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I tell them I write everything down, and then I systematically go back and revise.

 Revision is so important. Revision basically means to re-see


Books by Yusef Komunyakaa

I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head / Dien Cai Dau / Magic City / Neon Vernacular / Toys in a Field

Thieves of Paradise / Talking Dirty to the Gods  /  Pleasure Dome Jazz Poetry Anthology  /  The Second Set  /  Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy

Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries

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Yusef Komunyakaa Speaks 

on the Art of Poetry

Excerpts from an Interview

with Alan Fox

On Audience

Initially, of course, I write for myself. I think most authors do, but in giving readings throughout the United States it's quite open, so I'm willing to keep surprising myself. I don't specifically write for a single individual in mind. I basically deal with images. The poet deals with images, metaphors and language like it's music. Consequently, it has a possibility of connecting to a variety of people.

Well, it's quite varied. Young and old, educated, unlettered. There's a whole spectrum, I think, and I'm quite blessed, perhaps, in that sense. It becomes a challenge for me as a writer to connect to those various communities and conjure some emotional intersection.

I think there are more readings and people are aware of the oral tradition and poetry's connection to that tradition. Not as entertainment but as a place of, at least you could say, a place of meditation. There are readings all over the place from bars to University centers and art centers, that's healthy actually, but its not confined to one location or one intellectual group as such, but essentially it parallels a democratic tableau. And in that sense, one thinks about William Carlos Williams' idea about achieving an American idiom. I think that's important. But one also thinks, of course, of Whitman, Whitman's need for a democratic premise operating in the language, underlying each metaphor.

I feel the poet has to be aware of what's around him or her. So I think that involves the academic arena as well as the so-called streets. I think it's all one, part of human experience. I think that it all merges, that it overlaps, that we tend to create at least psychological bridges between those places and that's a voice that we risk in poetry. I think that's the reason Plato questioned the service of the poet in his ideal republic. We trouble the waters, we tend to pose questions, and perhaps poets are really the active philosophers in this time and age. Of course we're, hopefully, but not necessarily, attempting to answer questions as much as posing questions, where the listener or the reader provide the answers through a process of elimination, through deductive logic.

Poetic Beginnings

I wrote my very first poem in high school. I found myself raising my hand saying that I could write a poem for my graduating class and I agonized about that for weeks before I actually pinned myself down to the chair and produced 100 lines, 25 traditional rhymed quatrains, perhaps influenced by Tennyson or Longfellow. It was quite a surprise for me. Then when I went to Vietnam I took with me two anthologies of poetry, Hayden Carruth’s Anthology entitled, The Voice That Is Great Within Us, and then Allen's Anthology, Contemporary American Poetry. So I'd read poetry for the most part. When I attended the University of Colorado, I found myself in a creative writing class in 1973, and I've been writing ever since.

I had the need to write but also, I received some positive encouragement early on from Dr. Alex Blackburn, who was my first creative writing teacher at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. I really think that poetry has, or art itself, has to have surprises. First it has to surprise the person who's creating it in order to surprise the audience.

Yes, I think that's the positive energy that comes out of that experience, that meditation on possibility. That's really what the poem is. That’s a plus sometimes. I laugh out loud. Damn, where did that come from, but besides the matrix of surprises, engagement, evolution, all of this becomes a composite.

Working with Different Genres

It's the form of the poem, the aesthetic. However some novelists have started off as poets. Faulkner poems are not as interesting, of course, as his novels. But I think it's interesting that he did start off as a poet. Or look at Tennessee Williams' work as poetry. His poetry, of course, isn't as provocative as his plays. Amiri Baraka started off as a poet, long before he wrote The Dutchman. Baraka says that every poet should be a playwright. In a way I'm drifting towards plays myself. I read a whole lot of literature, of course, especially short stories, novels. I like reading plays as much as seeing plays produced.

Teaching Poetry

First, I do believe that the young writer has to have some idea about the tradition in order to become innovative. So I end up teaching literature as well as Creative Writing. I do think that writing is intricately connected to reading, so automatically I help students compile their individual reading lists. And I tell them it's not just reading literature as well as reading a science text, philosophy, history, psychology, anthropology, everything. I do think that one has to have a work habit as well. He or she should write every day, so I talk about that. I talk about my method of composition, not dictate it to them. I tell them they must choose their method of composition. I tell them I write everything down, and then I systematically go back and revise. Revision is so important. Revision basically means to re-see. So I talk about that, the ability to come back to the poem again and again to refine it into, not necessarily an artifact as such, but something that is in motion, something that has action as part of its dynamic. And I tell them, don't be afraid to surprise themselves.

On Sources of Inspiration

I think everything around them should be a source of inspiration. If we are really engaged with the world, it can be the small things, those things that we think of as insignificant. It can be a meditation on something as basic as a maggot, which I have a short poem about. Usually many poets start out with those grand abstractions - victory, truth. I tell them, yes they can wrestle with those grand abstractions, but don't be afraid to face the world that they can put their hands on.

Favorite Authors

Oh, it goes and goes, (laughs) but I usually say Robert Hayden is a very important voice for me. Gwendolyn Brooks is important. Michael Harper, Whitman, Blake is important. I tend to go back to Shakespeare and especially since he had such an intense, monumental imagination. I admire that. And also he was able to put his fingers on some things that were quite contemporary. Elizabeth Bishop is important. I can go on and on. So many voices: C.K. Williams, Charles Wright, Pablo Neruda, Pushkin.

Vietnam & Writing

Well, it took me fourteen years to really come to that experience. I sort of internalized the pathos of the Vietnam conflict. I was there for a year, ‘69 to ’70, and six months in ‘70 and was renovating a house in New Orleans in 1984 and I found myself writing a poem entitled "Somewhere Near Phu Bai". That poem came as I was moving up and down the ladder. I had a pad of paper on the floor writing down a few lines, and I found myself writing that particular poem. It just opened that experience for me as poetry, as images, because it came back to me in images. It was a sort of excavation and I suppose it happened at the right time. If it had happened earlier, perhaps it would have come out differently.

Writing a Poem

I usually have an image, sometimes no more than a word, that I meditate on to improvise on. For me, jazz is important. It has taught me a lot about method of composition. I like to have everything set, by an improvisational tone. That's why I write everything down. Initially a poem might start off 120 lines long and it ends up about 40 lines or even less.

I just want to go with it. I just want to see just how I can extend a moment of improvisation.

How to End a Poem

Often we don't know. (Both laugh) But we wrestle with it. Often I've realized that one perhaps goes past the ending of a poem. I like to have a poem open-ended. So I'll put a sheet of paper at the bottom of a poem I've started working on, to see just what the possible endings are. If there are 3 or 4 endings, which is the most important for me? Which ending helps the reader or the listener enter and become an active participant in the creation of meaning?

Effects of Winning the Pulitzer

Well, I was lucky because I was midway into some ongoing projects, books of poems, collections, I should say. That's the way I write. Usually I'm writing three collections, side by side. So it didn't really stop me in my tracks.

I'd already begun to read a lot. I've done a lot of readings especially after the Pulitzer. But I think reading is one way of bringing poetry back to oral tradition. So it is sharing more than anything else. I taught poetry in the schools, in New Orleans for a year, that's one of the things that I told third graders and fourth graders, at the onset that poetry has to be a sharing. It’s a way of sharing a voice.

Teaching Poetry to Children

It was really amazing because of the surprises. These young third and fourth graders, they weren't afraid. They weren't afraid to put their emotions down on the page. They weren't afraid of images that leapt out of their psyche and I was quite surprised by that and also there's a freshness usually. Not necessarily severe innocence, but a kind of surprising, almost accidental maturity.

Well again, that's taking us back to Plato, or Plato’s argument with Euripides. They might be seeing something a little differently and perhaps wrestling with those small and big questions side by side. And confused, so the poem becomes a method of getting to a certain understanding and it's not necessarily an understanding about the exterior world as much as an understanding about the interior world, the world that's inside.

. . . [college level students] have created the mask, the facades, the detachments. They have to relearn to share; which is frightening, often that which they do not fully understand so there's a certain risk involved, but not always. What's interesting I think is this idea about poetry. Often they don't realize the everyday things their lives are made of is subject matter for poetry. Usually it's the grand abstraction, the big questions.

Surprise in Writing

Well, actually the book I'm working on, one of the books I'm working on now has been a huge surprise. It's a long book, it's probably a trilogy. And that is a book entitled, Pleasure Dome. For years I've read a lot of history, especially African American history, history that touched on the black experience worldwide. I've never really thought of that as subject matter for poetry until I began to pose questions to many young students during conferences. And they didn't even know what I was talking about, and I'm a stickler on names. I am now finding myself writing about Pushkin, about Alexander Dumas, writing about George Washington Carver, Charles Drew, uh, all these characters that history shares.

The Central Message of Poetry

I suppose for me it's the uncovering of things that's important, not necessarily with any kind of design, but as a series of surprises. Presently I walk about three miles to school. And I've been writing sixteen line poems and often I find myself meditating on something that one might see as trivia, but then I come to find myself wrestling with it walking there and back, sometimes when I return home I'll have a complete poem. It could be on the virtues of animals, insects, whatever. Perhaps it takes me a back to Bogalusa, Louisiana. I remember as a child I pretty much observed everything around. I remember observing the rituals of insects, and animals, and consequently observing the practiced rituals of human beings as well.

Structure, Being & Writing Poems

Well you know, what I wanted to do was write a large book, rather a long book of 16 line poems. I wanted to impose a structure on the poems. I began writing odes and meditations, all those things that we sort of overlook and take for granted. And then I realized that I wanted to broaden the canvas. I wanted to deal with ontology, I wanted to deal with psychology, philosophy, history, all of those questions. I wanted to deal with universal relationships.

I like the idea of being challenged to write longer poems. I would like to even write a book length poem, if possible, but also I like writing these small 16 line poems as well because what I've been looking for is a kind of compression. Everything's so compressed, and at the same time, when it's read it expands.

Ambiguity & Clarity

I don't mind the ambiguous because, especially if it's interesting, it forces me back to the poem again and again. I like to read poems like that. I don’t like to have an immense clarity from the onset. I don't know if I actually compose poems that way. I like the idea of coming back to the poem, the same way that I don't think poems should be resolved. The idea of coming back to the poem again and again and consequently you understand more and more and you feel like you're participating in something that's organic or something that is alive and almost breathing at times.

How Poetry Endures

I think the music is important, the language inside the music, I think the images, the metaphors, the overall style that pulls us into the poem tells us, we can trust it, and it is the music of trust that endures.

Poet as Spokesperson

No. I don't really regard myself as a spokesperson. I just feel like I'm a part of the human community. And we were all observers. We're all participants.

Poetry in America

I do think that poetry from the United States, at this moment, is probably the most engaging, the most important and yet there are those isolated individuals writing in other parts of the world who are important. And it isn’t just because of Creative Writing workshops. Although Creative Writing workshops are influencing communities. And I do think the artist needs a community that he or she can embrace or that community can embrace, him or her. But, there is something in the air - poetry slams, poets in the school, all of these things happening.

Very vibrant. It seems like it's inclined to engage celebration and critique.

I've [not] participated in poetry slams. But I support anything that generates active language and communication.

Yes, it's quite an experience in democracy.

[It’s] the fact that a democratic society can engage participants, that poetry engages individuals from various neighborhoods, various economic experiences and so forth. One can be at the top of the heap or at the bottom and still be an active participant.

Advice for a Young Poet

Read everything. Write every day.

I think often they [my students] realize the importance of that [reading everynting] and yet seem afraid of being influenced. I tell them not to be afraid because the artist never really operates in isolation. We all are influenced just by the language we speak.

On Fear

Well, it's a realization about death, how it can come out of nowhere, it seems that it isn't something that we can rehearse for. Something we can’t control. So, I think that's where the fear comes from. That we're not put here to control everything.

Poetry as Search for Truth

It's not necessarily a search for truth as much as a search for confrontation. And I'm talking about confronting that which is real, by finding that which is inside oneself. So I've pretty much defined poetry for myself as a celebration and confrontation.

Poetry as Celebration

The celebration is that we care to describe something a hundred different ways. I'm willing to observe an insect, I'm willing to observe someone playing basketball, putting the whole body and mind into that observation and consequently getting even closer to the experience, in a sense.

Poetry as Confrontation

It's an internal confrontation, I think for the most part although it can be an outward confrontation as well. I don't necessarily rule that out because, let's face it, language is political. We are social beings, but we are political beings as well and we don't have a grasp on that which could be classified as a truth or truth. It seems as if the foundation is often shifting under our feet, and perhaps that's good because as least we can have some kind of grasp on the cosmos. There's no system or guarantees.

Poetry as Political

I think it would be political to say it wasn't political. I think silence is political. We are using tools such as language. Language is a political construct. A good example would be, if I look in the dictionary, everything that is prefixed with black, 90% percent of it would be negative. And vice versa. So I'm very much aware that language often is political and I think the young writer, I think the young thinker has to be aware of that as well.

Poetry of Influence/Poetry of Meditation

I don't want it to influence, I want it to be an instrument of meditation. I want it to be understood. I want people, at least momentarily, to be willing to embrace it. I’m not talking about the work being didactic, but as part of who we are. I would like for literature to be accepted that way. I would like knowledge to be accepted that way. I don't think we should be fearful of knowledge. I don't want everything nailed down, I don't want my feet nailed to the floor. I think that is imprisonment. So about literature, I like to be challenged.

That's the interesting thing about it [difficult to understand poetry]. It brings you in, in a psychological emotional way. Sometimes I notice when an individual comes to me, he or she may understand certain things about it that the I didn't even have in mind. That’s positive for me.

Poetry As Arcane

I don't think poetry is that way. I think automatically coming to Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, or coming to someone such as George Moses Horton, or any of these voices. Certain things we are not going to understand immediately and that's fine, but if we reenter the territory of the poem with care, with insistence, with love, then we understand it. We don't necessarily have to understand it a certain way. We understand it in relationships to who we are. What we've brought to it.

Technology & Poetry

[I hope that] technology doesn't make us become emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually lazy. That everything is set up and thought out for us and we become slaves to that which is pre-programmed. I want poetry to keep its surprises.

[Technology] sets out to make things easier. That is what always underlies, you know. Some things are difficult and that is what distinguishes us as human beings, that we have the kind of dexterity to negotiate those difficulties.

Internet, things that just go boom and wham for us, you know and we realize we are consumers of pre-digested, we are not participating in this as thoughtful and inquisitive human beings.

I think one of the reasons that poetry is having somewhat of a renaissance is because there is a need, and the need is even more severe now, because of what it contrasts. It contrasts often that which dehumanizes us.

Well, I still admire the capacity of the human brain to negotiate so many difficult questions, so many difficult problems. I admire that capacity but for some reason there is an attempt, and maybe not a full design, to bypass certain avenues. I am frightened about the amount of time spent in front of computers. I think people should be talking with each other a lot more. I'm frightened about the amount of time spent in front of televisions. What made me start thinking about this in the early 80's, I think it was 1981, May of 1981, I went back to Louisiana and my grandmother was talking on the phone, her friends would call her, and they were talking about people I didn't know, and it dawned on me they were actually talking about soap opera characters. And it really saddened me.

Trade Schools & Liberal Arts

I think it becomes problematic with education, especially with the liberal arts, when individuals are not there for the love of learning. That the university has become essentially a trade school. I have real problems with that and so there's always questions.

I think we have to go through the emotions of experience, wondering about, how the day is going to lead us towards the future. Appreciate what is.

The Issue of Control

Well, it's even within the context of the Bible if we think about it. Man is given dominion over the animals and I'm frightened by that statement. That, one, because we're born to human skin that automatically we are given dominion over everything that isn't human. It's commodity. The problem with that, I think, is that it's a selfish thing because everything we think of is sacrificed as commodity. We know it's going to run out.

So, it’s almost as if we’re living for the moment. We feel as if we have to use up everything in our lifetime and I see that as immensely selfish.

I think it [selfishness] has taught us to survive as a species. But we should also be selfish about that which is good.

Communication & Selling

[But] it’s not just communication. Because what I've been able to look at, it's not communication for good as much as selling products. It baffles me what people have done through technology to convince others they need this or that. And we make a profit off these illusions.

I think something is extremely wrong about it. We have brainwashed small children to think in a certain way. They begin to measure themselves against their friends; we're talking about 2 and three-year-olds. Something is awfully wrong and perverted here, because people think wearing a thousand or two thousand dollars worth of clothes creates a better person, but that isn’t the case at all. He or she could be the worst person.

I couldn't understand for a long time how boys could be killing other boys over brand name sneakers. Those kids must have been brainwashed to believe that those things are going to make them more complete people. Many times brainwashed within their families, or by television. I think we have to share in the responsibility of that. For what makes us human? I think the brain has a lot to do with it. And also compassion, the possibility of compassion.

Thank God. We have this possibility for compassion. It's amazing.

I like to be able to see things from the point of view of other humans, and even the animal world.

Source of Fox Interview (November 28, 1997) :

*   *   *   *   *'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

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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

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The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man's turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by "the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn't operate in his own home town." Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively researched study of the "great migration," the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an "uncertain existence" in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

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The Last Holiday: A Memoir

By Gil Scott Heron

Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon's violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King's assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. —Jamie Byng, Guardian / Gil_reads_"Deadline" (audio)

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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

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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 3 February 2012




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Related files:   Yusef Speaks 2   Yusef Speak 3    Rudy Interviews Yusef   Other Yusef Poems  Talking Dirty/Blue Notes Review  Pleasure Dome/Talking Dirty