ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes


Home   ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music, and more)


 In mainstream, or , to use Lorenzo Thomas's terminology, Eurocentric modern lyric poetry,

 the poet witnesses his or her own consciousness, the processes of observation

and experience themselves, and comments on them. This private process, made public



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)


*   *   *   *   *

Books by Lorenzo Thomas


Dancing on Main Street  / Sing the Sun Up / Chances Are Few


*   *   *   *   *


Report on

american studies association conference

houston, 15 november 2002

lorenzo thomas panel

 By Kalamu ya Salaam


my vehicle is still in the shop awaiting a replacement engine--the second this year. i've rented a car and make the 5.5 hour drive  over to houston, arriving an hour before my presentation. by the time i find the location in the galleria and set up, there is still a solid half hour before hit time. aldon nielson is there. he and i are doing multi-media. he

has an mp3 player and is sharing some audio clips, plus a very brief video clip from a vhs tape. the honoree lorenzo thomas arrives just as the panel is about to kick off. organized by barry maxwell of cornell university, the panel includes, aldon nielson, harryette mullen, maria damon (academic heavyweights all) and yours truly.

when moderator maxwell asked me to participate on a panel about lorenzo thomas, my initial impusle was to say "no." i'm through writing papers for academic panels. no mas. but i have a deep respect and admiration for the work of lorenzo thomas, plus we know each other from way, way back, so i feel obliged to do something. my compromise is that i will do a short video on lorenzo. maxwell  buys my offer.

earlier this year, back in march, i drove over to houston to video interview lorenzo. we sat in an empty classroom at the university of houston. i wanted to shoot in his office, but lorenzo felt it was too junky, which is exactly

why i wanted to shoot in there. i guessed there would be books all over the place, hardly anywhere to walk or sit, a desk overflowing with work in progress, newspapers, magazines, maybe a bottle of water, a coffee cup stuffed with pens and pencils, a blinking computer behind the desk. a squat, black telephone sitting sentry like a hungry bulldog. maybe a window

overlooking nothing in particular. it would have made a great set, offering all kinds of interesting angles, but lorenzo's sense of propriety kicked in. he didn't want to look bad. didn't want to come off as the disheveled wacky professor. so we ended up in the sterility of a harshly lit, box of a classroom. a whiteboard behind him as he sat at a plastic-topped table.

utterly characterless. it was talking head hell.

after the shoot, lorenzo took me out to a mexican restaurant and we had a good meal, some engaging conversation and i turned around and got back on the highway, getting home around midnight. not a bad day's work.

once i looked at the footage i was both astounded and dispirited. astounded because a lot of what lorenzo had to say was not only interesting, he was occasionally amazing in how he hooked-up various threads of thought. but the look of the piece--it hurts my eyes, my sensibility as a movie maker to stare at a talking head for twenty minutes. and then there was the other problem of how to boil it all down into a cogent 12-minute piece.

enter jerry ward. professor ward and i have been friends for years and years and years. in the summer of 2002 he accepted an offer from dillard president michael lomax to become a distinguished scholar with an endowed chair. accepting the dillard offer meant jerry would be leaving his long-time stomping grounds of tougaloo college located on the outskirts of jackson, mississippi. jerry had been dedicated to tougaloo like a farmer to the land, but in a typical godfather move, lomax made one of those irrefusable offers.

by august jerry was in new orleans. and in september we began our weekly monday diner dates. we go to one of the thousands of restaurants or eating establishments dotting the new orleans landscape and hold court with the eruditeness of old heads on saturday at the barbershop. we have no specific agendas, and just talk about whatever we feel like pontificating on. except jerry is widely read, intellectually sharp, and given to precision in his pronouncements--hence his nickname: surgeon.

surgeon and i have worked together on a number of projects, including co-editing two issues of the african american review, which is when we officially adopted our "noms-de-intellectual guerre." so while he slices and dices, separating flesh from bone, artery from sinew, i be earning my stripes with overhead swipes and smashing hammer hits--they call me sledgehammer. so one evening while we're beating that boy, the idea occurs to me, why not include a segment with jerry and i deconstructing lorenzo's work. jerry agrees to be part of the video project.

i select about twenty minutes of the interview that i think are particularly insightful, burn a vhs tape and give it to jerry for his review. a week later jerry has made notes and points to four segments. i re-edit the lorenzo segments and then arrange to video jerry. i take my high school crew over to dillard and they do the actual shooting. typically, jerry has prepared his comments. two questions, one-take each, and we're in and out within 45 minutes. i spend about two more days editing, finalizing the cuts, figuring out how to do the transitions (i end up with page turns when lorenzo goes from topic to topic), use a hip titling device from a slick (that's actually the name of the product) plug-in for i-movie, and voila, i'm ready to participate on an academic panel.

i get the nod to lead-off the panel, followed by harryette mullen who has a plane to catch, then aldon followed by ms. damon, and then comments from lorenzo. using a video as my contribution is a little different for an academic panel, and the video is well received.  following the video, i make a brief statement about the three major revolutions in the recording of speech. first came writing and the printing press, which strips away sound and gesture. then at the turn of the 20th century came recording and radio, which added back sound. the opening of the 21st century brings us digital video you can edit on personal computers, that brings back gesture. the importance of all of this is that african american culture is sound-intensive and gesture-sensitive, or to put it another way, there can be no appreciation of black culture without hearing it.

harryette follows with a paper that is both analytical and anecdotal, and more importantly, she also points to music. (a couple of days after the panel, mullen, nielson and damon email copies of their papers to all of the panelists.) here is a long quote from mullen's presentation:

>>In 1967 in a poem titled "Onion Bucket," he wrote "All silence says music will follow," suggesting to me a dialectical relationship between life and death, between art and the void of meaninglessness, and suggesting to any blocked writer that the blank page is ready to receive our creation. In the poetry of Lorenzo Thomas, there is often an implicit soundtrack behind the words, an allusive, unheard but remembered music that helps to establish the mood, location, or social context of a given moment of the poet's observant participation. The musical influences so pervasive in his poetry include jazz, blues, R & B, rock, reggae, calypso, zydeco, disco, country western, western classical music, even Muzak.  Often some particular musical allusion allows the poet to define intimate or social space, or the speaker in the poem may borrow a theme or a rhetorical stance from a specific type of music, as in "Blues Cadet" and "MMDCCXIII 1/2." (The title of the latter appears to be a street address, 2713 1/2, written in Roman numerals.)

In these poems, whether the blues is directly or indirectly evoked, and whether or not the poem itself includes blues allusions, the space of home is defined as a blues space whenever the poet sings of emotional discord and estrangement as individuals fail to connect. The poet sings the blues when love is off-key and a house is not a home. In "Blues Cadet," with its title and its epigraph "after Sonny Boy Williamson" we are alerted to the poem's origins in the blues. The colloquial voice, intimate address to an absent love, and household metaphors of the poem's troubled speaker would be appropriate for a traditional blues singer: "I've worn out the pictures on the carpet/Just pacing in my room//Ever since you went away." In "2713 1/2" something close to a classical metrical pattern can be felt in the lines, yet under this speaker's more formal diction it is still possible to hear the blues:<<

nielson then ups the music ante. first he plays a musical excerpt, the beach boys doing surfing usa. and follows with chuck berry's original "sweet little sixteen" thereby illustrating the source, but then going further and deconstructing the whole context. again i quote at some length:

Brian Wilson once explained to an interviewer from Time magazine: "We're not colored; we're white.  And we sing white" (qtd. in Kirsch, 2).  The real story was, as it always is in America's racial cosmology, considerably more complicated than the Beach Boys allowed.  Lorenzo Thomas would have recognized that on first hearing.  "Surfing U.S.A." had as co-author none other than Chuck Berry, whose melody, blues progression, patented guitar licks and even idealistic, adolescent longing are at the core of what Brian Wilson made from the materials of Berry's composition "Sweet Little Sixteen."  Berry and the Beach Boys, too, shared a common shore of enunciation.  The hard "R" sounds and wide open vowels of Brian Wilson's plain statement resemble nothing so much as the dialect of the plains, the natural affect of Missourians like Melvin B. Tolson and Chuck Berry.  (It's a sound that marks the Beach Boys apart from the Oakie inflected pronunciation of so many of their neighbors, not to mention the Armenian strains of contemporaries of theirs such as Cher.)  This, unlike the musical appropriations, was not a matter of conscious mimicry, the sort of thing that explains why so many fifteen-year-old white boys in Iowa now sound as though they'd grown up in the Bronx.  But it does raise a rather obvious question: when white people say that someone sounds "black," what do they really mean?  Brian Wilson says he sings white, and if that means that he sounds a lot like Chuck Berry, then we need to wonder just what is fit music for an America always at war with its own racial present?

what is totally tickling me is how the "literary" analysis is focusing on music, thereby reinforcing the centrality of sound in black culture.  

the last presentation was by maria damon, and although she offers a more traditional literary exposition, her emphasis on "witnessing" (or as she wittily notes, lorenzo is a poet who puts the "wit back into witness," which is rap-like in its word play) establishes the cultural context within which sound is supreme. again, i quote at length:

In mainstream, or , to use Lorenzo Thomas's terminology, Eurocentric modern lyric poetry, the poet witnesses his or her own consciousness, the processes of observation and experience themselves, and comments on them. This private process, made public in suitably lovely language, ratifies the poet as a special, sensitive person who represents the ideal of the self-knowing human:  an auto-erotic Socratic exhibition for the intellectual voyeur.  What falls out of the equation for the most part is history, context, the social world.  In this mainstream poetic arena, the private contract between the poet, performing for him or herself but disingenuously conscious of being under surveillance, and an audience hungry for personal insight, is a psycho-emotional one; if history intrudes, it functions as a "background" setting, insisted on, if at all, by the harsh, flat-footed critic, academically trained in the last 30 years perhaps, to bring "cultural context" into the picture to muddy the waters and tamper with the proper perspective of this private, self-regarding metaphysical striptease. 

Fortunately, Lorenzo Thomas, the poets to whom he devotes his analytic energies, and the poetic scenes he documents and participates in are not mainstream or Eurocentric.  For Thomas, Afrocentric poetry is historiography, and Afrocentric literary historiography is a form of *social* witnessing.  As social and subjective witnessing are not separate events --that is, the poet's subjectivity has itself been touched by social trauma --the stakes are higher.  To write literary history is to take extraordinary measures to ensure survival; to write the extraordinary linear measures of poetry is to link one's own survival to that of one's community. To write history through poetry and a poetic historiography is to knit oneself even more closely to community.  Healing the split between history and poetry, literary history, itself a poetics, can be a way of situating poetic practice in a social context --one's own.  By looking at Lorenzo Thomas's literary historiography, we get a sense of how a poet's rendition of history foregrounds the poetics of community formation and historical transformation.<<

after the four presentations, lorenzo briefly responded. he was thankful for everyone's contribution. it was a great panel with thoughtful and insightful commentaries. i was not only extremely pleased to participate, i also really enjoyed myself while listening to critics who were good at doing what lorenzo said on the videotape is one of the roles of the critic: to make clear what one gets from a particular piece of literary work. 

my view of the future suggests that what is commonly called "multi-media" will be used more and more often as we realize two factors: one--multi-media is now accessible to everyone, you can use recordings, make movies, present slides and carry it all to the presentation in handheld computers, audio players and projection devices. two--multi-media enables a more accurate explication of black culture, a culture that can not be fully understood if one does not hear it. i believe the use of multi-media will not only facilitate presentations about black culture, more importantly multi-media will make it possible for a new type of critic to emerge, a critic who is grounded in sound, equal to if not moreso than being grounded in text.

think of what happened with music in the 20th century. once the technology of sound reproduction was effected, the dominance of classical music was ended as black music came to the fore thanks to records and radio. without recording and broadcast technology there would not have been a worldwide musical revolution because one can not appreciate or learn black music without hearing it. classical music can be passed on through written scores, but there is no manuscript that can represent blues and jazz, nor gospel or rhythm and blues, not to mention the current scene. try to imagine rap music represented  as a musical score on paper.

my neo-griot concept is one of writing with text, sound and light. as far as i am concerned records and movies are a form of writing, a way to concretize language and make it possible for the audience to receive the message in the absence of the author presenting the message in real time. moreover, multimedia enables those who are proficient at the presentation of sound and visuals to represent themselves with authority rather than relying solely on those whose forte is words on paper.

as a writer i have a lot of respect for and proficiency with using text, but i am also aware that the dominance of text has been to the detriment of our culture not only in terms of the presentation of the culture but also in terms of the criteria that determine who is an expert, a critic. often a critic is considered an authority because they are proficient at writing, not because they have a real understanding of the culture, but now with multimedia, we can not only focus on the culture, we also enable other forms of intellectual insight. the ph.d. is no longer privileged just because they are adept at writing.

we are on the verge of the third major revolution in writing. multi-media in general and especially digital technology (particularly digital video)  levels the playing field and makes it possible for non-textual languages to compete in all arenas. the lorenzo thomas panel exemplified the potential effectiveness of the multi-media third wave, and this was only the beginning.

personally, it became clear to me that the making of movies is not only a realistic alternative to writing a paper, digital videos are in fact able to present facets that text can't. to be clear, what i am calling for is not the elimination of text, but rather the addition of sound and gesture to text as a form of writing. i want to be proficient in all three areas, and i think that we all can use digital multimedia to now more fully and accurately represent black culture.

on the long drive back to new orleans that night, my imagination was buzzing, thinking about all the possibilities in terms of using digital video. next week i head out to san antonio for the guadeloupe inter-america bookfair and literary festival. report to come...

posted 15 november 2002

Lorenzo Thomas was born in Panama in 1944. Four years later the family immigrated to New York City, where Thomas grew up. Spanish was his first language, and he strove to master English. During his years at Queens College, Thomas joined the Umbra Workshop, a collective that met on the Lower East Side and served as a crucible for emerging black poets, among them Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, and Calvin Hernton. The workshop was one of the currents that fed the Black Arts Movement of the '60s and '70s.

After graduating from college Thomas joined the Navy, serving as a military adviser in Vietnam in 1971. In 1973 he moved to Houston as writer-in-residence at Texas Southern University. At TSU he helped edit the journal Roots. Later he conducted writing workshops at the newly formed Black Arts Center. He joined UH-Downtown in 1984.

Thomas' poetry collections include Chances Are Few (1979, expanded in 2003), The Bathers (1981), Sound Science (1992), and Dancing on Main Street (2004). About the last, the Houston Chronicle wrote: "Taken together, the poems in this collection exhibit that equipoise that comes with age and experience. Sorrow and joy find their balance." Poetry, Thomas once wrote, "attempts to knock the mind out of the rut of commonplace thinking."

For more than two decades a professor of English at the University of  Houston-Downtown, Thomas also made important contributions to the study of African-American literature. In 2000, the University of Alabama Press published Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and 20th-Century American Poetry, his overview of the work of James Fenton, Amiri Baraka and other important black writers. It was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book for the year.

His works have appeared in many journals including African American Review, Arrowsmith, Blues Unlimited (England), Living Blues, Partisan Review, Ploughshares, and Popular Music and Society, among others.  A regular book reviewer for the Houston Chronicle, he has also contributed scholarly articles to the African American Encyclopedia, American Literary Scholarship, Gulliver (Germany) and the Dictionary Of Literary Biography.

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
#2 - Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
#4 - Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper
#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

*   *   *   *   *

Predator Nation

Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America

By Charles H. Ferguson

If you’re smart and a hard worker, but your parents aren’t rich, you’re now better off being born in Munich, Germany or in Singapore than in Cleveland, Ohio or New York. This radical shift did not happen by accident.  Ferguson shows how, since the Reagan administration in the 1980s, both major political parties have become captives of the moneyed elite.  It was the Clinton administration that dismantled the regulatory controls that protected the average citizen from avaricious financiers.  It was the Bush team that destroyed the federal revenue base with its grotesquely skewed tax cuts for the rich. And it is the Obama White House that has allowed financial criminals to continue to operate unchecked, even after supposed “reforms” installed after the collapse of 2008. Predator Nation reveals how once-revered figures like Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers became mere courtiers to the elite.

Based on many newly released court filings, it details the extent of the crimes—there is no other word—committed in the frenzied chase for wealth that caused the financial crisis.  And, finally, it lays out a plan of action for how we might take back our country and the American dream.Read Chapter 1

*   *   *   *   *

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.

*   *   *   *   *

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

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.     

Professor Perry 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 Caucasian babies.

*   *   *   *   *

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)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

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

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *

*   *   *   *   *

ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music, and more)






update 31 May 2012




Home  Kalamu ya Salaam   Art for Life   Black Arts and Black Power Figures  Askia M. Toure Table

Related files: remembering professor lorenzo thomas  The Cruelty of Age  in Lorenzo Thomas' “Tirade”    Instructions for Your New Osiris   Poetry and National Security