ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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However substandard these dead black poets were thought to be, they were the embattled wellspring that

is indispensable to the definition of America’s poetry. I do not believe an aesthetic that denies them will

stand, nor do I believe an aesthetic that refuses to move on from that historical base will stand either.



Books by Afaa Michael Weaver

Water Song (1985)  /  Multitudes (2000)  / Sandy Point (2000)  /  The Ten Lights of God (2000) / some days it's a slow walk to evening

These Hands I Know  / The Plum Flower Dance  / Multitudes  / Timber and Prayer  / Stations in a Dream  / The Ten Lights of God

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O Black and Unknown Bards

How Do We Love Thee? Let Us Count the Ways . . .

By Afaa Michael Weaver

I am writing by the pound . . . Langston Hughes to Arna Bontemps   September 27, 1952


“I am writing by the pound,” Hughes wrote to his longtime friend Arna Bontemps. Hughes was in his 50th year of life, with fifteen more active years before his death, and I was not quite one year old. Now at 57, I sense a need to once again take a cue from the old master and be busier at my work. In that same letter Hughes told Bontemps he had shipped some twenty pounds of manuscripts, including all five drafts of his play Simply Heavenly, to Yale University, the repository for his papers.

It was the seriousness with which he took himself as a writer that has so inspired me in my life. It was a seriousness that George Houston Bass, my late mentor, worked to instill more solidly in me. Bass had been one of Hughes’ secretaries, and Hughes named him the executor of his literary estate. I was receiving transmission from Hughes through Bass, an experience I now value more than I did at the time. It was 1985, and I was thirty-three years old.

In a moment of splendor, sitting as I was in his office there in the African American Studies building at Brown, I looked around to my left and upwards to the top of Professor Bass’s bookcase. He was explaining to me that Langston Hughes  was very much with us. Some of his ashes were in the room. As often as I have told this story, I have gotten smiles and chuckles each time, but the solemnity of the moment will not go away for me when I am alone and thinking of how things have been passed on, the gift of knowledge and warnings of trials and challenges.

“Hughes fathered me in the way that I am fathering you. Your responsibility as a poet is to bring the respect of the critics to the masses because you come from Blackbottom.” Bass was an intense man, and when he focused on me that way with those heavy eyebrows of his attuned like a hawk, the southern son in me was all obedience.

Professor Bass was trying to get me to understand the significance of class in my own life. All full of expectations about getting an ivy league degree and being a professor, I was not quite sure of what to do with those feet of mine so firmly rooted in the ground of the working class. At the time that Hughes’ father sent him off to Columbia, my grandparents were southern sharecroppers, and my father’s grandparents lived in a log cabin packed with mud and outfitted with wooden sliding windows.

Hughes was a member of the black middle class, a fact I brought to the attention of a white scholar at a conference not too long ago, someone who dismissed my comment by saying, “That adds nothing to the discussion of black poetry.”

His comment adds a great deal to what I already suspect about the tapestry of African American poetry, which is that it is largely unknown and misunderstood across the racial board, as I think there are very few younger black poets who have really let the lives of the dead black poets inform their own lives and work. Poets generally fade in the minds of young poets caught in their ambitions and the dead come to be regarded less and less as direct influences.

I use the word tapestry as I avoid the word “tradition” these days. Tradition seems to imply more or less an adherence to principles which are set forth to insure the continuation of something, and that is perhaps where the aforementioned scholar lives in his own critical world, a place where expansiveness is not to be had. His attitude is akin to one even more limiting, which is that poetry by African Americans is in its own world, something apart from the mainstream. It seems to me that such a view guarantees the stasis of all American poetry, when the truth is that black poetry has always informed and energized American poetry in ways similar to the effects of black demands on the democratic system. Democracy has been taken to task by black folk who have continually asked it to prove itself. Black poets have taken democracy to task. These challenges to America’s ideals have benefited everyone in this country and beyond.

Kelly Miller, part of the old guard at Howard University, would have something to say about the supposed monolith of black American culture, as would his daughter Mae Miller, a poet and playwright herself, a gentle little old lady with whom I had lunch as part of a reading I gave in 1985 at the Library of Congress at the invitation of Gwendolyn Brooks.

She could not eat all of her lunch, and she did not want to waste it. “Here,” she said, “you can have my soup.”

Gwendolyn Brooks was hosting me for the event and was at the other end of the table. She looked down to get a fix on what Mae was trying to do to me. It was all rather harmless, so Gwen left me to the task of eating the soup, which was Ms. Miller’s gift to me.

We should all inherit sustenance. We should all value the gift of literary soup. In its heyday, Howard University had the brown bag test for social life. Folks darker than a brown paper bag were not allowed in certain social sets. There was the Jack and Jill Club. The dirty secrets of color and hierarchy in the early formation of the black middle class are still pretty much secrets, an area too prone to bickering and hearsay for any but the most brave and perhaps foolhardy of scholars to tread. Nonetheless, it is an important aspect of cultural self-knowledge and awareness.

I could very easily say I wish more white poets and critics knew much more about the tapestry of African American poetry, but it is more the responsibility of African American poets to know the distances between historicity and intimacy, to know just how much the history of black poets before them informs and challenges their present circumstance. One should take up the difficult charge of honoring a tradition that was held to be substandard and honor it in a way that leads to the expansive growth of American poetry as a whole. It is not easy, and many have written about it, including Derek Walcott with his trope of the literary houseboy.

However substandard these dead black poets were thought to be, they were the embattled wellspring that is indispensable to the definition of America’s poetry. I do not believe an aesthetic that denies them will stand, nor do I believe an aesthetic that refuses to move on from that historical base will stand either. Cultural and racial groups have to define their own humanity. If others write the African American narratives and name what they see as commonalities in the lives of blacks and whites, the door is left wide open to the denial of the genuine role of racial prejudice in American life.

The discussion of class does not eliminate race, but it can illumine it, make it accessible to a broader critique. There is a story of race, class, and privilege inside black culture that is waiting to be addressed. Langston Hughes was a middle class African American who wrote of ordinary folk as an observer filled with love for the poor and the working poor. Separated as he was from them by education and family circumstance, he maintained his own sense of cultural responsibility in his work. His faith was that his work would be a structure that the unborn poets would one day use. That is a profound commitment to the writing life.

Professor Bass told me of the evening walks they would take through Harlem. Afterwards at his home, Mr. Hughes would ask him to talk about what he saw. Then Hughes would give his view of the neighborhood that evening.

“Well George, this is what I saw.” Mr. Hughes went on to explain Harlem as he saw it. It was the work of an observer, but it was also the work of someone who very much knew he was a member of a specific cultural group facing very clear obstacles configured by racism.

We should all know our origins. That’s easy. What’s not easy is knowing where we are in a country where the obstacles are not what they once were. However, I maintain that no matter how clear your course seems to you as a poet, there is something to be had in loving those black poets who are now gone, and loving them as part of who you are, even if you no longer think race so much defines your life.

I believe the ironic power of race and racism is rooted in denial of the same. The suspension of race as a concept has to be rooted in a complex critique of it, not by simply declaring your transcendence over it. At this point in history, that critique depends on the honest confrontation of class and privilege as very real forces within the African American literary community, for better and for worse.

      “Tell me, what do you see?”

28 August 2009

Source: EastBaltimoreMuse

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The Big Boys  / Industrial Me  / When Poets Grow in Factories  / O Black and Unknown Bards 

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We had a wonderful evening tribute to Lucille Clifton at the Main Pratt Library here in Baltimore last night. I had promised myself I wouldn't get weepy at the podium, and I wiped a few tears before I got up there. But when I got to podium and looked out at the full audience of 220 people, it was a total hallelujah feeling without tears. I was so happy to be able to talk about how "important" Lucille was to me when I was doing my apprenticeship as a poet, writing while in the factory all those years. I read a letter I wrote to Lucille just for last night, addressing her in the Spirit World, and I took the time to tell Nikki how important her work was to me when I was younger. Nikki Giovanni and I were the last two readers, and everyone gave such beautiful tributes. Joanne Gabbin was there, as well as Lynda Koolish, whose photos are the gallery display upstairs. Tonight we have a dedication for a photo exhibit for Lucille at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum on my side of town, East Baltimore. It's all such "a beautiful thing"...:-) Nikki Giovanni and I are collectees together at Boston University's Gotlieb Archival Center, where our papers are kept.—Afaa Michael Weaver, 15 June 2012

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Not Gone With the Wind Voices of Slavery—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—9 February 2003—Unchained Memories, an HBO documentary that makes its debut tomorrow night, provides a powerful answer to that question. It gives us, through the faces and voices of African-American actors, an introduction to a vast undertaking that took place in the 1930's: the collection and preservation of the testimonies of thousands of aged former slaves in an archive known as the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers' Project. This archive unlocked the brutal secrets of slavery by using the voices of average slaves as the key, exposing the everyday life of the slave community. Rosa Starke, a slave from South Carolina, for example, told of how class divisions among the slaves were quite pronounced:

''Dere was just two classes to de white folks, buckra slave owners and poor white folks dat didn't own no slaves. Dere was more classes 'mongst de slaves. De fust class was de house servants. Dese was de butler, de maids, de nurses, chambermaids, and de cooks. De nex' class was de carriage drivers and de gardeners, de carpenters, de barber and de stable men. Then come de nex' class, de wheelwright, wagoners, blacksmiths and slave foremen. De nex' class I members was de cow men and de niggers dat have care of de dogs. All dese have good houses and never have to work hard or git a beatin'. Then come de cradlers of de wheat, de threshers and de millers of de corn and de wheat, and de feeders of de cotton gin. De lowest class was de common field niggers.''NYTimes

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Take This Hammer

KQED's film unit follows poet and activist James Baldwin in the spring of 1963, as he's driven around San Francisco to meet with members of the local African-American community. He is escorted by Youth For Service's Executive Director Orville Luster and intent on discovering: "The real situation of negroes in the city, as opposed to the image San Francisco would like to present." He declares: "There is no moral distance ... between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham. Someone's got to tell it like it is. And that's where it's at." Includes frank exchanges with local people on the street, meetings with community leaders and extended point-of-view sequences shot from a moving vehicle, featuring the Bayview and Western Addition neighborhoods. Baldwin reflects on the racial inequality that African-Americans are forced to confront and at one point tries to lift the morale of a young man by expressing his conviction that: "There will be a negro president of this country but it will not be the country that we are sitting in now." The TV Archive would like to thank Darryl Cox for championing the merits of this film and for his determination that it be preserved and remastered for posterity.

posted 27 June 2010

*   *   *   *   *'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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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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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about 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.

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The Price of Civilization

Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

The Price of Civilization is a book that is essential reading for every American. In a forceful, impassioned, and personal voice, he offers not only a searing and incisive diagnosis of our country’s economic ills but also an urgent call for Americans to restore the virtues of fairness, honesty, and foresight as the foundations of national prosperity. Sachs finds that both political parties—and many leading economists—have missed the big picture, offering shortsighted solutions such as stimulus spending or tax cuts to address complex economic problems that require deeper solutions. Sachs argues that we have profoundly underestimated globalization’s long-term effects on our country, which create deep and largely unmet challenges with regard to jobs, incomes, poverty, and the environment. America’s single biggest economic failure, Sachs argues, is its inability to come to grips with the new global economic realities.

Sachs describes a political system that has lost its ethical moorings, in which ever-rising campaign contributions and lobbying outlays overpower the voice of the citizenry. . . . Sachs offers a plan to turn the crisis around. He argues persuasively that the problem is not America’s abiding values, which remain generous and pragmatic, but the ease with which political spin and consumerism run circles around those values.

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Life on Mars

By Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection's "lyric brilliance" and "political impulses [that] never falter." A New York Times review stated, "Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we're alone in the universe; it's to accept—or at least endure—the universe's mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith's pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant." Life on Mars follows Smith's 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet's second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.

The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection. Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.

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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 7 April 2012




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Related files:    The Big Boys  Industrial Me     Afaa Michael Weaver at Pratt Library    O Black and Unknown Bards  When Poets Grow in Factories 

Unchained Memories   Minstrelsy and White Expectations