           

trudge step by step           

cross rolling mountain side?           

these are tense questions           

testing my thought



who asks for their lot           

who chooses parents, or           

selects birthing spot           

i have I.D., U.S. certified,           

but what is my identity           

Haiti haunts me           

there are eyes I saw           

in those hills           

in the silence of those           

noisy nights, Haiti          

i turn over           

back to the wall           

even in the dark          

i keep seeing me           

beyond myself           

climbing to the side           

of some overfull tap-tap*           

singing out in comfortable tongue           

“keep going,           

keep going, don’t stop          

 i’m alright!” Haiti,           

are we,           

are we alright?           

congealed into too many urban areas           

our people idly littering stolen streets, oh           

these spaces are so bitter           

Africa has had           

to walk so many rough waters           

we need rest           

we need rest but must           

press on, “keep going,           

keep going,”           

never mind that the           

particulars of our nativity           

are luck and circumstance           

what we do           

with our after birth           

is the singular           




who knows what Toussaint           

lurks in the heart of Haiti           

how can we new slaves           

of an old world order           

not be Haitian           

not have fight           

and freedom flowing           

in our veins           

flashing, flaming like           

gold shooting through           

sturdy human hills           

never mind the language,           

a barrier, breakthrough           

the dress code           

a barrier, breakthrough           

the lay of the land           

a barrier, breakthrough           

breakthrough, yes           

individualities do differ           

but essences, our           

essences rise and converge



go beyond the boundaries,           

where we’re coming from           


matters so much more           

than where we’ve been           

where we were born           

if we fail to recognize           

that there is no one           

human who is totally foreign           

then we ourselves will           

fail to become anyone           

oh Haiti, Haiti           

Haiti, heart of hurt           

Haiti, heart of hope           

you hit so hard           

at the meanings of life           

the call of           

conch shells           

caper so softly           

cross our verdant           

land, cross valley           

cross water, Haiti           


we hear your history           

somewhere slightly west           

of here, in Jamaica, we say          

i and i           

i and i           

meaning I am           

i and I am           

you and you are i           

and you are you and           

it is getting late           

and I fall asleep           


by this important           

Haitian hiatus    

and become a           

different person           

more conscious           

of all I am

            At the time I had no idea how true a statement I had made regarding becoming “a different person.” Ahidiana had survived the split in the Black nationalist movement which might crudely be characterized as the cultural and/or revolutionary nationalists versus the neo-marxists. By the early eighties we begun to sense a development which we had not foreseen but which, in retrospect, had been accurately forecasted by Fanon in the Wretched of the Earth. Essentially, the Black Liberation struggle fractured and much of the energy that had previously gone into organizing oppositional activities and alternative institution building was now going into participation in electoral politics and reform oriented activities.

            The first successes at getting Black politicians elected inevitably led to more and more, and more and more, and more people jumping on the electoral platform. The Congress of African People gave way to the National Black Political Assembly. It was as if the whole Black nation had been persuaded that the best course of action was working for reform from within rather than continuing to work at building alternative institutions outside of the system. Yes, we really were becoming different and most of our nationalist oriented organizations, Ahidiana included, did not survive past the mid-eighties.

            In June 1980 we produced my last Ahidiana book, Our Women Keep Our Skies From Falling. It was my most radical and effective work. The title was a paraphrase of the Chinese line that “women hold up half the sky.” The essays reflected our most thorough going critique of sexism. By then we were presenting lesbians at our annual Black Women’s Conferences.

            This book was popular in women’s groups across the country. Both complete essays and excerpts were reprinted in newsletters and anthologies. Some of the essays were published in major Black journals of the period, including The Black Scholar and Black Books Bulletin. But even more popular than the essays were two of the poems: “Pa Ferdinand” and “…And Raise Beauty To Another Level Of Sweetness”. Each poem has a story.

            Skies was dedicated to my father. People would ask how did I come to such a point of view as expressed in my writings. I would invariably point to my father. From the civil rights days on, he actively supported me and my brothers. When I joined FST he told me with pride how he had been involved in drama at one time. When we went into revolutionary struggle at SUNO, including arming ourselves, he supported me. But more than all of that, he always evidenced a respect and love for Black women that never failed to inspire me. He would bust our behinds at a moment’s notice, but he never struck my mother, in fact, seldom even raised his voice even though he was quite sarcastic in talking about some of her teacher friends whom he kindly described as “phony.”

            On the back of Skies there is a portrait of him and me standing next to the pecan tree in our back yard which he planted when we first moved there in the mid fifties. He was so proud of this book and I was proud of him. “Pa Ferdinand” was selected by Ruby Dee and included as part of the text of an article she wrote in Ebony magazine whose readership is over a million.

            “Raise Beauty” is altogether different. It was actually written as an advertisement for a special Black woman’s issue of The Black Collegian magazine. There was no particular person or incident inspiring this poem other than my publisher directing me to develop something “different.” The brochure advertising that issue was sent out to recruiters in major corporations across the country. I didn’t care whether they understood the poem or not, I wanted to make a statement of support for Black women. Over the years, church groups and community organizations would reprint the poem.

            The community’s acceptance and use of both “Pa Ferdinand” and “Raise Beauty” embody the most profound examples of what we considered to be the usefulness of revolutionary Black art, whether a personal statement such as “Pa Ferdinand” or a straight out political statement such as “Raise Beauty.” These, and other poems like them, achieved the broad community acceptance and usage which was the goal of my writing.

PA FERDINAND           

(on this man’s foundation i build           

my political support of feminism)


my father           

is a solid stepper           

amid a generation           

of soft shoers           

& scuffling shufflers


was young with           

WW II, did not die           

nor get discouraged           

but rather fought           

on both fronts           

and unflinchingly brought           

the fight back           

home, after           



a country boy           

who walked miles           

for school & job           

he married the minister’s           

daughter (who was           

a school teacher)           

but never went           

out to lunch for           

class or church,           

could sing but usually           

kept his baritone           

at home


i remember him home           

making us work           

rising with the sun           

and planting food           

in the city


i remember him home           

waxing floors           

on his knees           

and requiring his sons           

to follow his lead learning           

to cook and clean


but mostly           

i remember him man           

teaching me           

consistency: the           

importance of principle,           

the necessity of           

struggle and the           

immense beauty           

of interrelating           

with a good woman           


what more could           

a son receive           

from a father           

than the realness           

of life lived        

like a conscious           



sho-nuff simply doing           

his duty, in his own           

context, in his own           

space and time.

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You are a fresh flower           

bursting boldly           

into a hard world           

with a softness           

strong as steel 


Reaching for sunlight           

you raise yourself           

up from down under           

out of the degrading dirt           

society has so routinely           

dumped on women,           

you have transformed           

manure, muck and mire           

into fertilizer


Springing self assertedly           

past winter weather           

you bring a sweet fragrant           

incense and inspiration           

into musty places           

stale with the stuffiness           

of misogynic sexist           

status quos


You blossom, you bloom,           

you expand and grow,          

 raising beauty           

to a bedazzling higher           

and healthier level of           

light, life and love


Grow on Black rose           

Black woman grow on!

            Ahidiana continued to publish pamphlets and journals. Much of my time was taken up with political organizing. The movement was reaching a point of transformation. When Black power zigged toward electoral politics, I zagged. Shortly after Ernest Morial was elected the first Black mayor of New Orleans, I was one of the leaders of a take over of the mayor’s office around the issue of police brutality. That was the culmination of one phase and the beginning of another.

            By 1983 I left The Black Collegian. And that was just the beginning. Piece by piece, the foundation and inspiration for my artistic work crumbled and I was forced to reexamine everything: everything I believed, everything I had achieved, and every dream I had ever conceived. Although I would write a great deal, it would be a long time before I would publish another book of poetry. In retrospect, I understand what happened, but at the time it was all touch and go, day to day struggling to survive.

<—-Ibura (something special)    The Call: Ideology or Poetry?–>

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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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updated  3 May 2009




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