Williams—my generational son
Kalamu ya Salaam
Generations—Memories Thanksgiving 2004
new orleans, 22 nov.
2004. when he got in my car, i told him i was proud of
him, --very proud, really. it hardly seemed over a decade ago
when we sat on the carpeted floor together in a barely furnished
apartment in atlanta. he was at morehouse. my daughter kiini was
at spelman. and their small group of friends, the red clay
collective, was groping forward toward a glorious future, or
accurately groping toward a gloriously hoped for future. they
were poets and writers, photographers and dancers, some were
into the hard sciences, not saul williams, he was a philosophy
they published a journal and i contributed writing and advice.
after graduation when a hard core of them, kiini included, moved
to new york, saul would go to graduate school at nyu in acting.
kiini traveled for a year and then did a masters in publishing
at pace university.
i would visit them in new york, not often but whenever i visited
it was good to get together with them. their energy was
energizing to me; always left me with more to contemplate,
inspired to do more. at one program they asked me to read poetry
in a feature spot—kiini cried that night, so happy, so proud.
in later years, as saul’s star rose, he and i would sometimes
share platforms and panels—once in boston i stood with him as
old heads attacked what they perceived as the irrelevance of
these black youth for whom blackness was neither a badge of
honor nor courage; indeed, from the youth perspective, their
blackness was, in fact, not a badge of any kind.
many of us, the black power generation of parents, never dreamed
of children who were not focused on the color, culture and
consciousness of their/our blackness.
now, in 2004, our future has arrived but the reality of our
social landscape is no dream zone; bitterness sours our
intergenerational relationships. it’s complex. it’s blatant.
It’s infuriating. it’s tough being black in the 21st
century if you were born before the sixties. And it’s even
tougher relating to today’s young people, particularly those
born in the eighties or later.
we old heads figured that if richard pryor could publicly give
up the word nigger, well nobody had an excuse to keep slinging
that epithet. but little did we know that eddie murphy,
crouch-grabbing, cursing and generally acting like a, well, like
a niggah, was only the beginning. murphy was cool compared to
martin, and def comedy jam, and gangsta rap, and shit, what the
fuck is going on? these young negroes really are crazy!
i once asked a group of young people what they thought was the
biggest problem with “today’s youth.” one perceptive young
man fired back without a moment of hesitation: “today’s
and i knew precisely what he meant. there is not only a
disconnect, there is also deep disappointment. young and old
look at each other and are thoroughly uncomfortable with what
the other has become. are these our children/are these my
parents? what happened to them?
except for the older men still trying to hit on the younger
women, most of my peers are uncomfortable around young people.
whereas, i tend to be uncomfortable around many of my
nostalgia-loving, over-50 peers, a significant number of whom
are former rebels now turned responsible citizens.
as saul and i sat in café nicaud, he drinking a latte and
eating a portabella mushroom and avocado sandwich with a fruit
salad cup on the side, me chugging down nantucket lemonade, our
conversation unfolded at a leisurely pace.
i asked him what he was up to.
he was in town for a gig at the house of blues with his band.
same band as amethyst (which was a rock group he led for his
no. this was stripped down, a quartet. he was now into
“punk-hop,” kind of a mixture of punk and hip hop. violin,
turntables & bass, i believe he said drums, and i know saul
said he was doing guitar.
i didn’t know he played guitar.
he didn’t really play. he kind of just played what he wanted
ok, i thought, i’m sure that’s an interesting aggregation.
we talked on about his daughter saturn, his son (i forget his
name). i had met saturn in new york, but never met his son. they
have different mothers. saul is a twice-time, proud
father/single parent--he had been the primary care-giver for his
daughter for two years while marcia returned to college for a
i asked saul about acting. he said he really wanted to continue
acting, if he could get good parts. he was signed on for a
handful of films he looked forward to but none of them had yet
been “greenlighted.” actors actually spend more time waiting
for other people to get their act together than they do actually
saul’s music career was not so interesting to me because I’m
not into the type of music he’s making. saul views it as a
role he’s developing for himself, a role that gives him a
platform, partially because, as saul explained, actors don’t
have a public platform. even when they get a hit movie, as he
had with slam, they don’t get to interact with their audiences
and say whatever they want to tell folk.
i was more interested in his writing career. saul told me about
his next book, which he is committed to delivering to his
publisher (mtv, yeah, mtv is publishing books) in late may 2005.
i won’t give away the subject matter, except to say it is a
mix of fiction and autobiography (parts of the book are literal
transcriptions from saul’s journaling). as saul described the
structure of his book, a point snapped into focus.
then saul got a cell call from frosty, his tour manager, he had
to get back to check out early because they were going to get on
the road right after the show rather than leave in the morning
as originally planned. but before we left, saul urged me to
finish making the point about the differences going down.
our relationship to race was radically different. he with his
dark skin and nappy-headed fro--you know, not neatly trimmed
like a superfly, more like the raggedness of a runaway whose
head knows neither comb nor scissors. i, with my dark skin
(although a shade or two lighter than saul), and my grey beard
and uncut-but-not-uncombed afro, we could easily have passed for
father and son,
except we were talking amicably, laughing, and enjoying each
i explained that in the seventies there was a major clash
between the black power folk and the integrationists. we
believed in nationtime and worked hard at creating alternatives:
political organizations, schools, musical groups that didn’t
include whites, hell, some of our venues didn’t even allow
whites in the audience. and also at the same time we were doing
that, there was a major push to counter our every move with
mainstream supported, integrationist organizations. thus, at the
of the black arts theatre movement, rockerfeller and/or ford
funded, in a major way, the “negro” ensemble company. how
much clearer could they make it that there was a battle going on
for the hearts and minds of black folk? moreover, the mainstream
did not intend to concede one iota, indeed, they intended to
win. and win they did.
i pointed out to saul that i recently read that the venerable
dance theatre of harlem was defunct, kaput, finished,
stick-a-fork-in-them; they started up in harlem teaching ballet
at a time when blacks in modern dance were doing eleo pomare or
else following chuck davis into institutionalizing african dance
among african americans. and it was but a short pirouette from
n.e.c. and d.t.h. to the modern
day golddust twins, colin & condi. as i pointed out to saul,
the twins had been groomed to do the jobs they were doing and
they were good at it.
we have a whole generation of black folk who are deep into
americanism, which reductively means into western values:
fundamental christianity, winner-take-all democracy and global
capitalism. but that was a choice and that was their right to
choose to do so, even as i felt it my responsibility to chart a
separate course. a course which includes a complex relationship
to whites in general.
i recalled attending the sixth pan african conference in
tanzania and meeting liberation leaders and seeing their
european spouses. we had thought the struggle was for black
freedom. both saul and i laughed as he said, yeah, it meant to
be free to marry europeans.
part of me understood. during the civil rights era, the union of
interracial couples was a very specific, and often very brave,
political statement, a statement that could not be easily
dismissed (even though many of us were often casually
contemptuous of such relationships). and, as i told saul, today
i co-direct a writing program in the orleans public schools. my
fellow co-director and founder of the
program is jim randels, a twenty-year-veteran public school
teacher and union organizer. we work at black high schools. the
kids call jim “jesus” because of his appearance: beard, long
hair and white skin: the irony, of course, is that jim does not
really look like jesus looked, only like the picture that europe
has enshrined of how racists wanted jesus to look. many of the
older teachers hate jim, for them he represents white supremacy
still asserting itself in what they perceived is the guise of
benevolence. yet, their politics is the flip story.
on the one hand, white-skinned jim is opposed to the status quo.
on the other hand dark-skinned colleagues want to force our
students to conform to the american way. i know where i stand on
that issue, but i also know that race camouflages the major
class, cultural and identify contradictions. this is a hard
issue to deal with because of the emotional buttons that
integration continues to push, less so with the youth, more so
with the adults.
saul grunts and relates experiences in brazil where folk were
asking him what did it feel like to be fire-hosed, and he had to
explain that it was his parents’ generation who were
fire-hosed, not him. but the brazilians with their history-lives
tradition, found it hard to understand saul saying he and his
parents were fundamentally different.
likewise, we, the parents of the saul williams-es of the world,
wanted our children to be free of the burden of racism, but at
the same time we tacitly expected them to wave the flag of
racial solidarity -- an action our children rightly perceive as
equally burdensome. but there was more.
i got around to one of the harder aspects of our relationships
while driving saul back to the hotel, which once had been a
major department store and was now remolded as a luxury french
quarter location. tourism is how new orleans makes its money.
saul had wondered aloud about the young kids tap dancing on the
sidewalk, hustling chump change, their bare torsos shinning,
their air jordan sneakers with bottle caps embedded in the soles
as surrogate taps. what could one say: don’t dance for your
supper? in one way or another, don’t we all dance to the
system’s piper in order to receive money?
“i believe we males are
divided by the absent father syndrome.” saul quietly listened.
it’s the dominant social reality of black family life. we
older men are not there. and i wasn’t saying it as some lofty
abstraction—i am in my second marriage. although i have a good
relationship with my offspring, there was a time when i was not
far too many of our young men wouldn’t recognize their fathers
if they were confronted at gunpoint. this male alienation, youth
from elder, also too often unavoidably leads to a psychosis of
self-hatred as young men father children but are estranged from
the mothers of those children, except that the
manifestation of the self-hatred is actualized in a visceral
hatred by the single-father young black man for the
absent-father older black man.
as we pulled up to the hotel, saul tentatively asked if i had
time to attend his show, he would put my name at the door,
although he knew i was really busy and probably didn’t have
– i told him i would try to make it. we both knew a 10:30pm,
punk-hop show wasn’t my particular cup of herbal peppermint
i had forgotten that saul was coming to town, so i was
pleasantly surprised when he had called me before noon the
morning of the show. it was a touching act of filial respect. he
didn’t have to reach out. i immediately suggested we go out
for coffee, tea, or whatever. he agreed. now he was inviting me
to go out. would i agree?
finding agreement is the question confronting our respective
generations: can we agree to support each other, agree to
participate in each other’s lives, even as we recognize that
although we are both black, we are actually born of two
different worlds, actually see each other and our respective
futures in two different and sometimes contentious ways?
* * *
embracing black stacey
new orleans, 22 nov. 2004. when he came off the stage,
even though i was standing near the steps, he didn’t see me.
they had done a high energy set for over an hour, i knew the
spaced-out look that was in his eyes.
at such moments you don’t really be seeing what is physically
before you. you are seeing everything you remember from those past
moments of using the power of performance to hurl yourself into
the way-out-a-sphere, you are still immersed in that floating
feeling, remembering your imagination boosted by the adrenalin of
art creation. as he turned to head to the green room, i caught up
to him quickly and shouted out a greeting. he turned. recognized.
and embraced me like a lover, full body press. we were lovers and
my presence made clear, in a way that no words or nothing else
could: i care. i love. you. brother. son. man.
i’m glad you came.
i’m glad i came.
and we smiled at each other saying nothing for a couple of
seconds. just smiling.
i was glad i got a chance to see the set. the punk element was
really strong, as was the spoken word. saul is really figuring a
way to mix it up. there were a number of moments i really, really
liked although approximately 25% of the time the music, the beats,
were so loud the words were indecipherable. but when you could
hear, saul gave you an earful.
one headbanger had the hook: where my niggaz at? and the answer
was incarcerated, in the military (“some benefits and a gun”).
then there was a song called african student movement, during
which saul cajoled us: instead of fighting for them, why not fight
for health care, education—you get the point. but it was not all
protest and hard beats, there was a tender moment—which is
oxymoronic to talk about tenderness and punk-hop in the same
breath, but tender is what it was.
saul started off making a point of what he saw as a difference
between emcees and poets, the image of being hard and the reality
of being human. he spoke out against “motherfuckers” whom he
defined as anyone/everyone that denigrated and disrespected the
feminine. saul challenged us to have the heart to acknowledge our
human hearts. beautiful.
i watched the audience of approximately 120 people on a monday
night in the “parish,” which is the new orleans house of
blues—small upstairs venue. the three-fifths filled room was
approximately 75% white and 99.9 percent young. yours truly was
the .1 percent that was old. at one point when saul was talking
between numbers, someone asked for more beats and less talk. saul
another time someone was on a cell phone, no, they were taking a
another interesting note is that there was a hard core of saul-heads
down front. on more than a few occasions, as saul recited a number
they knew, the followers would loudly declaim the hook lines in
unison with saul. it was undeniable: saul had found a way to
penetrate into the consciousness of a core of folk in new orleans
without the aid of radio and television, which was in fact one of
objectives. earlier when he told me that going commercial was a
way to reach folk, i nodded but retained reservations—how many
times had i heard musicians say when i get famous i’m going to
really come out with some stuff. my experience and analysis
suggests that if you ain’t doing it when you’re unknown, you
would not be likely to do it when you had fame and fortune at
saul is not weighted down with my perspective.
for me, punk-hop is far, far removed from anything commercial, but
saul has a recording deal, has a video about to be aired on mtv,
has a book publishing deal, is making movies. so, the reality is:
he’s commercial. and the reality also is he's saying something
and reaching people. more power to him. still, this is not my kind
of scene, not the kind of venue i desire nor the type of music i
but, even so, i realize, not only should i tolerate it, i should
also embrace it and learn from what saul is doing. why? simply
because when i was him, i too was striking out in startling new
directions, directions that my parents would not have explored. he
was black like i had been, i was then and am now no blacker than
for my money (i had a complimentary admission, but if i had paid
to get in, for my money—the best number was black stacey, an
autobiographical number about growing up the son of haitian
parents, his father a minister, and he dark-skinned and skinny. he
talked about some of his more self-depreciating moments, and then
hollered out the chorus: blaccckkkk stacey (which is his middle
he left nothing on the stage. was holding back nothing. gave it
his all. the veins on the side of his neck bulging. his eyes
bugging. throwing himself spastically into some of the more
once again i was proud of what he was doing, even though it was
clear he couldn’t play guitar (thankfully he only stabbed out
chords on one number, wisely relying mostly on his mouth chops
rather than his non-existent guitar chops—yet, wait a minute,
this is punk, and it doesn’t matter that you are still learning
some of the basics of your craft.
even though we had been standing at the foot of the stage steps
less than five seconds, a bunch of stuff ran through my head in
the brief interval. the crowd was hollering wildly, they wanted
saul leaned into me. “you know that piano poem?”
he was talking about my cecil taylor homage, “let me 'splain it
to ya.” i had to tell him no, i didn’t know it by heart. he
asked me, you sure you don’t know it. i knew where this was
going. he wanted to call me up to do a number with him for the
encore. i declined. i told him, no, i didn’t remember it.
earlier while he was performing, there had been a couple of mili-moments
when i thought about what i would do if i was on the stage, but
no, this was saul’s night, this was his time, not mine. i
didn’t need to be out there, especially since performing in this
kind of venue was not something i wanted to do.
saul jumped back on the stage with his band. acknowledged me on
mic and then they did two numbers. since i was now standing
backstage, behind the bank of speakers, it was even more difficult
to hear the words, but i watched the drummer. he was pounding full
force, but while knocking out the hard rock rhythm, he was also
mouthing the lyrics, clearly enjoying playing as much as the
raucous crowd enjoyed receiving the music. it was a moment of
afterwards, saul asked, you want to come back, i said, no. i was
headed home to get some sleep. i didn’t need to hang out with
the band and the other young people who would invariably be there
surrounding saul, one of the major voices of their generation.
this was their time to step forward, and, in that specific
context, my time to offer background support.
i didn’t need to hang out. it was sufficient that i had come and
seen him perform, and had been there to embrace him when he came
off the stage.
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
* * *
Sex at the Margins
Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
By Laura María Agustín
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By 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
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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