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Art for Life: My Story, My Song

By Kalamu ya Salaam

 

 

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)

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

four. BLKARTSOUTH (contd.)

 When I Do That Thing

The two long narrative poems are written under the influence of Leroi Jones of the Dead Lecturer period, but even so they are still very much me. They are also written as prophesy as they are poems about being married and caring for a baby, written at a time when neither were yet a reality for me. There are a few conceits built into the narrative, the main one of which is that I refer to my "wife" by the initial "V" which was actually my first initial at the time. The "wife" in this poem is a composite of various women I had been close to at that time. These long narratives are precursors of the "sun songs" except that the "sun songs" in general are purposefully much more didactic.

For my wife when I do that thing           

1.           

my blk girl           

got out into the clearing somehow           

looked out past the ocean's horizon into the sky           

& it took her about           

ten minutes to discover           

it was blues/she returns           

skipping/dancing           

smiling in my stupid face           

my face is ragged/toothy           

sort of smile w/h big lips           

through my beard           

women are lovely & is      

why they bear children in            

stead of we men             

2.                      

is it still June           

V. baby/pass me a color           

you saw today & save           

my tenderness w/h your lovely           

brown fingers on my face           

/she showed me a sea-shell           

that was red/black inside & green           

pretty -i would have passed           

it by/in fact I wouldn't           

even have been wading out into           

the blue green water lapping           

up over the seawall like she           

was holding her dress folded above her knees           

smiling back at me           

& dodging small fishes           

3.           

she came home yesterday from work           

tired & sleepy just before I did           

like about fifteen minutes           

& dinner was still on the table          

"...take me to the lake           

tomorrow, huh, please..."           

falling about my shoulders w/h her long arms           

& a kiss on the ear           

she fell into my lap & told me           

about the devils she worked w/h           

got up ironed, washed/i dried           

the pieces of plastic that replace           

china in our lives -the           

apartment is so small on sunny days         

 you seem to always be running           

into blocks of heat/at evening times           

i believe they call it dusk           

the sun sits on the funeral parlor's roof in back of us           

on rainy days it can be nice to           

lay around/she is quiet like           

morns when we call each other in           

sick for work & loll about in           

each other's arms & discuss           

plans for getting up to eat           

orange juice & cheese

4.           

we got up early sunday           

& got into the volkswagen           

which had sat cooling all night           

& like the lake is only 5          

 miles from us

5.

on the highway going further out           

leaving behind the seawall & concrete beaches           

i stilled the wheel w/h my elbows           

trying to light a cigar           

which she eventually lit for me           

nearly choking twice on her laughter           

on the beach's empty stretch           

we had no food & sat down in the sand           

& planned for a family of three          

6.

my baby's eyes are big & brown           

big & brown & shiny          

 that look at me wide open           

when I am sweet to her           

like bringing home a bag of           

big purple plums from on my way from work           

or rub her back at night           

before she sleeps or be           

alone w/h her           

or/                       

i kiss her           

lips once, twice & again & again           

thanking her for keeping my life           

soft in her heart 

7.           

we love each other           

& that is good          

i look at her sometimes I           

tell her never let her bush          

grow longer/i go to work           

& come home           

not yet brave enough to            

risk a child                      

weak, weak,           

weak 

8.           

running the risk of injury           

i sat up alnight          

 yesterday thinking of two suitable           

names, one for a girl & the other           

a boy/she made me laugh, she says           

"what if we have twins"           

let them be, let them be           

my wife & I are both 23 year old           

blk folk

*   *   *   *   *

For my child when I do that thing      

1.

my little girl's name is winnie           

we call her winnie la roo           

who jump happy like a kangaroo                                   

i use to read the papers                                   

regularly/the price of peaches                                   

has gone up steadily                                   

what do you want me to do/                                    

be                                   

i scowl at my wife                                   

alnight sometimes combing her hair                                    

in the mirror small tufts                                   

coming out in the big wide tooth ivory                                   

of her african comb                                    

turn to the wall stroking my beard            

the car ran out of gas           

 i sat there & hit the steering wheel a few licks           

"that won't do any good..."           

 it's bad enough she makes sense           

talking softly to me w/h winnie wrapped           

in a blanket in her arms                                   

i rolled the window down &                                   

hollered out it & then turned around                                   

& looked at her & she had her hand                                   

on my arm                                   

i called my scream back                                    

the car seemed too small opening the door                                   

letting my sandal drag against the concrete                                   

right on the white line/i had to push it to the side                                    

out of the way of bus traffic

         

2.    

V. must of been pregnant about twenty months           

trying to play like her big belly wasn't hampering her           

i'd catch her sometimes smiling to herself holding her stomach                       

with her hands            

once in bed I laid my head on her & heard winnie moving around           

when it came time to go I had to call a cab cause she was too                      

big to get in the volkswagen           

it was kind of dopey living w/h a pregnant woman           

i use to could cook, winnie & V. came home to our first steak                   

dinner at home

V. breast-fed winnie & I stood around looking helpless

 

3.

i came home friday winnie was sitting on the floor

on a bunch of newspaper mushy spinach           

all over her           

V. sitting on the floor supposedly feeding winnie her dinner,                       

mine was on the table

they had smothered liver & carrots I went down the street to a                       

local bar & had a quart of beer           

when I got back V. was giving winnie a bath           

"if you want to eat now I'll fix your dinner"

 

4.           

went to my mother's house           

& sat w/h an orange pop resting on           

my knee covered w/h a white, blue bordered paper napkin            

my wife sits looking at stupid drug store pictures           

on the chatreuse walls: "i like that one"            

the technique is french impressionism           

but it looks like it was done w/h a raggedy handkerchief           

momma pulled me to the side to ask whose idea it was to                       

cut winnie's hair short like it is           

"Mine!"/                                   

i ain't got to come here to fight                                   

about the way my daughter's hair is on her head 

           

5.           

went out of           

town last week           

for a conference            

forgot to bring even a postcard back           

when I got back V. was at work           

so I went round to momma's & picked up winnie           

& came back & had to change her diaper           

& tried to feed her but she wouldn't eat           

i sat in the doorway w/h winnie in my arms           

looking out across the open court filthy w/h trash           

& made up poems about little blk children playing stick                        

ball & tag in an apartment house courtyard            

the mailman came w/h bills & advertisements            

winnie'll be sixteen months next week          

sixteen months shaking my head

*   *   *   *   *


            In December of 1969, I wrote in the introduction to the volume 2, number 4 issue of Nkombo:

            September found us performing for some of the students of Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. There, as in most other places, we were performing before people who were experiencing a blk poetry show for the first time in their lives. Many times our frankness and willingness to discuss on stage many things that some Negro's dread to even think about seemingly shocked them. Often they reacted hesitantly as we performed; wanting to laugh at times but stifling it, wanting to scream but clamping their jaws shut. However, aster the show invariably they came forward to tell us that they enjoyed our work. And it was most often at the colleges where we found the more inhibited audiences. During our community performances the audiences never left any doubt as to how they felt about the shows.       

            Every performance led to a greater confidence and also greater insight. Soon we were doing what we called "sets", i.e. poetry shows which were thematically organized, choreographed, and highly musical. We even developed a few plays which consisted of both poetry and dialogue. Within a two year period we were inspiring artistic developments all over the south, most notably in Houston, Texas and Miami, Florida.

            Another factor affecting our development as both writers and performers was that Tom Dent was introducing us to cultural workers everywhere we went. Some of these people, like Worth Long, were former SNCC workers. Others were just people who loved the Black arts. Most important of all, some of the people were cultural workers right at home in New Orleans whom most of us simply didn't know, didn't know about, and didn't initially understand how important they were. These included people like the poet Octave Lilly and above all the musician Danny Barker.

            Danny Barker "above all" because he was a genuine African American griot. Not only was he a musician and composer, storyteller and entertainer, bandleader (he was almost single handedly responsible for the reemergence of the brass bands among young Blacks in New Orleans), but Danny Barker was also a writer. He wrote short stories, character sketches, autobiography and history. Had not Tom understood the importance of hooking us up with people like Danny, I'm certain that our work would not have been as grounded in the community nor as lasting as much of it is.

            Almost all of our attention was given to performing for our community and publishing our own work which we sold at our readings. We simply were not into sending our work around for others to publish. We knew who our audience was and how to reach them, and beyond our immediate audience we also knew how to publish ourselves. BLKARTSOUTH was a tremendous development vehicle but it also, paradoxically, led us away from interacting with the rest of the country outside of the south.

            Occasionally, we would break through, but even then, we generally did so as a workshop rather than as individual poets. The best example of this is our inclusion in New Black Voices, an anthology edited by Abraham Chapman which is still used in college courses. We had a section in that anthology because the editor understood what we were trying to do as a collective. The poets were Issac J. Black, Renaldo Fernandez, Kush (Tom Dent), Nayo (Barbara Malcolm, who continues to write under the name Nayo Barbara Watkins), John O'Neal, Raymond Washington, and myself.

            Here is one of the selections included in that anthology. It is one of my humorous poems which proved to be very popular.

[untitled]           

 

whi/te boys gone           

to the moon           

plantin flags & stuff           

why you boys goin           

to the moon           

dont yall think           

yall done fucked up enuf           

without messing           

with somebody else's world           

in the beginning           

it was africa           

you just wanted to see           

you said           

& once having seen           

commenced to fucking up           

open up them china gates           

& let's hunt tigers in india           

you whi/te boys sho nuff likes           

what ever anybody else has           

all ways got to be           

digging in somebody's bag           

always got to be plantin flags & stuff           

whi/te boys done gone           

to the moon           

just like they come here           

talking bout it's a           

great adventure & we is           

the first ones here           

& plantin flags           

whi/te boys gone to the moon           

whi/te boys done gone to the moon           

sho hope them lil brothers up there           

dont show um how          

 to plant corn

*   *   *   *   *

                        In addition to the poetry, Chapman chose to include "BLKARTSOUTH/ get on up!", an essay/manifesto I wrote. The opening half of that piece is a complete summary of our intentions.

BLKARTSOUTH started as a community writing and acting workshop under the direction of Tom Dent and Robert "Big Daddy" Costley. The Free Southern Theater had been disbanded for the year and they were the only two left in New O. (our name for New Orleans, Louisiana) to continue on the work of the theater. By that certain inventive process that Black people are famous for possessing the community workshop grew into BLKARTSOUTH without the aid of funds, star attractions, immense programming or anything else that is usually thought of as a prerequisite to developing a theater group. We started in the summer of 68 and by October of the same year we made a vow that we would publish and perform our original material exclusively.

Within a year we were performing poetry shows and one-act plays throughout the south; plays and poetry we had written, arranged, directed and produced. In December of 68 {--note: this is a mistake, it was actually 1969} NKOMBO's anniversary with a one-hundred page off-set edition that included drawings, poetry, prose, fiction and drama. From the very beginning we were attempting to actualize our purpose which was to develop and perform new/original literary and theatrical material for Black people.

We go deeper now with our purposes. We say that our art is aimed toward building the nation. A nation for Black people. We say that not only do we have to be new/original but that we have to be of some use/have some meaning to Black people in the struggle for liberation. And we mean it. Since we do not operate in a vacuum our motion has created friction and heat. In fact we've burned up some people. But we keep on keepin on just like Shine. BLKARTSOUTH is a whole lot of us striving toward the nation.

What we do, however, ain't mind lunges at paper targets. Our work is instead real spear movements we learned by putting our work out there. Just like the old/our folks used to wash clothes and then hang um out in the sun to dry. Hang um out where every/anybody could see how clean (or unclean) they were. The writing you see ain't academic (or un, or anti-academic either) but is some real stuff that's been hanging out in the sun. We are the results of doing/being our poems and stuff. The writing you see is not all the writing we are because you ain't seen nothing until you've heard us. That's important. That aura of hearing, feeling, seeing; experiencing this kind of writing. Our conclusions are drawn from our experiences and then maybe put down in books. Be aware of that. Be aware that the organization you are reading about is a living, performing group that produces its own material and that the production/performance of this material is an intentional fusing of technique, content, style and ideology that necessarily gives a total shape to the whole of our work which cannot be realized or appreciated just by reading our writing in books. This does not mean that there is little attention paid to "literary" values per se, rather it means that as far as we are concerned just being "literary" is not and has never been sufficient.

We feel that what we're doing is a relatively new thing in our environment. Our molds aren't quite set yet. Like jazz, what we're doing is constantly moving; the changing same. Right now all we're trying to do is get our work out there and be honest about the things we put out. Maybe two or three years from now we'll be able to set down some standards to judge our work by (real standards and not personal considerations, likes and dislikes, theorizing from 'one-eyed" critics). Like what standard was Louis Armstrong blowing by other than what he felt? We can tell now but who could have told then? Maybe not even Satchmo himself. The whole problem centers around the fact that critics invariably want to judge Black artists at their first note. They are afraid to allow the BLKARTS to grow. It took black music less than seventy years to go from Buddy Bolden to Coltrane and beyond. So just as jazz grew, Black writing is going to grow, grow straight from the gutters, from the streets, the people. Grow from our people which is where Louis Armstrong came from with his trumpet playing, his eye opening innovations. He got it all from a culture that accepted, emphasized and respected an African inspired, African-American heritage of music making. We as writers have a similar heritage we must tap, a spoken, verbal art that runs deep and long all the way back to the homeland. Slave narratives, field hollers, shouts, hard luck stories, animal tales, everything. A real heritage we have been taught to ignore and belittle, a heritage we must get next to or be like a tree without roots. We must grow to know this heritage and do as it advises us: Sing about what we are in a good strong voice and not get caught up in trying to imitate others or denying the worth of what we are. Sing our own songs.

We at NKOMBO say that our goal is not to put out a magazine full of "little poetic masterpieces," but rather to publish a journal that will serve as an adequate medium of expression for Black artists of the south. We feel that Black writers are ignored (and as a result stunted in their growth) by the traditional publishers both Black, such as they be, and white. Many critics insist that there is very little "quality" Black writing available as an explanation for this exclusion. But the truth is that there is too little Black writing available period, "quality" or not. And furthermore there will never be a large body of so-called "quality" Black writing until there is an even larger grouping of Black writing published irregardless of "quality"; a larger grouping that is written to reach and take in Black people rather than to live up to some vague flat cultured concept of "quality." That sounds cold, defensive and anti-good literature but it's true. It's an unbelievable trip to think that the absence of quality is the cause for the exclusion of Black writers when there is so much garbage being dumped on the heads of our people by white publishers. Check it out for yourself. Go to any local bookstand or drugstore and pick and pick out what you consider to be quality writing. After you've done that, look at all the junk that's left. Quality??? Not hardly. And that's what we're out to change. Black writers are not published simply because the publishing industry is for the most part white and doesn't want to or doesn't know how to publish Black writing (that's not meant as a criticism but rather as a realistic assessment of fact and intentions; like we ain't out to publish white writers either). Our policy is that those Blackwriters who live in our area and participate in our workshops will be published, period! We are intent on making sure that any writer who is interested in writing will be able to get at least one of his pieces published in NKOMBO. The future will decide what is of "quality." Let that be taken in, let it remain; throw the rest away.

We've been around for three years now darting in and out of the consciousness of Black people in the south and elsewhere. We feel like we ain't even off the ground yet, still just pecking away at this eggshell environment. But as soon as we break out of this straight jacket society/mind condition . . . we movin on up! We want to move, got to get away. Our art is functional art that's going to help all us Black people find ways to fly. We trying to get Black people together so that we can all consciously make that great migration east. To quote brother Kush (tom dent), "anyway, our poetry, the beautiful thing about it has to do with making connections with, talking to, grooving with blk people, not with 'poetry' or 'great writing' or being a literary giant, or an ideological father, or any such shit as that. Just making connections giving blk people something they can value and use. This is what we mean by functional writing." If somebody can learn something from it or it draws Black people closer together then our writing has done its do.

The other major exception to the trend of a low national profile was our inclusion in Negro Digest/Black World edited by Hoyt Fuller. We were always included in the annual Black Theatre roundups, even though as Tom points out to me, we often had to write about the theater scene in the south ourselves because no one came down from New York or Chicago to write about what was going on. Tom and I would take turns writing the annual roundup. But even so, this was more attention than we got from any other source outside the south.

As one of the most developed "writers" in the workshop, I published regularly, but not as a poet. In 1971 I won Black World's first Richard Wright Award for excellence in criticism. Except for one of my plays, "The Destruction Of The American Stage," almost everything published was either directly related to our theater work or was political essays and cultural critiques. Except for Tom Dent, of all the other people in the workshop, only Lloyd Medley had a poem published in Black World. Moreover, I don't ever remember submitting any poetry to them.

During the time I was writing this essay, I ran into Lloyd Medley in the post office. We had not seen each other in literally over a year. I told him about what I was working on and the reference to his poem. He reminded me that the poem had won a first place award for a first poem published by a new writer. Before I could tell him the thrust of my reference, he went on to echo my sentiments: what we were doing was as strong as, if not stronger than many of the other writers, but we weren't in New York or on the West Coast. Moreover, our emphasis was on reading to audiences, reaching people, and Lloyd felt that was better than publishing. Although we both recognize that had we published more, we would have received far more recognition, achieving "fame" was really not our aim.

This may seem unbelievable, but the fact is we were happy doing what we were doing. We were traveling throughout the south. We were performing. We were publishing our own work. We were influencing others. And we were young. What more was there?                          

Also significant was our relationship to our community. Although we certainly wanted our work to be entertaining, we avoided like the plague simply being "entertainment." Always, for us, there needed to be relevance. Invariably, we challenged our audiences and critiqued "Negro" ways of thinking/acting. Our humor and sarcasm was withering. But there was also a great deal of warmth in what we did, and an overwhelming love for our people which was reflected in our love for each other. Again, because we came from New Orleans, we were a bit distrustful of a unity based on uniformity. We preferred the concept of a gumbo composed of diverse elements.

Our orientation was to include everybody in the pot and not to exclude someone just because they were of a different persuasion or had different thoughts than some of us did. This was not always easy, but it served us well. For example, I remember when some of us became Muslims. Even though most of us changed our names -- (In 1970 at one of the first Kwanzaa celebrations in New Orleans I had taken the Swahili name Kalamu ya Salaam, which means "pen of peace") -- some of us never became converts to any particular religion or any particular political organization. What we wanted to be was relevant. Relevant to the people in our community: to the kids and to the elders, to the working class and to the daughters and sons of the working class attending college, many of them the first in their families to do so.

Philosophically our workshop covered a wide range of opinions and beliefs and we tried our best to express the widest degree of tolerance. Can you imagine that within one poetry group we had practicing Catholics and practicing Black Muslims. Moreover, because we were from New Orleans, our skin hues, social/religious backgrounds, and individual expressions covered a very broad spectrum. One of our members had naturally blonde hair and blue eyes. Undoubtedly our collective's obvious broad spectrum of hues contributed to our concept of blackness which stressed consciousness and culture much more than race.

My point here, and our point then, was to contextualize our artistic work. Whereas many, many artists are extremely uncomfortable with this sort of contextualization, the process was a spur to our development. I say "our" because not only I, but a number of other writers and theater people (including Tom Dent, Nayo Watkins who is in North Carolina now, Chakula cha Jua who is the head of one of the oldest continuing Black theater companies in New Orleans, Johnetta Barras who is a journalist in Washington, DC at the Washington Times, and Quo Vadis Gex Breaux who continues to write in our home town of New Orleans) have testified to the value of what we achieved, attempted and learned from our experiences in FST.

Two other important points. One, we never believed that everybody had to do the kind of theater we did. Ours was a voluntary commitment and as poet Mari Evans pointed out in an important article first published in Black World, those who volunteer are not being forced to parrot any particular line. They choose to believe and create out of their beliefs and experiences.

The second important point is that this view does not ipso facto lead to a lessening of artistic development in terms of techniques. Certainly no one would argue that Lorraine Hansberry wrote shrill "propaganda" or parroted a particular political line, or that she did not write well. She wrote exceedingly well, nevertheless, she also believed in the social function of art. "I persist in the simple view that all art is ultimately social: that which agitates and that which prepares the mind for slumber. The writer is deceived who thinks that he has some other choice. The question is not whether one will make a social statement in one's work -- but only what the statement will say, for if it says anything at all, it will be social."

In the final analysis I saw myself as an artist, a writer, a dramatist, a performer, but also as an active participant in the liberation struggle. I saw no separation between the two, indeed, my whole professional life has been aimed at merging the two so that they are not only inseparable but also each developed to its most effective pitch.

While working at FST/BLKARTSOUTH, I had decided: I would be a writer, a professional writer. Later I expanded that vocation to include being a producer, mainly because a lot of the artwork I desired to create or assist in creating, the artwork I desired to experience and wanted to share with others, much of that work didn't exist and needed a midwife if it was to be born. Here again, the example of Langston Hughes impelled me forward without hesitation, whatever was missing I just had to figure out a way to create it. That was my task. My obligation as an artist was to create -- and whatever necessary ingredients for creation that were missing, well I would just have to marshal them by whatever means necessary.  

<---Tom Dent & Nkombo   Hofu ni Kwenu (my fear is for you)--->

*   *   *   *   *

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: 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 (author of 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, “globalized” entity.

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 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 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.

*   *   *   *   *

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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Negro Digest / Black World

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Enjoy!

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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 3 May 2009

 

 

 

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