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)
* * * *
What Langston Did (contd.)
Baldwin Technically Awesome
Hughes, only Baldwin and Baraka significantly and permanently
influenced my writing style. All three of them engaged the world
with both an outsider's critical eye and a grounded Black
person's love of Black folk.
found Baldwin technically awesome. I can remember reading some
essay he wrote with the word "proffer" in it. That
became a word I used in my writings.
often credit Baldwin's use of language to the bible, but really
it's not the bible per se, it's the bible mediated through the
Black church, and, it's also jazz, the complex outpourings of
bebop. Look at the sentence structures, the very volubility of
his sentences; everything and the kitchen sink pushed against
each other in breathless rushes of prose. Baldwin's denseness
was balanced by an unerring rhythmic logic that made his
fanciful prose flights a joy to read.
Baldwin took America to task, as he did so eloquently in his
play "Blues For Mr. Charlie" and in his famous essay
"The Fire Next Time," he did it with the same
stylistic brilliance as evidenced by the creators of bebop.
Baldwin's best prose had not only the old testament fire and
brimstone, raunchy forthrightness and righteous indignation, but
that prose also advanced the art of the essay as a genre.
Baldwin's prose achievement was much like Charlie Parker and
Dizzy Gillespie who ushered in a whole new musical style, a
style which, at it's core, had the grandiose, stubbornly elegant
simplicity of Thelonious Monk articulating stark truths in a
uniquely offbeat manner, a manner which both demanded an
audience and made demands on its audience with the same
explosive pronouncements as the drumming of Max Roach and Klook
Clarke elevating rhythm to new heights.
know that Baldwin loved gospel and blues, but he also loved jazz
-- so many of his major characters were musicians and lovers of
music/musicians. Mary Ellison in her book Extensions of the
Blues references a Baldwin quote from Baldwin biographer Fern M.
Eckman's book The Furious Passage of James Baldwin. "When
Baldwin was a keynote speaker at a conference on 'The Negro
Writer's Vision of America' in the early sixties, he declared
'My models -- my private models -- are not Hemingway, nor
Faulkner, nor Dos Passos, or indeed any American writer. I model
myself on jazz musicians, dancers, a couple of whores and a few
junkies...' " If you don't understand the music, then you
will be blind to the music's influence on Baldwin.
1964 as a high school senior, praising Baldwin got me kicked off
the student newspaper. Back in eighth grade at Frederick, after
being introduced to Hughes, I joined the school newspaper. Mrs.
Nelson was the advisor. I was writing and doing photography.
Eventually I became the editor. We entered the paper in a
contest sponsored by Columbia University in New York and won a
second place. Us. A little, Negro, junior high school paper.
Winning made me know I was a match for the world, for the best
of America. At St. Aug I wanted to continue with my journalism.
I wrote a glowing review of Baldwin's incendiary "Blues For
Mr. Charlie" which, while not rejecting religion, ended by
espousing self defense, picking up the gun.
priests said not in this paper, not at this school, not in this
life. I realized we were in direct conflict with each other.
They wanted me to study and make straight A's. They wanted me to
give up or tone down my civil rights work. One teacher, Fr.
McManus, who was a "liberal" on the Urban League board
and all that, went completely out of his tree when he walked
into the homeroom and I was sitting there reading Muhammad
Speaks. I had no idea it would provoke him to turn redder than a
redneck sheriff watching Sidney Portier in "Guess Who's
Coming To Dinner."
Mac, who was known for his prowess at corporal punishment with
the paddle, stomped the floor, bellowed at me, and over the next
month took every opportunity to remind me that I would be better
off studying than reading that crap. I laughed and wondered what
was so threatening. They knew I was dangerous before I knew.
there was the time an English teacher told me that I was going
to write a term paper on fancy, fantasy and some other
"f" word in one of Shakespeare's sonnets. I
immediately said I wasn't going to do it. "Well, if you
don't do it Ferdinand, you're just going to get an f for the
semester." "You can just give me my f now because I'm
not going to do it."
went home that evening and told my mother that I was going to
get an "f". Neither she nor my father forced me to
return to school and apologize, or even to write the assignment.
They let me happily hold onto both my "f" and my
budding sense of rebellion and dignity.
and years later when my children were going through school, I
never ever sided with the school administrators and instructors
when any of the children rebelled. I made sure that the children
understood that there were repercussions they would have to bear
as a result of their actions, but, the larger picture for me was
that I refused to repress rebellion in the youth. Indeed, not
only did I want to encourage that rebellion because I knew,
ultimately it was healthy, but also I recognized that the whole
system was set up to smother our rebellious spirits. Why should
I help the system to maintain the status quo. As a parent I made
a conscious decision, as a high school student I intuitively
concluded that St. Aug.'s discipline was a conscious attempt to
season a slave.
we exaggerate the severity of a situation because memory is
selective and everyone wants to tell a good tale about
themselves, but there were too many incidents at St. Aug. to
ignore. For example, when I went out for the drama club at St.
Aug. I quit after attending one rehearsal where they were doing
some English drawing room comedy with fake British accents,
butlers and dry jokes. In eighth grade at Frederick I had played
Crispus Attucks in my civic teacher's drama. Under Mrs. Green
direction, my big scene was to leap out of the closet with a
sword made of a clothes hanger and cardboard, and confront the
British soldiers with the declaratory line "I am a
desperate Black man who is willing to fight for my
freedom." So you know I thought St. Aug.'s British bullshit
was just that, i.e. British bullshit.
Frederick they armed me. At St. Aug they tried to castrate me.
of my teachers at Frederick had been significant Black women
with an important handful of bold Black men such as Mr. Conrad,
Mr. Howard who taught me French, and Mr. Blanchard who gave me a
love for mathematics. At St. Aug. the instructors were mainly
priests (who were mostly White) of the Josephite Order. The
Josephite's were an order who focused on educating Black people.
The lay instructors at St. Aug., except for the coaches and
music instructors, were pious, intellectually oriented Black men
who struck me as effeminate. The dichotomy between the
instructors at the two schools was too ludicrous for words. I
owed St. Aug. nothing except my muleish contempt.
of this time I am still reading and still struggling to write.
By twelfth grade I finish an experimental novel that ends with
the hero committing suicide. No matter how much I thought I was
uninfluenced by St. Aug, no matter how much I fought against
their example and instructions, still, I obviously was ingesting
some of their messages, especially the message to become
respectable by killing the Black blues self.
writings spoke directly to me because here I was confronting a
sensibility, a system whose total intent was to turn the blues
based Black into a Christian American. In the St. Aug. schema,
integration meant effacing one's self. They taught young Black
males that the highest achievement for Blacks was to speak,
dress, conduct oneself and be around Whites as though we were
not who we were. Ultimately, they wanted to put into our hearts
the desire to be like Whites and into our heads the belief that
being like Whites equated with being intelligent, civilized and
acceptance of such a mainstream scenario inevitably would have
meant submerging every conflict, sucking contradictions up and
in, and contorting my psyche just to be acceptable. I resisted
and stayed in constant rebellion.
that context, Baldwin's penetrating intelligence appealed to me
because his example allowed me to confront the status quo norms
in its own arena. Baldwin's use of language and mastery of the
essay signified not only his ability to handle White words but
also his ability to bend those words for Baldwin's own use.
Initially, that appealed to me.
I stopped there I would have been forever trapped, because
ultimately, striving to express one's self solely by mastering
the master's language presupposes that language is value free,
that language is neutral, and somehow, even though I did not
"know" in a theoretical sense that language was the
articulation of culture, emotionally moved by Black music, I did
feel that I needed my own language. The Catholic rejection of
gospel and blues, was a confirmation of Black music's
importance. Reading Baldwin, beneath his mastery of the
"king's English" I heard, and felt, a love of Black
later years Baldwin addressed the issue of language in his own
eloquent way, noting that "Black English" was
essentially a language and ought to be respected as such. While
Baldwin was not the only person to address this issue, what
distinguished Baldwin's contribution is his emphasis on the
necessity of language. Baldwin's defense was an affirmation for
me of a position that some of us had intuited. In fact,
Baldwin's ability to penetrate to the sine qua non of this issue
reinforced in me the necessity for developing an articulation of
what we had been doing with language. But, here I am jumping
ahead of myself. Back then all I knew was that it felt right to
speak, write and listen to the language(s) I loved and
Needless to say, the blues with its confrontation of pain
appealed to me. Although I was unable to avoid both the positive
and the negative influences: the Latin and English, the religion
classes and the skewed history, the emphasis on getting high
marks on S.A.T.'s and IQ tests, the uniform of wearing a tie
every school day and the insistence on proper English spoken at
all times, even as all of that was influencing me, fortunately,
there was the counterweight of the literature I was reading, the
music I was listening to and studying, and, above all, the civil
rights movement within which I was deeply and actively immersed.
In Baldwin I found a companion who championed all that I found
Captivated by Langston
* * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
By Charles C. Mann
I’m a big fan of
Charles Mann’s previous book
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
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,
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.
* * *
The Persistence of the Color Line
Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency
By Randall Kennedy
Among the best things
The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr.
Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked
out by black commentators on the left and right, from
Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis
Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley
consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks
should back Obama” . . .
The finest chapter in
The Persistence of the Color Line
is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the
basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled
“Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and
Patriotism.” Recalling some of the criticisms of
America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr.
Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put
each of his three of his children through Princeton but who
“never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment
of him and those whom he most loved.” His father
distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,”
and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished
Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him
‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in
sympathetic historical light.
* * *
update 3 May