ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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They were rapping on and on. At one point I said loud enough for everyone to hear, why don't yall rap

about conditions in jail? ... Their favorite word was 'bitch,' but it didn't have a gender designation



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)


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Take Deep Breaths: Post-Katrina New Orleans

 By Kalamu ya Salaam


“How did it feel when you first came back home?”

“I didn't,” I curtly reply to the earnestly asked question, “I'm here, but here is not the home I left.”

Waiting for me to elaborate, none of the four-man crew say anything. The whole room seems to be holding its breath.

Had I been on my toes, I would have declared living in New Orleans is like trying to breath under water. You can't. What you do is grab gulps of air, drop under for as long as you can, pop up shortly, gasp another mouthful or two, and duck back down, re-submerging your head below the water line.

Isha, one of my younger grandchildren, was all excited last weekend. She is taking swimming lessons and had learned how to put her tiny face under water. She was so proud, so very, very proud of her little five-year-old self, proclaiming she's going to open her eyes next.

And now, suddenly, for no particular reason, I'm hearing Etta James singing “I'd rather go blind, than see you walk away from me.” I second that emotion—I'd rather go blind than see New Orleans like it is: inundated by an awful post-hurricane funk.

What I'm seeing hurts my eyeballs.

My good friend Jerry appears ok, but there's a disquieting edge to his silence. Sledgehammer (that's me) and surgeon (that's Dr. Jerry Ward) meet every Thursday to socialize over a meal. This is our first tete-a-tete after a two week interruption. Initially, even though I didn't remember him saying anything, I thought maybe he was out of town but since I was so preoccupied with my own seemingly endless to-do list, I just moved on when he didn't answer my phone calls. I had no way of knowing Jerry had been in jail.

About a month ago Jerry had checked himself into a hospital; that same afternoon he was released but given a vigorous recommendation: seek professional help for what was diagnosed as depression. And now here he was telling me that he had totaled his car.

Jail? A wreck? What the hell was going on?

My own terrible secret is that I was not really surprised. Sure, I was taken aback a little, but in post-Katrina New Orleans we all are predisposed toward expecting the worse because for natives bad news is now the norm.

Fatou served us our regular order: a plate of coco rice, sauteed spinach, plantains and a filet of steamed talipia-mild for Jerry, mine was spicy liberally sprinked with dark red cayenne. Jerry had ginger beer, I had “half-and-half” (half ginger beer, half wonjo, a red zinger-based herbal brew). When we entered, Fatou was in the back. I had called out to her and as she came to our table with her soft smile and charmingly-accented English, she simply asked “the usual?”

I had nodded yes to her, now I was nodding as Jerry told me the details of his thirty-some-hour adventure in central lock up.

”I didn't sleep on the floor, but some did using their shoes for pillows. They were rapping on and on. At one point I said loud enough for everyone to hear, why don't yall rap about conditions in jail? ... Their favorite word was 'bitch,' but it didn't have a gender designation. Some of them felt the need to modify the word when they referred to someone they really didn't like, like some of the guards, who were 'pussy-bitches'.”

I admire Jerry. Although he holds an endowed chair at Dillard University, a PhD in English, and has taught at the college level for over thirty years, there are no pretensions about him. He often chides his colleagues who don't dance when dancing is appropriate.

Jail did not frighten Jerry; he had been in Vietnam. Built like a welterweight, he is a fierce little man who is proficient at taking care of himself regardless of where he is.

Jerry volunteered as a polling official in the just past mayoral race, but now he holds a newly developed contempt for the police, engendered not by how they treated him, but rather by the corruption they displayed toward everyone during his ordeal. “You know they allowed them to smoke marijuana in jail?”

I was not surprised.

”I couldn't eat. They gave us two sandwiches. I don't know what was on those sandwiches.”

Our conversation slowed as we both dug into our consistently wonderful meal at our favorite African restaurant. True Benechin was the only African eatery now open; nevertheless our favorite dish, which we always order, was always, always really satisfying. The spinach never overcooked. The plantains unfailingly sweet. The rice moist. And the fish succulent.

After we ate, we lingered in conversation, commiserating about the un-merry place our home has become. Jerry confesses he just couldn't bring himself to leave the house last Thursday. I knew the feeling.

As we walked out of the French Quarter to Esplanade Avenue, where I have parked, I admired the beautiful, golden time of day—the atmosphere lit by a lustrous, buttery, almost dark, deep yellow twilight.

I tell Jerry I am working on a piece about being weary. He smiles grimly and affirms, yes, you must write that. Then he looks at me, and without a trace of sarcasm or bitterness, wearily utters, “you know it's a shame when two old men like us have nothing to look forward to but the taste of perpetual misery.”

I silently suck Jerry's words into my tightly clenched jaws. Unfortunately, the syllables fit well within my mouth: per-pe-tu-al mi-se-ry.

When I drop Jerry home, our firm goodbye handshake seems necessary, so necessary for us to touch, to hold, to not let go.

I take a deep breath, look around for oncoming traffic, slowly back out Jerry's driveway, and push on to my next destination—no rest for the weary, there are many more rivers to cross before I get over.

posted 28 July 2006

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

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Men We Love, Men We Hate
SAC writings from Douglass, McDonogh 35, and McMain high schools in New Orleans.

An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men

Ways of Laughing
An Anthology of Young Black Voices
Photographed & Edited by
Kalamu ya Salaam

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Guarding the Flame of Life

New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin James / They danced atop his casket Jaran 'Julio' Green

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Track List
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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#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


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#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

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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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.

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 indiscriminately.

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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)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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 Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

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

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update 23 February 2012




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