ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



the whole of English literary history is part of my heritage, an

imposed part, but an essential part nonetheless. I can choose to

oppose certain aspects of my cultural heritage but I, as a conscious

and political artist, cannot ignore a major aspect simply because I

don’t like it or because it represents the viewpoints of the master



Books by Kalamu ya Salaam


The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement  /   360: A Revolution of Black Poets

Everywhere Is Someplace Else: A Literary Anthology  /  From A Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets

Our Music Is No Accident   /  What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self

My Story My Song (CD)


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Interview with Award Winning Neo-Griot

Kalamu ya Salaam


Borrowing & Adapting Literary Styles

Rudy: I assume you were first influenced by free verse, working without rhyme schemes, which itself is an artificial form. These forms set boundaries. They restrain expressiveness; some forms restrict thought much more so than others. Whether it’s iambic pentameter, alliterative verse, consonantal verse, Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnets, or the exaggerated rhythms of Gerald Manley Hopkins, there is something unnatural about such forms.

I know McKay used the sonnet to great effect. He pressed effectively against the boundaries. Wright experimented with haiku. But his haiku are just a curiosity. They have had little influence. I read a book of poems by Sonia Sanchez in which she experimented with formal verse. I don’t recall the name of the form; it may have been a European form. I don’t recall. Do you know the book I am talking about? I thought she handled the form well. But I am not sure that the overall effect was meaningful. The natural expressiveness we usually associate with her seems to have been overly curbed.

Haiku is not natural to English. It is Oriental, coming from an entirely different cultural perspective. It is more radical than the Italian sonnet was in English. Note even Shakespeare had to change the form to make it work. Even rhyming is not natural to English, which tends to accent the consonant rather than the vowel. So why then the haiku? Could you talk about the reason you have chosen to work with formal verse and have continued to work with this form. Isn’t all that a step backward?

Kalamu: I think in some ways I answered some of these questions when I responded about haiku, but there are other interesting notions you raise.

First off, I started off attracted by rhyme. Remember that Langston Hughes was my first and most lasting influence. Remember that I was taught Paul Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson in public school. We recited their work in class, at assemblies, at public programs. Although I did not at the time think of all of this as poetry; nevertheless, those poems that heavily employed rhyme were my introduction and that is what I liked.

After Dunbar/Johnson/Hughes my next major influence in writing poetry was Carl Sandburg in high school. Next was e.e. cummings. And third, and more important than either Sandburg or cummings, was Black beat poet Bob Kaufman.

In hindsight, Sandburg was an extension of Hughes, however, I have not gone back to Sandburg since high school. I graduated in 1964, so that’s the last time I really read Sandburg’s work other than in passing. I never did get too far into cummings after the initial attraction. Kaufman, I continue to read. After those folk, there are no single influences that I can point out. Perhaps, someone who studies my work closely and asks probing questions might be able to come up with other influences.

Secondly, all art is artificial. All art is about a human being imposing a form on the raw materials of 1.) reality and 2.) one’s reactions (whether feeling or thought or both) to reality. All art. The question is what forms do you choose, or in some cases what forms do you use (even if you don’t consciously choose those forms). I maintain that we are predisposed to certain forms just by the weight of our childhood experiences, i.e., what we were exposed to as we learned to talk, walk, dance, sing and what forms were used when we received our initial formal education.

We are also predisposed by our genetic makeup, which is not to be confused with “race.” Genetics is a complex subject, but to reduce genetics to a shorthand for the sake of this discussion, we should be aware that individual personality traits such as temperament and attitude have genetic influences and are not simply individual responses to environmental stimuli.

The material/social environment on one hand and the individual response to that environment on the other hand are the two poles across which sparks the flash of art.

You ask why do I choose to deal with haiku and sonnet. One response is, why not use haiku and sonnet? As far as I am concerned, the haiku and the sonnet are mine to use if I choose to do so. As a human being, all of human culture is available to me.

For example, the whole of English literary history is part of my heritage, an imposed part, but an essential part nonetheless. I can choose to oppose certain aspects of my cultural heritage but I, as a conscious and political artist, can not ignore a major aspect simply because I don’t like it or because it represents the viewpoints of the master. The truth is, the master’s views are too often also my views unless and until I create different views and institute those different views.

From a revolutionary perspective, it is not enough to simply think about things. The material and social institution of revolutionary views is essential. Without creating a culture of our own, we invariably will be re-defined by the culture of others, and mostly the others who dominate us. But the revolution is not to separate us from the world. The revolution is to enable us to participate in world affairs and to contribute to world culture as whole and healthy human beings who are able to enter into reciprocal relationships with other cultures.

I take my cues from Black music. For the purposes of this discussion, let me use the example of jazz music, both in terms of forms and in terms of instruments. The forms of jazz include both original and borrowed forms. Some of the music is highly structured (composed and arranged) and some of it is totally improvised. Some forms such as the western musical scale are of European origin and others forms such as the “blue note” are of African origin. What makes jazz distinctive is not the forms per se, but the way in which jazz musicians used various forms.

Coltrane played “My Favorite Things” and in the process revolutionized jazz. The Coltrane revolution was not based on the European form but rather was based on what Coltrane did with that form. In a similar way, Coltrane played the tenor saxophone, a European instrument, but the way that Coltrane played that instrument revolutionized how every musician approaches the tenor saxophone.

Do we ask, Coltrane why were you playing an American pop tune rather than playing your own composition? Do we think Trane’s “My Favorite Things” is culturally unacceptable or that it is an example of Coltrane playing so-called “White music”? Do we say to Coltrane, why do you play a European created instrument?

I think— or, more accurately, I hope—when people read my haiku and my sonnets, they will see something very different from traditional Japanese haiku or Shakespearian sonnets. My goal is to use the forms in a way similar to how Trane used “Favorite Things,” simply as a vehicle to say what I want to say. Indeed, the haiku and sonnet traditionalists probably don’t think what I do is true to the classic haiku and sonnet forms, and they are right. Ultimately, I used those forms because I wanted to and because I could. Why? Well, like I said, why not?

I agree with Terence (the enslaved African writer from Roman history): there is nothing human that is foreign to me. I can learn and use any human cultural expression that exists; moreover, every human expression is part of my heritage. Or, to paraphrase African liberation leader Amilcar Cabral: we will be free only when we are both self-determined and are able, without inferiority complexes, to use any and all aspects of human culture that work for us.

I strive to be a revolutionary, rather than a racial or cultural chauvinist! The revolution is in actualizing self determination. We don’t necessarily have to use only those forms that we create. We can borrow and adapt, and in doing so, transform and actually create new forms out of those borrowings and adaptations.

I think a major part of what I perceive as the problem with the question you asked is an unnecessary dualistic approach to culture. Them and us. White and Black. Right and wrong. Yes, we need to create our own forms, which we have done, particularly with the blues in music and poetry. But we also can revolutionize pre-existing forms. My outlook is not either/or. We need both; we need to create and we need to transform, or revolutionize, pre-existing forms. Both/and, not either/or.

What is backwards is rejecting something simply because we did not create it. What is backwards is thinking that we have got to create everything ourselves. What is truly backward is assuming that human culture is not a shared culture, that somehow it is wrong for us to learn from others or to adapt forms that others have created.

On the other hand, I understand the importance of paying attention to our own creations and the importance of being grounded in our own culture. That is absolutely correct. We must be rooted in who we are. But, I believe, we must also embrace the whole world, or at least check out the world. You never know what might work for you.

I think the major problem has been not with our borrowings but rather with our ignorance about our own culture. I would have a real problem if I wanted to write haiku and sonnets but didn’t want to and, on a level of practical proficiency, actually could not deal with blues and jazz forms in literature. But, you know, I know what the mainstream knows, and I know my own culture.

Plus, I never borrow without adapting, without in some way either transforming the form itself, or transforming how the form is used so that the form that results represents me rather than is an example of me trying to be like those from whom I borrowed the form. I bet you don’t nobody think Japanese when they read my haiku, and for sure they don’t think iambic pentameter when they read my sonnets. But beyond that, you know that the bulk of my poetry is not in the haiku or sonnet form. The bulk of my poetry is blues and jazz based, clearly so.

Ultimately, it is backward for us to limit ourselves in any one way, whether it be only doing what we create or only doing what others create. I believe: we must be both rooted in the self as well as interested in the world. 

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*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



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#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

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#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

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#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

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

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#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

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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

#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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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.

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Allah, Liberty, and Love

The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom

By Irshad Manji

In Allah, Liberty and Love, Irshad Manji paves a path for Muslims and non-Muslims to transcend the fears that stop so many of us from living with honest-to-God integrity: the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning our own communities. Since publishing her international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji has moved from anger to aspiration. She shows how any of us can reconcile faith with freedom and thus discover the Allah of liberty and love—the universal God that loves us enough to give us choices and the capacity to make them. Among the most visible Muslim reformers of our era, Manji draws on her experience in the trenches to share stories that are deeply poignant, frequently funny and always revealing about these morally confused times.

What prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from expressing their need for religious reinterpretation? What scares non-Muslims about openly supporting liberal voices within Islam? How did we get into the mess of tolerating intolerable customs, such as honor killings, and how do we change that noxious status quo?

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The New New Deal

The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era

By Michael Grunwald

Time senior correspondent Michael Grunwald tells the secret history of the stimulus bill, the purest distillation of Change We Can Believe In, a microcosm of Obama’s policy successes and political failures. Though it is reviled by the right and rejected by the left, it really is a new New Deal, larger than FDR’s and just as transformative. It prevented an imminent depression, while jump-starting Obama’s long-term agenda. The stimulus is pouring $90 billion into clean energy, reinventing the way America is powered and fueled; it includes unprecedented investments in renewables, efficiency, electric cars, a smarter grid, cleaner coal, and more. It’s carrying health care into the digital era. Its Race to the Top initiative may be the boldest education reform in U.S. history. It produced the biggest middle-class tax cuts in a generation, a broadband initiative reminiscent of rural electrification, and an overhaul of the New Deal’s unemployment insurance system. It’s revamping the way government addresses homelessness, fixes infrastructure, and spends money.

Grunwald reveals how Republicans have obscured these achievements through obstruction and distortion. The stimulus launched a genuine national comeback. It also saved millions of jobs, while creating legacies that could rival the Hoover Dam: the world’s largest wind farm, a new U.S. battery industry, a new high-speed rail network, the world’s highest-speed Internet network.  Its main legacy, like the New Deal’s, will be change.

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Pictures and Progress

Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity

Edited by Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith

Pictures and Progress explores how, during the nineteenth century and the early twentieth, prominent African American intellectuals and activists understood photography’s power to shape perceptions about race and employed the new medium in their quest for social and political justice. They sought both to counter widely circulating racist imagery and to use self-representation as a means of empowerment. In this collection of essays, scholars from various disciplines consider figures including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and W. E. B. Du Bois as important and innovative theorists and practitioners of photography. In addition, brief interpretive essays, or “snapshots,” highlight and analyze the work of four early African American photographers. Featuring more than seventy images, Pictures and Progress brings to light the wide-ranging practices of early African American photography, as well as the effects of photography on racialized thinking.

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So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America

By Peter Edelman

If the nation’s gross national income—over $14 trillion—were divided evenly across the entire U.S. population, every household could call itself middle class. Yet the income-level disparity in this country is now wider than at any point since the Great Depression. In 2010 the average salary for CEOs on the S&P 500 was over $1 million—climbing to over $11 million when all forms of compensation are accounted for—while the current median household income for African Americans is just over $32,000. How can some be so rich, while others are so poor? In this provocative book, Peter Edelman, a former top aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and a lifelong antipoverty advocate, offers an informed analysis of how this country can be so wealthy yet have a steadily growing number of unemployed and working poor. According to Edelman, we have taken important positive steps without which 25 to 30 million more people would be poor, but poverty fluctuates with the business cycle.

The structure of today’s economy has stultified wage growth for half of America’s workers—with even worse results at the bottom and for people of color—while bestowing billions on those at the top. So Rich, So Poor delves into what is happening to the people behind the statistics and takes a particular look at the continuing crisis of young people of color, whose possibility of a productive life too often is lost on their way to adulthood


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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 /

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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update  16 July 2012




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