ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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I assume while I was asleep my subconscious was taking inventory. When I awoke,

a terrible truth appeared: if I did nothing during Rwanda, I had no high ground

from which to expect others to do something for New Orleans.



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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I Am Ashamed of Myself: Post-Katrina New Orleans

 By Kalamu ya Salaam


I woke up this morning. I was ashamed.

I couldn't remember what I was doing in 1994. In April. The rainy season. Even if my life depended on it, I could not recall any specifics. I just couldn't remember.

Over 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered then. I don't remember what I did but not having anything that I remember tells me that I did nothing memorable.

I don't even have a poem specifically about the genocide. Did I write a letter, a petition, an article? Did I do anything? It is depressingly banal how often the reality registers: when the good do nothing, the bad do everything.

Why is goodness always cast as a coward? The truth is, if we do nothing, we can not be good. Doing nothing is a collaboration with the worst of ourselves.

Less than four hours earlier at three-something in the morning when I should have been sleeping I had just finished watching Sometimes In April, Raoul Peck's movie about genocide in Rwanda a dozen years ago. I staggered to bed emotionally drained.

I assume while I was asleep my subconscious was taking inventory. When I awoke, a terrible truth appeared: if I did nothing during Rwanda, I had no high ground from which to expect others to do something for New Orleans.

All of the tasks I should be doing but for whatever reasons I have not done, each of them stood at my bedside and took turns whacking at my conscience.

My discomfort was not just Rwanda. Kysha, Robin and I are working on a poetry anthology appropriately entitled The End of Forever. Over the last couple of weeks I have come up missing in action. I am mired in a swamp of inaction, emotionally overwhelmed at times. The book is in the last stages, just a little more effort and it would be finished, but I lay in bed, dilly-dallying for no good reason-I don't know what I'm waiting for and I'm not sleepy, it's just . . .

But the book is not the only thing. More and more people are calling me about LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE. If I push harder I could make more happen, faster. We should have been up and online by now. There are specifics I can not do, technical matters others have to address, but I could put my shoulder to the wheel and make things turn faster. I could, but . . .

My wife is patient with me, never once complaining as I leave the house every evening and don't come back until round midnight, going to spend hours with Doug who is battling cancer and dueling with the after-affects of chemotherapy. Nia and I have not gone to the movies at all this year, and it has been some months since we have gone out to dinner together.

There have been days when I freely gave my full attention to visitors needing assistance with this, that or the other. On more than one occasion I have spent more time with someone I may never see again than I have with my wife whom I see almost every day-you see, I can not even say I see my wife everyday because some days . . .

Do you understand why I am ashamed? Yes, I know that I do so many good things for the cause, but I do not remember what I did in April of that killing season occurring in a ten-thousand-square-mile country of around eight million souls. Count off eight people you know, if they had been Rwandan, most likely at least one of them would be dead-and not just dead, but smashed like an insect. Thus the marauders crowed, explaining why they used machetes: we do not waste bullets on cockroaches.

I have not completed the book we planned to have ready by the end of August. Our LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE website is not fully operational yet. My wife and I eat separately. Do you understand how it feels to see yourself like that?

I tell myself to get up. Get moving. It is another day. We're alive. There's so much we can do. But . . . it's raining outside, just like April in that breathtakingly beautiful land of a thousand hills.

Most of us never know when our end will arrive. I stared at my computer screen as actors under Peck's direction portrayed people who knew they were about to die. At one point I hit the space bar to pause the action. I reached up, wiped my eyes, and then continued watching. If I had been there, what would I have done?

Lying on my side, face to the wall, a hard answer severs my sense of self half-in-two: Had I been in Kigali, I may have done nothing but watch, that is, if I were lucky enough not to be a Hutu hacking a Tutsi, or a Tutsi being hacked, I probably would have been a so-called innocent onlooker . . . after all that is what I was as I sat in Houston in my brother-in-law's living room watching on CNN as the Tutsis of my city were abandoned at the Ernest Morial Convention Center.

When we evacuated, our car was full but I left a working automobile behind. I can say: I did not expect the levees to break, I thought I would be back in a few days. I can say if I had stayed I would have been one of the locals, like Malik and Jerome, rescuing people before outside help arrived. But regardless of what I say or want to believe I might have done, the hard question remains. What did I do? When the deal went down, there I sat, just watching.

Now, I realize: every day is April. Whether it's Rwanda or New Orleans, the same question wakes me: what am I doing about it today?

A dozen years from now will I have done anything worth remembering?

posted 14 August 2006

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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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music website >
writing website >
daily blog >
twitter >
facebook >

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Guarding the Flame of Life

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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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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

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Panel on Literary Criticism

26 March 2010

 National Black Writers Conference

Patrick Oliver, Kalamu ya Salaam, Dorothea Smartt, Frank Wilderson discuss the use of literature to promote political causes and instigate change and transformation.  The event is at the Medgar Evers College at the City University of New York. C-Span Archives

Panel on Politics and Satire

26 March 2010

 National Black Writers Conference

Herb Boyd, Thomas Bradshaw, Charles Edison and Major Owens discuss how current events are reflected in the writings of African Americans.  The event is at the Medgar Evers College at the City University of New York. C-Span Archives

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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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updated  23 July 2010 




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