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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Books by John Oliver Killens
Keith Gilyard, Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens (2003)
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three: i chose to be a writer (contd.)
Killens, Fort Bliss, & Korea
Through an improbable twist of circumstances, I even got to meet writer John Oliver Killens whose World War II novel And Then We Heard the Thunder was my favorite piece of fiction. Carleton started an exchange program with the historically important Black school, Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. As the administrators reminded me in their attempts to keep me from going, the program was designed to send “White” students to Fisk in exchange for accepting Black students at Carleton. I reminded the administrators that the program guidelines said nothing about the race of students, besides who could better benefit from comparing the two. During the two weeks I was at Fisk, I went to a writing workshop conducted by John Killens. Years later, Killens choose to include my work in an anthology of Black southern writers which was posthumously completed by my friend Dr. Jerry Ward of Tougaloo college in Mississippi after Mr. Killens died.
The major benefit of going to Carleton however was that the experience forced me to self examine myself in a challenging setting. At that point I was predictably confused.
When I quit Carleton, I returned to New Orleans and literally surrendered to the army. It was 1965, the height of the Vietnam draft. I had turned 18 but had not registered. Finally, as a result of my mother’s insistence, I went down to the draft board. I can still hear this elderly White woman shrieking about how I had broken the law, could go to jail, and had better report there the next day at noon. I don’t volunteer for executions, so I went to the recruiting offices downtown and volunteered to go anywhere but Vietnam. The recruiter said he couldn’t promise to send me to a particular place, but if I did well on a battery of tests, he would get me into an “mos” (occupational service area) that they didn’t use in Vietnam.
I never returned to the draft board and in fact didn’t receive my draft card until after I was in boot camp at Fort Polk, Louisiana. I ended up in electronic repair of the “nike hercules nuclear missile” which meant a nine month training period at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. I served a year in Korea and finished out my army stint back at Ft. Bliss. Throughout this period, I was into photography and music as well as writing. Most of my writing was fiction and poetry.
When I returned to Bliss I was a sergeant and had lots of free time. I lived in the darkroom, the music practice room and the library, in that order. Because of my rank I didn’t have to make roll calls and also had my own room. I would be the first at the USO, check out a set of drums, go into a practice room and practice playing drums for an hour before any of the other musician/soldiers arrived. After three or four months of intensive practice, I became good enough to jam with the other musicians, and later I developed into an in demand drummer. I played in a soul band, as well as in a rock trio as a sub when their regular drummer couldn’t make it, and eventually in a small band which played both jazz & R&B.
By then the photography was mainly on the weekends and I would go back to my room and write at night. I didn’t read as much as I had in college, partly because the army library was predictably conservative. The three journals I read and subscribed to were The Liberator magazine, Negro Digest, and the Village Voice.
By 1968, my fiction had developed to the point that I was good enough to get a publisher strongly interested in my work. I had sent a set of short stories, Easy Rider, Dark Rider, to William and Morrow (because that’s where Leroi Jones was published) and to Dial, (because of James Baldwin). Phil Petrie wrote me back encouraging me to send him more. He noted, perhaps if I added two or three stories, then I would have a collection they would be interested in discussing. I was so ignorant of the publishing process that I took this to mean that he wanted me to do something else other than what I had written.
Easy Rider contains six stories comprising about seventy double spaced, typewritten pages. The first five stories are written in the first person from the point of view of the protagonist. The last story is in the third person and makes a jump of about twenty years.
I know now that Mr. Petrie was simply asking for at least one more story to bridge the chasm of years. Had I done that and the book have been successfully published, I may have chosen to pursue fiction rather than poetry as my main voice. As it was, in 1971 I had a story published in Young Black Storytellers edited by Orde Coombs, and in 1973 another story was published in We Be Word Sorcerers edited by Sonia Sanchez. On a national level, I was more successful with fiction than with poetry.
I frequently tell people that fiction is the hardest form for me to write, but that’s not entirely true. What is true is that in Black publishing circles there was an extremely limited number of publishing opportunities. After I got out of the army, except for anthologies, I had no desire to pursue publishing with mainstream publishing companies and looked exclusively for Black outlets. Looking back at my work, I recognize that fiction was actually the bulk of what I wrote before joining the Free Southern Theatre (FST).
So, why didn’t I continue fiction? The real answer is I don’t really know. I suppose this is sort of like asking John Coltrane why didn’t he continue to play alto rather than switch to tenor saxophone. Who knows?
Even though I wrote two novels early on, the novel has never appealed to me as a professional writer. Short stories, yes, but the novel, no. I have theorized about the novel being a bourgeois Euro-centric genre. I have made up off the wall arguments about fiction in general. I have even avoided writing fiction for a long time, but none of that addresses the central issue. For me, fiction lacks the oratorical element.
Both poetry and drama are recited, spoken aloud, or sung before an audience. I think those of us engaged in the Black aesthetic movement gravitate to the orated as opposed to the textual partly out of personal taste and partly because, as currently demonstrated by rap music, our community responds more forcefully to the orated rather than the textual. Given our community’s “church” and “street corner” orientation, each of which places a high value on oratorical abilities, the preference for spoken over written text is natural, i.e. grows organically out of our environment.
Additionally, for us, text is like lyrics separated from music. One can not appreciate rap at all if one never hears rap and only reads the text of a rap. On the other hand, even if you don’t or can’t understand every word that a rapper says, you still can appreciate and be moved by the rap once you hear it.
Of course, in early 1968, looking forward to getting out of the army, playing music professionally, and writing at night, I had not come to any of these conclusions. I was writing fiction constantly and I was not writing that much poetry. I was a closet writer. My writing was so deep in the closet, that I never hesitated to focus on my music at the expense of time spent writing. My writing was going no where but in a drawer, a box, a folder, a closet. But my music, that was another story.
By the time I mustered out of the army, our band had all kinds of gigs lined up and we had become very popular. I promised my band mates I would return after I visited my family for a week or so. “Yeah, I’m coming back. I’m leaving my drums here and you know I’m not going to abandon my drums.” I never saw those drums again.
I heard drummers in New Orleans who made my fingers and hands deny ever, ever holding a drum stick. Those cats beat me into a serious “inadequacy” crisis. No matter how hard I practiced, I would never be able to play as well as they did. They nullified any aspirations I had to be a musician. I was too realistic to fool myself. On the one hand, I knew Zigaboo Modeliste of the Meters, Smokey Johnson of Fats Domino’s Band, and David Lee, who eventually was snatched up by Dizzy Gillespie, plus “beaucoup” (a bunch, almost too many to count) other New Orleans drummers could drum circles around me. On the other hand, I didn’t know or know of any New Orleanians who could write better than me.
Right then and there, I gave up music as a profession. I had not yet definitely decided to try writing as a profession, however my realistic choices had been narrowed considerably. I did recognize, however, that writing, like music, would always be a part of my life.
More so than hearing Langston Hughes while in eighth grade, more so than quitting college and going into the army, my decision not to pursue music as a profession coupled with my strong desire to participate in the Black power struggle, defined the way ahead.
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By Keith Gilyard
I congratulate Keith Gilyard for bringing to life, in the pages of this absorbing book, a figure of genuine importance who certainly deserves a full-scale biography.Arnold Rampersad, author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography
John Oliver Killens is a genius of the South, and Keith Gilyard has honored this youngblood, civil rights and union activist, novelist, dramatist, and screenwriter in a superb biography. Gilyards engaging written voice draws us into a dramatic and important life, and his deep commitment to the highest standards of research inspires our trust and admiration. John Oliver Killens ably documents and brings to life the yearnings and accomplishments of a major figure in our national literature.Rudolph P. Byrd, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies, Emory University
For July 1st through August 31st 2011
#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
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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 12 June 2008
Related files: Reviews Contents Interview with Keith Gilyard Killens Literary Heroes Lest We Forget Killens (by Rivera) Killens, Fort Bliss, & Korea Coal, Charcoal, and Chocolate Comedy by Keenan Norris