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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You've Been There
By Kalamu ya Salaam
I used to wonder how could one ship load of
Portuguese or English be enough to conquer mighty, mighty
nations. I don't wonder any longer. The answer is obvious once
you have been there.
But you must be in Ghana, on the coast
where the English were, pass through the five walls, the triple
gates, walk through the stark, hard stone courtyard of the 15th
century Portuguese fort which served as a slave castle -- a
holding place for the exportation of enslaved Africans. Be there
and feel the weight of walls, the thickness of canon, the cold
iron of twenty pound (or heavier) shot, descend those steps and
shiver listening to the echo of your footsteps in the clammy
cavern, hear the waves splintering on the rocks with a
poltergeist roar that pounded the last sound of Africa into your
ancestors' woolly heads.
After you have experienced the soft tones
of the gentle Ghanaian people, eyes wide, men holding hands,
women leaning against each other, everyone touched. After being
there, you know.
Once you have been there you will know why,
after he secured a toe hold on the coast, we never stood a
chance against Tarzan. A thousand spears could never have
destroyed a single fort door. And we were just too humane to
ever assume that someone would destroy our world. Even today,
without airplanes it would be hard to take the fort, especially
if the soldiers inside were better armed, ruthless and under the
illusion that you were not even human.
And especially if Lord Greystone's
predecessors had collaborators: kings who sold. Merchants,
mercenaries, and middle men who directly profiteered off the
slave trade. Guides and translators who traitored.
Our PANAFEST guide now is a young Ghanaian
woman named Ivana -- yes, a Soviet name. Someone said to her
"that's Russian?" And she said "yes"; but
she should have said "Soviet" from when the communists
worked in solidarity with the liberation movements. Sure they
had their own agenda and were pushing their own philosophy, but
they helped when the West refused. Refused even medicine and
clothing to the liberation movements. Or worse yet, the West
sent aid to emerging states, aid which was a Trojan bomb wrapped
in IMF (International Monetary Fund) total tinkering with a
country's economy. Tinkering at the level of a stern pa-pa
parceling out fifteen cents daily allowance with a solemn
lecture that if you buy any candy, even a penny's worth, all of
the dole will be cut off immediately. And you better not get
caught hanging with the wrong crowd.
Structural readjustment is what they call
this tinkering. Young college trained economists from the West
are the de facto regulators of large sectors of the economy --
including the national airline company.
We flew in on a leased, Ghana Airlines
jumbo jet. Even though native Ghanaian pilots are available, the
terms of the lease dictate that certain experienced
("certain experienced" is a euphemism for
"White" or White acculturated) pilots and crew members
be used. In the international leagues you don't even get to
choose your own team players -- that's the essence of structural
In Cape Coast a young vendor explains that
Western clothing is dumped on Ghana as part of IMF trade
regulations. African clothing is more expensive than the Western
commodities. So generally, the people acquire the cheapest
apparel available. Even so you still see a lot of Ghanaians in
traditional garb. IMF makes it difficult for Africans to dress
in African styles.
Ivana may or may not know about the terms
of foreign aid, about the IMF and about the Soviets. Right now
she and a fellow guide, also a young woman from Accra, want to
see the slave castle. Ivana had tasks to complete and by the
time she got to the castle, the dungeon doors were locked. I
will ask Ivana later why she has that name.
Ivana was born into a family of priestesses
of traditional religion. She does not plan to become a priestess
but she explained the whole ritual to Stephanie as we stood in
an open square near the fort in downtown Accra. The kings of the
area were there enthroned beneath gold encrusted umbrellas.
Linguists whom you must speak through to talk to the king --
assuming that you can even get that close --
sit holding wooden staffs which are topped with solid
gold emblems. I spot the sanfoka symbol atop one of the staffs
and know that is the symbol for "return and fetch it."
From a distance of twenty feet or so, even I can see that real
gold has a shine that is deeper than glitter. Real gold is
impressive, especially when thick and intricately carved. Or so
it seems to my untutored eye. Immediately, I reflect on the
African American penchant for wearing gold rings, necklaces,
bracelets and earrings.
This is the night before we visit the slave
castle on Cape Coast which is a long drive outside of Accra.
This is our second night in Accra. The first night we went to
the Du Bois center for a concert. Actually this is the beginning
of the third day because it is shortly after midnight and we
have been told that there will be a special ceremony, an
atonement ritual in which the chiefs will beg the ancestors for
forgiveness because of what some of them did in collaborating
with the slavers.
Even though it is video taped, this is not
simply a staged event. It is in a poor part of town. There are
no politicians around making speeches. There is no Christian
preacher beginning with a prayer to "our lord".
What is here are hundreds of poor Ghanaians
watching as their chiefs announce the purpose of this gathering.
A bull is led out, later a goat. They will be sacrificed. Three
different sets of drummers.
Other than the chiefs and the priestesses,
no one is dressed up. People wear whatever they wore yesterday,
whatever they will wear later today. Whatever they will wear
They stand in the dirt. Some laugh in the
background. Some are somber as they watch the ceremony. And as
they watch us, their American brothers and sisters.
Although the event was impressive, it
really was not for the benefit of the diaspora. This was a
necessary step toward facing up to the painful negative
realities of our history. No concerted effort was made to make
sure that all of the diaspora attendees to PANAFEST were brought
to the ceremony. It was not held in the national stadium or the
national theatre. In fact there was not even a bus to bring us
to this field in the poor part of town.
This was a step that the continent needed
to take. I watched from a distance and understood that although
it was specifically about the slave trade, this purification
ritual was not about me as a "diaspora
survivor/descendent" of that trade. This was about those
who had collaborated in sending me away.
What was most interesting to me is that
this was the traditional chiefs speaking to the masses and not
the contemporary elected officials speaking to the educated. I
knew that the traditional chiefs needed to atone, but I question
why weren't the "contemporary chiefs" also present to
assure the people and themselves that they would not fall victim
to a recurrence of this historic collaboration.
Until repatriation of the diaspora is the
law of every African state, and especially of West African
countries, the betrayal will not have been fully reversed. Just
as they sent us away, they must bring us back, otherwise our
return will be seen as a threat and resentments will abound. The
reintegration of the family that was torn asunder is no simple
task. In fact it is emotionally taxing. Sometimes, like when I
am standing there, one a.m. in the morning watching
"them" slit the throat of a sacrificial bull, I find
pause and wonder just how much I want to return if this is what
I am returning to.
Part of me is in the crowd of simple
people, looking at the chiefs, listening to the words, looking
at us, watching the ritual and trying to sort it all out. At
least five or six people say to me in broken English, welcome
home brother. Unlike the chiefs, the poor people intuitively
know that our positions are interchangeable. It could have been
them in the dungeon, and now returning centuries later ignorant
of the mother tongue, a stranger in my motherland.
Part of me is with the dispassionate
observation of the media cameras angling for a better or more
dramatic shot, taking it all in indiscriminately without any
filter other than the consciousness of Tarzan the video director
dictating what should be observed and remembered and what did
not matter. Stephanie and Nia did not bring their cameras
because they thought this was going to be a sacred ceremony.
They were very disappointed when they saw the media video
equipment. The world has changed so rapidly, Africa's growing
pains are illuminated, and everything takes place within the
public glare. Africa has no privacy.
Tarzan spends most of his time looking at
the chiefs, observing the rituals, talking
to an interpreter who explains what's going on. Very
little of Tarzan's footage is of the people. Nobody translates
what they are saying to each other.
And there is another tortured part of me on
that killing ground, my throat slit. Even though I do not want
to think it, I have had enough experience with Black political
leaders to know that not only would they sell us out, but they
will even fake elaborate rituals of seeming sincerity if they
think that is what it will take to maintain their power. I try
not to make a judgment about these men whom I never met.
At one point there is a delay. I find out
later that Ivana told Stephanie the purification ritual required
the participation of the women but the chiefs had not involved
the women from the beginning of the program, even though the
priestesses were there dressed in white.
When the men finally got around to asking
the women to participate, the women first said "no."
After giving them a piece of their mind, the elder sisters
relented and the ritual went on.
Like, I said, even when they are sincere,
sometimes politicians are still only thinking about themselves.
Perhaps, like that bull kicking in the dust long after its
throat had been slit and its blood had been gathered in a pan,
and used in the ceremony; maybe, like that bull whose carcass
was carted off on a flatbed wagon drawn to the field by two
young boys, a cart whose two wheel flaps had pictures of a brown
Jesus on them; perhaps like that bull, like that goat, perhaps I
was simply being used as a sacrificial vehicle to assuage the
guilt of these traditional politicians.
It may sound totally cynical to view myself
in this way, but the truth is, at some point it crossed my mind.
The truth is that Black politicians have a history of
selling us out.
The truth is that I was in the dungeon, thanks in part to
The truth is it will take more than the slaughter of one
bull and one goat to account for that.
Source: Kalamu ya Salaam.
Tarzan Can Not Return to Africa,
But I Can
-- PanaFest 1994
* * * *
Guarding the Flame of Life
New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin
They danced atop his casket Jaran 'Julio' Green
* * *
1. Congo Square (9:01)
2. My Story, My Song (20:50)
3. Danny Banjo (4:32)
4. Miles Davis (10:26)
5. Hard News For Hip Harry (5:03)
6. Unfinished Blues (4:13)
7. Rainbows Come After The Rain (2:21)/Negroidal Noise (15:53)
8. Intro (3:59)
9. The Whole History (3:14)
10. Negroidal Noise (5:39)
11. Waving At Ra (1:40)
12. Landing (1:21)
13. Good Luck (:04)
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music website >
writing website >
daily blog >
* * *
Chiefs in Cape
Coast, Ghana /
Grand Durbar Parade
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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
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Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.
She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
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So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America
By Peter Edelman
If the nation’s gross national income—over $14 trillion—were divided evenly across the entire U.S. population, every household could call itself middle class. Yet the income-level disparity in this country is now wider than at any point since the Great Depression. In 2010 the average salary for CEOs on the S&P 500 was over $1 million—climbing to over $11 million when all forms of compensation are accounted for—while the current median household income for African Americans is just over $32,000. How can some be so rich, while others are so poor? In this provocative book, Peter Edelman, a former top aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and a lifelong antipoverty advocate, offers an informed analysis of how this country can be so wealthy yet have a steadily growing number of unemployed and working poor. According to Edelman, we have taken important positive steps without which 25 to 30 million more people would be poor, but poverty fluctuates with the business cycle.
The structure of today’s economy has stultified wage
growth for half of America’s workers—with even worse
results at the bottom and for people of color—while bestowing billions on those at the top. So Rich, So Poor delves into what is happening to the people behind the statistics and takes a particular look at the continuing crisis of young people of color, whose possibility of a productive life too often is lost on their way to adulthood.—
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Allah, Liberty, and Love
The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom
By Irshad Manji
In Allah, Liberty and Love, Irshad Manji paves a path for Muslims and non-Muslims to transcend the fears that stop so many of us from living with honest-to-God integrity: the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning our own communities. Since publishing her international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji has moved from anger to aspiration. She shows how any of us can reconcile faith with freedom and thus discover the Allah of liberty and love—the universal God that loves us enough to give us choices and the capacity to make them. Among the most visible Muslim reformers of our era, Manji draws on her experience in the trenches to share stories that are deeply poignant, frequently funny and always revealing about these morally confused times.
prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from
expressing their need for religious
reinterpretation? What scares non-Muslims about
openly supporting liberal voices within Islam? How
did we get into the mess of tolerating intolerable
customs, such as honor killings, and how do we change that noxious status quo?
* * * * *
The New New Deal
The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era
By Michael Grunwald
Time senior correspondent Michael Grunwald tells the secret history of the stimulus bill, the purest distillation of Change We Can Believe In, a microcosm of Obama’s policy successes and political failures. Though it is reviled by the right and rejected by the left, it really is a new New Deal, larger than FDR’s and just as transformative. It prevented an imminent depression, while jump-starting Obama’s long-term agenda. The stimulus is pouring $90 billion into clean energy, reinventing the way America is powered and fueled; it includes unprecedented investments in renewables, efficiency, electric cars, a smarter grid, cleaner coal, and more. It’s carrying health care into the digital era. Its Race to the Top initiative may be the boldest education reform in U.S. history. It produced the biggest middle-class tax cuts in a generation, a broadband initiative reminiscent of rural electrification, and an overhaul of the New Deal’s unemployment insurance system. It’s revamping the way government addresses homelessness, fixes infrastructure, and spends money.
Grunwald reveals how Republicans have obscured these achievements through obstruction and distortion. The stimulus launched a genuine national comeback. It also saved millions of jobs, while creating legacies that could rival the Hoover Dam: the world’s largest wind farm, a new U.S. battery industry, a new high-speed rail network, the world’s highest-speed Internet network. Its main legacy, like the New Deal’s, will be change.
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Pictures and Progress
Early Photography and the Making of African
Edited by Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn
Pictures and Progress explores how,
during the nineteenth century and the early
twentieth, prominent African American
intellectuals and activists understood
photography's power to shape perceptions
about race and employed the new medium in
their quest for social and political
justice. They sought both to counter widely
circulating racist imagery and to use
self-representation as a means of
empowerment. In this collection of essays,
scholars from various disciplines consider
figures including Frederick Douglass,
Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Paul Laurence
Dunbar, and W. E. B. Du Bois as important
and innovative theorists and practitioners
of photography. In addition, brief
interpretive essays, or "snapshots,"
highlight and analyze the work of four early
African American photographers. Featuring
more than seventy images,
Pictures and Progress brings to
light the wide-ranging practices of early
African American photography, as well as the
effects of photography on racialized
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The White Masters
of the World
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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Negro Digest / Black World
Browse all issues
* * *
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 /
* * * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding
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(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 15 July 2012