ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Squeeze me until everything changes. Who embraces

such sameness centuries long? Take me to the river.

Let me walk in water and be cleansed of this past.



Dealing with Radical Islam‏

In Defense of Our Democracy


Friends, below is a revised version of my poem “Take Me to the River.” Maybe it is a little better than the first. Before that, a few reflections.  Critical of America’s national security apparatus, its priestly caste of secrecy, its think tankers whose mockery and sarcasm are the mainstream rhetoric of cable news and C-Span, seldom do I view America as they suggest as the Bulwark against Tyranny, the great Defender of Democracy. In any case that mouthful is difficult to get into a poem.  Still I wonder how this national security apparatus and its wide support may have affected Barack Obama since he took the oath of office. Is he now a different man, a different being.  The war in Afghanistan has heated up. Many are being murdered on the field—men, women, and children. In voting for him I did not vote for what is now happening. I wonder about my own guilt as a US citizen. Can I as many do separate myself from the devastation that is being done in our name? Do the Taliban pose a national threat to the USA? I thought we were in Afghanistan to rid ourselves of al-Qaeda? It seems we have moved the goal post having slaughtered all those who were connected with the terrorist organization. It seem now we want to build a nation in the Middle East in our image, as we once did in Iran. Am I wrong in thinking such thoughts?  I give thanks to the historian Garry Wills, author of Bomb Power, for inspiring such reflections.  Now to the poem.—Rudy

Take Me to the River

Millions homeless at Port-au-Prince, wandering with crazy eyes

through earthquake rubble without food, water, a pillow, and bed

on which to suffer storms in the peace of dreams. Quarter million


dead. The moaning breezes burn eyes to tears. Whose prayers

can look into the brain of dark-brown faces, a black sea horror

& loss? Mountains of the dead are swung feet and head onto


make-shift pyres, into mass graves. The toes are always the last

to be covered with dirt. Souls like fire-flies fly to voodoo gods.

No luck until everything changes from centuries of the same.


Take me to the river. Let me walk in water and be cleansed of

bad blood and NGOs. Evangelists cite the crimes against Haiti

in times happy and sad. The earth remains unsteady. Pancaked


concrete floors with flesh, limbs, bruised, broken. Too late for

life-seeking dogs. Some drink shamefully from the potholes of

their lives in this dry season, while the hungry eat patties of clay,


oil, and salt as breakfast and dinner, a diet to marrows bones.

My God! Here’s a young mother walking impassable by-ways,

blue burdens eternal held upon her head. Her eyes, her smile


deceives. Take me to the river. Let me walk and be washed in

a dunking of cleansing words while strangers rush in with pity.

Starry night struggles smoke the dead while tugging wails fade.

By Rudolph Lewis 4 February 2010 / revised 9 January 2012

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Hi, I hope you are doing well. I think your note reflected many of the concerns of progressives in the US. 

We often tend to have no position when it comes to dealing with radical Islam. I had a problem with the Taliban when they were destroying the Buddhas in Afghanistan. When you have folks plotting America’s destruction in the mountains of Pakistan you can’t wait to deal with them when they get off the IRT in NY.  This goes back to Bush’s speech after 9/11.

Pre-emptive strikes is what we now conduct. The entire world is a battlefield. Americans need to realize this. No one is safe. I find myself in opposition to people who want to not only live under Islamic Law but want to promote it around the world. I worry about what’s happening in Northern Nigeria. I was monitoring some African Americans in Atlanta who were advocating some extreme positions.

War is never easy to accept. But democracy needs to be protected and it comes with a price. I hope Obama  has become a different man. I hope he understands that he is not running for office but running the country. One hopes he becomes wiser with each passing month—or with the additional gray hair. I don’t expect to agree with every position he takes. Why should I? At the end of the day I want his decisions to be good ones for our country (and that includes black people).—Ethelbert

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Ethelbert, I usually find your views and that of the historian Wilson J. Moses  very reasonable and very sane. Yours are usually governed by facts on the ground and usually are a counterweight to my flights of fancy. Like you, when I think of the Taliban, I recall their anti-art, anti-religious stance when it came to the giant Buddhist carvings in the side of an Afghan mountain, the leftovers from an age of conquest from the Far East. I was made uneasy by their destruction of these historical artifacts. But I was in no way as radical in my reaction as the British ladies in Florence in the film “Tea with Mussolini.”

 I do not recall that when we invaded Afghanistan and became involved in regime change that one of our reasons for our imperial acts was the removal of the Taliban for their political acts against historical, artistic artifacts, which many in the West were very sentimental. Our destruction of human life and our creation of massive refugee problems and our lack of democratic reporting on what is really afoot in Afghanistan are much more insidious and god-awful than whatever the Taliban accomplished in their brief rule. This “war against terrorism” is much more a threat to Democracy, and even more so in the silence of the majority of Americans.

But I can recall in American history that we find similar fundamental destruction based on idolatry rationales. The British in Kenya were also appalled by native practices related to females. None of that justifies their own brutality and the appropriation of the best lands of the Kikuyu and Masai. These issues and other British colonial policies still have their consequences in present-day Kenya, as we observed in its last national election with its conflicts among the tribes. Check out Maurine Otor’s “Dear Kenya.”

 But enough on that point. What I find more uneasy is what you said without elaboration: “War is never easy to accept. But democracy needs to be protected and it comes with a price.” I cannot but wonder how Dr. King would respond to such an assertion. He indeed has left some clues. Read again his speech ” Beyond Vietnam A Time to Break Silence   or listen to the video “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.”

Democracy is a word often abused by its misuse. I cannot but wonder what we are indeed defending. Of course there are those things that exist presently worth defending in America life, especially that which was accomplished by the Civil Rights movement. Much blood was shed in order to guarantee those rights we should have received in 1865. There was a century of struggle by many to secure such rights in reality, and there are still threats to such political and human rights that we experience daily.

But there are other matters in American life that wear the mask of Democracy that are not democratic at all, but rather Republican privileges, like representative rule as we find in the numerous manifestations of the U.S. Constitution and in Supreme Court rulings that are not worthy of progressive support and defense. And since World War II, we have moved more and more toward one man rule or the supremacy of the Executive Branch. Read Garry Wills comments on his book Bomb Power.

One might also check out Richard Wolff’s “Rising Income Inequality in the US: Divisive, Depressing, and Dangerous” and the threats it poses to our Democracy. You know very well the criticism that Obama leveled against those five Justices that argued that corporations are not “artificial persons” but real persons and deserve the same human and civil rights as you and me.

 There has been so much ink spilt on the overweening profits of Wall Street that I need not say more on that score. As Wilson Moses has said elsewhere there are clear signs that the country is moving to the Right, a move that find radicalism and extremism right here in our back yards. You indeed might read the recent discovered “Manifesto Of Joseph Andrew Stack,” which seems to me a clear statement of Tea Party elements in the white male middle classes. Our fears, in short, are misplaced. It is not the Taliban or even Iran that we should fear. They are faint shadows.

You say and I find it sound, more or less, “At the end of the day I want his [Obama‘s]  decisions to be good ones for our country (and that includes black people).” Foreign wars are never good, especially when they are founded on imperial rationalizations and unsound fears. That is my initial concern. I have also been waiting for the peace dividends and how it may be used for peaceful means, like jobs, jobs, jobs, for city dwellers, especially where unemployment is at Depression levels, like 25% jobless rates among young black men and women—a situation that leads to illegal and illicit activities.

Like you I hope that Obama becomes wiser. But my question is whether the national security apparatus of which Garry Wills speaks, more or less, determines how an individual behaves in the Office of the Presidency is more or less predetermined. That is, it is a construction that undermines and disperses will and wisdom. Coupled with the filibuster rule of the Senate, the Right seems to have Obama coming and going. If you wish to say that Obama is a good man and worthy of respect I cannot but agree. But the fist law is self-preservation and it seems more likely that Obama when it comes down to where the rubber hits the road will defend his reelection before the country’s welfare.

As far as no “dealing with radical Islam,” I always find Marvin X’s views intriguing. But one would not usually place him among the so-called progressives. He is very unique. I encourage you to read his views belowRudy

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If I Were A Muslim in Good Standing  If I Were A Muslim In Good Standing I would be like Prophet Muhammad I would fight oppression everywhere I would liberate the slaves educate the poor free the women expel the infidels from Muslim lands I would fight quisling Muslim governments not sleep until Jerusalem is liberated Palestine a free nation send the Zionists back to Europe or into the Mediterranean if it took one hundred or two hundred years like Saladin I would slay them without remorse Recite the Fatihah on a pyramid of their heads like the Moors in Spain I would expel the heathen Christian armies from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia I would defend Iran’s right to have Nukes Why should the Zionists have Nukes but not Iranians If the Zionists are sane, so are Iranians If the Zionists are human beings, so are Iranians I would fight white supremacy in all its forms even in black face, Arab face, Chinese face If I were a Muslim in good standing I would liberate Mecca of slaves and selling pork free the kingdom of Arabia of wickedness and primitive theology Infecting the Taliban, Al Queda, and Sunni insurgents in Iraq who have no intention to allow Shia Muslims to rule without obstruction I would salute Hamas and Hezbollah for confronting Shaitan in all his masks I would stop honor killings and put women in the front of the masjed to pray put the veil on men and show equality at all times I would make earth a paradise for those who truly believe who fight oppression everywhere and will not sleep til the world is free.

Marvin X.

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I agree with Ethelbert on the Buddhist statues.   But notice, how silent the Buddhists have been on this issue.   I heard Ethelbert on NPR a few days ago [Speaking of Faith: Black and Universal].   Wow!  Was he ever sentimental.   Brought tears to my eyes, and I think of myself as a hard case!  But nobody attacks Lerone Bennett without fighting me.   I think I know where Ethelbert is coming from and next time I am in Washington, will look him up.   As a Christian, I cannot accept the statement of Marvin X.  I want to see a harmonious international secular & multi-religious federation, encompassing the entire Arabian Peninsula.  I want peace in the Middle East.   But that is impossible because it is impossible for Muslims, Christians, and Jews to accept a completely secular government and separation of Church and State on the Arabian peninsula—Wilson


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If I can add a quarter of a dollar into this discussion.  .  .  . First, of course, yo, E. Ethelbert, how are yuh? Second,

Re: the Taliban . . . lest we forget, the CIA trained them into position against the Russians; like Noriega in Panama, only when they outlived their usefulness to the CIA (and/or step outside of their “prescribed” role) did the U.S. suddenly find an enemy to be rid of…

Similarly, Al-Qaida was sponsored and trained by the same agency…

Re: (the implied) 9/11 attack, there are several factors here that proved worrisome to me…

(a) especially since 1993 (that first attack on the twin towers), air space in and about the towers was deemed non-violable; while I can appreciate that the first plane snuck through guarded air space, I had just too many problems with the military standing down on the second airplane getting through; (b) the intelligence agencies of no less than four nations warned U.S. intelligence that some form of air attack was in the offing for that day… Egypt, India, Russia, France… yet no alert, even within military defense, was sounded; (c) the very first thing that came out of Bush’s mouth at his first cabinet meeting (a la the Secretary of the Treasury) was “I want Hussein!” This was almost nine months prior to the attack. Those three factors alone make me very uncomfortable, to say the least. They’re undeniable (or is it irrefutable)…

Re: the Left & Islam: Yes, I do agree that the left has less to say about Islamic fundamentalists, given that Afro-American Muslims, orthodox and otherwise, have a different sense of being here and make Islam look better than its policies. The Israeli occupation of Palestine makes this all the more cumbersome. However, I refuse to forget that a slave trade out of Africa was long ago fully established by Moslems and at the expense of many of our forebears. We keep tightlipt regarding Sudan, Mauritania, Niger, et al in relation to today’s continual kidnapping and slave mongering out of the sub-Sahara region. This too is worrisome and problematic.

Re: the destruction of art. Lest we forget, much of the Mesopotamian sites were deliberately destroyed via U.S. bombings in Iraq and many art collectors joined with U.S. invasion forces to rob the museums there. These two factors are, in my estimation, practically irrefutable. Not that this excuses the Afghan fiasco against Buddhist shrines, et al. But it does make clear that, across the board, much irreparable damage has been done under the banner of war.

Re: News coverage. Not since the embarrassment caused by reportage during the Vietnam War has there been any real form of ‘democratic’ or, better yet, actual independent unbiased coverage of war fronts involving western nations, particularly as this concerns the U.S. and its public’s right to know. Since the ’70s, there has been a deliberate absorption of media outlets on the part of conglomerates to the point of making news coverage an irrelevant joke. Except for Link and Free Speech television stations, we’re hard pressed to unmitigatingly accept without question what is now passing as informed news coverage of anything. The reality show syndrome has clearly replaced genuine coverage (period).

Re: Democracy… I could argue that it is stupid to believe that our national duty is to turn every other nation into a replica of what we have here. And I could argue about the principle of sovereignty which the U.S. consistently violates and/or makes mockery thereof… But I prefer to rely on W.E.B. Du Bois. When asked what he thought of ‘democracy,’ he responded (to the effect that) “It’s a good idea. We should try it.”

Not to be cynical, but my reading of history (especially regarding this hemisphere and within the construct of all those African and Caribbean nations that have acquired independence since the era of our youth) tells me that there is no democracy where there is no agrarian reform. The destitute remain so and the elite prior to a change over (i.e., revolution) remain the owners of the land they’d previously exploited. Here, in the U.S., and every where else, the imperfections of every republic or alleged democratic state remain untouched and unchanged. I still don’t see “one person/ one vote” actually at work (to wit, the thefts of Florida and Ohio).

Re: President Barack Obama. Yes, I did understand what he swore to uphold when he took the oath, and, yes, yet, I too was hopeful that he’d be different. And, yes, I have noted that, since he took office, the Democratic Party has not quite forgiven him for defeating Hillary, and that the Republican Party has yet to accept McCain’s defeat.

Having started there, we must be careful to understand that there is no ‘savior’ in the form of one person or one entity. He’s in an arena that is fraught with contradiction and he too is guilty of contradicting his own professed dictates (i.e., the substance of several of his promises). But the ‘savior’ of ourselves can only be made to manifest when large numbers of ‘we’ consistently barrage the legislatures with our own demands. Left to himself, he has to compromise. The extent to which community and regional activism constantly remains afoot will determine the extent to which he will and won’t do what is necessary to set the stage for transformational change. Lest we forget, FDR needed the pressure and even then, to undo what had been wrought upon our grandparents took more than 12 years to set into place and a world war to make apparent.

Just thought I’d add a quarter into the plate. Good discussion. And good to know that Lewis & Miller are still with it. Later. Louis

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Wilson, I agree Ethelbert is sentimental. The women like him; he has many followers black and white. He has been very productive in both verse and prose. Check out the page I created for him and the organizations he heads in DC, and a few of his poems. I have always thought him rather “soft” in criticism (that’s the term one of my university teachers used for the British writer E. M. Forster). But he is a husband and father, which naturally produce calluses, a toughness. He can be intellectually tough in some areas. Though my views veer from his over the years I have grown rather fond of him. His sentimentalism, often a bit too optimistic, is endearing.

On the blowing up of the Buddhist mountain carvings, here is what Mackie Blanton, who spent a couple of years teaching in Turkey, wrote a few hours ago:

I’ve no idea how true this is, because I have never verified this in any way; but a Muslim student in 2005 (slightly pre-Katrina) told me that the Taliban did not destroy the Buddhist iconographic statuary because they were pagan or idolatrous. He claimed that at the time NATO and other international organizations were donating funds for the restoration and renovation of these statues and Muslims believed that that in itself was idolatrous, because such huge funds should have gone to feed and cloth the poor of the country. So they destroyed the statues because statues are not more important than people, and to act in ways that suggest otherwise is idolatrous.—Mackie

Read especially the After Katrina  pieces, which one might classify as travelogues. They were done at my request. They were indeed influenced by the environment, unlike anything he had written before. As far as the purported Taliban Islamic argument, it sounds like good Islam to me or even a good secular argument.

Your criticism of Marvin is just and appropriate. His argument is a kind of fancy that is rather Western and fanciful but it is as well a kind of Sufi argument. On the whole the West expects too much of the Middle East. It is an ongoing criticism that is in back of the imperial attitude that the West has of the East, and of Africa and Latin America, as well. Anglo racism is at its core and a bit of French romanticism.

The other problem is that unlike say China, the Middle East (and Islam) has always been fragmented, culturally and politically and the fusing of isolated cultural traits with Islam, which has given the West an opening to meddle and dominate the Middle Eastern states. One does not overcome two millennia of history and culture in a couple of centuries. The West has used these incongruent cultural patterns as an excuse to dominate these nations which are far less than a century old.

The British and the Americans have been awful in their imperial policies. As far as religion I do not know where I am—at times I am Christian, alternately I have been Buddhist and Muslim. Ethelbert, I think, practices, Buddhism. I am rather uneasy with religions outside of the gospels. Paul, John, Peter, and the rest unsettle me. I am uncertain whether my religious views in any way affect my secularity.—Rudy

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”

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

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posted 23 February 2010




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