ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Art for Life: My Story, My Song
By Kalamu ya Salaam
Books by Kalamu ya Salaam
My Story My Song (CD)
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Six. The Reconstruction Of A Poet (contd.)
Africa: History & Future of Poetry (Black Modernity)
In June of 1994 I finished a collection of love poetry titled I Enter Your Church. Containing a poem written in 1965 and including many others written over a two decade period, this collection has a range that none of my previous poetry collections were able to reach precisely because I am now consciously working from a structure.
To create what I call revolutionary Black art within a dominant and dominating White supremacist culture requires me as an African American artist to develop a consciousness that strives for the purity of artistic expression rather than simply an uncritical and unartistic reversion to raw expression. All artists must study if their work is to move beyond naive expressionism into modernity.
What is the difference between modernity and naivete? Modernity is reflective while naivete is reflexive. Modernity thinks before it acts. Naivete acts simply as it feels. Regardless of what I, or any of my contemporaries may feel, or think, the fact is we not only live in a modern age, more importantly we have been psychologically shaped by our modern context.
Regardless of the objective, whether the study of history or the creation of a revolution, whether collaboration with the dominant forces or construction of iconoclastic alternatives, whatever we do will inevitably be done in the present (or, as Charlie Parker said on his horn, “Now Is The Time”), a “time” defined by modernity. Inspired by the examples of Coltrane, Cabral, Bambara, Brathwaite, Baraka, Jones, Baldwin and literally hundreds of others, I have fashioned my own individual response to the problems posed by living in these modern times: how to move Black(ly) into the future.
I had chosen to be a writer, a task which by definition included mastering text and/or creating textual alternatives and which by my own personal orientation also required extending the oral tradition. As I grew more mature, I recognized that my task was a “both/and” rather than an “either/or”. This was a complex undertaking.
There were numerous examples of great naive art in the fields of music and dance, but that could never be the case with language precisely because textual language is a product of consciousness. One can not just “feel up” a language, a language must be “thought up.” The very act of writing requires thought.
To “consciously” create a literature expressive of a Black aesthetic, we necessarily must first think up what we mean by a Black aesthetic. Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop’s The Cultural Unity of Black Africa was as important to me in my “thinking up” process (i.e. codifying a Black aesthetic) as was the political theory of Amilcar Cabral in helping me recognize and define the revolutionary character of people based cultural work.
Particularly applicable was Diop’s critique of tragedy and his advocacy of African optimism. Diop located the seeds of the tragic view of life in acceptance of the concept of “original sin.”
The themes [of tragedy] always deal, through the action of destiny, with a blind fatality which tends systematically to destroy a whole race or line of descent. They all betray a feeling of guilt, original with and at the same time typical of the Northern cradle. Whether it is a question of Oedipus or the Altrides and Agamemnon, there is always a flow, a crime committed by the ancestors, which has to be expiated irremediably by their descendants, who, from this fact and despite whatever they do, are utterly condemned by fate. Aeschylus tried to reduce the severity of this state of affairs by doing his utmost to introduce the idea of justice, which would allow an innocent posterity no longer to be punished, but to be absolved.
The Semitic conception is identical. The original sin was committed by the very ancestors of the human race and all humanity, condemned from this time to obtain its bread by the sweat of its brow, had to atone for it. This point of view has been adopted and taught by modern religions such as Christianity and Islam.
The importance to me of Diop was that without the mystification of Yacub (the mad scientist who supposedly created “White people”) or any other resort to racialism to explain human activity, he offered both an interpretation of the Euro-centric worldview and a human centered explanation of a sub-Saharan African worldview. Regardless of whatever dreams and aspirations I or any of my peers hold, without rigorously researched, intellectual conceptualizations we would always end up proposing a mystical conceptualization of a Black aesthetic — mystical in the sense that one is asked to simply accept “Blackness” based on a belief system rather than on an interpretation of reality.
Worldwide travel has disabused me of the notion of Black exceptionalism, e.g. “it’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” Just as, to paraphrase Terrace, there is nothing human that is foreign to me, certainly I as a human being need neither be perceived nor projected as foreign to any other human being. My chosen task as a writer is to locate the Black experience within the continuum of human experience. If I could understand the world then certainly the world could understand me.
Diop gave me insight not only into myself, but into the world at large, as well as insight into my relationship to others in the world. I am profoundly influenced by his conceptions of African culture. I Enter Your Church is Diopian in its concepts of relationships.
Hofu had been my first conscious attempt to do this. I intuitively stepped off into areas about which I had limited concrete understanding. From the beginning, I had felt the direction I wanted to go and I had moved with that sensually perceived spirit in my heart. But now there is more than just a song in my heart, there is also something in my head.
For example, in ordering the poems in Church, I decided to utilize a structure of birth, maturity, death and rebirth. After I had completed and assembled the manuscript, I read a reference to this same philosophical system in Signs And Symbols, African Images In African-American Quilts by Maude Southwell Wahlman. The author pointed out that the diagrams on some of the quilts were replications of African cosmographs. She went on to point specifically to a Kongo cosmograph built on the same four part philosophy that I thought was my thought.
As soon as I read it, I was happy. I prefer to be aboriginal in my modernity rather than novel (or what some call “original”). In essence, the preexistence of African cosmology meant in part that I had intellectually aligned myself with my ancestral foundation. This was cause for great rejoicing.
For my part I had arrived at this place, as many artists do, via an intuitive leap. I had no specific concrete knowledge in hand, but I had cultural predispositions and subtextual teachings which were the result of years of study. Unavoidably there was a buildup of theories and experiential reflections posited by a wide variety of writings and conversations. For me all of this reached a critical mass in the beginning years of the nineties. In one sense the structure for I Enter Your Church was a intuitive leap resulting in a coincidence of concordance with a Kongo cosmogram, but it can also be argued that the structure was simply a qualitative transformation of the quantitative mass of information I had consumed.
Regardless of whether coincidental or logical (albeit subconscious deduction), this structure illustrated the basic unity of African culture. The closer we get to our total selves (i.e. the selves we were, are and will to be/come), the more likely will be our convergence with both ancient and futuristic Afro-centered concepts.
Because I focus on culture, I believe that Africa is not simply land, Africa is people. In fact, not only are African Americans (all over the Diaspora) examples of Africa people, but the culture we produce is African culture even as it is also the product of accretions. In the final analysis, our people in general are always more important than any specific piece of land. I do not mean to imply that the continent of Africa is of negligible concern, but simply that it is not an abstract concern in and of itself, and it is a concern which can only be appreciated in concert with a concern for Africa people worldwide.
Whereas, some believe, as the bible says: there is nothing new under the sun. In philosophical essence that may be true, but in fact, as Great Black Music demonstrates, out of Africa (the people), always something new. Africa is both the history and the future of my poetry.
coda: in order for something to come out,
you got to put something in
drum between my legs,
my horn blowing into the
dawn, dance with me please
A Black Aesthetic: Where I’m Coming From/Going To
1. Affirm life.
No art is completed until it is connected to the people (at the very least another person). Everything of value I have ever experienced has been consummated in a social setting (even if the society was the elemental couple procreating/enjoying life), and this is particularly true of art.
Every expression requires a transmitter, a message and a receiver — and, of course, whatever it takes to make all three work. In the west the artist is severed from the audience (or the “auditors” as Julio Finn says). My art is incomplete without an audience because our culture is a culture of affirmation.
The old folks used to say, when you enter a room, speak to the people who are already there. When we enter the room of Black culture we should speak to the ancestors and we should expect to get a reply — after all, the ancients are culture(d) and will surely respond when spoken to.
Affirmation leads us to appreciate the continuum of life. Louis Armstrong would never have been whole, not to mention noble and bold, without the ancestors (King Oliver and Buddy Bolden) in his horn even when he blew notes that had never been blown before. By creating something new from something old, Louis, and Langston Hughes too, became ancestors of the future. These are the people we go back to know who we are in the present. To be mature is to make yourself worthy of being an ancestor.
2. Make a joyful noise.
Step up and sing. Dance and music are the two most basic gestures of the soul. Yes, work is necessary for physical survival, but art is necessary for soul’s survival. Dance because it is the movement of our bodies, our physical selves consonant with the grace and fluidity of life motions stylized in recognition of and emulation of the beauty and the power of the cosmos, the creator. Music because that is how we create imaginary worlds, how we enrich our imaginations, and it is our enriched imaginations which enable us to figure out how to withstand the mundanity of day to day slavery.
Dance, properly done, of course, is about being earth like. Duke Ellington and Sun Ra were always playing for dancers because until you move like the earth circling the sun, like rings around Saturn, like the breezes shaking the leaves, like the motion of the ocean, until you move you do not understand that the basic throb of life is Eros. Stillness is death. At the core of every dance is the celebration of the physical which necessarily leads to arousal. All of our dances, to a greater or lesser extent, are erotic because they celebrate life. There is nothing more human, more basic than dance. Nothing.
I approach my poetry as song precisely because song is the synchronizing of the soul with the body. Black song, is, or ought to be, the sound of the body moving through life, the sound of the body being beaten or being loved. Song is a cry — just what a baby does. Song expresses our feelings, anxieties, desires and longings, our aspirations and our despairs, both hope and resignation. What is strongest about our songs is the quality of our expressive emoting, declarations unmediated (and hence, uncensored) by the workings of the mind. The mind unavoidably is circumscribed by the rules and regulations, taboos and qualifiers, of whatever society or civilization one finds oneself in.
If you only (or even, mainly) think about what you are singing, think about the music you are making, then you are not sharing your truest feelings, emotions. You are not sharing your total self. You are legislating your life, being a politician. There will necessarily be a discontinuity between what you say you are about and what you feel and desire. This discontinuity inevitably leads to guilt, anxiety, and/or rage (especially when we realize that the expression of some (many?) of our deepest emotions is restricted, if not prohibited, by this society.
The purpose of the noise, the joyful noise, in my art is to disrupt the status quo and free the captive emotions.
The reason our music and dance is about freedom is because it is uncivilized. Uncivilized in the sense of unregulated by the social and moral authorities of America. The profoundness of our song and dance is that expressive participation in the making of music reinforces our resolve to be free. After the music we are emboldened and are ready to take on the police — whether actually dancing in the street or simply rejecting bourgeois propriety. I believe that if I can write a poem which helps people feel what freedom feels like, then, experiencing it momentarily within the ritual of art, they will desire it in their daily lives, and hence, will, of their own accord, think of ways to free themselves from the restrictions of this society.
3. Pro(Re)claim the blues.
The blues is a musical response to the socially restrictive, psychologically suppressive, and physically oppressive life we endure in America. The essence of the blues is primal, elemental rather than elaborate (i.e. intellectually deep). The blues is the elegance of emotional survival stripped of any social pretensions or prohibitions — which is why the thematic range may appear limited to those looking for intellectual stimulation. But far from being a limitation, the blues’ raw power is what has preserved us.
The blues did more than artistically describe or replicate the essence of life. Being the ritual music that it is, the blues actually inspired and activated two essential qualities: facing up to the brutalness of life and seeking the community of love.
The reason the blues makes us happy even as it moans about pain is because it is mentally healthy to face the facts of life, the painful, the “evils,” the wrongs, the losts. Facing adversity rather than suppressing our rage, our anger, our shame, our inadequacies, whatever. Indeed, that is why there seems to be so much violence in the blues; people singing about killing a lover, murdering with a knife, poison, hands, hammer or a gun. Those lyrics are expressions of real impulses and desires, the real rage that one feels when one is wronged. Rather than sublimate those seeming base emotions, the blues singer shouts them out in a cathartic voice which releases the individual from the need to express the desire through actual mayhem.
Do not misunderstand, the blues is not therapy, because therapy implies illness. The blues is the ounce of cathartic prevention which is better than the pound of psychiatric cure. The healthy personality/society prevents rather than treats mental illness.
Facing up is healthy. And it feels good to publicly acknowledge these facts of life. Polite society would have us suppress these feelings, but when we suppress our real feelings where does the pain go? If we push rage down deep into the personality and deny it an outlet, sooner or later it will manifest itself in one way or another. This is why civilization is neurotic, particularly American life with its myriad denials of reality. After all is said and done, what is civilization but a seasoning process that makes a slave “polite and obliging”?
Those who consider the blues profane are reacting to what they consider an affront to their aspirations toward the norms of a society which has enslaved them. Resultantly, and not unsurprisingly in this context, the more Blacks become like the Whites they aspire to be, then the more those same Blacks oppress and/or exploit their own Black selves. We Blacks become collaborating agents and maintainers of our own oppression. This oppression also assumes an intellectual dimension manifested in our disdain for the earthy, the funky, the “primitive”, all of which is precisely what the blues is.
In this context I have come to believe that my task as a poet is to confront the unmentioned, the avoided, the suppressed. My task is to emotionally confront rather than to intellectualize. In this connection, poetry is most persuasive in that it is built on a foundation of emotion rather than intellect, cathartic rather than therapeutic. Poetry is the linguistic expression of emotions. This is the structure that the blues gives to my work.
By extension, jazz is blues based expression expanded by intellectual perceptions. In one of my poems I describe jazz thusly:
you got to blues i believe, you Black, you got to blues,
or gospel, or rhythm & blues, or jazz, yes jazz, jazz,
now that’s just another kind of blues with a mind of its own,
intelligent blues, thinking about things blues, want to know
blues, want to be blues, new day, sunrise, yes, sunrise of
that sun gonna shine when the morning come day blues, but
jazz is still blues, you can tell all them great jazz players,
they is blues, each and everyone of them, blues masters,
think of one, anyone, if they can’t blues, they can’t jazz,
Blues and jazz, gospel (actually the whole of Baptist liturgy), and folk music forms, Black music as a whole is the basic underpinning of my poetry. Even when I use the haiku structure, I do so, consistent with the aesthetic demands of Great Black Music.
4. Seek unity with all.
We are citizens of the world. We belong to the cosmos. We must stop viewing the world strictly in racial terms, i.e. as White, Black and Foreign. We must understand that just as we socially belong to the world culture of humankind, in a very primordial physical sense we literally belong to and are inextricably part and parcel of the earth. In a psychic sense our souls belong to a larger cosmic scene: the great energy field of life. This is the necessary metaphysical component of our mundane expressions, the eternal analog to our temporal existence here on earth. Religion in general is simply (or complexly) an attempt to articulate this most profound connection.
I used the concept of energy field for specific reasons. All of life is relative, neither created nor destroyed only transformed and, depending on where we are on the continuum at the moment, it is manifested in a physical form. But even when we are physical, within our physical bodies the life energy force cries out for reunion with the cosmos thus our desire to become one with god (the life force).
As I worked out this ideology, I struggled to insert those discoveries into my work. The poem, “Earth Day” is a good example.
daily, once we arrive
we should ask ourselves what are we doing
to make the earth glad
that we are here
walking its face
breathing and being
does our living
help or hurt other
every time we celebrate
a birthday we should use the
occasion to reaffirm our pledge
to make the earth
glad that we are here
So, at base, (writing the word “so” at this point requires another aside).
Here is Zora Neal Hurston’s explanation for my linguistic use of “so.”
In story telling “so” is universally the connective. It is used even as an introductory word, at the very beginning of a story. In religious expression “and” is used. The trend in stories is to state conclusions; in religion, to enumerate.
So, at base, the blues (and by extension all the other forms of Great Black Music) signifies the structure onto which I affix my specific remembrances and life experiences, as well as my intellectual speculations and conclusions. That is how I write my poetry.
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You got to dream before you can analyze the meaning, and you’ve got to create a body of work before you can codify a poetic code. Thirty years is a long time. Only after you’ve gotten to the tail can you tell what the whole look like.
I did not consciously start out trying to define an aesthetic. For that matter, I was not even guided by an aesthetic, i.e. a codification of beauty. I started moving strictly on a feeling, not a thought. I wanted to sing and I had to figure out how. Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t hesitate to move forward with the verve and arrogance characteristic of youth.
To this day I don’t know why I became a word singer. Carrying and concretizing the spirit was something I had to do, came crying into this world to do. Like breathing, I could not avoid creative expression. I was born to sing and knew it when I first heard the blues. My whole soul shook, something like when you come but with more passion and with more lasting affect.
But here I am. This is my story, this is my song. Reflecting on how I got over is how I developed my theory of climbing. I didn’t learn this in school, it wasn’t written in a book. I’m not sure my elevator will lift you up, but I’ve shared all the secrets I know.
A special shout out to my son, Mtume ya Salaam, who was the line editor for this manuscript. Once I decided to focus exclusively on myself as a poet, as I wrote the text, Mtume suggested cuts, questioned items to include, edited for both flow and comprehension, and served as an excellent sounding board for the overall development, as well as for some of the particular philosophical points. The effort to combine both autobiography and aesthetic theory would have been much less effective were it not for Mtume’s valuable insights and editing skills.
Like we always used to sign off: If there is something of value here, take it and pass it on, the rest leave alone.
Everything’s gonna be alright.
If somebody asks you
Who sang this song.
Tell them Kalamu ya Salaam,
Been here and gone.
<—African-American Language (Two interviews)
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By Charles C. Mann
Im a big fan of Charles Manns 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. Its exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that its 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, Im 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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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 Americas past made by Mr. Obamas 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. Kennedys father relished Muhammad Alis 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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From The World and Africa, 1965
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updated 3 May 2009