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)
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By Kalamu ya Salaam
our sister is thin. she is leading her whole
family down the street. her four year old is just ahead of her. she and her
little man, two year old malik, walk hand in hand behind skipping and giggling
sekou. she is not paying any attention to things in the streets: the cars,
trucks and busses whizzing by in both directions. they had missed the bus they
needed. the evening was nice. warm. so why not walk and why not take a short cut
down napoleon avenue, a thoroughfare what used to be one of white folks' big
a camera swung innocently on her hip beneath the
medium sized windbreaker, which enveloped her. although out of sight, the camera
was at the ready because she liked to shoot. most of the time without film. she
would "see" a scene. compose an artistic comment from a chance
encounter. but not being able to afford as much film and processing as she would
shoot if she had the green to match her ambition, she would just flash the
camera and capture the still in her mind's eye, the image frozen in her brain as
the sound of the shutter-click indicated the shot was complete. some people did
not understand taking pictures without film. they either were not deep into art
or else they were not poor. but poor artists know, you've got to practice your
art anyway you can.
cause she was on a family outing. listening to
her boys be themselves. actually coming back from standing in line paying a bill
and headed to the house that barely qualified as shelter, not to mention was a
poor stand-in for a secure and loving place she could accurately call home.
because her braids were in place and would not need rebraiding for another three
or four months. because the essential bills were now paid. and she did have
thirty dollars in her pocket for two weeks of food.
because sekou was singing
"space is the place..." his favorite sun ra song -- oh, she was proud
that sekou dug ra. i mean, what parent would not be proud of a four year old
with the sensitivity to embrace sun ra? because she was making sure she was
walking slow enough so that malik could keep up but fast enough so that sekou
would not outdistance them. because malik was just getting over the flu and she
kept hugging him from time to time both to cuddle and to take his temperature.
because she was enjoying her kids. and had taken fifteen shots of them already
today. the last one a little shaky because she didn't use a flash and the
shadows were getting long, which meant shooting at a slow shutter speed and her
hand had shook a little as she focused on the look in malik's eyes and saw the
man whose seed spawned malik. the hand shake was not out of hate or even any
particular rememberance of love or passion, but rather because this little man
looked so much like that big half-a-man and she could not help but wonder would
little man grow to become the whole man that the older man was destined never to
she knew that was her task. to somehow teach these little sweet knuckleheads
to become men, somehow, in the absence of a steady man on the scene. if you are
a young woman. attractive but not gorgeous. black in color and consciousness.
poor as a welfare queen, except not even food stamps stuffed into your bra.
proud in the classic "we may not have much but we're going to make it"
way, estranged from your birth family because you have become,
some-terrible-how, exactly what your upbringing and college education was
supposed to prevent: a poor, single mother of two, head of household, fatherman
if you have struggled with being a statistic for three or four years
running. cooped yourself up. did odd jobs here and there. hung on by a thread.
managed to hold on to your decency -- i.e., declined to live off of occasional
dollars left on the bedside by dawgs who liked the way you jocked their dick --
managed to stay physically clean of diseases (and you have found the easiest way
to suffer sexual deprivation is to do without completely, except, of course, for
the casual hand job in the tub or a particular good spliff of reefer every other
week or so), so you're clean and have managed to hold on to your pride. no
begging back to mama. no buckling under to stern papa's patriarchal nonsense.
you were wearing synthetic clothes even though you preferred cottons and wools.
payless sneakers when rockport walkers were really what you needed, especially
given that you walked most places you had to go--a buck a throw to ride the bus
added up to a tremendous deficit in the pocketbook, and besides, it was usually
three bucks to ride because it was cheaper to take family outings then to even
think about paying one of the kids in the block to be a babysitter, besides what
sense did it make to let kids who were little more than babies watch your
if you had finally sold some photos to some magazine for less than you
hoped but for as much as you could expect, cashed the money at the corner, paid
your electricity bill, paid the rent, and still had thirty dollars and change
left over to buy food for two weeks until next payday, because of all of that,
if you were shooting a photo of your youngest son and you saw the last man who
dispassionately screwed over you staring out of your sonís two year old eyes,
your hand would quiver too. all of the above is why her hand shook a little
while squeezing off that slow-shutter-speed shot.
because of ruminating on all of that and because
she just never would have expected it, she wasn't paying attention to the
brother walking toward her until he stopped in front of them. went down into his
pocket and began pulling out a pistol that was so long it seemed like it took
two hours for him to keep extracting it from its hiding place. he just kept
coming up, up, up with that thing.
why was he showing her his gun? was all she
could think of at first.
brother was tall but not overly tall. just
regular ghetto brother tall. tall enough to be playing ball instead of pulling a
gun on her. was moderately attractive, except she did not pay too much attention
to his looks because she was faced with the fascination of a lethal weapon about
to be aimed at her chest. he maybe weighted as much as her whole family -- sekou
was no more than forty-some pounds, malik was only about twenty-nine pounds, and
she weighed ninety-eight pounds wringing wet -- she had weighed herself the last
time she took a bath at her girlfriend's house, her girl friend, whom she hadn't
seen or talked to in months now, kept a scale next to the tub, so when she
stepped out, it seemed like the obvious thing to do, to hop on the scale and
give it a go, the scale registered ninety eight and a half pounds, she had
deducted half a pound for the water dripping off her and for the towel she was
clutching and rubbing across her body as she dried herself -- so 98 plus let's
say 30 was 128 plus say 45 was 163, no 173, yeah, he looked to weigh 200 or so
shit. he didn't need no gun to rob her. he could have been like most men
and just threw his weight around. but she couldn't help paying attention to that
a gun is a funny thing when it's aimed at your
chest, when it's in the hands of somebody who doesn't give a damn about your
life, when it's loaded and maybe also loaded is the person holding the piece. a
gun is funny in the macarbe sense that even though she was a statistic of
poverty she had never thought of herself as eligible to become a statistic of
homicide until she was confronted by a little piece of specifically twisted
metal, phallic shaped and capable of spewing a metal projectile that can rent
flesh, shatter bone and easily cause fatal harm.
we had embraced when we met, the huge of my bear
hug almost wrapped completely around her twice, my right hand on my left elbow,
my left hand vice versa, her living flesh encased against my chest, i could feel
her breathing, her small breasts, the slenderness of her back, the top of her
head not fully up to my chin, she didn't look sick or anything, or feel weak,
but no one would mistake her for being at the top of her game, she had a
semi-nervous gesture when i asked how she had been, both hands went to her hair
and tugged the braids back on her head, hands over her ears like she didn't want
to hear the question, and she looked down, away from me, before answering that
she was just kind of coming out of seclusion.
while she made those silent sad
gestures, i was thinking about her children being sequestered in a cramped
shotgun double, and, of course, trying to be a bit sensitive, i didn't ask how
she was caring for her kids, i mean i was just another man who was not going to
support her two young negro males, and if you ain't going to solve the problem
what right do you have to tell a young mother that she ought to take better care
of her kids, doesn't she know that every day she gets up, dresses them, feeds
them, as best she can? i guess if i were she i too would have been in seclusion.
and then she tells me that she almost got killed.
but that's life in the waning moments of the
20th century, everybody is almost getting killed, life, especially in new
orleans a recent statistical murder capital of metropolitan america, life is
murder. i could tell from the quiet, unhysterical, deliberate, clearly
ennuciated, without eye contact at first but then the quick glance up into my
eyes, i could tell that life is sometimes death from the way she said the word
for the day around our way: killed. i could tell this was not an exaggeration.
you know the old saying, what goes up must come
down? it's not the lift off that's scary, nor the arcing descent, what is scary
is surviving the crash. i'm beginning to understand the anxiety of survival.
sort of like how it felt surviving the middle passage. what am i living for? how
come i'm still alive? when friends and kin fall all around you, you wonder why
you're still standing. in this case, i was also wondering how she was still
i mean it was difficult visualizing her on the
sidewalk, pulling malik close to her with a firm hand that just moments ago was
leisurely linked to his little palm. or how did sekou, big eyed and backed back
against her thighs, how did he look while some original gangsta practiced his
mayhem tactics on this family trio. sister got less than nothing--all the cash
she will beg, borrow, earn and steal this year will not cover her annual debt,
and some hardleg is trying to jack her up. what a tremendous disrespect for life
this is. what kind of parasite would ripoff a whole family whose liquid cash is
probably less than the cost of the bullets and the gun being used to rob them?
sister laughs nervously as she relates to me how
big the gun was, pantomiming the gun being pulled on her, coming up out the
dude's pants, she uses her hand with finger and thumb stiff at a perpendicular
angle and just keeps raising her hand higher and higher until it's over her
head. i imagine when all the money you've got is thirty dollars and it's
secreted on your person, and your two young boys are scrunched up against you
silently waiting for you to do something, and there's this big dude standing in
front of you about to rob you or whatever, i imagine, at that moment, the gun do
look like it will keep growing in size, bigger and bigger and bigger.
"i told him, you know you wrong for that.
you see my kids..."
i could not imagine being bold enough to tell a
robber he's wrong for robbing. but beneath the stress of crisis, she rose to
protest the moment of her assault.
"i had to tell him, man, you wrong for
that. and then i kinda instinctively backed toward the street. before i knew it,
we were standing in the street. a car came along. the driver hit his brakes.
leaned on his horn. swerved around us and kept going. i was yelling at the car:
stop, stop. the dude hollered at me: give me your money or i'll shoot you.
by then i was standing in the middle of the street, my arms around my kids and
then another car was coming. they was just going to have to hit me and my boys,
or stop. fortunately the car stopped. i jerked on the passenger front door but
it was locked. roll down your window, i begged. help me. please. help me. i
pointed at the dude at the curb: that man is trying to kill us."
i watched her unconsciouly re-enact the escape
as she narrated the scenario of resistance to assault. the unsentimental
starkness of her words connected me to her like a fishhook in the flesh, each
syllable held fast and pulled me closer because it hurt to back away from her.
when i had asked how she had been, i had no idea how near she had come to not
being and how out of it i would feel as she related to me the tale of her near
although each one of her quiet words conjured up
an image in my mind, everything i was thinking was abstract compared to the knot
of feelings wrenching my gut as i stood transfixed by the mesmerizing sight of
her pantomime, her body jerking through the survival motions: the desperate
pulling at the car door, her braids thrashing as she frantically grasped for an
opening; the fearless pointing at the assailant, her arm extended, ending in an
accusatory finger aimed at some spot to the right of me; the protective
collecting of her children, the hugging of open space with right arm and left
arm, the hunching over, making a shield out of her body.
i was hearing her words
with one mind and watching her body with another mind, and both minds were
marveling at what they witnessed.
she sang and she danced. her words were
warrior song, her motions, warrior steps. and yet she was unarmed, all she was
doing was defending, defending her right to be, to be woman, to be mother, to be
walking down the street with her children. you know we're in bad shape when a
single mother and two children are viewed as easy prey, when a literally poor
woman who obviously doesn't have big bucks can't take a family stroll through
the afternoon without one of her brothers pulling a gun on her, threatening
murder, demanding her money or her life.
i was simply standing there listening to her
story, painfully aware that i was doing nothing but listening.
she was not only
doing the work of telling the tale, she had also first done the work of
surviving the murderous maze of choices facing her that fatefilled afternoon.
when a robber puts a gun in your face, most people's minds shut down and they
become incapable of making calculated decisions, incapable of making any
decision. most people freeze up and simply do what they are told. but this
sister in the flash of a few seconds figured out how to be a survivor. threaded
through the labyrinth of violence and somehow found a path to avoid the palpable
possibility of getting murdered. this sister refused to go silently into the
book of urban armed robbery and homocide.
i was emotionally exhausted as she continued the
story of a murder that didn't happen. since she was here telling me about it, i
knew that the story did not end with her murder, but as she revived the terror
of the moment with the sound of her voice and the intensity of her movements, i
felt the helpless chill of realizing just how fragile we all are in confronting
the callous brutalities of contemporary life.
even though it would have been a tragedy had she
been shot, the greater shame is that there was nothing, absolutely nothing,
unbelievable about this story. if i didn't know it before, i knew it now: the
realities of late 20th century new orleans had predisposed me to accept murder
as a normal way of life. i wondered what i would have done had i actually been a
witness to the attempted robbery. how would i have reacted if i were a passerby?
would i have driven away, like the driver of the first car that almost hit them,
or would i have simply stood motionless as a tree witnessing a black on black
lynching, a black man assaulting a black woman?
"it was an older black man at the wheel of
the car that stopped. i pounded on the window. i looked over my shoulder at the
dude standing on the curb with the gun still out. please, help us, i shouted.
the man unlocked his door. i pushed my kids in first."
then she addressed me. reminded me that i was
not innocently an uninvolved spectator. by directly addressing me, she did not
allow me the simple escape of observing her as though she was a television or a
she reminded me that i, a man, was looking at her, a woman. what
was the relationship of my manhood to her? as "a man" i could be a
perpretator or i could be a helpmate. she reminded me that manhood was no
abstract choice. day to day, incident to incident, relation to relation, one on
one, one to many, one to none, each man had to choose how he related to each
woman. i didn't say anything as she interrupted the narrative flow, looked
directly at me and made a parenthetical remark as she continued. what could i
"man, it was some shit like in a movie. it
was happening so fast. but what was i going to do? i didn't want my kids to see
me getting shot or nothing. or whatever that man with the gun intended to do to
me." the awfulness of "whatever" hung in the air like the scent
of foulness in a slaughterhouse. i said nothing and just waited for her to hurry
up and get away from the man with the gun.
"at first i was going to tell the kids to
run but they wouldn't move. they just kept clinging to me. so when i pushed them
out into the street, they kinda was resisting. but it was the street and maybe
getting run over by a car or else standing still and getting robbed and maybe
getting shot. lucky for us, a car stopped. so after i got the kids in the car, i
jumped in behind the kids. the man who was driving asked me what was wrong. i
said just drive please. please drive. and he drove off. i didn't even look back.
to this day i couldn't really describe that dude to you, but i can still see
that big-ass gun."
and then it was over. she stopped talking. went
into herself for a second or so to lock down whatever emotions that retelling
and reliving the tale had set loose.
once she was back to the present, she looked up
and into me in real time, swung her attention to my presence and calmly met my
gaze without the terror of the past beclouding her bright brown eyes. she was no
longer back at the scene of the crime, she was now standing in safety before me,
a slight, very slight, smile creasing her face. silent. and then she said:
"i'm alright now, but i been kind of staying inside, yaknow." and then
she giggled nervously. i mumbled something about being glad that she was ok, and
then recognizing that i had nothing substantial to add, i changed the subject.
days later, i find myself facing the question:
what are you going to do about it? it's over but it's not over. murder marches
on. armed robbery careens through our community unabated. no matter how i twist
the combination of causes and effects, proactions and reactions, i don't come up
with any great new insights into the problem.
in terms of dealing with our very real social
problems, i am a beggar standing lonely outside a banquet of the damned. i don't
possess any secret solutions or even any short term suggestions. but i know i
must say something.
so i raise up these few words and shout out to all my
brothers: hey, my brothers, if you see a young sister, reed thin, dark skinned,
walking down the street with two big-eyed kids, hey, please don't fuck with
them. and brotherman, if you find them in trouble, please help them. that's the
least a human being can do. help, and, most certainly, do no harm.
* * * * *
|| "Murder" (Obsidian II; date?) --
obsidian ii. it's a short story but it's not fiction per se, even though that's
the category it's put in. about a friend who was the victim of an armed
robbery" (Kalamu ya Salaam).
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Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. —WashingtonPost
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Obama's America and the New
Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)
/ Michelle_Alexander Part
Michelle Alexander Speaks At
2 of 4 /
part 3 of 4 /
part 4 of 4
more African Americans under
today--in prison or jail, on
probation or parole—than
were enslaved in 1850, a
decade before the Civil War
began. If you take into
account prisoners, a large
majority of African American
men in some urban areas,
like Chicago, have been
labeled felons for life.
These men are part of a
growing undercaste, not
class, caste—a group of
people who are permanently
relegated, by law, to an
status. They can be denied
the right to vote,
automatically excluded from
juries, and legally
discriminated against in
employment, housing, access
to education and public
as their grandparents and
great-grandparents once were
during the Jim Crow era.—Michelle
The New Jim Crow
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The Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, and Wailer
By Colin Grant
The definitive group biography of the Wailers—Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston—chronicling their rise to fame and power. Over one dramatic decade, a trio of Trenchtown R&B crooners swapped their 1960s Brylcreem hairdos and two-tone suits for 1970s battle fatigues and dreadlocks to become the Wailers—one of the most influential groups in popular music. Colin Grant presents a lively history of this remarkable band from their upbringing in the brutal slums of Kingston to their first recordings and then international superstardom. With energetic prose and stunning, original research, Grant argues that these reggae stars offered three models for black men in the second half of the twentieth century: accommodate and succeed (Marley), fight and die (Tosh), or retreat and live (Livingston). Grant meets with Rastafarian elders, Obeah men (witch doctors), and other folk authorities as he attempts to unravel the mysteries of Jamaica's famously impenetrable culture. Much more than a top-flight music biography, The Natural Mystics offers a sophisticated understanding of Jamaican politics, heritage, race, and religion—a portrait of a seminal group during a period of exuberant cultural evolution. Colin Grant Interview, The Natural Mystics
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The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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Negro Digest /
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
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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update 2 May 2012