ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Still, Billie’s voice plays again in my mind and I recall the tale the old man told me of her

life and death. “But you can’t judge the cat until you been in its skin,” he sighs as a caution

before he hands me the bottle in his hand.




Billie Holiday CDs

Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday  /  Love Songs Greatest Hits  / The Ultimate Collection  / Lady in Satin  / At Storyville  / Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song (2001)

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The First Time I Heard Billie

By Amin Sharif

There are summers days in Baltimore when the humidity hangs like a wet curtain across

the town and the windows of buildings are dark mouths open and gasping for air—

These are the days when cheap electric fans whine like giant mosquitoes in small apartments but give no respite from the heat.

In the evening, the souls of the city move aimlessly from nowhere to anywhere watching

the street lights awaken slowly—pyres to the death of sunset—casting dull illumination

on a town drowsy but not yet asleep.

On the corner, I watch an electric sign suspended above a small shop in the near darkness. The laughter of patrons inside spills out onto the cracked sidewalk dissipating and swirling like the smoke that seeps up and out of the city sewers.

They pass me without a glance and run to catch their bus or open the doors of their cars. What meaning do I hold for them—one black boy in the halo of a street light?

From somewhere above my head, music escapes from an old speaker. Behind the register, a white hand notices me and waves me on. I hesitate and then turn away but stop when I hear her voice.

In the school library, I once read of women whose voices called ships to destruction on

the rocky coasts of foreign lands. Their voices were said to drive men insane.

But in her voice, I hear a call to drown myself in the madness of love and lay brokenhearted upon the shore of an Island called Solitude.

If I would be allowed to, I would stand here and listen to her until eternity slipped into nothingness and from the womb of nothingness the world would be reborn again.

But the white hand inside is insistent that I move on. And as I do, I ask someone in

passing do you know her—have you ever heard that voice before? 

“That’s Billie Holiday, son.” The old man standing beside me tells me with a wink. “I haven’t heard her in a month of Sundays.”

At midnight, I climb up the steps of an abandoned row house and enter a darkness

blacker than night. The acid smell of urine lays thick in the air. A single street light is

framed in the window—an eye spying upon my destitution.

Still, Billie’s voice plays again in my mind and I recall the tale the old man told me of her

life and death. “But you can’t judge the cat until you been in its skin,” he sighs as a caution before he hands me the bottle in his hand. “Get off these streets, son,” he warns.

“The devil is out here tonight.”

“What did you do today, youngblood?”  It is the gruff voice of Old Teak coming from a corner of the room, Old Teak the wounded warrior, Old Teak the one-eyed street sage who took me in and taught me his wisdom.

“I heard Billie Holiday tonight,” I answer. “Her voice was beautiful.”

“Sounds like she bewitched you, young blood,” Old Teak laughs softly.

“I believe she did.”

“Don’t take it too seriously, son,” Old Teak warns. “We all feel like that the first time we hear Billie.”

© Amin Sharif 2009

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Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan Gough; April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was the daughter of Clarence Holiday. The account given in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, seems to be inaccurate. Her father abandoned the family early and refused to acknowledge his daughter until after her first success. At some point in her childhood, her mother moved to New York, leaving her in the care of her relatives who, according to Holiday, mistreated her. She did menial work, had little schooling, and in 1928 went to New York to join her mother.

According to her own story, she was recruited for a brothel and was eventually jailed briefly for prostitution.

At some point after 1930, she began singing at a small club in Brooklyn, and in a year or so moved to Pods’ and Jerry’s, a Harlem club well known to jazz enthusiasts. In 1933, she was working in another Harlem club, Monette’s, where she was discovered by the producer and talent scout John Hammond. 

Hammond immediately arranged three recording sessions for her with Benny Goodman and found engagements for her in New York clubs. In 1935, he began recording her regularly, usually under the direction of Teddy Wilson  with studio bands that included many of the finest jazz musicians of the day. These recordings, made between 1935 and 1942, constitute a major body of jazz music; many include work by Lester Young, with whom Holiday had particular empathy. Though aimed mainly at the black jukebox audience, the recordings caught the attention of musicians throughout America and soon other singers were working in Holiday’s light, rhythmic manner.

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Strange Fruit Video  / Oakland, Toward Radical Spirituality 

Please Dont Talk About Me  / Strange Fruit  /  The Blues Are Brewin’  /  What A Little Moonlight Can Do  / Fine and Mellow

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Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday

By Robert O’Meally

Narcotics, jail, sexual abuse, and prejudice are often our first associations concerning the life of the great jazz singer, but this biography recalls only Holiday as artist. O’Meally (English, Barnard Coll.) puts her tragedy and talent into perspective, and what emerges is a critique of a singer. The book’s first section is outstanding in this regard, employing stories, quotes, and interviews in describing Holiday’s technique. Holiday and William Dufty’s Lady Sings the Blues ( LJ 8/56) is a serious and inspirational account; O’Meally’s treatment is also serious, but he offers psychological analysis as well. Referring to the subtitle, O’Meally writes, “Through her music . . . she faced down a world full of trouble . . . her songs were confrontations.” No index or footnotes are provided, but there is a large selected bibliography. For large public libraries and academic music collections—Ina M. Wise, Chicago

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Demonstrator Eden Jequinto covers his face during a demonstration after the sentencing in Oakland, Calif., Friday, of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant at a BART station on Jan. 1, 2009. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry sentenced Mehserle to two years in prison.

Mehserle had been called to the Fruitvale station of the BART system in the early hours of New Years Day last year with four other officers to look into reports of a fight on a train. Mehserle tried to arrest Grant but reported that Grant was not cooperating. Grant was on his stomach when Mehserle shot him in the back.

The shooting was caught on video by another BART passenger and quickly went viral on Youtube.—CSMonitor 5 November 2010

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



#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

#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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Hopes and Prospects

By Noam Chomsky

In this urgent new book, Noam Chomsky surveys the dangers and prospects of our early twenty-first century. Exploring challenges such as the growing gap between North and South, American exceptionalism (including under President Barack Obama), the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Israeli assault on Gaza, and the recent financial bailouts, he also sees hope for the future and a way to move forward—in the democratic wave in Latin America and in the global solidarity movements that suggest “real progress toward freedom and justice.” Hopes and Prospects is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the primary challenges still facing the human race. “This is a classic Chomsky work: a bonfire of myths and lies, sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky is an enduring inspiration all over the world—to millions, I suspect—for the simple reason that he is a truth-teller on an epic scale. I salute him.” —John Pilger In dissecting the rhetoric and logic of American empire and class domination, at home and abroad, Chomsky continues a longstanding and crucial work of elucidation and activism . . .the writing remains unswervingly rational and principled throughout, and lends bracing impetus to the real alternatives before us.—Publisher’s 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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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

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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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 /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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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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posted 25 January 2009




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Related files: The First Time I Heard Billie   Strange Fruit