ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 People left that meeting “stunned” (stone-faced) by Bill’s demeaning remarks about

the black poor  and oppressed. So it seems now Bill has joined the team of Tavis, Skip

Gates, and Cornell West in their making humor about the black urban poo



Gospel for the Poor by Bill Cosby

Sponsored by Wal-Mart & Tavis Smiley

By Rudolph Lewis


We’d like always to think well of people and expect the best. Practically, I am told, fifty per cent of the time I will be wrong. In the climate of our times, as we ascend the financial ladder of success, I’m afraid our expectations of the best will decline radically.

For three or four years, I have concluded that Bill Cosby should retire from the public eye like Sidney Poiter. But every time the tv is turned on there’s Bill, acting the clown, an old gray haired clown on the Tonight Show. A man way beyond his prime propped up because he knows how to make some people comfortable. More often with these people he is more an object of humor than not.

What Bill has going for him is that he is rich, super-rich. And as the wise street corner wizards used to say, “Money talks and bullshit walks.” They may have a point.

I saw Bill Wednesday night on Tavis (PBS). Expecting the worse, I turned the channel, for I saw Tavis on his knees oiling Bill up with both hands. Tavis sure would like to have what Bill’s got. I didn’t turn away today when it came on at noon and so I got a full ear of Bill’s comic bullshit. He in the twilight zone of comedy and education philosophy. He stumbled on his face several times, and Tavis kept helping him up, for Bill is the man, the dean of comics, a financial supporter of black aristocratic schools.

So, it seems, Bill was on Tavis defending some ill-thought-out comments Bill  had made publicly at some gathering, reported by the Washington Post. People left that meeting “stunned” (stone-faced) by Bill’s demeaning remarks about the black poor and oppressed. So it seems now Bill has joined the team of Tavis, Skip Gates, and Cornell West in their making humor about the black urban poor. Bluntly, their view is that too many of the black poor are immoral:

They don’t want to work hard. They don’t know how to delay pleasures of the body. And, worst, they think education means “white.”

Bill thinks that blacks can “take back their communities,” even when in some tracks of our fair cities 40% of black working age males are unemployed, and between  the ages  of 25-64, over two thirds are unemployed. How can one facing such economic horrors be the representative dad or that wonderful husband?

But the poor have always been the subject of humor, since Jesus’ ministry to the dispossessed, even though many of his disciples today despise the poor like lepers, an intrusion on their well-being. And when these good rich men act well on behalf of the poor, at best, their kindness is patronizing, reducing the poor farther to the state of penury or begging. We will take out of our pockets for the poor in Bangladesh or Central America or Africa, but will not encourage their state legislators to provide more funding for urban schools.

But I have thought for some time now that Bill Cosby has moved closer to the orbit of senility than many have been able to perceive. Maybe he can be dismissed as a cranky old man, he in danger of becoming the poster boy for the black neocons (as in confidence men). 

Ironically, Bill Cosby humorous spiel on the black poor and their immorality was brought to us by Wal-Mart, a regular sponsor of the Tavis Show. Wal-Mart is a notorious union buster. It lowers wages wherever it goes. It shuts down smaller enterprises that just cannot compete. Usually, family businesses.

Bill, Tavis, Skip Gates, Cornell West, our black intellectual think tank, the best they can come up with is nigger jokes. These wise guys have little or nothing to say about the black urban economic disaster. And how policy and the push for certain policies can help relieve these repressive economic times for the black poor. These prominent confidence men, however, have encouraged a callous behavior toward the poor by local black elected officials. 

For instance Maryland attempted to and passed a “living wage bill” ($10 an hour) for all state contracts. The passage of this boon for poor workers was voted against by some black legislators, who were more concerned about the interests of black businesses men, the more well-off or the more aspiring elements who want to make their fortunes on the backs of their poor black brothers. 

These well-suited cats don’t think the Many first, but rather the Few, first and always.

Tony Fulton and other Baltimore and black representatives voted against this living wage. The measure added a 1% increase to the contractual budgets of the state. That 1% might make the difference between a school-aged child spending more time with her mother. The child’s mother might not now have to work two and three jobs to feed and clothe her child. 

We who have grown callous and full of ourselves are too cute, too ready to shat on the poor and the defenseless. But all these disparaging words will come back to haunt these fellows for nothing will stay in the dark. We believe, too many of us who have made it, think now that success has little to do with chance. We have swallowed hook line and sinker the myth of the self-made man (e.g. Bill Cosby)


who through hard work and clean responsible living, made good. 

That attitude we express too often as if there were not the backs, the feet,  the heart, and the vote of the poor that made the conditions possible for black millions to be made.

Even the lethargic comfort-loving black middle-class will come to see we are fueling some heavy things that are going on in our country by our comedy in these tough times. We are on the verge of a nazi-like takeover of the country and all Bill Cosby and Tavis Smiley and Skip Gates can talk about is how dumb Negroes are or how irresponsible they are. I mean constitutional guarantees like free speech and assembly are being threatened to be limited in our “fight on terror.” Mere proximity to certain people will become crimes. Our country is near bankruptcy for the narrow interests of the Few, the billionaires and theirs millionaire underlings.

The rich and the greedy have always gone along with the program for domination and the abuse of the poor and the defenseless. That is not news. For it’s been always much easier to lay in the cut and be amused than speak truth to power and the abuses of power. Look, I am not sectarian in this matter. Kerry does not promise us much. He too lauds the program of America’s world domination, as a necessary feature for us Americans to live the Good Life. We, he says, have to be the “paramount military power.” That sounds a bit hitlerish to me.

Who threatens us – the poor and the powerless of the world who live on less than $2 a day? (See my piece on the extent of global poverty


Escaping the Black-Bible Belt.) They threaten us? Why, because they need more than what they now receive from the G-8. It is we here in America and the West who have made sumptuous use of the world’s resources at the expense of countries who only a few years ago gained independence and whom we still have in a headlock, us (the World Bank and IMF) pounding away head and body.

They can say whatever they please about Belafonte and his “house nigger” formula applied to Colin Powell. He may be old and his metaphors may be as stale as Malcolm X. Like the Signifying Monkey, such cultural referents still can be expressive of truth about the sparse and oppressive lives that are lived by the “field niggers” (the urban poor) of today in prosperous middle-class America—in which the black and white of wealth walk hand in hand comfortable, Teflon-coated, in their suburban homes living Martin’s Dream.

posted January 2004

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The Quotable Bill Speaks 


On the Black poor

“Lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids – $500 sneakers for what? And won’t spend $200 for ‘Hooked on Phonics.’ “

On Black youth culture

“People putting their clothes on backwards: Isn’t that a sign of something gone wrong? … People with their hats on backwards, pants down around the crack, isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up? Isn’t it a sign of something when she has her dress all the way up to the crack and got all type of needles [piercings] going through her body? What part of Africa did this come from? Those people are not Africans; they don’t know a damn thing about Africa.”

On civil rights

“Brown versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person’s problem. We have got to take the neighborhood back. We have to go in there – forget about telling your child to go into the Peace Corps – it is right around the corner. They are standing on the corner and they can’t speak English.”

On literacy

“Basketball players – multimillionaires – can’t write a paragraph. Football players – multimillionaires – can’t read. Yes, multimillionaires. Well, Brown versus Board of Education: Where are we today? They paved the way, but what did we do with it? That white man, he’s laughing. He’s got to be laughing: 50 percent drop out, the rest of them are in prison.”

On poor Black women:

“Five, six children – same woman – eight, 10 different husbands or whatever. Pretty soon you are going to have DNA cards to tell who you are making love to. You don’t know who this is. It might be your grandmother. I am telling you, they’re young enough! Hey, you have a baby when you are 12; your baby turns 13 and has a baby. How old are you? Huh? Grandmother! By the time you are 12 you can have sex with your grandmother, you keep those numbers coming. I’m just predicting.”

Cosby on the sons and daughters of poor, Black, unmarried mothers:

“…with names like Shaniqua, Taliqua and Mohammed [!] and all of that crap, and all of them are in jail.

On Blacks shot by police:

“These are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and we are outraged,  [saying] ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”

Source of Quotes: BlackCommentator

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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A Wreath for Emmett Till

By Marilyn Nelson; Illustrated by Philippe Lardy

This memorial to the lynched teen is in the Homeric tradition of poet-as-historian. It is a heroic crown of sonnets in Petrarchan rhyme scheme and, as such, is quite formal not only in form but in language. There are 15 poems in the cycle, the last line of one being the first line of the next, and each of the first lines makes up the entirety of the 15th. This chosen formality brings distance and reflection to readers, but also calls attention to the horrifically ugly events. The language is highly figurative in one sonnet, cruelly graphic in the next. The illustrations echo the representative nature of the poetry, using images from nature and taking advantage of the emotional quality of color.

There is an introduction by the author, a page about Emmett Till, and literary and poetical footnotes to the sonnets. The artist also gives detailed reasoning behind his choices. This underpinning information makes this a full experience, eminently teachable from several aspects, including historical and literary—School Library Journal

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Aké: The Years of Childhood

By Wole Soyinka

Aké: The Years of Childhood is a memoir of stunning beauty, humor, and perception


a lyrical account of one boy’s attempt to grasp the often irrational and hypocritical world of adults that equally repels and seduces him. Soyinka elevates brief anecdotes into history lessons, conversations into morality plays, memories into awakenings. Various cultures, religions, and languages mingled freely in the Aké of his youth, fostering endless contradictions and personalized hybrids, particularly when it comes to religion. Christian teachings, the wisdom of the ogboni, or ruling elders, and the power of ancestral spirits


who alternately terrify and inspire him


all carried equal metaphysical weight. Surrounded by such a collage, he notes that “God had a habit of either not answering one’s prayers at all, or answering them in a way that was not straightforward.” In writing from a child’s perspective, Soyinka expresses youthful idealism and unfiltered honesty while escaping the adult snares of cynicism and intolerance. His stinging indictment of colonialism takes on added power owing to the elegance of his attack.

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Andrew Johnson: The 17th President, 1865-1869

By Annette Gordon-Reed

Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth man to ascend to the highest office in the land, is generally regarded by historians as among the weakest presidents. Gordon-Reed has no intention of moving Johnson up in rank (“America went from the best to the worst in one presidential term,” she corroborates). So this is no reputation rescue. Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, takes as her task explaining why we should look anew at such a disastrous chief executive. She reasons he is worth looking at, though her reasoning yields a far from sympathetic look. In a short biography, all bases can be covered, but the author is still left to exercise the tone of a personal essay, which this author accomplishes brilliantly. Her personal take on Johnson is that his inability to remake the country after it was torn apart rested on his deplorable view of black Americans.

In practical terms, his failure derived from his stubborn refusal to compromise with Congress in the abiding post-Lincoln controversy over who was to supervise the Reconstruction, the executive or the legislative branch. A failure, yes, but more than that, a failure at an extremely critical time in American history.



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Punishing the Poor

The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity

By Loïc Wacquant

The punitive turn of penal policy in the United States after the acme of the Civil Rights movement responds not to rising criminal insecurity but to the social insecurity spawned by the fragmentation of wage labor and the shakeup of the ethnoracial hierarchy. It partakes of a broader reconstruction of the state wedding restrictive “workfare” and expansive “prisonfare” under a philosophy of moral behaviorism. This paternalist program of penalization of poverty aims to curb the urban disorders wrought by economic deregulation and to impose precarious employment on the postindustrial proletariat. It also erects a garish theater of civic morality on whose stage political elites can orchestrate the public vituperation of deviant figures—the teenage “welfare mother,” the ghetto “street thug,” and the roaming “sex predator”—and close the legitimacy deficit they suffer when they discard the established government mission of social and economic protection. . . .

Punishing the Poor shows that the prison is not a mere technical implement for law enforcement but a core political institution.

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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

By Annette Gordon-Reed


This is a scholar’s book: serious, thick, complex. It’s also fascinating, wise and of the utmost importance. Gordon-Reed, a professor of both history and law who in her previous book helped solve some of the mysteries of the intimate relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, now brings to life the entire Hemings family and its tangled blood links with slave-holding Virginia whites over an entire century. Gordon-Reed never slips into cynicism about the author of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, she shows how his life was deeply affected by his slave kinspeople: his lover (who was the half-sister of his deceased wife) and their children. Everyone comes vividly to life, as do the places, like Paris and Philadelphia, in which Jefferson, his daughters and some of his black family lived.

So, too, do the complexities and varieties of slaves’ lives and the nature of the choices they had to make—when they had the luxury of making a choice. Gordon-Reed’s genius for reading nearly silent records makes this an extraordinary work.—Publishers Weekly

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Middle Passage

By Charles Johnson

A savage parable of the black experience in America, Johnson’s picaresque novel begins in 1830 when Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed Illinois slave eking out a living as a petty thief in New Orleans, hops aboard a square-rigger to evade the prim Boston schoolteacher who wants to marry him. But the Republic , no riverboat, turns out to be a slave clipper bound for Africa. Calhoun, a witty narrator conversant with the works of Chaucer and Beethoven and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, hates himself for acting as henchman to the ship’s captain, a dwarfish, philosophizing tyrant. Before the rowdy, drunken crew can spring a mutiny, African slaves recently taken on board stage a successful revolt. Blending confessional, ship’s log and adventure, the narrative interweaves a disquisition on slavery, poverty, race relations and an African worldview at odds with Western materialism. In luxuriant, intoxicating prose Johnson (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) makes the agonized past a prism looking onto a tense present.—Publishers Weekly

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.”

Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.

She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—


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

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update 12 January 2012




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Related files: Escaping the Black-Bible Belt  If White America Had a Bill Cosby