Books by Kalamu ya
The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts
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)
* * * *
what Langston did
Captivated by Langston
think that music, being an expression of the human heart, or of
the human being itself, does express just what is happening. I
feel it expresses the whole thing -- the whole of human
experience at the particular time that it is being expressed...I
think music is an instrument. It can create the initial thought
patterns that can change the thinking of the people.
-- John William Coltrane
I had absolutely no idea about anything related to "formal"
poetry except I was captivated by what Langston Hughes had done
on that record. Being both ignorant and smitten, Hughes became
my measuring rod.
years, I thought to be a writer meant to be like Langston
Hughes: meant to work, and work hard at it; meant to write in
every genre and to produce anthologies as well as individual
books; meant to travel and communicate with people around the
world; meant to do both journalism and creative writing; meant
to celebrate the humanity of the planet through a focus on one's
own folk. This is what I thought being a writer meant.
never thought of being just a poet or just a journalist, just a
dramatist or just an essayist. I never thought that writing
one's own books were more important than editing the works of
others. Tutored by Hughes, I quickly learned that people of
color were writers and had a valuable literature.
I was inspired by the recording, I of course examined Hughes'
poetry first -- I remember reading an early, if not a first
edition, of The Weary Blues and some of Hughes other early books
which had those beautiful etchings by E. McKnight Kauffer used
as illustrations. To this day I think poetry books ought to have
pictures in them, at least artwork on the cover, and not
commercial graphics, but pieces by artists who think of their
visual work as art and not as advertisement.
enough, while Langston's poetry deeply affected me, I moved
quickly past what I initially thought was its stylistic
simplicity. Of course, as I started trying to write, I found out
that Langston's simplicity was far from simple to duplicate.
are two of my early attempts, written, as near I can remember,
sometime between 1963 and 1965. Both reflect the Langston Hughes
influence and a definite use of blues. The second piece also
evidences my interest in fantasy, or exaggeration, as a poetic
TALK THAN WHAT YOU HEAR
ails a woman
than any pain
fall in love
another woman man
boss he white
swear he do not know
his hands belong
rent is due
come every month
got paid today
baby got her daddy's eyes
my husband's ways
let me go
you yesterday & here you come today
head full of pretty face & no excuses
not coming till you came &
from here to me
know I gotta like the way you look
the talk you puttin down
just taking advantage of me
know I was going wait
have a star
about a moon
you like sky
clouds are especially delicious
you yesterday & here you come today
a head full of
pretty face & no excuses
though I was writing poetry heavily influenced by Hughes' style,
rather than the poetry per se, Langston's autobiographies were
his most important books for me, followed by the poetry
anthologies he edited (particularly the collection of African
poets). Another very influential Hughes book was The Sweet
Flypaper Of Life, a photo/text collaboration with Roy DeCavara.
Flypaper set a photo essay standard, approached only by Amiri Baraka's book with Fundi (Billy Abernathy),
In Our Terribleness.
My high opinion of Flypaper undoubtedly was fueled by my love of
and training in photography.
autobiographies were important because they served as road map,
every writer Hughes mentioned, Black, White, African, Russian or
Chinese, I went to the library and checked out a book. Some of
the writers I liked, some I didn't.
the end of ninth grade I had read my way through the Harlem
Renaissance. I knew there were poets in Africa and the
Caribbean. In high school I had started reading Turgenev and a
little Pushkin, moved on to Chinese and Japanese writers, and
generally found an alternative to Euro-centric classics as the
touchstones of great literature. Thanks to Langston Hughes, once
I started reading literature on my own, I never had an
inferiority complex about literature. I never thought that
anyone White was necessarily the greatest writer I ever read or
that I would not succeed until I could write like White writers
or be like them.
the same time, early on I got into some of the socially relevant
and experimental non-Black writers: John Dos Passos and e.e.
cummings come immediately to mind, but also the beats and a lot
of left oriented literature from the thirties and forties. In
these writers I saw alternative to almost everything that was in
our textbooks. I did try to read the classic English poets but
it didn't hold me, as did few of the mainstream American poets,
the collected works of Carl Sandburg being an immediate
was the early sixties, an explosion and proliferation of
independence movements were happening on "the"
continent, and, indeed, throughout the Third World with an
accompanying movement in literature. Langston Hughes had
introduced me to much of this literature. There was also our
domestic liberation movement, the civil rights movement, with
its church base and freedom songs.
was one side in the triangle of my conscious self development.
My civil rights involvement, picketing and sitting-in, was the
second side. My interest in blues and jazz which I pursued with
a passionate intensity completed the triangle.
can remember all kinds of random specifics, such as joining the
RCA record club and gradually getting to jazz through both White
and Black artists. Before appreciating Duke Ellington and Ray
Charles, I had a Chet Atkins record which had one Black oriented
cut on it, "Boo Boo Stick Beat." Chet Atkins was not a
jazz artist but at that time what did I know.
remember sitting in Mrs. Chavis' English class in ninth grade.
We called her "say it and don't spray it" Mrs. Chavis
because in her effort to enunciate clearly and to speak proper
English there was an exaggeration that often led to spittle
flying out of her mouth. Here was the major deformity of petit
bourgeois aping of White ways to the point of absurd caricature.
dug Mrs. Nelson who moved us deeper into ourselves and I
abhorred Mrs. Chavis who had us chasing a white chalice, a chase
which invariably included all kinds of soul-killing perversions
and behavior entirely inappropriate for Black mental health.
the time I went to St. Augustine high school, psychologically I
was in total conflict with their mainstream America, cultural
Aug's major reputation was as our city's premier college prep
school for Black males. In my case, they brought me to the
attention of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Carleton
offered me a partial scholarship. I went, but lasted only two
trimesters from September 1964 through March 1965. During both
high school and college, I continued to read and write.
Although I moved stylistically past Hughes as a poet, I
never moved past Hughes' sensibility and his approach.
kept working class Black folk as the central focus and
foundation ground for all of his musings and philosophying.
Since Hughes was ground zero for me, nobody could influence me
to abandon a Black focus.
believe for any writer to create a literature of value, one's
work must necessarily be culturally specific, whether that
culture be native or adopted. Hughes' folksy, blues orientation
was more than culturally specific. What was most important to me
was Hughes' resistance to assimilation voiced through a
celebration of and insistence on the nobility of our race. Of
the African American writers I knew at that time, only
Neale Hurston approached Hughes in that wonderful and essential
celebration and insistence.
like that old mule-- / Black--and don't give a damn!/ You got to
take me / Like I am." sang Hughes in one of his most
popular poems. I liked that he saw nobility in the stubbornness
of a mule, a stubborn insistence that is often ostracized as
stupidity. Hughes knew who he was and presented himself without
thoroughbred pretense, and for me, a young, Black, male racing
into adulthood via involvement in the civil rights movement,
Hughes' mule was a touchstone I continued to rub all the rest of
appreciation of one's people is not simply an intellectual
activity. In America, one does not love Black people simply
because one is Black. In fact, in America one can not love Black
people simply on the basis of being. We must be taught both by
instruction and by example to both bond with as well as identify
with those who are the most despised, the most exploited, the
most misused people in America. The trick, if one is Black, is
to do this without developing a victim mentality of either
self-hatred or self-pity, and, at the same time, avoid the
temptation of overcompensation in the form of reversing the
polarity of raw racism and declaring everything Black good and
everything White evil. This is a very difficult task to master,
even more so in a public arena. It has never been easy for Black
people to love themselves.
was extremely blessed to experience the civil rights movement
because this helped me to learn to love Black folk. When I was
sixteen I spent many Saturdays going door to door doing voter
registration and voter education work. At that time, in order to
register you had to fill out an arcane form which, among other
bizarre hurdles, required an applicant to figure out her age
exactly to the day. My job was both to convince people to
register and to teach them how to correctly fill out the
we often worked in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, I was
culturally enriched because all of the houses I entered
viscerally taught me aspects about my people and myself that I
had not previously known, particularly the blues. While I taught
mathematics, grammar and spelling, they taught me a music which
literally wailed its defiance of status quo propriety.
is nothing as defiant as the blues ten a.m. on Saturday morning,
cranked up loud and reverberated by the wood of those row on row
of sparely painted, if painted at all, shotgun houses.
as tough as that woman who answered her door in bra and brown
skirt, cigarette at an angle in her mouth, an angle which
complemented the comb in her hair. She continued combing her
hair as I tried to convince her to register to vote, neither
smiling nor scowling at my naive attempts to bring what I
thought would be an improvement in her life.
years later, reality supports this woman's stoicism in the face
of my misplaced enthusiasm: the granddaughter of that woman is
locked in an even deeper funk after generations of Black elected
officials have presided over a worsening of social conditions
for her and all the people like her. This woman standing before
me knows that I'm a fool to think that registering to vote will
change her life for the better. Yet, like Black women have for
centuries in America, she balances the bubble of my foolish
vision on a resigned and sophisticated agreement to take another
stab at life by buoying the dreams of a Black man regardless of
the certainty that his dream will never come true.
or not, Black women somehow "know" that a man can not
live without dreams, so they identify not with our perennially
deferred dreams but rather they identify with us, the dreamers.
This agreement is not with abstract ideals but rather with the
flesh, blood, and soul vision of our manhood.
is why there is a man moving to the back of the house as I enter
the door; a man who does not even want to discuss voting; a man
who does not belong to this house and who probably does little
to support this house; a man that this woman lets into her life
without any great expectations just like she allows me to enter
her living room, her house, her life, without any great
am looking at her breasts. She watches me, does not blush, and
why should she? She probably assumes that if I have not seen
breasts before, then now is as good a time as any to begin
looking. I slowly explain the procedures as we sit on an old
sofa, or on beat up old kitchen chairs, or, I don't remember
what we sat on. I don't remember anything except that inside
that house was a whole world, a different world from the
church-bred houses I usually inhabited. The difference was not
the people but rather the way the people lived: the smells, the
liquor, the absence of White gods on the wall (there were no
pictures of Jesus or Kennedy in those houses), and, above all,
the mule sound of the blues bleating in all its immutable
that house lived a blues so stark that when she raises her arm
there is hair in her armpit and she still has not bothered to
put on a blouse. By the time we are going through the questions
I find her smiling as I explain that there are some simple
tricks she can use to get through this thing. Observing or
ignoring our New Orleans custom of sharing sustenance with those
who enter our spaces, she may or may not offer me something to
drink. Soon we are both comfortable with each other, and a half
hour later I exit back onto the streets with a notation of her
name and address so that we can follow-up on whether she
arm reaches out to close the door which sometimes has a shutter
that opens out, and, even as the shutter closes, the blues
continues to blow. Now she is smiling and maybe calls me
"baby" with the conspiratorial smile that Black women
fleetingly flash after pumping up a Black male ego, the smile
which plants seeds designed to strengthen the recipient who must
face a world designed to grind Black people down. The incubation
period sometimes takes years, but eventually I realize who was
really helping whom. Blues like that.
stops the blues because the blues were created precisely as a
way to overcome. This is how I come to realize the power of the
blues, the power is like that woman being herself and facing
life just as it is and just as she is, and still believing in a
naive, high schooler knocking on her door.
woman, with the blues as her song, survives an unconditional
confrontation with life. She taught me exactly what Langston
meant by "just like I am." We didn't need to clean up.
We didn't need to talk differently. We didn't even need to wear
socially acceptable clothes. And we didn't need to stop shouting
the blues. If they wanted us: take us like we were. If we wanted
to change, that was our choice rather than some alien
requirement of life. Blues like that is what I learned going
door to door throughout the community.
blues remains self-referential, always grounded in the here and
now. Some people think the blues is about submission because the
blues is reality based and embraces the world as it is while at
the same time wishing for, indeed, longing for the world to be
different. The Christian worldview, on the other hand is viewed
as "uplifting" even though it is other-referential,
about life in the hereafter, reality based on faith in things
unseen, and a general exclusion of anyone who was not also
Christian despite its philosophical claims to being good
Samaritans and doing unto others.
I did my civil rights canvassing I experienced the deep blues,
and found myself drawn to and responding to a side of my
birthright that here to fore I had only read about in Langston
Hughes and Zora Hurston's work, and had only recently begun to
listen to on records. Until then I had never really heard the
blues, even though the blues was in my blood.
I canvassed and listened to the music, and listened to the
people talk, and as I tried to make them comfortable while
giving my spiel about registering; as we walked the picket lines
outside the department stores and talked to people trying to
persuade them not to shop; all of that not only put me in
contact with the working class Black, more importantly, those
experiences put me in contact with myself.
of whether these people thought what I was about was important,
it was my job to convince them of the importance of what I was
trying to get them to do and in the process I began to
understand that I was "them" and it was "we"
who were important.
I accepted that what my people did or didn't do was important,
then I could never look down on them, nor could I think that
what happened to me personally was the only important part of
life. I never felt that because I could read, write and figure I
was somehow better off. Although I went to school with the sons
of doctors, lawyers and civil servants at St. Aug, because of
the civil rights movement I identified more with the laborers
than with the professionals, and I firmly believed that I could
be of service to them.
identification, furthermore, was consciously constructed because
I not only learned from watching and working with people in the
civil rights movement, I also started studying the blues:
reading books about the blues, buying blues records, and the
same with jazz. I had the world of gospel in my intimate
upbringing, but I came to the blues as someone who did not share
the blues world on a day to day basis, and aware of my distance,
I closed the gap by study and by civil rights work.
got the best of both worlds. My up bringing grounding me in a
Christian community of caring folk and my civil rights work and
junior high school education grounding me in intimate contact
with blues folk. Again, I point to Hughes as a guide.
I loved Hughes' poem "Motto" which ended with:
"My motto, / As I live and learn, / is: / Dig And Be Dug /
In Return." Dig. Hughes said nothing specific about what to
dig, so implicitly, at least to my way of thinking, that
"dig" meant "dig" the world. In fact in the
opening stanza Hughes says: I play it cool / And dig all jive. /
That's the reason / I stay alive." This is Hughes' great
attraction for me: he told me to be myself and he told me to dig
the world. Yes, and that's deep. <---
Baldwin Technically Awesome-->
* * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
By Charles C. Mann
I’m a big fan of
Charles Mann’s previous book
New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,
in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination
of North and South America prior to the arrival of
Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so
wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to
read. With his follow-up,
1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global
level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby
The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow
Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story
of our world: how a planet of what were once several
autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single,
Mann not only talked to
countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places
he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a
marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann
from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And
always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable
story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the
Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the
island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number
of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an
apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato,
tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted
and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we
are finally living on one integrated or at least
close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human
instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the
process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years
ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory
book, an open question.
* * *
The Persistence of the Color Line
Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency
By Randall Kennedy
Among the best things
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
America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s 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. Kennedy’s father “relished
Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him
‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in
sympathetic historical light.
* * *
update 2 May 2009