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)
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Feminism, Black Erotica, & Revolutionary Love
'Womanness' in the Writings of Kalamu ya Salaam
By Rudolph Lewis
To be sensual, I think is to respect and
rejoice in the force of life itself, and to be present in all
that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of
bread. James Baldwin "From a
Region of my Mind"
Fire Next Time, 1963)
[W]hoever wishes to become
a truly moral human being . . . must divorce himself from all
the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian
church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it
can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God
cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him. James
Baldwin "From a Region of my Mind" (The
Fire Next Time, 1963)
(. . . this propaganda of /words will sound strange to all
who/do not know or realize the worth of/ our beautiful black
women) perhaps,/ this poem can open the eyes of some / young
Afro American to the beauty / of the black girl living in his /
community; we have only to look with / our eyes & quit using
a foreign / myopic blue eyed aesthetic and we will / see
ourselves, and love our selves Kalamu ya Salaam,
"And Black Women" (1968)
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Though I begin with quotes from James Baldwin’s The
Fire Next Time, Kalamu reveals in his poetic autobiography, Art for Life: My Story, My
Song, that not only James Baldwin but also Langston Hughes, Leroy
Jones/Amiri Baraka were his literary models. He had admired and
studied them long
before his first poems were published in 1968 during his involvement
with the Free Southern Theater. The common element is the "blues
based" aspect of their work.
For Kalamu the
blues is the orienting aesthetic of the masses of black people. Baldwin and Baraka’s modernistic and critical moral approaches
were also influential and important. But Hughes’ holistic love of
black people and their folk culture was the predominant influence in
Kalamu's development as a writer.
Thus for the
last thirty years or so (1968-2002), the love for black people and their culture and the
critical engagement of an oppressive Eurocentric culture define the body of Kalamu’s writings. The works I will consider,
however, have a more narrow focus. These writings deal with themes Baldwin
mentioned in the above quotes: 1) respecting and rejoicing in
"the force of life itself," which Baldwin, calls "being
sensual"; and 2) divorcing oneself "from all the
prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church"
for, Baldwin contends, if God cannot "make us larger, freer, and more loving . . .
it is time we got rid of him."
For what Baldwin calls the "sensual,"
Kalamu also uses the term "erotic" or "eroticism,"
especially in his essay "Do
Right Women: Black Women, Eroticism, and Classic Blues"
(1999). Baldwin’s term "divorce" suggests that we need to
be in a conscious cultural struggle to recover or maintain our
humanity. For Kalamu that means a reexamination of our religiosity.
So, in haiku
#58, Kalamu wrote, "black
people believe / in
god, & I believe in / black
In his poem "Bush
Mama," written from the perspective and in the
voice of a black woman, Kalamu composed these words: "fighting is what frees us /
frees us not just from external enemies / but frees us also from our
own / weaknesses."
These "weaknesses," I must alert
you, is what Kalamu keys in on in much of his writing. Much of our
weakness is derived from how we view ourselves in the world, for
according to Kalamu in his poem "And Black Women," African-American men must "quit
using a foreign / myopic blue eyed aesthetic" in order to
"see ourselves, and love ourselves."
Of such short duration, this essay cannot encompass
the great corpus of that which is Kalamu ya Salaam. I am thus forced
to limit my discussion to a few poems, essays, and stories. From these
it is yet possible, I believe, to make some generalizations applicable
to the whole. In my reading the elements of loss and becoming,
which I believe are central to the blues, stand out markedly in
And often these elements of loss and becoming
to the reality and existence of the black woman in American society.
Many of his essays, poems, stories are written if not in the voice of
the African-American woman, they are written from her perspective or
in her defense emphasizing the uniqueness of her essential self and
the importance of her liberation and humanity for the health and
liberation of the larger African-American community from an
oppressive, domineering white authority and culture.
The Negro’s human drama of loss and becoming, of
course, began on the eastern shores of the Atlantic with the
kidnapping and sale of our male and female ancestors to Europeans
whose culture and consciousness were dominated by a patriarchal,
Christian, and often puritanical orientation. For Kalamu, these
African ancestors did not enter a cultural stream that made them more
civilized, more human. Human beings—men, women, and children—were
reduced to objects, things that were bought and sold like any pieces
of merchandise, yet treated far worse.
This situation was not only imperial and
racist, but our ancestors also entered into a sexist context that was
foreign to the culture they left behind on the other side of the
Atlantic. Read the booklet of essays entitled Our
Women Keep Our Skies from Falling (1980). The
international slave trade that brought our people to America was at
heart a "clash" of continental cultures, namely, patriarchy
According to Kalamu, "the roots of modern day
sexism are found in prehistoric Europe," for "the trunk of
sexism is a patriarchy watered by capitalism and imperialism" ("Women’s
Rights Are Human Rights," p. 10). "Our African
history," Kalamu has asserted, was a "matriarchal form of
social organization" which traced bloodlines through the female
and insured "the economic and political rights of women" ("Revolutionary
Struggle/Revolutionary Love," p.
Violence brought us here to America, we all agree.
And beyond three centuries of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and
terror, violence has kept us here as the most oppressed and exploited
sector of American society. The civil rights movement ameliorated the
social, political, and economic conditions for both black men and
women. But the situation has yet to be fully set aright.
American women remain "more economically exploited than
our [black] men, white women and/or white men" ("Revolutionary
Struggle/Revolutionary Love," p. 14). Black women,
percentage wise, also remain "the prime victim of rape" in
America ("Rape: A Radical Analysis from an African-American
Perspective," p. 29). Since the 1970s, black women have mounted a
struggle, and often a lone struggle, against being "a slave of a
slave" ("Revolutionary Struggle/Revolutionary Love," p.
Since the winning of the civil rights battle, the
issues of black manhood and black womanhood have come to the
foreground of the liberation struggle. And Kalamu in his writings has
been center stage in that struggle. From Kalamu’s point of view most
black men have played less than a laudatory role in the struggle for
women’s rights. In his 1979 "Rape" essay, Kalamu wrote,
"One of the most shameful aspects of the aftermaths of slavery is
that we Black men have, for the most part, in practice if not in
theory, internalized American sexism" (p. 29).
And in his
anthology of essays and poems What Is Life? (1994) defending anti-sexist women writers such as Audre Lorde,
Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, Kalamu wrote that
frequently we black men repeat "drawing-room conversations of
plantation owners whom we serve and . . . too often imitate" ("If the Hat
Don’t Fit . . ." (p.23).
In his poetic autobiography Art for Life , Kalamu wrote about his 1975 poems "Hiway
Blues" and "Ntozake Shange." Both poems support the
resistance of black women and black women writers against the
domineering tactics of men, including black men. The first poem
written in the feminine voice supported Dessie Woods who killed a
white man who attempted to rape her and ends on the defiant words,
"Yeah, I shot the / motherfucker."
In the second poem Kalamu strongly encourages
Shange to keep writing about the oppression of feminine reality:
"talk abt yrself / yr blkwomanself/neo-african / in the
midst of a land caught up in / worshipping twentieth century minstrels
/ talk about womanness and exaltations / and never uttering the
lie about being / sorry not to be born a boy, talk / like you think,
like you feel, / like you move through decaying urban america / pass
fashions, kitchen recipes, modern romances / and mythical holy vaginal
orgasms / talk like our moses spake / in the middle of headin’ north
night / pressing a slack-jawed man who / couldn’t keep his pants
dry" [italics mine].
Supporting Colored Girls during the black
male "backlash," the Shange poem, Kalamu
explains, put him "at odds with some of [his] fellow male
writers." But, he continues, "I enjoyed the
For in many of his poems and fiction pieces Kalamu had
been dealing with the whole question of black male prerogative, black
male dominance, and black male violence. What is at stake in this
scenario of black men’s desire for the submissive black woman is
what Kalamu calls "womanness," a term found in the Shange
Mama" poems, or "womanself," a related term
found in the Shange poem and the essay "Revolutionary
This notion of "womanness"
is related to what Kalamu calls the "black blues self,"
which he describes at length in his essay "the blues
aesthetic" (What Is Life?
pp. 7-20) and the essay "Do
Right Women: Black Women, Eroticism, and Classic Blues."
This "womanness" or "black blues
self" can be best viewed in the lives and artistry of the
"Classic Blues divas" of the 1920s—such as Ma Rainey,
Bessie Smith, and Ida Cox. These women were independent, aggressive,
and sensual. Their music was "a conscious articulation of the
social self and validation of the feminine sexual self," for
"the Classic Blues was also a total philosophical alternative to
the dominant white society."
Their art was aimed "at the
Black community in general and Black women specifically; their
"musical eroticism" encouraged coupling, group
identification, and self valuation of shared erotic values, sexual self
worth and pleasure." The "blues aesthetic upsets the
respectability apple cart." According to Kalamu, "frank
eroticism of nearly all African-heritage cultures," however, have
been "twisted by outside domination (e.g. Christianity and
These black men who have "become sick,
infected with the misogynic sexism of Europe . . . should be struggled
with"; these men "choose to beat our women into a
quasi-submission rather than meet (and defeat) the man"
("Revolutionary Struggle/Revolutionary Love," p. 15). The only
"concept of manhood" that such men know is that which has
been defined by the western sense of the word."
In truth, Kalamu explains, our "problem was
and remains being captured in a social context within which we have
relatively insignificant political and economic power" ("Impotence
Need Not Be Permanent," in What Is Life? pp.
136, 138). The central problem is not the assertive, critical
independence of women, but rather our own impotence.
Owning/controlling women is simply a substitute
for owning money in the American scheme of social relationships.
If we didn’t have women to beat on, to pimp off, to massage our
egos, to treat us like kings we desire to be but aren’t, to
stand behind us when no one else in the world would even think
about us, if we didn’t have submissive women, what would we do,
what would we have to do? The African-american male’s
preoccupation with sex is simply a substitute for a frustrated
preoccupation with power or actually the lack of power ("Debunking
Myths," in Our Women Keep Our Skies from Falling,
In our impotence, dominated by white males, too
many black males have "stopped struggling for freedom" and
have opted for silence, "collaboration and accommodation"
("Impotence Need Not be Permanent," in What Is Life?
At the polar end of eroticism is pornography,
defined by Kalamu, as "the commodifying of sex and the reifying
of a person or gender into a sexual object." For him,
"objectifying sexual relations" is a completely different
kind of reality from "the frank articulation of eroticism."
Too many black men have opted for a pornographic sexuality with black
women rather than vital erotic relationships.
In his essay "Rape:
A Radical Analysis from an African-American Perspective," Kalamu
has sketched out this reductionist pornographic perspective into four
broad categories of rape: 1) brutal rape, 2) bogart rape, 3) business
rape, and 4) bed rape.
Brutal rape involves a rapist and victim who do not
know each other. Both rapist and victim recognize this act as rape. In
the other three, rapist and victim know each other if only
superficially. These other forms are not so plain and it is these
forms of rape that so often go unreported or unrecognized.
involves demands, reprisals, appeals, requiring the woman to submit
to male sexual advances. Business rape involves an employer (or
slaveowner), professor (teacher), supervisor (or overseer); rape
accomplished by threat or a promise of a better situation (promotion,
grade, raise, etc.) for the woman. Bed rape usually involves a married
couple, legal or common-law, but certainly it feeds on female
dependence and submission.
Kalamu has fleshed out these potential erotic
situations in a number of short stories or narratives. They have been
published in a number of journals and anthologies within the last
thirty years. These stories, which I have labeled "feminist
erotica" because of their critical element, include "That’s the Way Love Is" (late 1960s), "Where
Do Dreams Come From" (1969), "Sister Bibi"
(1973), "I Sing Because . .
." (1999), "Forty-five
Is Not So Old," (1999), "Could
You Wear My Eyes?" (2001), "The Roses Are
Beautiful, But the Thorns Are So Sharp" (2002).
In concluding this essay, I will briefly sketch out
a few of these stories. "That’s the Way Love Is" is a
combination of both bogart and bed rape. The male lover has come to
bed with Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul
on Ice. He views his female lover Sonia as an object:
"I was looking at Sonia’s vagina with only a casual interest in
it as a pussy. I was looking at the way her hair grew on it and the
way the soft fatty folds of flesh stood away from her body."
kind of objectification continues with their sexual acts throughout.
Sonia, his lover, initiates the sexual action to his displeasure. He
does not like her "to be on top." He flips her and cocks her
legs up with the crook of his arm. After taking hold of his balls and
releasing them on his insistence, Sonia is submissive and refuses to
move, to his chagrin. With his sexual skills, he attempts to overcome
her: "I would make her come. Make her scream. . . I came and she
still hadn’t move." The story ends and he concludes: he had to get himself a new
Do Dreams Come From" is, in its second part, a
nightmarish combination of business rape and bogart rape. The action
mostly takes place in Joyce’s dream; her lover Rabbit is filled with
hatred of the white man. In the dream, Rabbit pimps her, puts her on
naked display for gawking white men.
"Sister Bibi" contains sexual
action initiated by Bert that borders on bogart rape; but Bibi manages
to get control of the situation. Bibi and her college roommate Sylvia,
whose mother’s puritanical sexual attitudes have poisoned her view
of sexuality, discuss extensively their attitudes toward men. Sylvia
believes "all men are bastards" and that what they want from
women is simply "pussy." But Bibi, with her afro-romantic
philosophy, refuses to believe either argument. And she finds a
different kind of man in Asante, an aware brother who appreciates the
beauty of women apart from their "thighs, or legs, pretty faces
and soft breasts, or beautiful juicy pussies," for he could see
them "beautifully wholly as women."
A dead wife killed in a car accident narrates the
You Wear My Eyes," By pre-arrangement her husband
Reginald undergoes an operation in which he "wears" his wife’s
eyes. He quickly discovers he did not know his wife, especially her
sexual imagination. What he discovers is a woman who was not as
submissive as he had believed; so terrifying and threatening was this
discovered feminine reality Reginald throws acid into his
"The Roses Are Beautiful," published in
the new anthology After
Hours (2002), is another example of near bogart rape.
After a few heated sexual sessions, Ann Turner, a TV anchorperson,
rejects her lover Theodore, a prosperous businessman, for she suspects
he is latently violent and repressive, which later proves true when he
attempts to take her by force. Ann concludes at the end of the story
she wants neither marriage nor children. Men, she concludes, are
necessary only for "sexual maintenance." She decides to
fulfill her dream of becoming a writer.
These samples of "feminist
written by Kalamu, I believe, do not titillate or give pleasure. They seem to be
a frank, insightful ethical exposé in African-American sexuality. This erotica demonstrates how we take our
politics into the bedroom and shows us how those politics manifest themselves
in our sexual acts in the oddest and strangest ways, and worst in
violence and perversion that deny the humanity of the other.
Women are usually the victims of sexist politics which have their
origins in patriarchy and the impotent desire of men to dominate women
in their search for power. If we as men seek liberation righteously,
Kalamu believes, that liberation cannot occur without black men
recognizing the full humanity and the rights of their women and
joining them wholeheartedly in their struggle against
racism as well as sexism. In this kind of struggle, black men will
gain a truer sense of manhood and a more vital sense of the erotic.
This liberation approach assures that black men too will reclaim "the black blues
After Hours: A Collection of Erotic Writing by Black Men.
Salaam, Kalamu ya.
Our Women Keep Our
Skies From Falling. New Orleans: Nkombo, 1980.
This work includes "Women’s Rights
Are Human Rights," "Revolutionary Struggle/
Revolutionary Love," "Debunking Myths," and
"Rape: A Radical Analysis from an African-American
Salaam, Kalamu ya.
What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self. Chicago,
Illinois: Third World
This work includes "Impotence Need Not be Permanent"
and "If the Hat Don’t Fit . . ."
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music website >
writing website >
daily blog >
* * *
Guarding the Flame of Life
New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin
They danced atop his casket Jaran 'Julio' Green
Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues
guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)
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Obama's America and the New
Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)
/ Michelle_Alexander Part
II Democracy Now
Michelle Alexander Speaks At
2 of 4 /
part 3 of 4 /
part 4 of 4
more African Americans under
today--in prison or jail, on
probation or parole—than
were enslaved in 1850, a
decade before the Civil War
began. If you take into
account prisoners, a large
majority of African American
men in some urban areas,
like Chicago, have been
labeled felons for life.
These men are part of a
growing undercaste, not
class, caste—a group of
people who are permanently
relegated, by law, to an
status. They can be denied
the right to vote,
automatically excluded from
juries, and legally
discriminated against in
employment, housing, access
to education and public
as their grandparents and
great-grandparents once were
during the Jim Crow era.—Michelle
The New Jim Crow
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The Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, and Wailer
By Colin Grant
The definitive group biography of the Wailers—Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston—chronicling their rise to fame and power. Over one dramatic decade, a trio of Trenchtown R&B crooners swapped their 1960s Brylcreem hairdos and two-tone suits for 1970s battle fatigues and dreadlocks to become the Wailers—one of the most influential groups in popular music. Colin Grant presents a lively history of this remarkable band from their upbringing in the brutal slums of Kingston to their first recordings and then international superstardom. With energetic prose and stunning, original research, Grant argues that these reggae stars offered three models for black men in the second half of the twentieth century: accommodate and succeed (Marley), fight and die (Tosh), or retreat and live (Livingston). Grant meets with Rastafarian elders, Obeah men (witch doctors), and other folk authorities as he attempts to unravel the mysteries of Jamaica's famously impenetrable culture. Much more than a top-flight music biography, The Natural Mystics offers a sophisticated understanding of Jamaican politics, heritage, race, and religion—a portrait of a seminal group during a period of exuberant cultural evolution. 8 pages of four-color and 8 pages of black-and-white illustrations. Colin Grant Interview, The Natural Mystics
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The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
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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
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
/ January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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posted 9 April 2008