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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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Six. The Reconstruction Of A Poet (contd.)

My Life Is the Blues

While I did not belong to the “church” and was not a Baptist preacher, as “The Call Of The Wild,” makes clear, I was a preacher. The  bible was not my text, my poems were.

            I also believed in the “spirit” and in “possession,” after all I had been reared Baptist. I remember once in the choir stand when the spirit hit a young sister who was our age. She was thin, and my brothers and I were hefty. I never will forget being unable to hold her still when she fell thrashing to the choir floor. I looked into her eyes — she was not there, something or someone else was, and she was making some sound, or should I say some sound was coming out of her, it was not screaming, it was something else. On other occasions I have felt myself almost crying (what do I mean almost — I cried) just listening to a singer.

            Even though I left the church, I still believed. I still wanted to be a conduit for the spirit, for that spirit. Sometimes in poetry performances I reach it.

            In The Bluesman, The Musical Heritage Of Black Men And Women In The Americas, author and blues musician Julio Finn describes the role and function of the preacher in the prototypical Black church. Finn perfectly described the function I aspired to as a poet.

     …the black preacher performs his sermons. Standing straight and stiff would never rouse his congregation; he shouts, whispers, threatens, pleads, jumps, dances, quakes, sings — in a word, he seeks to conjure his flock, to bring them to the state where they can be possessed by the Holy Ghost. ‘Can you feel it?’ he screams. Next instant, he is in a trance, rapt in the divine spirit, on the brink of revelation. At a flick of his hand the music mounts, the voices of the choir lift on high, and the tranquil glory of salvation descends. No black preacher will last for long if he is no good at transmitting his emotions to his assembly. It is no good feeling called to preach if you can’t make your auditors feel your message. This transmission and the communal experience of God exists because they literally feel the power of the supernatural passing through their own minds and bodies. The ‘fits’ black Baptists fall into are but the ‘possession’ of the Vodun by the loas. Only the names of the gods have been changed, in order to protect the innocent.

            When I recited my poems I was a preacher not simply in style but also in my inclination to instruct, to delineate good from evil, to inspire to prescribed action, and in my elucidation of the finer points of my religion (my ideology).

            I began “abandoning” the “politically oriented sun poem” in direct proportion to my own distancing from the practice of (as opposed to the belief in) socialism, revolutionary nationalism. This shift was moved from a push to a shove toward a fall by the general failure of the progressive movement to defeat capitalism and neocolonialism in the Third World. There was literally nowhere where we succeeded.

            Of course, I still wanted to be free. But when I look at the structure of my poetry after 1983, I notice that I am less inclined toward the sermon form on political issues. Now when I take up the sun poem, I speak not as a preacher from the pulpit but rather as a blues singer on a stage articulating hurt, pain, suffering and the withstanding of same. Now, I really have the blues.

            No longer is the blues simply a form that I feel is relevant, now, in the face of all the changes, all the disappointments, victories denied, now, me, my life is the blues. I am not singing from racial memory. I am not singing for effect. I am singing my own song.

            There is a confessional tone, a revealing of what life has been like for this traveler — truth told, weathered by the weight of failures albeit buoyed by compassion for the world and leavened by a sincere appreciation of the ultimate great goodness of life that only realizing oneness with the world can bring.

            I still write sun songs, but now these are sagacious praise songs for my cultural traditions rather than optimistic revolutionary anthems. Whereas before I sang a song of my people and for my people as a witness, now, like the blues bards of old, I witness my own living for surely my living has become part of the history. Structurally, I am now more interested than ever in singing the blues — there is a melancholic edge in my voice — it’s just that I don’t have to go anywhere to find it because the blues has found me.

             Question: what happens when a poet who has functioned in a collective for over fifteen years and has had all of his poetry books published by a collective, suddenly finds himself alone? Answer: nothing — literally nothing.

            Although I knew and was known to numerous influential people in the Black Arts Movement, I had never published a book with anyone outside of New Orleans, and only rarely had published single poems. Moreover, I was completely outside of the college lecture circuit. When the movement slowed to a trickle and my own involvement also shifted, I was left literally on the outside. I had to reorient myself and, in the process, I examined not only my own history, but also the entire body of African American poetry.

             From the very beginning, Black poetry has consisted of two trains running. One train accepted and emulated the Euro-centric literary traditions and the other train rejoiced in and propagated the folk based, orated (semi- or quasi- musical) indigenously developed African American expressions. This is not simply a question of theme or content but also a question of technique.

            A poet such as Michael Harper without question writes thematically from a Black perspective and his work is particularly expressive and suggestive of the music, however, over the years his techniques have become more Euro-centric in a literary sense. Is he therefore, less “Black.” Of course not. He’s just on the west bound train, that’s all. The same is true of Jean Toomer. His book Cane is considered a classic of African American literature. Part of the reason that it has achieved that stature is because the technically accomplished (“brilliant” and “gifted” is how it is often described) poetry of Cane is generally rhymed, iambic pentameter and is therefore accessible to literary critics. Although its carrying coal, the poetry of Cane remains a westbound train.

            In the preface to the 1970 edition of Bontemps and Hughes’ The Poetry of The Negro, coeditor Arna Bontemps writes: “If the compilers had sought for a racial idiom in verse form among Negroes, they should have concerned themselves with the words of Negro spirituals, with folk rhymes, with blues, and other spontaneous lyrics. These song materials, no doubt, suggest a kind of poetry that is racially distinctive, that lies essentially outside the literary traditions of the language that it employs. But the present anthology consists of poems written within that tradition, by Negroes as well as others.”

            There we have it clearly stated: even Negroes have excluded the east bound train when dealing with literary concerns.

            Moreover, if both the poets and the poetry are perceived as threatening because they are on a train headed in the opposite direction, then is it not also understandable that there will be limited publication and support of this work? In February of 1994 I served on an NEA literature panel. It was expected that I would be familiar with the work of American poets and, in general, I was. One proposal we got to reference Haki Madhubuti. I was the only African American on the panel of eight or nine. No one else was familiar with Madhubuti’s work.

            Haki Madhubuti has over a million books in print! He is America’s best selling African American poet. I would have been considered “unqualified” to sit on an NEA poetry panel if I were unfamiliar with the work of a contemporary White poet who had sold more than a million books of poetry and was also the head of a major publishing company, but the reverse is not true.

            The majority of oral oriented, African American poets and poetry is unknown to America’s general literary world. Most Americans have never attended a Black poetry reading nor heard any of the few recordings which are available. There is a wall of ignorance. Breaching that wall has not been my main concern, however.

            One of my goals has been to develop and articulate a theory of poetics from an Afro-centric point of view. I wanted the theory to be more than a simple description of a few techniques or a reductionism to “dialect” combined with overtly “Black themes and content.” For me a major part of developing theory happens through the conscious praxis of writing poems with very specific goals in mind. While I am no less interested in writing political poetry, I am much more interested in investing the politicalness of the poetry into the structure of the poems.

            I think it is both fatal and facile to slip into the quagmire of using race to define aesthetics. At Ahidiana we defined Blackness as color, culture, and consciousness. I took the first for granted and set about the task of defining culture and consciousness.

            I began “constructing” poems which detailed a particular facet of social existence and which painted an overt picture easily grasped, but which also had an underlying political thrust. The politics of this poetry is sometimes unconsciously intuited by the audience or, at other times, subconsciously ingested.

            For example, “A Moment In A Mississippi Juke Joint,” was written as a direct effort to deal with those who criticize social realism as unpoetic. Based on the old joke about Soviet movies of the sixties: Q: What do you call a Soviet romantic film? A: A Man And His Tractor. My effort was first to use the image of a tractor as genuine eroticism. Second, I wanted to deal with “peasants,” which in my case was translated to Mississippi country folk. Third, I wanted to employ only those images that such people would know intimately. Fourth, I wanted to present these people with a positive sense of self esteem and an aesthetic of personal beauty based on an appreciation of their own features.

a moment in a mississippi juke joint:

                         wilma mae looks at john l.


his slender eyes           

and taut behind, bared arms           

blackberry dark with grapefruit           

sized biceps, but especially           

the massive slope of his head           

with broad textures like the benin           

bronze she didn’t consciously know about           

but subconsciously gravitated toward           

and those teeth shiny like           

lighthouses down on the gulf coast           

flashing through the ink of stormy night


wilma mae looked at his feet           

and the go slow grind of his hips           

keeping time to the juke box           

& sucked her breath in slowly, she           

would have taken a seat           

except she was already sitting with           

her thighs pressed tightly closed 


just then john l. threw his head           

back and sprayed the ceiling           

with the mirth of his laughter           

and casually did a little dip           

on the off beat of the break           

in the undulating song


“god,” she thought “that man           

look like a tractor, & i feels like           

a field what ain’t never been plowed…”

            By now I had also figured a way to make an oral statement and simultaneously make a textual statement: don’t combine them, separate them. “A Moment…” uses a song fragment, “oh, you poor, love sick child,” as a call and response device but that device is not written as part of the text. Instead, whenever I recite the poem, I explain the call and response to the audience. Thus, I achieve the participation of the audience as part of the orality of the performance, and, at the same time, I can develop the text without worrying about how to include the oral. Of course, this means that the poem on the page ceases to be recognize as a lyric. Were it not for this explanation, the reader would have no way of knowing that there is even a performance aspect tied to the poem. While this approach does not work in every instance, I have found it the most effective in allowing me to fully develop the oral as well as the textual potential of a given poem.

            Another example of this technique is the poem “Tasty Knees” which was written as a critique of male centered sex which defines the success of the sexual act in terms of male orgasm. I chose to deflate the penile fixation by ironically elevating it and then revealing the alternative. When I recite the poem, the tempo increases, mimicking the act of making love. I get louder and louder ending on the word “ejaculation” and then I deliver the deflating line “of course, I’m exaggerating.” Invariably people laugh. But the critique is actually delivered by having the poet celebrate an aspect of the lovemaking which was not phallic oriented, namely the “tasting” of knees (thus, also, the title of the poem).

            Many people do not realize that much of the structure of what we have been taught as good writing is based on a patriarchal perception of copulation. Is it not true that the high point of a story or plot development is called the climax and if a story goes on too long after reaching a climax it is said to have “petered out”? These are the philosophical questions with which I was consciously dealing.

Tasty Knees


in the dark of touch           

my face pressed heavy           

to your head i open           

my eyes and see the           

night hair of you dark           

as the lightless black           

of a warm womb’s interior,           

your wetness inviting touch           

your earth quakes, shakes and opens           

as my rod my staff           

slides across your ground           

though i want to scream i           

resolve to remain mute           

as a militant refusing to snitch           

to the improper authorities, but           

suddenly, a riot of joy breeches my resolve           

and i disperse the moist quiet of our union           

with an involuntary shout loud           

as a bull elephant’s triumphant ejaculation  


of course i am exaggerating, but my, my, my           

your knees did taste some good, yeah

<—The Call: Ideology or Poetry?    Producing & Recording Poetry—>

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Men We Love, Men We HateSAC writings from Douglass, McDonogh 35, and McMain high schools in New Orleans.

An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men

Ways of LaughingAn Anthology of Young Black VoicesPhotographed & Edited by Kalamu ya Salaam

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The Katrina Papers, by Jerry W. Ward, Jr. $18.95  /  The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)

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music website > writing website > daily blog > twitter > facebook >

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Guarding the Flame of Life

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New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin James / They danced atop his casket Jaran ‘Julio’ Green

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02_My_Story,_My_Song.mp3 (24503 KB)

(Kalamu reading “My Story, My Song”

Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

Track List 1.  Congo Square (9:01) 2.  My Story, My Song (20:50) 3.  Danny Banjo (4:32) 4.  Miles Davis (10:26) 5.  Hard News For Hip Harry (5:03) 6.  Unfinished Blues (4:13) 7.  Rainbows Come After The Rain (2:21)/Negroidal Noise (15:53) 8.  Intro (3:59) 9.  The Whole History (3:14) 10.  Negroidal Noise (5:39) 11.  Waving At Ra (1:40) 12.  Landing (1:21) 13.  Good Luck (:04)

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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  23 July 2010




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