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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I Sing Because . . .
By Kalamu ya Salaam
Amid the weariness of work day's end, Sarah-Bell
savored the quiet of
oncoming twilight. At last, she could momentarily take it easy,
And she was grateful for small blessings.
Lilting into the breezeless amber of the
October evening, a mesmerizing
wordless song flowed from Sarah-Bell's full, plum-colored lips
as she plodded
down the dusty lane. Her ankle-length, thorn-tattered,
swished with each step.
hundred-eighty-seven pound Jim
One-Toe, deftly dragging his maimed left foot, hobbled beside
had a pretty fair voice himself.
One-Toe smiled in admiration of the way
Sarah-Bell made each phrase of
her improvised reel end on a little upward swoop that just
naturally made a
man feel good.
"Sarah-Bell, you sing so pretty. Can I
be your man?"
Sarah-Bell furtively peeked over at One-Toe,
smiled and immediately
refocused her gaze on the last visible tip of the orange sun
behind the nearly clean-picked field of cotton plants.
"One-Toe, you know I got a man."
"But he don't come to you all the
time," One-Toe retorted. A quick grin
of near perfect white teeth flashed across the dimpled midnight
handsome blue-black face.
Almost two good moons had passed since
anybody had seen Mule-Boy visiting
Sarah-Bell. Gathering was most over, Mule coulda been sold off
by now everybody knowed Master Gilmore over to the nearby
plantation was good
for sending you down the river at the drop of a hat.
Sarah-Bell scrutinized the squinting
sincerity of One-Toe's slender eyes.
"It ain't that he don't. He cant com."
Suddenly interrupting herself, Sarah-Bell
deftly hiked-up her skirt as
she stepped around a fresh pile of smelly horse droppings. Then,
shooing away a fat, green and black, fly with a quick fan of her
much-pricked, field-toughened hand, Sarah-Bell continued her
"...and you couldn't be with me every night neither, that
is, if'n I was to
even let you come by at all."
One-Toe was encouraged that Sarah-Bell was at
least considering the
merits of being with him. He spied a brief glimmer of interest
her eyes as she announced her decision, "Naw. I don't think
so, One-Toe. I
thinks I can wait."
"Yes, m'am." One-Toe was
disappointed, but not discouraged. He had plenty
mo' days to blow gently on the spark he glimpsed in Sarah-Bell's
eyes. He reckoned harvesting the love of a woman like this was
worth a long
season of planting and weeding.
"But if you was to get tired a waiting.
I would come. You know I would.
Like a bird to the nest. I would come to you every night I
"Which make you no different from my
far-away man who come to me every
night he can."
"Well, don't forget I'm closer to the
nest. I can get to you quicker than
him, even if'n I ain't got but one good foots," One-Toe
grinned as One-Toe made fun of his own infirmity.
She liked his gentle humor but she didn't
feel a need for another man
climbing on her just now, even a fine man like One-Toe.
For a few seconds they exchanged knowing
glances and allowed their eyes
to speak for them. Then, while holding her hand palm side out,
gracefully waved to One-Toe and spoke in a husky half-whisper as
on, "Good night, brotha One-Toe."
One-Toe peered longingly at the broadness of
Sarah-Bell's back and the
ampleness of her hips. He looked til his imagination was as full
as it could
stand to be. One-Toe wanted that pretty-singing woman. He had
seen a bunch of
women who was face-prettier, but he had never heard no one or
neither woman, man, child or bird, what sang prettier than
One-Toe had been thinking so hard about
holding Sarah-Bell in his huge
arms he missed catching sight of Chester Browne squatting nearby
door. When her singing faltered and then abruptly fell silent,
quickly surveyed the area to see what disturbance had stilled
song. One-Toe glared at Chester. Everybody knowed what a
driverman in the
lane after hours waiting by a woman's door meant.
One-Toe spit into the dust, turned and drug
himself into the bitter
barrenness of his resting room. Shortly thereafter One-Toe heard
shuffle of Chester's horse moseying past the open doorway as
Sarah-Bell rode out the lane. A high-pitched whinny from the
One-Toe, but One-Toe refused to look at the too-familiar
Chester wasn't talking, and Sarah-Bell wasn't
The chomp chomp chomp chomp of the sorrel's
hooves echoed against the
mud-caked wall of One-Toe's sleep space and reverberated inside
One-Toe forcefully buried his face into the
gritty dirt floor and stifled
an urge to say something, to say anything; a word, a sound, call
Sarah-Bell's silence tormented One-Toe. He
would gladly let them ax-chop
his good right foot if-in he could visit Sarah-Bell; Chester or
no Chester. Naw, if-in he had a cooing dove like Sarah-Bell to share nights
wouldn't even dream of running again. He would stay and comfort
It was nearly an hour later before Chester
had finished his business.
Chester never kept any washing-water in his cabin, and
Sarah-Bell had not
even dared think about going down to the master's well, so all
she could do
was wipe herself with her skirt tail before she set off to
Despite her general habit of immediately
forgetting the weight of an
overseer hovering over her and thrashing into her, Sarah-Bell
mulling over her plight. Her thoughts were accompanied by the
stark crunch of
her footfalls on the loamy trail.
Maybe, if-in it proved necessary and she
didn't wait too long, maybe
Sarah-Bell could brave a trek over to Gilmore's and plead with
Mama Zulie for
some womb-cleaning chawing roots. Sarah-Bell paused and
herself. I sure hope nothing that drastic is needed. Probably
regular bleeding had just stopped a day or so ago.
As Sarah-Bell pushed determinedly on a
trivial worriation nagged at her.
Even though she was aware that Chester's drool could do her no
harm, it sure
was a mighty aggravation the way the taste of Chester's nasty
seemed to stay in her mouth for days. Luckily, on this
particular night, he
had mostly wanted to suck at her nipples rather than her lips.
Plus, he had come quickly enough. It hadn't
been too long fore a spent
and drowsy Chester dozed off and Sarah-Bell had been able to
scoot from under
him, slip off his pallet and proceed to walking the
three-quarters a mile
back to the lane.
By the time she was most halfway there
Sarah-Bell had managed to bury
Chester's assault and summon up a plaintive song to soften the
jumbled sorrow resting heavy in the bottom of her stomach.
Shortly, for the second time, the soles of
feet felt the well-worn familiarity of the lane's path.
welcomed back by the sleeping-sounds of her people. Snores.
Groans. A few moans from someone sick, or was it from someone
or maybe both.
Sarah-Bell was too exhausted to stumble fifty
more yards down to the
creek for to wash herself. She would do that in the morning. And
was hungry, she was also too fatigued to gnaw on the piece of
secreted deep in the pocket of her skirt. Right now she needed
to lay down by
herself and seek the solace of sleep so she could disremember
the dog-odor of
Chester's hair she had endured when he had been slobbering on
her breasts. It
was funny how that foul smell lingered in her consciousness.
Seems like smell
and taste had mo staying power than the abuse of touch.
Sarah-Bell's sharp ears caught the faint
sound of some animal moving in
the woods. Judging from the swift lightness of the rustling
coming from the
bushes, she guessed it must be a rabbit. An owl hooted.
empathized with the prey--run brother rabbit, less you be
Times like this Sarah-Bell wished she was
brave enough to hightail it
like One-Toe had done. Maybe she would make it to Mexico, which
One-Toe said he had been headed. Sarah-Bell thought of what
declared when they brought him back: Some gets away, some don't.
was worth the risk, worth losing some of a foot.
She flinched at the thought of so permanent a
loss. Even though she had
survived more than her share of suffering, Sarah-Bell still
didn't know if
she could stand one of her limbs being mutilated or cut away.
Sarah-Bell was too tuckered out and
emotionally drained to do anything
more than collapse into her doorway. She didn't even crawl over
to check on
her children balled together in slumber beneath a patchwork
sackcloth and shirt pieces. No sooner her dark-haired head
nestled onto the
curved comfort of her pillow-stone, a weary Sarah-Bell was dead
The next day in the pale dim of half-dawn
morning light only one child
sat where two usually fidgeted. Sarah-Bell's heart dropped.
"Them took her," Johnny-Bell
Was no need to say who "them" was.
Was no need to ask "where" they took
We ain't got nothing but each other, and they
won't let us hold on to
that, Sarah-Bell's insides roiled with anger. Both man and God
Man for what he was doing. And God for allowing men to act the
low down way
they did. Sarah-Bell knew Johnny-Bell would be next. She knew it
just as sure
as she knew a snake would eat an unprotected egg.
Johnny-Bell was her fifth child.
"What's yo name, boy?"
"Johnny..." the child stuttered
frightened by the hissed intensity of his
"Naw. Yo name Johnny-Bell. BELL. You
Johnny-Bell. Yo brothers is
Robert-Bell and Joe-Bell. Your sisters is Urzie-Bell and Suzee-Bell.
matter where they cart you off to, no matter what they call you
remember the name yo mama give you. And if you ever hear tell of
or yo sisters, you go find 'em if you can. But you remember 'em
even if you
can't find 'em. You remember yo people. You hear me?"
"Say, yes, Sarah-Bell. Don't mam me.
Call me by my name. Sarah-Bell."
The confused four year old wet himself. He
had never heard his mother
speak so harshly to him; but he didn't cry.
When she realized how hard she was shaking
him, Sarah-Bell softened her
grip on Johnny-Bell's shoulder. He was just a scared little boy,
and her rage
wasn't making this crisis any easier for him. She could feel
currents of fear
in the heavy trembling racking his little body, which was
twitching like a
throat-cut calf at slaughtering time.
Within seconds Sarah-Bell reigned in her
emotions, mustered up her
fortitude, and tenderly enfolded Johnny-Bell into the comforting
her bosom. They swayed in mutual anguish as she sought to rock
away both his
fear and her grief.
Instinctively she handled her predicament as
best she knew how. Within
seconds of hugging Johnny-Bell, Sarah-Bell was breathing out a
lullaby and anointing the reddish-brown hair of her son's head
And she didn't loosen her embrace until she
heard the rooster crow for
day. After emerging into the muted shine of daybreak,
and child marched down to the water to bathe themselves.
The word about Suzee-Bell buzzed through the
small community. Just before
departing for the fields, glassy-eyed and scowling, Sarah-Bell
stood in the
middle of the lane sullenly declaiming her determination.
"Yalls, hear me. Every time I have one,
they take and sell 'em away.
Sarah-Bell is through birthing babies. No matter who lay down
with me, ain't
no mo babies coming out of me. I'm done. Done, you hear me.
And with the finality of her words resounding
in everyone's ears,
Sarah-Bell whirled and commenced to trudging off to the field.
scrambled to catch up to Sarah-Bell.
Without breaking stride, Sarah-Bell closely
examined One-Toe's unblinking
gaze. Satisfied with what she saw, Sarah-Bell gave a quick nod
accepted the respectful silence of One-Toe's company.
She started singing, quietly at first but
more forcefully as they
sauntered on. The irresistible refrain of Sarah-Bell's song
gait. Together, they would face another day.
"I Sing Because" (Essence, 1999) --
because... that's in a journal that came out once, called "anasi" and
was later picked up and is in the december 1999 issue of essence magazine. it's
a piece about an enslaved sister who decides she is not going to have any more
children" (Kalamu ya Salaam).
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music website >
writing website >
daily blog >
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Guarding the Flame of Life
New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin
They danced atop his casket Jaran 'Julio' Green
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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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updated 18 October 2007