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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Freshman at SUNO
…it seems to me that the audience, in listening, is in an act of participation, you know. And when you know that somebody is maybe moved the same way you are, to such a degree or approaching the degree, it’s just like having another member in the group.— John William Coltrane
Here it was, July 1968 and although I had rejected the profession of music and also was impelled toward participating in the Black power movement, in terms of specifics, other than a gradually cohering desire to write, I had absolutely no idea about what I wanted to do with my life.
Part of the problem was I really didn’t know any writers personally, so I had no idea what the writing life was actually about or how to go about becoming a writer.
Unlike abandoning music, my decision to be a writer was not spurred by a specific incident or a specific realization. Over the next six months, I found myself writing more and more, and found the people around me responding to the poetry I was writing. So after getting positive feedback, I just kept on doing it.
In September of 1968 I tried college again. I enrolled as a freshman at SUNO (Southern University in New Orleans). I ran head first into academe and it’s ignorance of and disdain for the black arts movement. I wrote a poem called “John Who” which focused on the overall ignorance of John Coltrane by various faculty members in the different departments. Then there was the incident that sealed any hope that I would reach some detente with SUNO’s academe.
I was in Dr. Taylor’s English lit class. We were studying ballads. In the text book there were the Scottish ballads, and some examples of American ballads. One of the ballads we studied was a blues ballad, I think it was Frankie and Johnny, and there was the phrase “the window was throwed up high.” Dr. Taylor, who had her Ph.D. in Chaucer or some other area of “olde English,” asked did anyone know what the phrase meant. I smiled. That was easy. I told her it meant the window was wide open, “like in ‘when you see me coming, throw yo window high, when you see me leaving, hang yo head and cry.” She told me I was wrong. She said that what the phrase referred to was the architecture of the period and how the windows were built high off the ground. Well I didn’t know architecture but I did know bullshit.
On the other side of the coin, my writing was fueled in part by the impatience and arrogance of youth. Here is a short poem from that period. Imagine this piece read by a bushy headed, sunglass wearing (we was so cool we sometimes even wore sunglasses at night), militant.
the madpoet, mad, mad, mad
poet, the niggerpoet, the black
poet, mad, mad
how many black angels can dance on a watermelon seed
how many english teachers can fly
how many historians are white
how many records do J.B. sell for his white bosses
how many women wear wigs
how many women wear natural wigs
how many black folk vote for wallace
how many cadillacs parked in tenement lots
how many men do janitorial work in alligator shoes
how many men work
how many got alligator shoes
how many people think shelly pope is pretty
how many women with babies that look more like
their man than their husbands
how many gods do christians believe, any
how many space ships the man gon build
how many rivers and lakes still fresh water
how many black students know how to read and write
how many black students go to school
how many schools do we have
how many colleges in the city are schools
how many so-called hip people is frontin
how many cigarettes you smoke
how many fifths can you drink
how many us think we together
how many us together
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By the end of the first semester I and a handful of other students, some of whom were veterans like myself, were in open rebellion against the administration. By the spring semester of 1969 we organized a take over of the university, completely shutting it down. In New Orleans I became known as both a militant leader and the leader of a drama group which meant that the two identities were fused in the public’s mind.
I used my poems in various community programs where I was a volunteer and at community events. One of my first major pieces in that regard was “All In The Street” which spoke in poetic tones about the tidal wave of us dancing in the street with brass bands. The poem had the closing line which suggested, just like we took the streets, “the cities are next.”
At this point I began experimenting with using New Orleans music in my work. It was conscious in that I knew I was doing it, but subconscious in that I had not figured out what I was doing other than emulating the music and/or being inspired by specific musical performances. As I developed, the music became more and more integral to both the structure and the performance of my poetry.
Here is where my basic style as a public poet got its start. I wanted to reflect and project the dreams and aspirations, the reality and history, the ethos and diverse ideologies of my community, a community on the move, in transition from oppression to liberation. Some view this simply as polemical poetry, but, for me, a particular party line was not the important thing. The important thing was the identification with the community at large and the desire to serve my community.
My desire determined a style. My work had to be mass oriented. The images, the metaphors, the style, as well as the themes, the concerns and the emotional orientations, all had to draw on the social realities of our community or else it would be rejected, or, worse yet, ignored.
Audience is a major force in the style of any and every poet. Some poets never think of or define their audience. Some say that they write from the heart, or write the truth and that who ever appreciates that work is the audience. But, even in those cases, is it not true that the language of the poetry will determine who is in a position to relate to (both understand and appreciate) the poetry both stylistically and content wise?
A critical part of my style was the utilization of the oral as a poetic sine qua non. For me and my community, it was not enough for the poetry to exist as text. Our poetry needed to be oral.
I remembered reading Langston Hughes explaining why he used rhyme and how rhyme could more easily be remembered by both the poet but especially also by the audience. I used rhyme but not at the ends of lines. Early on, I learned to use what I call internal rhymes and absolute rhymes. An internal rhyme was the use of the same and similar sounds in the middle of lines but rhythmically in the same place in different lines. An absolute rhyme was the repeating of the same word or phrase, usually at the beginning of the line, but sometimes at the end.
In addition to rhyme, irony and humor (particularly sarcasm and caricature) were important elements of my early style precisely because community people responded to these elements. Irony, deliberate understatement and/or the emphasizing of the split between the literal meaning and the contextual meaning of a word, phrase, idea or image, is a hallmark of African American humor. Irony is also a mask, a tool for resistance and rebellion presented in a seemingly innocuous or non-threatening manner. Finally, irony is reinterpretation by causing the audience to reconsider a given reality from a different point of view. Next to the use of music, irony is probably the salient characteristic of our work from that period.
Here is a poem, “Leader,” which is illustrative of the period. This is actually a chorepoem in that it was both a dance and a poem. Eventually, we had a whole set of dance poems which we did like a chorus line with different members taking the lead. Similarly we had a set of “hair” poems.
“Leader” opens with me clapping and improvising a funky dance while encouraging the audience to clap along, which usually didn’t take much encouragement. At some point in the dance I would stop, move directly to the audience, recite the poem with a cocky air, and at the conclusion go back to dancing.
i saw a Negro at a dance
last nite who called himself
my leader & that nigger
couldn’t dance to save his life
so how he gon lead me!
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That summer&fall of 1968, just out of the army and full of fire, engaged in community activity, I found the perfect stage for my calling as a community based writer at the Free Southern Theatre. I went to both the weekly writing workshops conducted by Tom Dent and to the weekly drama workshops conducted by Robert “Big Daddy” Costley. There were only a handful of us attending either workshop, with a core of three or four of us who attended both. Eventually the workshops combined and that led to the development of the writing/performing workshop which eventually developed its own identity as BLKARTSOUTH.
Excepting for Tom Dent, none of the other workshop members thought of writing in terms of fiction or prose. Much of what would normally have been channeled in that direction was redirected into drama and performance poetry partly because there was immediate feedback. Not only did we critique each other’s work, we also would give the work dramatized readings. Inevitably, people began writing poetry and drama rather than prose.
Here are two of the first poems I published. Both of them are blues. “Love” is a traditional blues piece written under the influence of Langston Hughes and “And Black women!” is a more modern blues, self referential and intentionally didactic.
less you ever been in love
you can not understand
what I mean when I say
I love my baby so hard
it sometimes make me want to cry
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And Black women!
the wet shining beauty
brown eyed and ebony hued
you mothers, sisters, wives, lovers all
we revere you, need you/build
stronger manhoods more worthy of you
than has been our fate to be in years
recent past, cowardly living like sheep
no longer, we rise with the noble
intentions of taking you into our
arms, into our homes, into
black families (…this propaganda of
words will sound strange to all who
do not know or realize the worth of
our beautiful black women) perhaps,
this poem can open the eyes of some
young Afro American to the beauty
of the black girl living in his
community; we have only to look with
our eyes & quit using a foreign
myopic blue eyed aesthetic and we will
see ourselves, and love ourselves
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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