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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What Langston Did (contd.)
Baldwin Technically Awesome
After Hughes, only Baldwin and Baraka significantly and permanently influenced my writing style. All three of them engaged the world with both an outsider’s critical eye and a grounded Black person’s love of Black folk.
I found Baldwin technically awesome. I can remember reading some essay he wrote with the word “proffer” in it. That became a word I used in my writings.
Critics often credit Baldwin’s use of language to the bible, but really it’s not the bible per se, it’s the bible mediated through the Black church, and, it’s also jazz, the complex outpourings of bebop. Look at the sentence structures, the very volubility of his sentences; everything and the kitchen sink pushed against each other in breathless rushes of prose. Baldwin’s denseness was balanced by an unerring rhythmic logic that made his fanciful prose flights a joy to read.
When Baldwin took America to task, as he did so eloquently in his play “Blues For Mr. Charlie” and in his famous essay “The Fire Next Time,” he did it with the same stylistic brilliance as evidenced by the creators of bebop. Baldwin’s best prose had not only the old testament fire and brimstone, raunchy forthrightness and righteous indignation, but that prose also advanced the art of the essay as a genre. Baldwin’s prose achievement was much like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie who ushered in a whole new musical style, a style which, at it’s core, had the grandiose, stubbornly elegant simplicity of Thelonious Monk articulating stark truths in a uniquely offbeat manner, a manner which both demanded an audience and made demands on its audience with the same explosive pronouncements as the drumming of Max Roach and Klook Clarke elevating rhythm to new heights.
I know that Baldwin loved gospel and blues, but he also loved jazz — so many of his major characters were musicians and lovers of music/musicians. Mary Ellison in her book Extensions of the Blues references a Baldwin quote from Baldwin biographer Fern M. Eckman’s book The Furious Passage of James Baldwin. “When Baldwin was a keynote speaker at a conference on ‘The Negro Writer’s Vision of America’ in the early sixties, he declared ‘My models — my private models — are not Hemingway, nor Faulkner, nor Dos Passos, or indeed any American writer. I model myself on jazz musicians, dancers, a couple of whores and a few junkies…’ ” If you don’t understand the music, then you will be blind to the music’s influence on Baldwin.
In 1964 as a high school senior, praising Baldwin got me kicked off the student newspaper. Back in eighth grade at Frederick, after being introduced to Hughes, I joined the school newspaper. Mrs. Nelson was the advisor. I was writing and doing photography. Eventually I became the editor. We entered the paper in a contest sponsored by Columbia University in New York and won a second place. Us. A little, Negro, junior high school paper. Winning made me know I was a match for the world, for the best of America. At St. Aug I wanted to continue with my journalism. I wrote a glowing review of Baldwin’s incendiary “Blues For Mr. Charlie” which, while not rejecting religion, ended by espousing self defense, picking up the gun.
The priests said not in this paper, not at this school, not in this life. I realized we were in direct conflict with each other. They wanted me to study and make straight A’s. They wanted me to give up or tone down my civil rights work. One teacher, Fr. McManus, who was a “liberal” on the Urban League board and all that, went completely out of his tree when he walked into the homeroom and I was sitting there reading Muhammad Speaks. I had no idea it would provoke him to turn redder than a redneck sheriff watching Sidney Portier in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.”
Fr. Mac, who was known for his prowess at corporal punishment with the paddle, stomped the floor, bellowed at me, and over the next month took every opportunity to remind me that I would be better off studying than reading that crap. I laughed and wondered what was so threatening. They knew I was dangerous before I knew.
And there was the time an English teacher told me that I was going to write a term paper on fancy, fantasy and some other “f” word in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I immediately said I wasn’t going to do it. “Well, if you don’t do it Ferdinand, you’re just going to get an f for the semester.” “You can just give me my f now because I’m not going to do it.”
I went home that evening and told my mother that I was going to get an “f”. Neither she nor my father forced me to return to school and apologize, or even to write the assignment. They let me happily hold onto both my “f” and my budding sense of rebellion and dignity.
Years and years later when my children were going through school, I never ever sided with the school administrators and instructors when any of the children rebelled. I made sure that the children understood that there were repercussions they would have to bear as a result of their actions, but, the larger picture for me was that I refused to repress rebellion in the youth. Indeed, not only did I want to encourage that rebellion because I knew, ultimately it was healthy, but also I recognized that the whole system was set up to smother our rebellious spirits. Why should I help the system to maintain the status quo. As a parent I made a conscious decision, as a high school student I intuitively concluded that St. Aug.’s discipline was a conscious attempt to season a slave.
Sometimes we exaggerate the severity of a situation because memory is selective and everyone wants to tell a good tale about themselves, but there were too many incidents at St. Aug. to ignore. For example, when I went out for the drama club at St. Aug. I quit after attending one rehearsal where they were doing some English drawing room comedy with fake British accents, butlers and dry jokes. In eighth grade at Frederick I had played Crispus Attucks in my civic teacher’s drama. Under Mrs. Green direction, my big scene was to leap out of the closet with a sword made of a clothes hanger and cardboard, and confront the British soldiers with the declaratory line “I am a desperate Black man who is willing to fight for my freedom.” So you know I thought St. Aug.’s British bullshit was just that, i.e. British bullshit.
At Frederick they armed me. At St. Aug they tried to castrate me.
Most of my teachers at Frederick had been significant Black women with an important handful of bold Black men such as Mr. Conrad, Mr. Howard who taught me French, and Mr. Blanchard who gave me a love for mathematics. At St. Aug. the instructors were mainly priests (who were mostly White) of the Josephite Order. The Josephite’s were an order who focused on educating Black people. The lay instructors at St. Aug., except for the coaches and music instructors, were pious, intellectually oriented Black men who struck me as effeminate. The dichotomy between the instructors at the two schools was too ludicrous for words. I owed St. Aug. nothing except my muleish contempt.
All of this time I am still reading and still struggling to write. By twelfth grade I finish an experimental novel that ends with the hero committing suicide. No matter how much I thought I was uninfluenced by St. Aug, no matter how much I fought against their example and instructions, still, I obviously was ingesting some of their messages, especially the message to become respectable by killing the Black blues self.
Baldwin’s writings spoke directly to me because here I was confronting a sensibility, a system whose total intent was to turn the blues based Black into a Christian American. In the St. Aug. schema, integration meant effacing one’s self. They taught young Black males that the highest achievement for Blacks was to speak, dress, conduct oneself and be around Whites as though we were not who we were. Ultimately, they wanted to put into our hearts the desire to be like Whites and into our heads the belief that being like Whites equated with being intelligent, civilized and Christian.
My acceptance of such a mainstream scenario inevitably would have meant submerging every conflict, sucking contradictions up and in, and contorting my psyche just to be acceptable. I resisted and stayed in constant rebellion.
In that context, Baldwin’s penetrating intelligence appealed to me because his example allowed me to confront the status quo norms in its own arena. Baldwin’s use of language and mastery of the essay signified not only his ability to handle White words but also his ability to bend those words for Baldwin’s own use. Initially, that appealed to me.
Had I stopped there I would have been forever trapped, because ultimately, striving to express one’s self solely by mastering the master’s language presupposes that language is value free, that language is neutral, and somehow, even though I did not “know” in a theoretical sense that language was the articulation of culture, emotionally moved by Black music, I did feel that I needed my own language. The Catholic rejection of gospel and blues, was a confirmation of Black music’s importance. Reading Baldwin, beneath his mastery of the “king’s English” I heard, and felt, a love of Black music.
In later years Baldwin addressed the issue of language in his own eloquent way, noting that “Black English” was essentially a language and ought to be respected as such. While Baldwin was not the only person to address this issue, what distinguished Baldwin’s contribution is his emphasis on the necessity of language. Baldwin’s defense was an affirmation for me of a position that some of us had intuited. In fact, Baldwin’s ability to penetrate to the sine qua non of this issue reinforced in me the necessity for developing an articulation of what we had been doing with language. But, here I am jumping ahead of myself. Back then all I knew was that it felt right to speak, write and listen to the language(s) I loved and understood.
Needless to say, the blues with its confrontation of pain appealed to me. Although I was unable to avoid both the positive and the negative influences: the Latin and English, the religion classes and the skewed history, the emphasis on getting high marks on S.A.T.’s and IQ tests, the uniform of wearing a tie every school day and the insistence on proper English spoken at all times, even as all of that was influencing me, fortunately, there was the counterweight of the literature I was reading, the music I was listening to and studying, and, above all, the civil rights movement within which I was deeply and actively immersed. In Baldwin I found a companion who championed all that I found valuable. <— Captivated by Langston Baraka Innovative Stylings—>
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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 3 May 2009