ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
They helped free us poets, playwrights and actors from the white
supremacy esthetic as per formal drama. They smashed the very
concept and made us conscious just how free one can be if
one will just go there. They told us thespians, just do your thing
and we will come in and out as we desire.
Jazz and Blackness
By Marvin X
Sunday evening we attended an onstage conversation between poet Amiri Baraka and bassist Reggie Workman at Oakland’s Eastside Arts Center. Actually it wasn’t onstage but the esteemed gentlemen were part of the circle of artists, intellectuals and community people who turned out for the event. Since I declined to speak at the event, I am posting my comments now.
Since the age of fourteen or fifteen, I have listened to jazz. Of course I heard it growing up, especially my family moved from Fresno to Oakland’s 7th Street, but was turned on to jazz by a heroin addict friend, Ronald Williams. In between shooting dope, Ronald and his friends used to listen to jazz and discuss Islam. What a potent mixture! I didn’t indulge the dope, but I listened to the music and conversation. Sometimes we’d be a little cafe on Whitesbridge and they would play Nina Simone’s “I Love You Porgy,” over and over. Once in Oakland and living on 7th Street in the back of my parents florist business, jazz filled my world, especially as a Cub Scout hustling Jet and Ebony magazines up and down 7th. Of course I recall the signs on the wall of Slim Jenkin’s Club advertising such artists as Josephine Baker and Father Earl Hines. I’d heard my parents discussing Jo Baker many times. Not much jazz was played in our house, but I did hear the big band music of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Up and down 7th I could hear music blasting on the juke box, blues and jazz, especially that B-3 Hammond organ. The Hammond took my soul into another zone. Poet Avotcha has a poem and play called “Oaktown Blues.” It is a masterful piece but somehow she never mentions that organ music by Jimmy Smith and others. When I think of West Oakland music culture in the late 50s, I think of the B-3. It seemed to dominate the scene. I understand this was true in Newark, New Jersey and other places as well. My association with jazz continued with lessons from my high school girlfriend, Sherley A. Williams (RIP), who had an access to her sister Ruby’s extensive collection of blues and jazz, Sherley turned me onto Hank Crawford and a few others. In 1966, playwright Ed Bullins and I established Black Arts West Theatre in San Francisco’s Fillmore. We were soon joined by a host of musicians, e.g., Dewey Redman, Earl Davis, Oliver Jackson, BJ, Monte Waters, Rafael Donald Garrett, et al. In freestyle, they accompanied our plays and went outside to play in harmony with the street sounds, car horns, human sounds, the wind and fog. They helped free us poets, playwrights and actors from the white supremacy esthetic as per formal drama. They smashed the very concept and made us conscious just how free one can be if one will just go there. They told us thespians, just do your thing and we will come in and out as we desire. They went from stage to audience, in the best manner of what would become known as ritual theatre, similar to the circle at Sunday’s conversation at Eastside Arts. After Black Arts West Theatre went under, Eldridge Cleaver, Ed Bullins, Ethna Wyatt (Hurriyah) and myself founded Black House on Broderick Street in SF. The Chicago Art Ensemble performed at Black House, which the hot political/culture center during 1967. After introducing Eldridge to Black Panthers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, Black House soon became the SF headquarters. The artists were kicked out due to ideological differences: cultural nationalism versus political nationalism. Sometime later the Panthers would understand the necessity of the cultural revolutionthis was after they attended the Pan African Arts Festival in Algeria.
But soon after the fall of Black House, many artists, musicians, poets, fled the negative atmosphere of the Bay for New York. Ed Bullins fled to New York and joined the New Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. I fled to Toronto, Canada as a draft resister. After about six months, I returned underground to Chicago, hanging around OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture) and Phil Koran’s Afro-Arts Theatre. OBAC poets included Don L. Lee, aka Haki Madhubuti, Gwen Brooks, Hoyt Fuller, Carolyn Rogers, Jewell Lattimore, et al.
I was in Chicago when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, but soon fled to New York when I found out the FBI was closing in on me. Ed invited me to work at the New Lafayette Theatre as associate editor of Black Theatre Magazine. Much like Rumi meeting Shams, or Malcolm X meeting Elijah Muhammad, I met Sun Ra and my world has never been the same. With Sun Ra I discovered the depths of drama, the integration of poetry, music, dance, lights, costume, mythology. Sun Ra taught the necessity of artistic and personal discipline to be one’s creative best.
During this time I met drummer Milford Graves. He frightened me to death with his aggressive drummer, so bold that he was banned from playing downtown New York. Milford’s music was so political, it was then that I finally realized the musicians and arts were the vanguard of spreading revolutionary consciousness. The politicos had much to learn from them. The arts gave the musicians and poets more mental balance and especially more spirituality. The essence of Sunday’s conversation at Eastside Arts was that musicians, poets, rappers must know our history and stay connected with the people. Amiri Barakapointed out that we are still slaves, although Elder Ed Howard would argue that we are not slaves, rather simply Africans caught in the slave system. For example, Ed would say how could slaves or free slaves publish a newspaper called Freedom’s Journal in 1827? How could a slave write David Walker’s Appeal, 1829? How could a slave write the Frederick Douglas classic “What to a slave is the 4th of July?” Workman and Baraka stressed Jazz is the only American music, the other music is European, only jazz is American. James Baldwin said in my 1968 interview with him, “We’re the only thing that happened here, nothing else happened here but us!”30 July 2012
* * * * *
Jazz and BlacknessNo Jazz in the Crack House Part II
The heroin addicts love jazz, the Crack heads hated jazz and all other music, including speech. Long before I became a crack head, I noticed when I came into the crack din no one looked up or even acknowledged I was in the room. Only silence and the passing of the pipe from one crack head to another. Absolutely, there was no music played since the psychosis necessitated silence, for one had to listen for sounds that didn’t exist, only in our warped minds.
We imagined police were at the door, or that friends were outside the door plotting to kill us. We even thought the friends or crack heads at the table were whispering about how to kill us, since they knew we had money. We imagined our girlfriend was knocking at the door, so we went to the door to let her in but no one was there, only the rustling leaves on the tree in the yard. This drama went on for twelve years, no music, no sounds, no talking, sometimes no sex since we couldn’t function sexuallyour shit was like silly putty under the influence of crack. No human touch for years, only the daily hustle for dope money. We wonder how was it possible for a crack head to hustle money every day of his crack life, but once clean and sober he is broke. And so the music I loved was no longer part of my life, only the silence in the wind and the madness of my mind. And yet I had become accustomed to life without music so that even upon recovery, it would be years before I could listen to jazz. When I did listen to music it was P and D music, as Sun Ra called popular music, Pussy and Dick music. Only now, 2012, have I seriously returned to jazz, the music so necessary for my consciousness, spirituality, and mental health. As I said in Part I, we Black Arts poets styled ourselves after the jazz musicians. Even now, I try to write like they play, to go as far out as I can go with my words on paper. I am consciously trying to write like Coltrane, Parker and Miles played, to take the mind to the outer limits, to jump out of the box of white supremacy psycholinguistics, in short, to transcend the English language, or even if I use the devil tongue, I will flip the script, reverse the meaning of words, say the wildest shit that can come to my mind, of course a little Henny helps! One thing about that Henny, there shall be no writer’s blockyou will tell the truth, even if it will frighten you to death in the morning when you read some of the shit you’ve written. Often you must hit delete several times to not reveal too much truth, as a judge friend says I do too much.
30 July 2012
Photo above left: The young Marvin X with Sun Ra
* * * * *
Savior Sonny Simmons
I just recalled that on one occasion during those crack years I did connect with jazz. I used to live in one of those SRO hotels near San Francisco’s Union Square, near Geary and Grant. During this time I would be in my room smoking crack, separating from reality. Then many nights I would hear the most melodious music imaginable. It was so beautiful I would take a break from the Crack pipe to run outside to find the source of the music.
It was sax man Sonny Simmons playing on the corner. Sometimes it seemed his music was floating in the night fog, drawing me to where he played. I was so in awe of the beauty he expressed that I was forced to give him a donation because I knew his music was trying to save me. This happened many nights that I would be forced to stop my madness and go out to give him a donation. Now Sonny may have had his own problems since many street hustlers are dope fiends, especially musicians, but it didn’t matter to me because I needed to hear Sonny’s sounds like a thirsty man needs water.
Not long ago Sonny and Amiri Baraka performed together at Eastside Arts Center and I reminded him of those days and what I used to do when I heard him. It was like a private concert that temporarily liberated me from my madness. Thank you, Sonny.
* * * * *
Sherley Anne Williams, a leading African American author, poet, playwright and professor of literature and writing at the University of California, San Diego, died July 6 at Kaiser Permanente Hospital of cancer. She was 54 years old.
Williams, a native Californian who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, was best known for her historical novel Dessa Rose. First published in 1986 by William Morrow & Co., “Dessa Rose” was an instant critical and popular success. The novel is now in its fourth printing and has been translated into German, Dutch, and French. At the time of her death, Williams was working on a sequel to
and on another novel set in the 20th century.
The story of an enslaved black woman and a white Southern belle,
was praised by the New York Times as “artistically brilliant, emotionally affecting and totally unforgettable.” Williams told the Los Angeles Times that her research on slavery while writing the novel “brought me to the brink of despair, because I realized how circumscribed our circumstances had been.”
Williams’ prodigious talent won her acclaim in many literary genres. Her first book of poetry, The Peacock Poems, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. She won an Emmy Award for a television performance of poems from her second poetry book, “SomeOne Sweet Angel Chile,” another National Book Award nominee. Her full-length, one-woman drama, Letters from a New England Negro, was a featured play at the National Black Theatre Festival (1991) and the Chicago International Theatre Festival (1992).
Working Cotton, Williams’ 1992 Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich children’s tale, won an American Library Association Caldecott Award and a Coretta Scott King Book Award, and it was listed among “Best Books of 1992” by Parents Magazine. She also recently published a second children’s book, “Girls Together.”
Literary scholar Barbara Christian has written: “Williams’ writing is rich, intellectually stimulating, beautifully crafted, and unique. [It] is brilliant, and her contributions to the field of African American literature are long lasting.”
Williams was an alumna of California State University, Fresno, where she earned a B.A. in English in 1966, and of Brown University, where she earned an M.A. in American Literature in 1972. She joined UCSD’s Literature Department in 1973, received tenure in 1975, and served as chair from 1977 to 1980.
* * * * *
Sung by Nina Simone
I loves you, Porgy. Don’t let him take me Don’t let him handle me And drive me mad. If you can keep me I wanna stay here with you forever And Ill be glad Yes I loves you, porgy, Don’t let him take me Don’t let him handle me With his hot hands. If you can keep me I wants to stay here with you forever. I’ve got my man I love you, Porgy, Don’t let him take me. Don’t let him handle me and drive me mad. If you can keep me I wanna stay here with you forever. I’ve got my man Someday I know he’s coming to call me He’s going to handle me and hold me So, it’s going to be like dying, Porgy When he calls me. But when he comes I know I’ll have to go. I love you, Porgy, Don’t let him take me Honey, don’t let him handle me and drive me mad. If you can keep me I wanna stay here with you forever. I’ve got my man
* * * * *
#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 Eroticanoir.com 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
* * * * *
By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection’s “lyric brilliance” and “political impulses [that] never falter.” A New York Times review stated, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to acceptor at least endurethe universe’s mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the books first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant.” Life on Mars follows Smith’s 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.
The Bodys Question (2003) was her first published collection. Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.
* * * * *
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats 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 Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards 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 familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys 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 isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake.
She conveys something fundamental about Eschs 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, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
* * * * *
By Kiini Ibura Salaam
Ancient, Ancient collects the short fiction by Kiini Ibura Salaam, of which acclaimed author and critic Nalo Hopkinson writes, ”Salaam treats words like the seductive weapons they are. She wields them to weave fierce, gorgeous stories that stroke your sensibilities, challenge your preconceptions, and leave you breathless with their beauty.” Indeed, Ms. Salaam’s stories are so permeated with sensuality that in her introduction to
, Nisi Shawl, author of the award-winning Filter House, writes, ”Sexuality-cum-sensuality is the experiential link between mind and matter, the vivid and eternal refutation of the alleged dichotomy between them. This understanding is the foundation of my 2004 pronouncement on the burgeoning sexuality implicit in sf’s Afro-diasporization. It is the core of many African-based philosophies. And it is the throbbing, glistening heart of Kiini’s body of work. This book is alive. Be not afraid.”
* * * * *
By Glenn C. Loury
In this pithy discussion, renowned scholars debate the American penal system through the lensand as a legacyof an ugly and violent racial past. Economist Loury argues that incarceration rises even as crime rates fall because we have become increasingly punitive. According to Loury, the disproportionately black and brown prison populations are the victims of civil rights opponents who successfully moved the country’s race dialogue to a seemingly race-neutral concern over crime. Loury’s claims are well-supported with genuinely shocking statistics, and his argument is compelling that even if the racial argument about causes is inconclusive, the racial consequences are clear.
Three shorter essays respond: Stanford law professor Karlan examines prisoners as an inert ballast in redistricting and voting practices; French sociologist Wacquant argues that the focus on race has ignored the fact that inmates are first and foremost poor people; and Harvard philosophy professor
Shelby urges citizens to break with Washington’s political outlook on race. The group’s respectful sparring results in an insightful look at the conflicting theories of race and incarceration, and the slim volume keeps up the pace of the argument without being overwhelming.Publishers Weekly
* * * * *
By Natasha Trethewey
Beyond Katrina is poet Natasha Tretheweys very personal profile of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and of the people there whose lives were forever changed by hurricane Katrina. Trethewey spent her childhood in Gulfport, where much of her mothers extended family, including her younger brother, still lives. As she worked to understand the devastation that followed the hurricane, Trethewey found inspiration in Robert Penn Warrens book Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, in which he spoke with southerners about race in the wake of the Brown decision, capturing an event of wide impact from multiple points of view. Weaving her own memories with the experiences of family, friends, and neighbors, Trethewey traces the erosion of local culture and the rising economic dependence on tourism and casinos.
She chronicles decades of wetland development that exacerbated the destruction and portrays a Gulf Coast whose citizensparticularly African Americanswere on the margins of American life well before the storm hit. Most poignantly, Trethewey illustrates the destruction of the hurricane through the story of her brothers efforts to recover what he lost and his subsequent incarceration.
Renowned for writing about the idea of home, Tretheweys attempt to understand and document the damage to Gulfport started as a series of lectures at the University of Virginia that were subsequently published as essays in the Virginia Quarterly Review. For Beyond Katrina, Trethewey has expanded this work into a narrative that incorporates personal letters, poems, and photographs, offering a moving meditation on the love she holds for her childhood home.
* * * * *
By George Lamming
Natives of My Person focuses on slave traders of the sixteenth century. The novel reconstructs the voyage of the ship Reconnaissance, which is led by a character known as the Commandant. To atone for his past cruelties and barbarism, the Commandant plans to establish a Utopian society on the island of San Cristobal. The enterprise fails for many reasons: fighting amongst the crew, loss of interest, greed, and an inability to erase the past. The novel argues that an ideal society cannot be built by those who have committed moral atrocities and unnecessary bloodshed in their past. . . . Although
has a historical setting and deals with the voyage of the Reconnaissance, a vessel ostensibly engaged in the slave trade, a specific historical phenomenon, it is only partly accurate to describe it as a work of historical realism. Its realist component is not to be found in its fidelity to period costume, living conditions, or similar revealing detail. Instead of the veneer of verisimilitude that such usages provide, the novel locates its realism in the way in which it elaborately recapitulates an outlook.
* * * * *
By George Lamming
First published in 1960, Season of Adventure details the story of Fola, a light-skinned middle-class girl who has been tipped out of her easy hammock of social privilege into the complex political and cultural world of her recently independent homeland, the Caribbean island of San Cristobal. After attending a ceremony of the souls to raise the dead, she is carried off by the unrelenting accompaniment of steel drums onto a mysterious journey in search of her past and of her identity. Gradually, she is caught in the crossfire of a struggle between people who have “pawned their future to possessions” and those “condemned by lack of learning to a deeper truth.” The music of the drums sounds throughout the novel, “loud as gospel to a believer’s ears,” and at the end stands alone as witness to the tradition which is slowly being destroyed in the name of European values. Whether through literary production or public pronouncements, George Lamming has explored the phenomena of colonialism and imperialism and their impact on the psyche of Caribbean people.
* * * * *
From The World and Africa, 1965
* * * * *
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
online through PayPal
* * * * *
Browse all issues
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
posted 31 July 2012