Clarence Major

Clarence Major


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



  the fingers on her cup. / so frail, a woven face, so oval / such empty charity. how she remains / so quiet



Clarence Major

(1936-      ) 

Clarence Major, poet, novelist, and painter,  was born in 1936 in Atlanta, Georgia. He received a B.S. from the State University of New York and a Ph.D. from the Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities.

His books of poetry include Configurations: New & Selected Poems, 1958-1998 (1999); Parking Lots (1992); Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Century (1998); Surfaces and Masks (1987); Inside Diameter: The France Poems (1985); Symptoms and Madness (1971); Swallow the Lake (1970); and Fires That Burn in Heaven (1954).

He is the author of more than eight novels including Dirty Bird Blues: A Novel (1996); Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar (1988); Fun and Games (1988); Such Was the Season (1987); Emergency Exit (1979), and Reflex and Bone Structure (1975).

Recent prose offerings included Trips: A Memoir (2001) and Afterthought: Essays and Criticism (2000). he is also the editor of many anthologies and books such as The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-Century African American Poetry (1995); Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1994); and The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work. Among his many honors and awards are a Western States Book Award for Fiction, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a National Council on the Arts Fellowship. Clarence Major is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of California, Davis

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All-Night Visitors (1969)

Major’s first novel, originally published in an expurgated edition in 1969, is finally presented intact. The disturbing story, which details the struggles of a young African American man, is filled with “violence, sex, and rage, and Major’s graphic descriptions are not for the squeamish.”—Library Journal

A new, unexpurgated edition of the 1969 Olympia Press novel that made Major (Dirty Bird Blues, 1996, etc.) a big name in Maurice Girodias’s dirty-book pantheon. A classic autodidact, Major was one of those very bright young men of the 1950s who had read their way through Rimbaud long before they’d discovered Shakespeare or heard of Homer; this defiant opus, judging from its style, seems like the work of someone whose idea of the novel begins with Henry Miller and ends with Jean Genet. The book describes the experiences of Eli Bolton, a black Vietnam vet badly traumatized by the war and utterly disdainful of the white society he has returned to in America. A great part of the story takes shape as a succession of Bolton’s rants, mostly concerned with his various conquests: the voracious Anita, the idealistic Cathy, the intellectual Eunice. Long descriptions of what Bolton does with Anita and Cathy and Eunice ensue, along with interpolated recollections of Vietnam and life on the streets in Chicago and New Yorkall written in the kind of interior patois that even Allen Ginsberg got tired of eventually (“Yeah, all kinds of battle fatigue monkeys strolling around here, bad shots hitting psychological maggie drawers all day long; I just get tired tired I keep a big funky headache all the time; lately I ain’t said nothing to nobody but Dossy O, that’s Cocaine which is the way my man keeps himself together”). Major offers reflections on race, politics, and society, but these are ultimately as pointless as the basic narrative and yet less interesting. As fresh and exciting as an old Red Foxx routine, this is a good period piece for ’60s junkies who don’t take themselves too seriously.

—Kirkus Reviews

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Vietnam #4

a cat said

on the corner


the other day

dig man


how come

so many of us



are dying over there

in that white

man’s war


they say more of us

are dying

than them peckerwoods

& it just

               don’t make sense


unless it’s true

that the honkeys


are trying to kill us out

with the same stone


they killing them other cats



you know, he said

two birds with one stone


*   *   *   *   *




he was just back

from the war


said man they got



over there now




and blacks over there



fighting us


and we can’t tell

our whites

from the others


nor our blacks

from the others


& everybody

is just killing


& killing

like crazy


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Blind Old Woman


spots on black skin.

                        she is dry.

how time, how she waits here

in her dingy wool, shabby

                        the fingers on her cup.

so frail, a woven face, so oval

such empty charity. how she remains

so quiet, quiet please.

                       how the cup shakes, and

it is not straight, nothing


She does not sell candy nor rubber

bands. like the blind man

at the other end. of the silence. the sounds

                          of one or more pennies

in the bent up tin. up her canvas stool

at the end of the shadows.

                       how they return before her,

through these 1960 Indiana streets.

as she shuffles into street sounds.

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John Coltrane, “Alabama”  /  Kalamu ya Salaam, “Alabama”  / A Love Supreme

A Blues for the Birmingham Four  /  Eulogy for the Young Victims   / Six Dead After Church Bombing 

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

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An Interview With Clarence Major

By Alice Scharper


I lived in Colorado for twelve years, teaching at the university, and I spent a lot of time in the Southwest and on the Navajo reservations. I became accustomed to the culture, and absorbed a great deal. Essentially, the novel came from another route. I had been fascinated with the Zunis for a long, long time because of their history. There’s a mystery there. No ones know, for example, where their language comes from, for one thing. They may be the descendant of the Aztecs; that’s one theory. But I was especially interested in their rebellious nature, and in their resiliency. Anyway, I had enough distance so that I could look at them as I would look at something under a microscope. There was a kind of structure, a kind of system, that was attractive to me. So I did the research, which took a couple of years, and I took my previous character and changed her a great deal.

She evolved into Painted Turtle, but she became a very different kind of person, though she retained the sadness—but she also lost a lot of the despair; although Painted Turtle has some despair, she’s triumphant. She transcends her condition, and she has much to deal with but she doesn’t give up. . . .

Shame is an essential element in all human experience, I think. I used to think of shame as a Judeo-Christian phenomenon, but as I learned that it’s universal, that shame and guilt seem to be motivating factors in the formation of a great many systems of thought, feeling, religious expression.

I’m reminded of a poignant scene in the novel [Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar], where Painted Turtle is riding the bus to Albuquerque and a young blond girl is sitting in the seat next to her. The girl turns to Painted Turtle and asks her, “Are you Indian?” and Painted Turtle says, “Yes.” The little girl then asks her, “Do you live in a tepee? Do you wear moccasins? Do you dance?” The young girl has her particular set of assumptions about the world of the Indian, and Painted Turtle is sealed off from the world of the girl because of those assumptions. And Painted Turtle is shamed as a result of not being able to bridge that gulf between her culture and the girl’s. I think that’s one of those unfortunate things that gets in the way of seeing how we are all essentially, at the deepest level, the same, except for our cultural differences. What happens is that the cultural differences become, somehow, more visible, rather than the equally significant universal elements.—

Poets & Writers

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Clarence Major is a poet, painter and novelist who was born in Atlanta, Georgia (1936) and grew up in Chicago. In his early twenties he started publishing his own literary magazine, Coercion Review, which featured poets and writers such as Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. As a teenager he was influenced by the monumental Van Gogh Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, February 1-April 16, 1950.

After a stint in the Air Force, two marriages, children, and two divorces, he left the Midwest and moved to New York. His first novel, All Night Visitors, was published in 1969 and his first collection of poems, Swallow the Lake (1970) was published the following year. Major briefly worked for Simulmatics as a research analyst before turning, in 1967, to teaching.

First, he taught in Harlem at the New Lincoln School, in a summer program. He later taught modern American literature courses and creative writing workshops in universities. Although he had shown a few paintings in group shows at Gales Gallery in Chicago during the 1960s, his first solo exhibition of paintings was at Sarah Lawrence College in the library in the early seventies.

During this time he was also giving public readings of his poetry. He served on the editorial staff of several literary periodicals and wrote a regular column for American Poetry Review. He was the first editor of American Book Review. He read his poetry at the Guggenheim Museum, the Folger Theater and in universities, theaters and cultural centers.

He joined the Fiction Collective in 1974. Major edited High Plains Literary Review for several years. On a State Department sponsored trip in 1975 he was a participant at the International Poetry Festival in Struga, Yugoslavia, where he read his work with Leopold Sedar Senghor and other poets from around the world. In 1977, with John Ashbery and other poets from various countries, Major read at the Poetry International in Rotterdam, Holland. Although he had been painting all along, after moving to California in 1989 he showed his paintings more frequently in galleries.

In 1991 Major served as fiction judge for the National Book Awards. In 1987 he served twice on the National Endowment for The Arts Awards panels; and in 1997-98 he served as judge for the Pen/Faulkner awards. He has judged state sponsored literary contests in Ohio, New York, Washington, Colorado and California.


Major is professor emeritus of 20th. Century American Literature at the University of California at Davis. His literary archives are in the Givens Collection, Anderson Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.—


*   *   *   *   *

Mockingbirds at Jerusalem (poetry Manuscript)

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books

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 Anthology by Sidney Molare

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#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

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#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


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#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

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#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

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#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

*   *   *   *   *

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s 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. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s 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, I’m 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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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. “Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality.”—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 3 April 2010 




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Related files: César Vallejo  C K Williams   John Crow Ransom   Randall Jarrell   Weldon Kees   Clarence Major

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