ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
In poetry, Langston was my first and most lasting influence, but
my major influence has been the music and culture of black folk.
Techniques I have developed, approaches I have decided to explore,
all come out of contact with black folk and the cultural expressions
Books by Kalamu ya Salaam
My Story My Song (CD)
* * * * *
Books by Langston Hughes
* * * * *
Interview with Award Winning Neo-Griot
Kalamu ya Salaam
Langston as Literary Influence
Rudy: You have attended a few writing workshops or retreats. How has those events influenced your writing in any significant way?
Kalamu: I have not attended any workshops or retreats as a student in over twenty years. Attending as a teacher or presenter is just an extension of what I do with NOMMO. I like to get around to hear and see what other writers are doing, both my peers and younger writers. I very much want to know what is going on. In that regard, the greatest influence is that being aware of what is happening helps me keep my work fresh.
Rudy: By retreat, I mean do you ever go to a “writers colony,” a place you can get away from the usual hustle bustle, to think, to meditate, to write, to be among other writers, your peers? I thought the last time I saw you, you said you had won some fellowship award that allowed you to do just this? I must have misunderstood what you meant.
Kalamu: Oh, yeah, I won a senior fellowship from the Arts Colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I spent three weeks there with nothing to do but read, write and think. But that was the only time in my life and although it was productive, thats not something I want to do again. I thrive on what some people call hustle and bustle. I have a short attention span. Plus, I write very quickly. And I love the work I do, so Im not trying to get away to anywhere.
Rudy: I understand that Langston Hughes is your major poetic influence? Is your appeal similar to his? Do you believe his audience was liberal whites and the black intellegentsia? Langston was a professional writer; that is, he made his living off his work. Can that still be done? What do you think was Langstons vision of America?
Kalamu: In poetry, Langston was my first and most lasting influence, but my major influence has been the music and culture of black folk. Techniques I have developed, approaches I have decided to explore, all come out of contact with black folk and the cultural expressions we have developed. This necessarily means that I am drawn to and most responsive to working class black folk, those who labor (whether “legally or illegally”) to earn a living. [See poetic autobiography section “two: what Langston did.”]
Hughes prime audience was working class black folk, but that was not his sole audience. Indeed, Hughes wrote for different audiences although the bulk of his work seems to me to be addressed to working class black folk and those who understand or empathize with that orientation. Hughes appeal to the intellegentsia was, and remains, limited to those intellegentsia who are appreciative of black culture and its working class roots.
Today, it is much more possible to make a living as a black writer than during Hughes time.
Hughes was a clear advocate of diversity. Respect for different peoples, different ways of doing things and at the same time he had profound faith in political democracy. So I guess you could say: cultural diversity and political democracy. His views on economic matters seems to have shifted over the years and I am not sure what economic views he held in his latter years.
Rudy: I dont want to really press the point. But do you really think that most of Hughes work was working-class directed? Were members of the working class buying his books or attending his readings? Were they the ones who were even reading Crisis and Opportunity where some of his poems could be found? I would probably agree the Simple tales had a working class orientation. Though possessing an element of folk humor, dont you think they had an air of minstrelsy about them? Dont you think that given a blues poem by Hughes and a blues lyric by Muddy Waters, that Hughes wouldnt have had a chance among Mississippi cotton pickers?
Kalamu: There is a misunderstanding about both Hughes and Muddy. Its interesting that you mention Muddy. Muddy Waters didnt become big until he hit Chicago and hooked up with Chess Records. Hughes was already big when he hooked up with the Chicago Defender and did the Simple series. Simple was published in a Black newspaper at a time when Black folk read the paper. Crisis and Opportunity was stuff of the 20s, by the 30s through the 50s Hughes was in another space.
Certainly he had more Black readers than any other writer until Richard Wrights Black Boy and Native Son . Furthermore, the big three of Black poets who were taught in the segregated public schools of the South were Paul Dunbar, James Weldon Johnsons Gods Trombones and Langston Hughes. Hughes was available in the schools, Hughes was in the newspaper and Hughes had books. No other writer came close to that reach into the hearts and minds of the Black community at the working class level.
Rudy: I have heard you read, perform your poems and I have heard about Barakas performances. Both of you use humor. I heard Sonia Sanchez speak of Malcolms humor and how he used it as a technique to draw people in. Could you speak further how you make use of humor in your poems?
Kalamu: Well, Im not as funny as Baraka. But you know, humor is only an exaggeration of a commonly recognized reality, and exaggeration as an aesthetic is at the core of African-heritage expressiveness. I mean if you look at the statues of traditional Africa, if you look at our dance movements, if you listen to how we worry notes. All of that is expressive exaggeration. Humor is just putting a little ironic twist on it.
Rudy: You have written and spoken about the importance of the Black Arts Movement. Is there a philosophical or ideological relationship between BAM and the “neo-griot” movement? Is it just a matter of a technological updating?
Kalamu: Well, I would not equate neo-griot with BAM. BAM was a nationwide movement that involved literally thousands of people. Neo-griot is my particular approach. Certainly my approach grows directly out of my involvement in BAM, but unlike BAM, and this is a major distinction, neo-griot is not associated with a particular political movement.
The creative use of communications technology in cultural work is constant in black culture in America. It is just that many of us are not aware of how closely aligned the use of technology and the expressions of our culture are. Perhaps because we seldom do anything just for the sake of technology, and thus technology is always used to facilitate our expression rather than to be the focus or subject of our expression.
As a people we focus on human relationships even as we use various technical developments to effectuate our cultural expressions. A prime example of this would be Stevie Wonders InnerVisions, which is widely praised but seldom looked at primarily as a technological marvel, even though it broke new ground for the use of electronics in popular music. I think the ability to humanize the use of technology has always been a hallmark of black culture, and in that regard, hopefully, neo-griot is a continuation of that trend.
* * * * *
#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 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 forwardin 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 worldto millions, I suspectfor the simple reason that he is a truth-teller on an epic scale. I salute him.” John Pilger
* * * * *
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’.”
* * * * *
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.
* * * * *
By Derrick Bell
In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school’s hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell’s fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard’s president and all of the school’s black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination.
* * * * *
By Randall Kennedy
Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama . . .
The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism. Recalling some of the criticisms of Americas past made by Mr. Obamas former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.
His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him boy, and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedys father relished Muhammad Alis quip that the Vietcong had never called him nigger. The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.
* * * * *
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.
* * * * *
From The World and Africa, 1965
* * * * *
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
online through PayPal
* * * * *
Browse all issues
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
update 16 July 2012