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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four. BLKARTSOUTH (contd.)
Tom Dent & Nkombo
The late sixties and early seventies were a time when Black people literally were reading and reciting poetry on street corners, on buses, in churches and temples, at rallies and demonstrations, in playgrounds and in gymnasiums. This was a time when poetry mattered and was vital, had meaning for everyone whether young or old, male or female, college educated or a high school drop out. In that context, to be a community respected poet was nothing short of being a messenger from the spirit world, a juju man/woman. To appreciate our theoretical approach to poetry, you must understand the context.
My first year in the workshop was the key to my decision to become a professional writer. I was developing a voice as a writer and I had found a writing community — actually, I had helped create a writing community. From the beginning I served as coeditor of Nkombo and later when the workshop officially became BLKARTSOUTH, I became the director.
While I do not separate developing a voice from the development of the writing community, the truth is that other than Tom Dent, I had done more writing than anyone else in the workshop and it was quickly apparent. At first I was recycling stories and poems I had written while in the army as well as writing new material, but then I hit on writing a play entirely in verse. “BLK LOVE SONG #1” became one of my most successful plays on a national and international level, even though it never played as much as did some of the other more conventional pieces I wrote such as “The Picket” and “Mama” (which was our biggest hit).
While some of the other plays were more popular and had been performed throughout the south, they had not been published. In 1974, “BLK LOVE SONG” was selected for inclusion in the monumental work Black Theater USA, 45 Plays By Black Americans, 1847 – 1974 edited by James V. Hatch with Black playwright Ted Shine serving as a consultant.
The immediacy of the workshop is what made it possible for me to write as much as I did and as quickly as I did. As soon as a script was drafted we would get on the stage and walk through it, reading it aloud. All of our workshops were open, so often times there were visitors and an audience checking out how we developed the work. Although I continue to write plays, I am not even one third as productive as I was during the FST/BLKARTSOUTH years.
The success of the poetry performances and the drama inadvertently led to neglecting the publishing outside of Nkombo. For us, the written word was of secondary importance and we never really concentrated on developing it the way we did performance. After all, we were performing before hundreds of people monthly. We did not publish monthly, and when we did publish it seldom reached as many people as our performances did. Of course, we were making the mistake of focusing only on the present and not thinking about the future, not thinking about documenting what we were doing as a priority. Additionally, when we did publish we added a twist to our literary magazine which intentionally added to obscuring the individual personalities of the writers in favor of presenting the flavor of the group.
We viewed Nkombo as the textual voice of our collective. In my introduction “Food For Thought” I wrote:
Blk writers words are of only 3 forms
-protest writing is basically explaining to somebody how human you are, enough said
– revolutionary writing is up against the wall
-blklife writing is what we are
Most of what follows is directly out of our workshops where we write w/h only the preconceived notion of being honest to our senses, there is no pretension to it being high art
One of my poems in that first publication, “BLKARTS is the magic of ju-ju,” delineated the direction our words would take:
blkarts poets are crazy weird dudes
whose vocabulary is in the streets&in the gutters& off the walls
& round de corner & down the halls & who’s ideas is like the same
ones that hang on the edges of buildings where ever gathering throngs
of blkfolk have spoken about their lives, churches, barstools & jail
cells, jail cells, empty parking lots&the balconies of old tired cineramas
Except for the very first issue — an issue which was called Echoes From the Gumbo — we did not use author’s names on the poems included in Nkombo except in the table of contents. Flipping through the book, there was only the poems, the text itself to refer to rather than a name above or beneath the text.
In performance, we not only read our own poems we also developed a collective style and recited each other’s poetry, sometimes solo but also as a choral group.
Before long we had moved to the idea of developing poetry shows with musical accompaniment, but only as much music as we could make ourselves. I of course played percussion, but also some recorder, penny whistle and bamboo flute, plus thumb piano and occasionally balaphone.
Intuitively we had moved to the jazz band as a metaphor and model of our poetry work. The poetry shows were flexible in that they could be altered at a moment’s notice to accommodate a given reality we faced. Additionally, we could reduce or increase the number of poems and the number of poets without violating the overall structure. As far as we were concerned, just as most people didn’t know the names of all the members in a big band, they didn’t need to know our names individually. The band was more important than the soloist, in fact, it was the band that provided the platform for the soloists to blow and develop — even the most novice poet could be accommodated and given room to recite at least one poem.
Here is one of the most frequently performed pieces which was orchestrated for the whole group. Even though I wrote the poem, I was not “the featured voice.” Different people had different parts in solo or duo, while all of us acted as chorus and musicians. I remember one particular performance we did at the University of New Orleans. There was a jazz band on before us and some of the musicians hung around for our set. The drummer and vibraphone player joined us once we got started on “Black Bones” which was how we referred to the poem whose formal title was “Names, Places, Us.” This poem was published in the first issue of Nkombo.
NAMES, PLACES, US
Who did they kill?
What were the names of those Blacks they killed then?
No One knows no one knows
no names no places just us to witness
they are dead, killed only because their skins were Black,
we are here only because their skins were black
Who did they kill? What, where, who? Who did they kill, murder?
They killed you! Who? Who dead drift now who they killed
Are you hip to the middle passage? how many of our people rest now at sea
their bones & flesh chewed & eaten by fish, abandoned to die in a turbulent sea
whipped by the frenzied hands of white masters into their places
What were the names of those Blacks they killed then
Who did they kill? What are you?
WHAT ARE YOU BLACK PEOPLE!!!!???? WHERE ARE YOU!!!!????
I often go down to the sea & stand looking out across
How many of my people rest now out there their bones eaten by fish
thrown there, in those waters form slave ships years ago
abandoned to die in a turbulent sea whipped by the hands of white masters
who were they? What were the names of those Blacks they killed then
No one knows, no one knows, they are dead, killed only because their skins were Black
One day bones will wash from the sea and rest gleaming in the sun on eastern seaboard shores
let them then try to lie to you, let them try explaining where those bones come from
those bones, bones of our ancestors, dead, killed, murdered
nameless Black people, countless Black people we don’t even know now
Black bones form the sea, Black bones
Bones Black bones washed upon the shore, washed upon the sand
Black bones resting in the sand from the sea, no home, no name, just bones
Legs & arms, large, small bones, Black bones Black bones thrown up from the sea
Black bones from the sea, Black bones
And when I die throw me too into that sea facing toward Black Africa
Let fish eat my hair, and my eyes, and my Black flesh
Let me go home again and if not home at least to the bottom
where I know others rest
Let me join others like me dead at the bottom
BLACK FOREVER MORE!!!!!!
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Late in 1969 we published five small books of poetry: The Reluctant Rebel by Renaldo Fernandez, Dark Waters by Quo Vadis Gex, Visions From The Ghetto by Raymond Washington, I Want Me A Home by Nayo Watkins, and my debut book, The Blues Merchant.
I did not have any one particular style of writing. Some of the pieces were blues poems; some were wild, quasi surrealistic screamers; some were long narratives; and some were straight out promo for whatever belief system I had at the time. In reviewing the work, I was immediately struck by a poem called “The Blues (in two parts)”. Periodically I would return to this same device, writing a poem specifically about the blues which used blues images and structure.
The Blues (in two parts)
Our best singers
can’t really sing
you take like otis redding
that nigger never could sing
in fact I believe he only knew
maybe two notes at the most
& a couple of
strictly atonal stuff
i mean like what does
yes are am mean
or even na-na-na
what’s da matter baby
mr. redding you is singing
like you is in a hurry or
something, maybe you
got to go to the bathroom
& now you take that
lil ugly no singing nigger
now he can dance his
ass off, ain’t no
doubt bout that
but he can’t sing
not a lick &
talkin bout a
somebody need to
beat him all upside
his haid w/h his own
damn lickin stick
& that band
he got, they don’t know
nothin but one song
that’s how come
they got to have
them two dudes is suppose
to be among the best
people we gon have to do better
or shut our mouth
cause I mean
what is mother popcorn and
for sho dum-dum de-de de-dum-dum
ain’t no song
The blues is not song
it is singing
only the knowledge
the blues is not
it is feeling
it is not death
it is being
it is not submission
it is existing
you take the ing
it is the ing of th-ings
whether it be
laugh-ing or dy-ing
swing-ing or hang-ing
from a tree
sometimes it be
hurting so bad
when you is singing
or feeling the blues
till you just have to
drop the g trying
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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