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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two: what Langston did
Captivated by Langston
…I think that music, being an expression of the human heart, or of the human being itself, does express just what is happening. I feel it expresses the whole thing — the whole of human experience at the particular time that it is being expressed…I think music is an instrument. It can create the initial thought patterns that can change the thinking of the people. — John William Coltrane
I had absolutely no idea about anything related to “formal” poetry except I was captivated by what Langston Hughes had done on that record. Being both ignorant and smitten, Hughes became my measuring rod.
For years, I thought to be a writer meant to be like Langston Hughes: meant to work, and work hard at it; meant to write in every genre and to produce anthologies as well as individual books; meant to travel and communicate with people around the world; meant to do both journalism and creative writing; meant to celebrate the humanity of the planet through a focus on one’s own folk. This is what I thought being a writer meant.
I never thought of being just a poet or just a journalist, just a dramatist or just an essayist. I never thought that writing one’s own books were more important than editing the works of others. Tutored by Hughes, I quickly learned that people of color were writers and had a valuable literature.
Because I was inspired by the recording, I of course examined Hughes’ poetry first — I remember reading an early, if not a first edition, of The Weary Blues and some of Hughes other early books which had those beautiful etchings by E. McKnight Kauffer used as illustrations. To this day I think poetry books ought to have pictures in them, at least artwork on the cover, and not commercial graphics, but pieces by artists who think of their visual work as art and not as advertisement.
Oddly enough, while Langston’s poetry deeply affected me, I moved quickly past what I initially thought was its stylistic simplicity. Of course, as I started trying to write, I found out that Langston’s simplicity was far from simple to duplicate.
Here are two of my early attempts, written, as near I can remember, sometime between 1963 and 1965. Both reflect the Langston Hughes influence and a definite use of blues. The second piece also evidences my interest in fantasy, or exaggeration, as a poetic technique.
STREET CORNER CONVERSA(OBSERVA)TIONS
OTHER TALK THAN WHAT YOU HEAR
Ain’t for SALE
what ails a woman
worst than any pain
is to fall in love
with another woman man
my boss he white
I swear he do not know
where his hands belong
whiteman tell me
the rent is due
like the 15th
don’t come every month
Ain’t no hope
He be home soon
He got paid today
that child lord,
that baby got her daddy’s eyes
& my husband’s ways
O hum let me go
expected you yesterday
expected you yesterday & here you come today
a head full of pretty face & no excuses
about not coming till you came &
smiling from here to me
you know I gotta like the way you look
& the talk you puttin down
you’re just taking advantage of me
you know I was going wait
here have a star
what about a moon
do you like sky
the clouds are especially delicious
i ah…i ah
expected you yesterday & here you come today
a head full of pretty face & no excuses
Even though I was writing poetry heavily influenced by Hughes’ style, rather than the poetry per se, Langston’s autobiographies were his most important books for me, followed by the poetry anthologies he edited (particularly the collection of African poets). Another very influential Hughes book was The Sweet Flypaper Of Life, a photo/text collaboration with Roy DeCavara. Flypaper set a photo essay standard, approached only by Amiri Baraka’s book with Fundi (Billy Abernathy), In Our Terribleness. My high opinion of Flypaper undoubtedly was fueled by my love of and training in photography.
The autobiographies were important because they served as road map, every writer Hughes mentioned, Black, White, African, Russian or Chinese, I went to the library and checked out a book. Some of the writers I liked, some I didn’t.
By the end of ninth grade I had read my way through the Harlem Renaissance. I knew there were poets in Africa and the Caribbean. In high school I had started reading Turgenev and a little Pushkin, moved on to Chinese and Japanese writers, and generally found an alternative to Euro-centric classics as the touchstones of great literature. Thanks to Langston Hughes, once I started reading literature on my own, I never had an inferiority complex about literature. I never thought that anyone White was necessarily the greatest writer I ever read or that I would not succeed until I could write like White writers or be like them.
At the same time, early on I got into some of the socially relevant and experimental non-Black writers: John Dos Passos and e.e. cummings come immediately to mind, but also the beats and a lot of left oriented literature from the thirties and forties. In these writers I saw alternative to almost everything that was in our textbooks. I did try to read the classic English poets but it didn’t hold me, as did few of the mainstream American poets, the collected works of Carl Sandburg being an immediate exception.
This was the early sixties, an explosion and proliferation of independence movements were happening on “the” continent, and, indeed, throughout the Third World with an accompanying movement in literature. Langston Hughes had introduced me to much of this literature. There was also our domestic liberation movement, the civil rights movement, with its church base and freedom songs.
Hughes was one side in the triangle of my conscious self development. My civil rights involvement, picketing and sitting-in, was the second side. My interest in blues and jazz which I pursued with a passionate intensity completed the triangle.
I can remember all kinds of random specifics, such as joining the RCA record club and gradually getting to jazz through both White and Black artists. Before appreciating Duke Ellington and Ray Charles, I had a Chet Atkins record which had one Black oriented cut on it, “Boo Boo Stick Beat.” Chet Atkins was not a jazz artist but at that time what did I know.
I remember sitting in Mrs. Chavis’ English class in ninth grade. We called her “say it and don’t spray it” Mrs. Chavis because in her effort to enunciate clearly and to speak proper English there was an exaggeration that often led to spittle flying out of her mouth. Here was the major deformity of petit bourgeois aping of White ways to the point of absurd caricature.
I dug Mrs. Nelson who moved us deeper into ourselves and I abhorred Mrs. Chavis who had us chasing a white chalice, a chase which invariably included all kinds of soul-killing perversions and behavior entirely inappropriate for Black mental health.
By the time I went to St. Augustine high school, psychologically I was in total conflict with their mainstream America, cultural orientation.
St. Aug’s major reputation was as our city’s premier college prep school for Black males. In my case, they brought me to the attention of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Carleton offered me a partial scholarship. I went, but lasted only two trimesters from September 1964 through March 1965. During both high school and college, I continued to read and write.
Although I moved stylistically past Hughes as a poet, I never moved past Hughes’ sensibility and his approach.
Hughes kept working class Black folk as the central focus and foundation ground for all of his musings and philosophying. Since Hughes was ground zero for me, nobody could influence me to abandon a Black focus.
I believe for any writer to create a literature of value, one’s work must necessarily be culturally specific, whether that culture be native or adopted. Hughes’ folksy, blues orientation was more than culturally specific. What was most important to me was Hughes’ resistance to assimilation voiced through a celebration of and insistence on the nobility of our race. Of the African American writers I knew at that time, only Zora Neale Hurston approached Hughes in that wonderful and essential celebration and insistence.
“I’m like that old mule– / Black–and don’t give a damn!/ You got to take me / Like I am.” sang Hughes in one of his most popular poems. I liked that he saw nobility in the stubbornness of a mule, a stubborn insistence that is often ostracized as stupidity. Hughes knew who he was and presented himself without thoroughbred pretense, and for me, a young, Black, male racing into adulthood via involvement in the civil rights movement, Hughes’ mule was a touchstone I continued to rub all the rest of my life.
This appreciation of one’s people is not simply an intellectual activity. In America, one does not love Black people simply because one is Black. In fact, in America one can not love Black people simply on the basis of being. We must be taught both by instruction and by example to both bond with as well as identify with those who are the most despised, the most exploited, the most misused people in America. The trick, if one is Black, is to do this without developing a victim mentality of either self-hatred or self-pity, and, at the same time, avoid the temptation of overcompensation in the form of reversing the polarity of raw racism and declaring everything Black good and everything White evil. This is a very difficult task to master, even more so in a public arena. It has never been easy for Black people to love themselves.
I was extremely blessed to experience the civil rights movement because this helped me to learn to love Black folk. When I was sixteen I spent many Saturdays going door to door doing voter registration and voter education work. At that time, in order to register you had to fill out an arcane form which, among other bizarre hurdles, required an applicant to figure out her age exactly to the day. My job was both to convince people to register and to teach them how to correctly fill out the application.
While we often worked in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, I was culturally enriched because all of the houses I entered viscerally taught me aspects about my people and myself that I had not previously known, particularly the blues. While I taught mathematics, grammar and spelling, they taught me a music which literally wailed its defiance of status quo propriety.
There is nothing as defiant as the blues ten a.m. on Saturday morning, cranked up loud and reverberated by the wood of those row on row of sparely painted, if painted at all, shotgun houses.
Blues as tough as that woman who answered her door in bra and brown skirt, cigarette at an angle in her mouth, an angle which complemented the comb in her hair. She continued combing her hair as I tried to convince her to register to vote, neither smiling nor scowling at my naive attempts to bring what I thought would be an improvement in her life.
Twenty years later, reality supports this woman’s stoicism in the face of my misplaced enthusiasm: the granddaughter of that woman is locked in an even deeper funk after generations of Black elected officials have presided over a worsening of social conditions for her and all the people like her. This woman standing before me knows that I’m a fool to think that registering to vote will change her life for the better. Yet, like Black women have for centuries in America, she balances the bubble of my foolish vision on a resigned and sophisticated agreement to take another stab at life by buoying the dreams of a Black man regardless of the certainty that his dream will never come true.
Realizable or not, Black women somehow “know” that a man can not live without dreams, so they identify not with our perennially deferred dreams but rather they identify with us, the dreamers. This agreement is not with abstract ideals but rather with the flesh, blood, and soul vision of our manhood.
That is why there is a man moving to the back of the house as I enter the door; a man who does not even want to discuss voting; a man who does not belong to this house and who probably does little to support this house; a man that this woman lets into her life without any great expectations just like she allows me to enter her living room, her house, her life, without any great expectations.
I am looking at her breasts. She watches me, does not blush, and why should she? She probably assumes that if I have not seen breasts before, then now is as good a time as any to begin looking. I slowly explain the procedures as we sit on an old sofa, or on beat up old kitchen chairs, or, I don’t remember what we sat on. I don’t remember anything except that inside that house was a whole world, a different world from the church-bred houses I usually inhabited. The difference was not the people but rather the way the people lived: the smells, the liquor, the absence of White gods on the wall (there were no pictures of Jesus or Kennedy in those houses), and, above all, the mule sound of the blues bleating in all its immutable Blackness.
In that house lived a blues so stark that when she raises her arm there is hair in her armpit and she still has not bothered to put on a blouse. By the time we are going through the questions I find her smiling as I explain that there are some simple tricks she can use to get through this thing. Observing or ignoring our New Orleans custom of sharing sustenance with those who enter our spaces, she may or may not offer me something to drink. Soon we are both comfortable with each other, and a half hour later I exit back onto the streets with a notation of her name and address so that we can follow-up on whether she registers.
Her arm reaches out to close the door which sometimes has a shutter that opens out, and, even as the shutter closes, the blues continues to blow. Now she is smiling and maybe calls me “baby” with the conspiratorial smile that Black women fleetingly flash after pumping up a Black male ego, the smile which plants seeds designed to strengthen the recipient who must face a world designed to grind Black people down. The incubation period sometimes takes years, but eventually I realize who was really helping whom. Blues like that.
Nothing stops the blues because the blues were created precisely as a way to overcome. This is how I come to realize the power of the blues, the power is like that woman being herself and facing life just as it is and just as she is, and still believing in a naive, high schooler knocking on her door.
This woman, with the blues as her song, survives an unconditional confrontation with life. She taught me exactly what Langston meant by “just like I am.” We didn’t need to clean up. We didn’t need to talk differently. We didn’t even need to wear socially acceptable clothes. And we didn’t need to stop shouting the blues. If they wanted us: take us like we were. If we wanted to change, that was our choice rather than some alien requirement of life. Blues like that is what I learned going door to door throughout the community.
The blues remains self-referential, always grounded in the here and now. Some people think the blues is about submission because the blues is reality based and embraces the world as it is while at the same time wishing for, indeed, longing for the world to be different. The Christian worldview, on the other hand is viewed as “uplifting” even though it is other-referential, about life in the hereafter, reality based on faith in things unseen, and a general exclusion of anyone who was not also Christian despite its philosophical claims to being good Samaritans and doing unto others.
When I did my civil rights canvassing I experienced the deep blues, and found myself drawn to and responding to a side of my birthright that here to fore I had only read about in Langston Hughes and Zora Hurston’s work, and had only recently begun to listen to on records. Until then I had never really heard the blues, even though the blues was in my blood.
As I canvassed and listened to the music, and listened to the people talk, and as I tried to make them comfortable while giving my spiel about registering; as we walked the picket lines outside the department stores and talked to people trying to persuade them not to shop; all of that not only put me in contact with the working class Black, more importantly, those experiences put me in contact with myself.
Regardless of whether these people thought what I was about was important, it was my job to convince them of the importance of what I was trying to get them to do and in the process I began to understand that I was “them” and it was “we” who were important.
Once I accepted that what my people did or didn’t do was important, then I could never look down on them, nor could I think that what happened to me personally was the only important part of life. I never felt that because I could read, write and figure I was somehow better off. Although I went to school with the sons of doctors, lawyers and civil servants at St. Aug, because of the civil rights movement I identified more with the laborers than with the professionals, and I firmly believed that I could be of service to them.
This identification, furthermore, was consciously constructed because I not only learned from watching and working with people in the civil rights movement, I also started studying the blues: reading books about the blues, buying blues records, and the same with jazz. I had the world of gospel in my intimate upbringing, but I came to the blues as someone who did not share the blues world on a day to day basis, and aware of my distance, I closed the gap by study and by civil rights work.
I got the best of both worlds. My up bringing grounding me in a Christian community of caring folk and my civil rights work and junior high school education grounding me in intimate contact with blues folk. Again, I point to Hughes as a guide.
I loved Hughes’ poem “Motto” which ended with: “My motto, / As I live and learn, / is: / Dig And Be Dug / In Return.” Dig. Hughes said nothing specific about what to dig, so implicitly, at least to my way of thinking, that “dig” meant “dig” the world. In fact in the opening stanza Hughes says: I play it cool / And dig all jive. / That’s the reason / I stay alive.” This is Hughes’ great attraction for me: he told me to be myself and he told me to dig the world. Yes, and that’s deep. <— Prelude Baldwin Technically Awesome–>
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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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update 2 May 2009