ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



In an effort to give “currency” to our mother tongue and its “folksy” essence, some of our

writers have taken to attempting to write in a way that mimics or mirrors

African-American speech. This process, at one time called “dialect,” is characteristic

not only of African-American literature, but also characteristic of most of the literature

of African peoples who have been colonialized in the Western hemisphere



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)


*   *   *   *   *

Art for Life: My Story, My Song

By Kalamu ya Salaam


*   *   *   *   *


Six. The Reconstruction Of A Poet (contd.) 

African-American Language (Two interviews)

            There were several pieces that served as my major springboard in focusing on Afro-centric language as text. One was an interview I did with Toni Cade Bambara which was published in Vol. 2 No. 4 (1980) issue of First World:

               FIRST WORLD: Are you consciously trying to do anything in particular with your style of writing?

            TONI CADE BAMBARA: I’m trying to learn how to write! I think there have been a lot of things going on in the Black experience for which there are no terms, certainly not in English at this moment. There are a lot of aspects of consciousness for which there is no vocabulary, no structure in the English language which would allow people to validate that experience through the language. I’m trying to find a way to do that.

            FW: Do you see yourself, then, essentially in search of a language?

            TCB: That’s one of the things I’m trying to do.

            FW: Why hasn’t this happened before? Do you think other writers have tried to do this and been unsuccessful?

            TCB: I don’t know. I do know that the English language that grew from European languages has been systematically stripped of the kinds of structures and the kinds of vocabularies that allow people to plug into other kinds of intelligences. That’s no secret. That’s part of their whole history, wherein people cannot be a higher sovereign then the state. At the time when wise folk were put to the rack was also a time when books were burned, temples razed to the ground, and certain types of language “mysteries” — for lack of a better word — were suppressed. That’s the legacy of the West.

            I’m just trying to tell the truth and I think in order to do that we will have to invent, in addition to new forms, new modes and new idioms. I think we will have to connect language in that kind of way. I don’t know yet what that is.

            The second part of the article on Toni, the commentary, is a cogent summation of the quest for language:

            Achieving a written language is not simply about duplication, or even “replication,” of the language we hear in our communities and neighborhoods. Because, like our music, as of this moment there is no adequate form of written notation which can fully render our sound to paper. The struggle of the committed African-American writer is to crate the written forms which can adequately translate the reality and visions, the past, present and hoped for future, into black and white on a page.

            In an effort to give “currency” to our mother tongue and its “folksy” essence, some of our writers have taken to attempting to write in a way that mimics or mirrors African-American speech. This process, at one time called “dialect,” is characteristic not only of African-American literature, but also characteristic of most of the literature of African peoples who have been colonialized in the Western hemisphere whenever diasporan-African writers attempted to give voice to or be the voice of the particular people from which they originate.

            In the U.S.A. the most frequently cited paradigm of this process and style of writing was the “Negro” verse of Paul L. Dunbar. During the Sixties, trying to get down to it, we would “be” dropping g’s and adopting a ditty-bopping style which was better understood and appreciated when heard than simply read. The elliptical spelling and speech-like patterns of Ntozake Shange are probably the best known examples of Seventies dialect writing. But words change, sounds change, tempo, rhythm and the gestures associated with talk, all of that changes and, thus, I suggest that “dialect” alone has only a surface relationship to the actual quest for the mother tongue, for an African-American language.

            In the Caribbean and in Central and South America, this process, the use of “dialect,” generally is referred to as using the local “patois.” The patois is generally the Africanization of the colonial language. What is sometimes referred to as “Black English” is actually African-American patois.

            In a context within which the use of African languages was strictly forbidden (either de jure or de facto) and actively discouraged by force, our people’s use of patois reflects, not, as has been mistaken by some, the attempt of the ignorant and illiterate to speak the English (or French or Spanish or Portuguese) language; rather, the significance of patois is that it reflects the will of our people to inject our African root and essence into everything we do and say, and especially into the way we communicate with each other. Patois, in our case “Black English,” is not the bastard tongue of aliens and slaves imitating the master. Patois is the affirmation of the African presence in the Western hemisphere.

            Furthermore, language is not just style, it is not only “how” we say or write something. What makes one language fundamentally different from another is not how it sounds, but indeed, its actual “structure,” which is derived from the users’ worldview, i.e., how the users of the language view themselves, other people and the world. The creation of any language which is fundamentally different in worldview from the colonial language is the most subversive act, short of actual revolution, that any colonized people can conceive and carry out.

            Unfortunately, most of us who are literate in the colonial tongue, especially those of us who are nonpolitical or apolitical oriented writers, have generally failed to understand the importance of establishing the mother tongue. Too many of us as writers have spent unretrievable time attempting to demonstrate that we had mastered the colonial language. Thus, much of our “writing” has an “outside” quality vis-Ö-vis our own people. We write from the outside looking in, we write as an observer/voyeur who is explaining to others (those who are equally “literate” in the colonial language) what these “people,” our own people, are all about. It is essentially a pimp/peephole act/art.

            In fact, the very act of writing and publishing in the post-chattel slavery period is often considered a sign that some writer has “made it,” i.e. collaborated with and been accepted by the colonial master.

            A major part of my search was not for content but for structure, and this is no simple search. For example, Jean Toomer eschewed the Euro-centric forms and embraced the patois when he wrote the prose of Cane. I believe this is the case precisely because prose is the everyday written usage of language subspectible to “common,” as well as specialized, influences. Prose is also less literary in the sense that prose as a totality is not claimed as the province of a select group (i.e. the intelligentsia).

            This was not always the case, particularly in those historic eras when writing in toto was the province of a special class. Yet, what was democratic in the history of writing in American was prose precisely because industry can not do without prose. They need manuals and minutes of meetings, records of transactions and logs detailing merchandise, discoveries, exploits and military operations. Why else was the slave narrative possible? Why not slave poems? Why not slave songs?

            If you are interested, look at how many more critical texts have been written about African American prose as compared to the relatively small number of critical text written about African American poetry. Critical consideration evidences acceptance by the intelligentsia.

            Prose is also more open to experimentation, hence we have the magic realism of Latin America or the Memories of Fire Americas history trilogy by Eduardo Galiano. But poetry, on the other hand, because it is a distillation of language, is the most codified. The poetic text is the last bastion of Euro-centric linguistic domination.

[Interview with Kamau Brathwaite]

            After Toni Cade Bambara, the second influence was Barbadian poet/historian Edward Kamau Brathwaite, the person whom I consider the greatest living poet in the western hemisphere. Period. In the early eighties I did an interview with Brathwaite which remains unpublished.

           SALAAM: What are you trying to do with your poetry now?

            BRATHWAITE: My poetry has been concerned, for a long time now, with the attempt to reconstruct, in verse, in metric and in rhythms, the nature of the culture of the people of the Caribbean. This involves not only discovering what I would call “new poetic forms” — a breakaway from the English pentameter — but also, and more importantly, discovering the nature of our folk culture, the myths, the legends, the speech rhythms, the way we express ourselves in words, the way we express ourselves in song. That has been my concern for about ten years and is increasingly so. One has to develop technical resources of a very complex nature and at the same time one has to get an increasing knowledge of who our people are, where they come from and the nature of their soul.

            SALAAM: What’s so important about that?

            BRATHWAITE: Well, what’s important is that until we can do that we remain “ex-selves,” we remain nobodies, we remain just imitations of those who had colonized us. Considering that the man in the street, our own people, the common man has always been himself, it is ridiculous that the artists have remained a shadow of that self. What we have to do now is to increasingly bring the artist and the people together.

            SALAAM: Do you prefer working on the page or would you like to do more recordings?

            BRATHWAITE: Both. I wouldn’t separate them. My poems start off as rhythms in my head, as patterns of songs which also have an objective. The patterns of songs have to say something, address themselves to some problems or go through some dialectical process. From my head they have to be transferred onto the page, because that’s how I started, but then from the page I instinctively transfer it on to song. In other words, every time I write a poem I have to either have it read or read it myself to some kind of audience before I’m satisfied that it’s a real poem. The recordings are a necessary part of the whole process.

            SALAAM: What’s the importance of the audience in that process?

            BRATHWAITE: The audience gives me feedback. The audience completes the circle. The audience are the people I’m writing about and for, and therefore, if they can’t understand what I’m saying it means that it might be that I’ve failed. There are some cases where I think I’m ahead of the audience but then I would know that and they would know it too, but you’ve got to start from a base that the audience and yourself agree on and move from there.

           SALAAM: Who is this audience that you speak of, obviously you don’t just mean people in general?

            BRATHWAITE: I start off with a Caribbean audience which is representative of the people who have been down-pressed. The audience is usually a mixed audience, moving in terms of class from college educated to middle class right up to the laboring class because that is how our society is composed.

            SALAAM: What immediate reactions do you find valuable as verification and what long range reactions do you find valuable as verification?

            BRATHWAITE: The immediate reactions are one of ascent or descent. You can tell from face and feeling, body movement, if you are saying the right thing. That is clear. but the long range reaction is very interesting. I’ll give you an example: I’m starting to use a lot of possession (religious) sequences in my work. Because the work is culturally accurate, instinctively when people come to it they want to perform it, they don’t just want to read it, nearly all my work in the Caribbean is done as a performance with groups. Now, a young group of actors recently came into contact with my latest poem which was essentially involved with religion, native religion, Afro-Caribbean religion. They were not themselves fully aware of what I was talking about but they could tell from the descriptions, the external aspects of the descriptions, the kinds of churches I was talking about. They went to those churches in order to experience for themselves what was happening and many of them have now become members of those churches. As artists they find themselves now being fulfilled as members of those people’s churches. I think that’s a very significant long term effect because it is really motivating people not just to talk about their culture but to become participants in its root basis. The Haitians have done it too. The Haitians are increasingly returning to vodun as a central experience. With the African person the religion is the center of the culture, therefore every artist, at some stage, must become rootedly involved in a religious complexity.

           SALAAM: How do you deal with the mystification inherent in much of the religion?

            BRATHWAITE: It is not mystification at all, that’s the thing about it. The religion is so natural, it is so vital, it is so socially oriented, so people oriented that there is no mysticism — mental mystification — in it al all. That is really the difference between an African oriented religion and a European one. Theirs is very mystified because they  are not dealing with a living god, they’re not dealing with man in relation to god in relation to community.

           SALAAM: They’re not people centered.

            BRATHWAITE: Right. In the African sense the religion is medicine, it is philosophy, it is martial arts, it is everything, holistic.

           SALAAM: In that sense the work you are doing is people centered work as opposed to idea centered?

            BRATHWAITE: Right. As opposed to art centered work, art for art’s sake.

            From a vision outside the U.S.A. but inside the African Diaspora, Brathwaite grapples with the same issues I have grappled with throughout my life. While I agree with the overall tenor of what he said, I think he avoids dealing with the “blues” which is simply our response to the denial of our humanity by humans more powerful they both we and our traditional god(s). Brathwaite is not a “practicing” member of any particular organized religious group. He locates the center of religion in the people orientation. This is an avoidance of the most troubling question: why did our old gods fail us, what did we do to deserve our lot, to be(come) so Black and blue.

            We reenter the question raised much earlier in this writing. There is a schism between the blues folk and the religious (particularly the Christians). I agree with Brathwaite that there must be a religious center, spiritual beliefs — but I do not believe that presupposes organized religions, whether Christian or Islamic. A central (and, some would say, existential) question ultimately must be addressed by every serious writer who confronts African American culture: the failure of “God” (religion) to provide earthly deliverance.

            In search of the answer I went back to the beginning, to the core, to the people and placed my faith in them and in nature, in what I can witness and in what created me, thus:

haiku #58            

black people believe           

in god, and i believe in           

black people, amen

            Ultimately, every African American poet worth her or his salt must address in one way or another, directly or indirectly, bluntly or subtly, this most basic of all questions: how come we must suffer so. Regardless of the specific answer posed or the specific solution suggested, I believe such wrestling is an essential characteristic of the Black aesthetic and is also the source of our characteristic melancholic tinge which colors, to one degree or another, every African American gesture.

            My understanding of the phenomenology of Black poetry was further uplifted by Kamau Brathwaite through an instructive lecture published in text form as History Of The Voice. In terms of explicating the structure of his poetic language and relating that language to the liberation struggle, Brathwaite had gone further than any poet I knew. Brathwaite’s work has parallels in the work of some linguists, but the difference is: Brathwaite was dealing with the inherent revolutionary nature of Black expressive voice in the face of colonial domination, a paradigm which remains profound applicable today.

            Brathwaite defines “nation language” thusly: 

  …National language is the language which is influenced very strongly by the African model, the African aspect of our New World/Caribbean heritage. English it may be in terms of some of its lexical features. But in its contours, its rhythm and timbre, its sound explosions, it is not English, even though the words, as you hear them, might be English to a greater or lesser degree.

           Now I’d like to describe for you some of the characteristics of our nation language. First of all, it is from, as I’ve said, an oral tradition. The poetry, the culture itself, exists not in a dictionary but in the tradition of the spoken word. It is based as much on sound as it is on song. That is to say, the noise that it makes is part of the meaning, and if you ignore the noise (or what you would think of as noise, shall I say) then you or lose part of the meaning. When it is written, you lose the sound or the noise, and therefore you lose part of the meaning. Which is, again, why I have to have a tape recorder for this presentation. I want you to get the sound of it, rather than the sight of it.

                        In order to break down the pentameter, we discovered an ancient form which was always there, the calypso. This is a form that I think nearly everyone knows about. It does not employ the iambic pentameter. It employs dactyls. It therefore mandates the use of the tongue in a certain way, the use of sound in a certain way. It is a model that we are moving naturally towards now. Compare

To be or not to be, that is the question                        

The stone had skidded arc’d and bloomed into islands                       

Cuba San Domingo                       

Jamaica Puerto Rico

            But not only is there a different in syllabic or stress pattern, there is an important difference in shape of intonation. In the Shakespeare, the voice travels in a single forward plane towards the horizon of its end. In the kaiso, after the skimming movement of the first line, we have a distinct variation. The voice dips and deepens to describe an intervallic pattern. And then there are more ritual forms like kumina, like shango, the religious forms, which I won’t have time to go into here, but which begin to disclose the complexity that is possible with nation language.

            The other thing about nation language is that it is part of what may be called total expression, a notion which is not unfamiliar to you because you are coming back to that kind of thing now. Reading is an isolated, individualistic expression. The oral tradition on the other hand demands not only the griot but the audience to complete the community: the noise and sounds that the maker makes are responded to by the audience and are returned to him. Hence we have the creation of a continuum where meaning truly resides. And this total expression comes about because people be in the open air, because people live in conditions of poverty (‘unhouselled’) because they come from a historical experience where they had to rely on their very breath rather than on paraphernalia like books and museums and machines. They had to depend on immanence, the power within themselves, rather than the technology outside themselves.

             What was important for me is that Brathwaite had clearly articulated not only structural differences but also the social basis for those differences. When I put Brathwaite’s insights with Zora Neal Hurston’s remarks about “Negro Expression,” the shape of the poetry I wanted and needed to create became clear.

            Zora Hurston’s article, currently available in the volume Sanctified Church, is at once a timeless meditation on the nature of why and how we express ourselves, as well as a period piece obviously grounded in (but not limited by) the “slang” of her era.

            Very few Negroes, educated or not, use a clear clipped “I.” It verges more or less upon “Ah.” I think the lip form is responsible for this to a great extent. By experiment the reader will find that a sharp “i” is very much easier with a thin taut lip than with a full soft lip. Like tightening violin strings.”

            Zora’s ruminations opened a number of doors of inner insight for me, especially when set in the framework constructed by Brathwaite. In essence, Zora Hurston advised me to study our people, totally and without shame.

            Well before I could intellectually articulate my theory of a Black aesthetic, I had already accepted the basic tenets because I loved the music of John Coltrane. My love of Coltrane was not instantaneous, in fact, early on I would walk out of the room when Coltrane came on the Saturday evening jazz radio program which I listened to religiously. But there was something that pulled me into Trane’s sound. Eventually, I realized “that woman” was in his horn, i.e. Trane was a profound blues musician. In him, once again I heard the cry of the blues, a cry that was both brutally raw in its sound and sophisticated in its articulation.

            My ultimately successful efforts to feel, embrace and understand Coltrane intellectually stimulated and spiritually focused my development of Afro-centric literary theories. Throughout my life, music has always preceded intellectual discovery. The sound of the music would grab me well before I could make sense out of the structure and sophisticated articulation of both the country blues singers and the modern jazz musicians.

            Modern jazz moved me to think, particularly John Coltrane. In modern jazz, Coltrane reintroduced blues as the dominant emotional vector as well as conceptual structure of his music. Afterwards, he began incorporating both spirituals/gospel and world musics in his work. Finally, he added a spiritual dimension to his work by proposing that we are all one, and all part of a much larger life force. Coltrane articulated key aspects of his philosophy in conversation with Nat Hentoff who wrote the liner notes for Coltrane’s path breaking release Meditations.

            Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do. In that respect, this is an extension of A Love Supreme since my conception of that force keeps changing shape. My goal in meditating on this through music, however, remains the same. And that is to uplift people, as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there certainly is meaning to life.

            The awesome inclusiveness of Trane’s music — a sound at once informed by the world yet unmistakably and unalterably Black — suggested to me the possibility of a non-racist approach to Afro-centrism. His music was like the sun, radiating ideas (shooting them out to investigate the depths of the universe) and at the same time gravitationally so strong that it pulled an entire galaxy into orbit around itself. Any question I could posed, the music had already addressed. Every answer I would achieve, the music would prepare me to accept. By 1992 I had begun formalizing my approach, or, as the musicians would say: I had found my sound.

            What is interesting here is that although much of my work, particularly the oral, was immediately identifiable, the sound I had was not the sound I was reaching to attain. Again, the music is instructive. Jazz is generally created in a collective but simultaneously always celebrates the individual. In the best jazz combos, one can tell who each musician is just by hearing their own unique sound, yet it is paradoxical that a individual sound is developed by playing with others, never in isolation, even though the isolation of shedding is necessary to develop craft, develop technique. But technique is not sound. That is why Thelonious Monk, for instance, is immediately identifiable as a pianist even though he did not have the technical abilities of many pianists of lesser importance to the music.

            All of these kinds of considerations are reflected in my poetry. While I spent years experimenting and performing, writing and rewriting, refashioning and/or jettisoning old ideas and techniques, discovering new ones and adopting others, through all of that I knew that ultimately it was about being myself. I had to find out who I was and had to articulate the truths that I found.

            Eventually, I also understood that, if I were successful, not only would I create my own sound, I would also create my own sense. Like Black musicians have for hundreds of years, I would learn by reflection and projection, reflecting on myself and the world, projecting what I had discovered. I would have my own sound and I would conceive my own sense of what my life was about. This revelation is best expressed in a short poem contained in What Is Life, a collection of poetry and essays published by Third World Press in 1994.

The Meaning Of Life           

sometimes I sit                       

          and I wonder                       

          what is the meaning                       

          of life           

I sit           


and I wonder                       

          and then I realize                       

          I am the meaning                       

          of my own life           

the meaning is me

<—A Black Poetics    Africa: History & Future of Poetry  (Black Modernity)—>

*   *   *   *   *



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

*   *   *   *   *

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

*   *   *   *   *

Guarding the Flame of Life

*   *   *   *   *

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

*   *   *   *   *

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)

*   *   *   *   *

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

*   *   *   *   *

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.

*   *   *   *   *

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.

*   *   *   *   *

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)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

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

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *


*   *   *   *   *






update 19 May 2012




Home  Kalamu Table  Art for Life Table 

Related files:  the visibility trigger/a poem for kwame nkrumah