ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
New Orleans is the most African city on the North American continent.
I dont mean just in terms of numbers or population per se, I mean
in terms of cultural expressionsthe way the food is cooked, the
language, the music, the emphasis on color, ah, man, the list is endless
Books by Kalamu ya Salaam
My Story My Song (CD)
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John Coltrane CDs
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Interview with Award Winning Neo-Griot
Kalamu ya Salaam
More on Music Influences
Kalamu: Well, because I listen to so much music, I would say everyone has influenced me. If you ask me who are my favorites, I will respond with “some” of them. 1st. John Coltrane. John Coltrane. Coltrane. I am a Coltrane freak. 2nd. Duke Ellington, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Miles Davis, P-Funk, and New Orleans Street Music. 3rd. Mississippi Fred McDowell, Taj Mahall, Nina Simone, and a catalogue too long to mention of black musicians, mainly, but far from exclusively, jazz artists.
In terms of directly influencing my writing style, I would have to go with Coltrane, solo Cecil Taylor, Duke Ellington, Taj Mahal, Baptist preachers (especially my maternal grandfather), Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. Hughes, Baldwin and Baraka are all important. from a musical standpoint, all three of them emphasized the importance of black music and black working class cultural expressions.
For example all three of them have recordings of them reading their poetry with jazz musicians. Have you heard Baldwins cd? Show you how what goes around comes around. I wrote a short appreciation of James Baldwin, oh, maybe about seven or eight years ago and it was published in Mosaic magazine, if I remember correctly, or maybe it was online at aalbc.com, it was one or the other.
Anyway, the producers of a re-issue of the Baldwin cd saw my little essay and used that essay as part of the liner notes for the re-issue. A lot of people were not aware that Baldwin wrote poetry, and even fewer people are aware of Baldwins recording jazz poetry. But if we are going to do significant work, we really have to study ourselves, study broadly, study deeply and study with both respect and love for our people and our cultural history.
Rudy: I know absolutely nothing about music from a technical sense. I read this long paper (maybe thirty pages) you published on black music. Do you know the piece I am talking about? I was not able to judge whether you were right or wrong in what you were saying. Yet it all seemed very convincing like Barakas books on black music.
Again, let me return to Malcolm My Son. This piece of writing is truly informative. There is this poetic tribute by Amina, the mother of Malcolm, to bluesmen and jazzmen, black music and musicians. She concludes reverently that these cats were able to express their manhood beyond their genitalia. Does she speak for you, I mean, does she speak your sentiments?
Kalamu: Yeah, but Malcolm also speaks my sentiments. My confusions about understanding who I am. Its hard work figuring it out. I am in my second marriage. I have made some major mistakes, fuck-ups in terms of relationships. And a major part of my mistakes have been because I did not fully understand myself.
Although the play is overtly about dealing with homosexuality and homophobia in the Black community, and within the Black self, the play is also about our struggles to understand ourselves, understand who we really are and what to do with ourselves once we achieve some kind of understanding, especially we men and all the issues we have around masculinity. I guess its just that Im not afraid of myself. Not afraid to confront, to look at me as I am. Not as I want to be or as I hope others see me, but as I actually am. We all have all kinds of wild ass thoughts floating around our craniums from time to time.
Let me put it another way. You can show people eating all the time and never show them shitting, but it wouldnt be natural. Now, maybe you dont want to be graphic about the shitting part, so you develop some euphemisms. You have people excuse themselves and go behind closed doors to take a shit, and then come back to the table. But, if you are going to deal with the complexity of life, at some point you have to deal with the question of shit disposal. How do we deal with shit, literally? That is a major question. Philosophically too, how do we deal with shit is a major question? Im interested in knowing the answer to that question, both literally and philosophically.
Rudy: Let me go back for a moment before I go forward to another topic. I am always surprised when you speak about your influences. Lets go back to the connection of writing and music.
In your list of artists, you didnt mention Mahalia Jackson and even more surprisingly you didnt mention Louis Armstrong. As you know Wynton speaks of Satchmo almost reverently, as if he were a god.. Growing up I am sure I was more influenced by Mahalias vocal power than Langston Hughes reading his poetry. I knew Louie from TV. I was impressed, except for the grinning and the other antics.
It has been only within the last five years that I have grown to love him. I found by accident a book he wrote, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954). That floored me. Are you familiar with his autobiography? And maybe it has been Wyntons commentary on Louis that has been influential in my rethinking Louie. But I have grown to appreciate him more thoroughly, especially his vocal and horn phrasings and even his antics have become more philosophical. Have you heard his version of “In My Solitude.”
Was Louie an oversight in your list of musicians and influences? Isnt it quite amazing what he does with Tin Pan Alley songs, turning them inside out and making them into something altogether fresh?
Kalamu: Well, Pops is a friend of mine (thats a play on a musical riff from WAR), I mean yes, I dig Louis Armstrong a whole lot, but that doesnt make him a conscious influence. You asked specifically about influences. I read Pops autobiography a long, long time ago. In fact back in the early sixties, I did voter registration canvassing in the part of town where Pops was born. I think Pops is the fountainhead for the singing of popular American music. I could go on and on about Pops, but the truth is he is not an artist whose work has directly influenced me as a writer, even though he was one of the most prolific writers of all jazz musicians. He carried a portal typewriter around the world and banged out letters and notes. He was a writer.
I could talk about Pops all day, but again, to be honest, he is not an influence on my approach to writing. To cite another great musician, you could have said the same thing about Charlie Parker. I certainly acknowledge his contributions and his greatness, but he is not a direct influence on what Im trying to do. If I were rating jazz musicians in terms of their importance in the world of jazz, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker would be among the top five (along with Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Miles Davis), but if I am naming influences on me as a writer, then Pops and Bird dont make the cut. Ditto for Mahalia Jackson, who is an icon of gospel music but not an influence on my writing.
Rudy: I think theres something very special about New Orleans. I am not quite sure what it is. Its magical. I recall one day sitting at a table with another woman. I was estranged then from my former wife. It was in the early 70s. I was discovering the blues then. And maybe it was Muddys piece on New Orleans. Any way I sold or gave away everything I had, including my Porsche and caught the bus to New Orleans.
There was something in the airmore salty, more spicy than anything I had experienced. Just walking down the streets, I got excited by the women there. It seem that their bodies exuded that special somethingalso the way people talked, like nothing from where I came, it seemed. I was mesmerized. I was staying in a flop house then, $4 or $5 a night near the Robert E. Lee statue. After I had blown all my money, I came back to Baltimore. That experience was incomplete.
I came back to New Orleans in the early 80s when I was offered a job in Monroe. That was close to New Orleans and I wanted to be in New Orleans. It was in New Orleans that I began to learn to write poetry. It seems that all New Orleans natives are born with an artistic impulse. Almost everyone I ran into could sing, dance, write, play an instrument, could do something artistic.
What influence has this place had on you? I know there are some ugly things here, like the Zulus of Mardi Gras and Mammy dolls. Theres something about the late-19th century that still exists, still vital here. Yet I still love New Orleans. This last sojourn was more than two weeks, it was two years, four if you count my time in Monroe and Baton Rouge.
Kalamu: I think the main thing is that New Orleans is not American and its not white. New Orleans is more a Caribbean city than an American city in its history and culture. New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French, developed under the Spanisha note of trivia, it was the Spanish, and not the French, who built the “French Quarter” and instituted the first formal city government. The Americans didnt take over until 1804 in actuality and then it took them forty years before they could establish English as the major language. Even in the 1820s and 30s much of the official business of the city was being done in French or bi-lingually in French and English.
Anyone coming from the rest of the United States is coming from a place where the historical establishment is English. Thats one major difference, and, by the way, that difference shows up in everything from architecture to zoology (I mean except for Florida, I dont think you have alligators running around the place, not to mention crawfish, cowan turtles, and other animals that are regarded as culinary fare). That difference also shows up in the fact that we do so much activity outdoors, nearly year round.
The other major difference is that New Orleans is not white. New Orleans is the most African city on the North American continent. I dont mean just in terms of numbers or population per se, I mean in terms of cultural expressionsthe way the food is cooked, the language, the music, the emphasis on color, ah, man, the list is endless. But anyway, being Caribbean and being African are the major differences between New Orleans and any other major city in the United States. And, of course, this difference has a sexuality component, which is a big part of what you were responding to.
Rudy: According to the Pulitzer-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, who must be viewed as an academic poet, the rap/hip-hop approach to poetry grew out of BAM. Do you agree? Has the rap and the hip-hip culture been an influence on your writing?
Kalamu: If by rap/hip-hop approach one means an emphasis on performance, BAM did indeed influence rap and hip-hop. However, I think it is a mistake to ascribe that quality to BAM rather than to understand that performance is a hallmark of black cultural expression in general rather than an attribute of BAM exclusively. Im sure that there have been some influences [on my writing]. However, I think the hip-hop influences are minimal mainly because I have been so consciously opposed to the commercialization of my work. In fact, rap itself, as we know it today, is nothing but a commercialization of hip-hop. Also, because I am so firmly embedded in a blues aesthetic and a jazz aesthetic. I listen to hip hop, I can hear it, but, hey, Shaq can dribble a ball but hes not trying to be a point guard.
Rudy: Does poetry outside of the rap and hip-hop cultural movements, which on the whole seem to be apolitical and materialistic, have any dramatic impact similar to that which was happening during the Black Power and cultural nationalist movement of the 60s and seventies? Or has prose gained the ascendancy? If so why has that happened?
Kalamu: Rap is economically driven. BAM was politically driven. Moreover, the economics driving rap is global capitalism. In that regard there is a definitive difference between rap and BAM. On the other hand, rap is responsible for the current resurgence of poetry. Period. Worldwide. Rap is a form of poetry. Rap is the strongest commercial current in music. Prose is no where near as influential as rap. In fact, after rap, comes cinema/video.
Rudy: There is indeed this economic aspect about rap and hip hop. But isnt there something more essential about this activity than the external forces that drive it? Dont we live in what your Amina calls “a more sophisticated slavery”? Isnt rap at heart a means of resurrecting community? We may be indeed, as she says, “experts at slavery.” But it seems that our expertise has to be constantly updated. For as fast as we learn it, it adapts and transforms itself. We constantly find ourselves behind the curve. Maybe our young people, maybe a few of us, have learned this lesson about oppression. Commercialism may not be the problem indeed, but how we approach it. May it not be that our ideas of hierarchy and individual competitiveness that leads to selfish ends, each seeking his own comfort, be the problem that confronts all of us?
Kalamu: Well, maybe we need to clarify terms. I do not equate rap and hip hop. Rap is part of hip-hop, the part that has been commercialized and commodified. Those ideas, e.g. “each seeking his own comfort,” where do those ideas come from? We need to ask those questions. As for the “something more essential than the external forces that drive it” I think that would be “African aesthetic expressiveness,” that would be how rap/hip hop are part of a cultural continuum. And quiet as its kept, that is something external to rap/hip hop in the sense that rap/hip hop are only a particular form of black expressive culture, a culture that existed prior to rap/hip hop and a culture that will exist after rap/hip hop are gone.
Rudy: Let me take a stab at clarifying terms. Rap is the rhyming performance, which often seems to be of a competitive, negative naturelike the dozens or the Signifying Monkey. Neither of which I relate to very well. I am from the rural UpSouth and we dont usually go for that kind of ethic. Raps sells records to middle-class white kids, soft drinks, all kind of commodities, including sex and drugs.
Hip-hop is the larger cultural context for rap. Its a talk, a walk, clothes, the wearing of clothes, a way of looking at the world, of being in the world. That too seems to have been commodified and commercialized. Some are making billions off of clothes; the stylistic aspects of hip hop can be found on the stage and in sit-coms, for instance Will Smith and Martin Lawrence and other comics and rappers have become superstars and made millions. FUBU and other clothes manufacturers have done the same. Michael Jordan too has made a fortune off the shoes.
Yes, the African expressiveness is there, but hip-hop is not as pristine as you seem to suggest. I think Lauryn Hill is hip hop, but shes in an entirely different world, like Bob Marley. Have you heard her CD? Its a religious thing, a Bible thing, a God thing, a far-out spiritual thing of growth with her. A lot of black women are into her kind of spirituality.
Kalamu: Yeah, ok. If thats how you want to define it. But there are other views. First of all, most of us dont know anything specific about traditional African cultures. Competition, especially what we now call “trash talking.” is a component of African cultures. The big difference is that African culture is wholistic rather than dualistic. The difference is not the absence of competition in African cultures but rather the absence of community in American cultures, an absence that has been engendered over the years by capitalism.
Plus, there is the presence of white supremacy, a virulent form of anti-Black racism. Dont romanticize Blackness, we are very, very competitive but we are also communal. Let me use the music as an example. There is nothing more famous than the jazz cutting contests, two musicians dueling to see who is the best. Yet, even as they duel, they do so in collective context playing with their bandmates, or, in the case of piano cutting contests, drawing on a common repertoire. Now, to go one step further. There are recordings of traditional African praise songs in which the singers are boasting about who is the best, and of course, African languages are tonal.
The roots of rap are in Africa via Jamaica, which is the direct influence for the dj-ing that is the hallmark of rap music. Hear me now. Go back and listen to Big Youth, and cats like that. What you are objecting to is the commodification and commercialization of the culture, even though you may think that there is an antagonism between competitiveness and communalism, there actually is not. African communalism embraces competitiveness, in fact, the communal essence defuses the antagonisms of competitiveness.
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#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
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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
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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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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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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.
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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.
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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.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 16 July 2012