ChickenBones: A Journal

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I don't recall that I actually saw a play at Borsodi's or whether I was there during a rehearsal. But his plays or

his directing of plays or the writing of poems were not the key aspects of knowing Borsodi. I do have a book

of his poems somewhere. I think it is down in Virginia at Mama's house. I will share a few of his poems

when I get a chance. The joy of Borsodi was not his coffeehouse or his coffee or sandwiches. These were all props.  

 
 

Remembering Borsodi

The Passing of a New Orleans Artist

By Rudolph Lewis & Others

A memorial service will be held Dec. 27

at noon at Breezy's Place, 2139 Soniat St. Borsodi photo by Joe Perez

Robert Otto Borsodi

(1939-2004)

 

We Want to Fly

a spiritual song

of the self-oppressed Caucasian peoples

We are very tired of pioneering,

We don't want to tear up

A whole bunch of something

Just to have something

New to do.

So that somebody can come after us

And tear up

A whole bunch of our something

Just to have something

New to do.

We want to fly.

 

Because the road has been rough,

The natives are wild upon our track,

Their televisions are watching,

Their fences cut us back,

We want to fly

 

Far above this civilization of promises,

No more promises to ourselves

Of reward, of revenge

And save our energy

For flying.

 

From the constant patrol of guilt,

A mistake is a mistake is not a mistake

Should be defined not by a law

But by our capacity to repair.

We want to fly.

 

Into ought-to-be-land

Walking, all this walking . . .

Wears holes in our soles.

Skipping and dancing give relief,

But . . . flying in the sky

Would be the cure.

 

From the failures and successes

That our forefathers and foremothers

Worked so hard never to have, really,

And even less to pass on to us,

We want to fly

To make advantage of disadvantage,

Springing a surprise slowly,

Giggling all the while

And spilling the profits.

We want to fly

                                                              fall, 1969

The first draft of this was written in Isla, Ca when student anti-war radicals were carrying on a newspaper and radio media crunch that was to culminate in the burning down of the Bank of America across the street from my coffeehouse. As a businessman I was expected to condemn the action; rather I responded by showing this poem on my bulletin board. At that time it puzzled a lot of people as to my intentions, as may do you too.

*   *   *   *   *

A Cage Without a Bird

I have a dove that dwells

Within a cage without a door.

(I took the door off years ago.)

And pretty girls have asked,

Their minds full of externals,

"Is it safe?"

And how perhaps he needs a door

To protect him

Lest he sneak away somehow to the city outside

And be lost.

And compounding their request,

If he needs a mate

That he might want for friendship

In his prison without a gate.

Well, here it is.

The dove and I have achieved this rare liberty

Only after many years,

A tedious story of near disaster experiences,

Murky and dreary, too unkind to recall.

The surest safety

Comes from a source deep inside,

Deep inside the boney cage,

From a peaceful feeling there

Which I would do harm to explain.

And the sweetest friendship likewise

Comes from a free feeling there, deep inside,

That I would do harm to tame.

Yet peaceful and free

We do no harm to be.

12/84

New Orleans. A Tulane co-ed did bring me a female dove once, but they chased each other around all day and knocked everything down and the female got stuck behind a wall one time and I had to take apart the wall to get her out and so I gave her away, A-wayy!

*   *   *   *   *

"Bob Borsodi is a bohemian," best describes myself. I'm 48 long difficult and still humorous years right now. In conversation I'm often uncomfortably direct/sincere, which probably would have landed me in a mental hospital by now if I hah not found my way to making poems and coffeehouses. Hnn-nnn! Sarah and I have been love-friends for six years so far, and we live apart-together here in New Orleans, which probably is the only city left that would have us. That's . . . about it. Good luck, world!

                                                           1987

There should be some common ground somewhere, after all, where the artists and the public can meet, where their free spirits will not seem peculiar and out-of-the-way, and they can share for the moment, at least, their common human experience among this welter of things here below.

                                   Bob Borsodi

                                   Borsodi's Coffeehouse 

                                   5104 Freret

                                   Nola 70115

Source:  Bob Borsodi. A Cage Without a Door: 50 Poems (1987)

*   *   *   *   *

Editor's note: On Oct 25, 2003 Robert Borsodi ended his fight with cancer by jumping off the Hale Boggs Bridge into the Mississippi River. Over the years, countless people passed through the doors of Borsodi's coffeehouses.

I have no idea what was Borsodi's politics or really anything about his past. I am not sure whether I even made an effort to talk to him about any subject at all. I met him in the mid-80s when I was teaching writing at the University of New Orleans. I had a '78 orange VW bug then. I was hanging with Yusef in those days and I think it was with him that I went to Borsodi's, or maybe it was with Yictove, or both.

So it was about twenty years ago that I last saw Borsodi in New Orleans at his Uptown coffee shop on Freret Street. Borsodi was a gentle spirit, the kind of person who made you feel comfortable in his presence. One might call him a "cafe guru." I liked his shop. It was like the largest living room one has ever been in, that was organized on several levels, and on the lowest Borsodi situated the stage on which he organized plays. He loved Moliere.

I don't recall that I actually saw a play at Borsodi's or whether I was there during a rehearsal. But his plays or his directing of plays or the writing of poems were not the key aspects of knowing Borsodi. I do have a book of his poems somewhere. I think it is down in Virginia at Mama's house. I will share a few of his poems when I get a chance. The joy of Borsodi was not his coffeehouse or his coffee or sandwiches. These were all props.

What was indeed special was being inside the vision of his world. One's body chemistry reordered in his presence. He gave of himself. Maybe he gave too much of himself so that there was too little left for himself. I have indeed thought of him every now and then. Whenever I go home, I usually pick up his book of poems. When I go home this time, I will read Borsodi. I'll share some more of Borsodi with you in the next year. He was indeed someone special and we need more like him.

The other day, Cindy sent me an email that Borsodi was dead. I was shocked. I didn't know he had passed and the circumstances of his death. She sent me several obituaries and a photo of him with a beard. When I knew him he was clean shaven. I was too then. The days have passed.

One never expects wonderful people to pass, rather that they will go on forever. One feels more vulnerable when people like Borsodi die. Whatever the reason he jumped off that Mississippi River bridge, I will ever admire Borsodi in how he lived his life and his courage in his decision to die rather than to live in pain and misery. He had no more to give than memories. That is indeed tragic.

Borsodi, if you are listening, all of us who loved you, we will do our best to make you proud by the life we now live to make the world a bit more comfortable and loving. We will try to be better human beings -- more gentle, thoughtful, and caring -- in all the small ways that remain in our power.

Rudolph Lewis, Editor

ChickenBones: A Journal

*   *   *   *   *

Remembering Borsodi

The Passing of a Freedom Poet

By Rudolph Lewis

I have no idea what was Borsodi's politics or really anything about his past. I am not sure whether I even made an effort to talk to him about any subject at all. I met him in the mid-80s when I was teaching writing at the University of New Orleans. I had a 78 orange VW bug, then, that made it twice to Louisiana from Baltimore. I was hanging with Yusef Komunyakaa in those days and I think it was through him that I went to Borsodi's.

So it was about twenty years ago that I last saw Borsodi in New Orleans at his Uptown coffee shop on Freret Street. Borsodi was a gentle spirit, the kind of person who made you feel comfortable in his presence. He had given up his “whiteness.” One must read his “We Want to Fly: a spiritual song of the self-oppressed Caucasian peoples” (Bob Borsodi. A Cage Without a Door: 50 Poems (1987). Here are a few lines

 

From the failures and successes

That our forefathers and foremothers

Worked so hard never to have, really,

And even less to pass on to us,

We want to fly

 

To make advantage of disadvantage,

Springing a surprise slowly,

Giggling all the while

And spilling the profits.

We want to fly

The poem was first written in 1969. As it was with me, Borsodi had been working on his freedom, his freedom from “whiteness.” He had become fully human.

One might call Borsodi a "cafe guru." I liked his shop. It was like the largest living room one has ever been in, that was organized on several levels, and on the lowest Borsodi situated the stage on which he organized plays. He loved Moliere; maybe because “whiteness” had not yet been invented..

I don't recall that I actually saw a play at Borsodi's or whether I was there during a rehearsal. But his plays or his directing of plays or the writing of poems were not the key aspects of knowing Borsodi. I still have his book of his poems he gave me in 87. his poems need to be share and read out loud often. The joy of Borsodi was not his coffeehouse or his coffee or sandwiches. These were all props.

What was indeed special was being inside the vision of his world. One's body chemistry reordered in his presence. He gave of himself—gave of the humanity he had achieved through diligent attention to what was inside, that one gathers living in a white world. In the title poem of his book, A Cage Without a Bird, written December 84, he says:

Well, here it is.

The dove and I have achieved this rare liberty

Only after many years,

A tedious story of near disaster experiences,

Murky and dreary, too unkind to recall.

Maybe Borsodi gave too much of himself so that there was too little left for himself. One cannot just transfer freedom won to another; every man must make his own struggle. But Borsodi was a wonderful example of what it meant to be free of “whiteness.” I have indeed thought of him every now and then. Whenever I go home, I usually pick up his book of poems He was indeed someone special and we need more like him.

A woman named Cindy sent me an email that Borsodi was dead. I was shocked. I didn't know he had passed and the circumstances of his death. She sent me several obituaries and a photo of him with a beard. When I knew him he was clean shaven. The days have passed, so quickly, much too quickly, and I hardly knew him. But we have his poems. We should make sure that they remain in circulation and read out loud.

One never expects wonderful people to pass, rather that they will go on forever. One feels more vulnerable when people like Borsodi die. Whatever the reason he “flew” off that Mississippi River bridge, I will ever admire Borsodi in how he lived his life and his courage in his decision to die, to give up the body, than live longer in pain and misery. He had no more to give than memories. That is indeed tragic.

Borsodi, if you are listening, all of us who loved you, we will do our best to make you proud by the life we now live to make the world a bit more comfortable and loving. We will try to be better human beings—more gentle, thoughtful, and caring—in all the small ways that remain in our power.

Rudolph Lewis, Editor

ChickenBones: A Journal

www.nathanielturner.com

26 April 2007

*   *   *   *   *

BORSODI, ROBERT OTTO

Sunday November 16, 2003

Robert Otto Borsodi, a coffeehouse owner and carpenter, died after jumping off the Hale Boggs Bridge in Luling on Oct. 25. He was 64. Mr. Borsodi was born in Suffern, N.Y., and lived in New Orleans for the past 25 years. He earned a degree in theater lighting and set design from Yale University. He owned and operated Borsordi's Coffeehouse in Santa Barbara, Calif., Seattle and New Orleans. He was a Marine Corps veteran. Survivors include his companion, Karen Rittvo; a son, Christopher Robin Borsodi; a stepdaughter, Anna Miller; a brother, Albert Borsodi; two sisters; and two grandchildren. A memorial service will be held Dec. 27 at noon at Breezy's Place, 2139 Soniat St.

*   *   *   *   *

Some appreciations below comes from other former patrons.

*   *   *   *   *

Before there was a coffeehouse on every corner in New Orleans, Robert Borsodi was a pioneer in the coffeehouse realm as the proprietor of Borsodi's, a coffeehouse on Freret Street back in the 1970s that was open to free thinkers of all stripes and persuasions. Robert Borsodi killed himself Saturday by jumping from the Sunshine Bridge. He is fondly remembered as a jolly longhaired freak who loved to jump into the middle of Carnival parades and truly 'do his own thing.'

Posted By Poetry Desk. Posted at 4:16 pm October 28, 2003 in New Orleans

*   *   *   *   *

Friends,
I don't know if you knew him or knew of him, but Bob Borsodi apparently committed suicide the other day. Jumped from the Sunshine Bridge as far as we know. Several months of illness preceded the act. Bob was the patron saint of coffeehouses in my book. His guestbook of some 3 or 4 decades included notes, poems, and drawings from about ever major bohemian artist New Orleans ever produced. I only got to meet him briefly, when at my request he joined our anniversary proceedings at Fair Grinds. I confess that I was very flattered that this veteran of years of coffeehouses came, brought us a nifty little gift and spent the evening there with friends. Bob's life would make an interesting read, but I doubt anybody thought to document much of it. You take people for granted sometimes. I guess the best we can make of his loss, is that we had whatever benefit his life gave us. I certainly will try to honor his devotion to art and alternative in whatever feeble ways I can with my own coffeehouse.

Robert Thompson, Fair Grinds Coffeehouse

*   *    *   *   *

 

 

Cancer pain drives free spirit to suicide

Coffeehouse owner jumps from bridge

By John Pope

 

Monday November 03, 2003

Hours before dawn on Oct. 25, Robert Borsodi awoke for the last time in the Uptown bohemia where he had reigned for a quarter-century.

Without disturbing his partner, Karen Rittvo, Borsodi dressed and parted the hanging sheets of cotton fabric that separated his cot from the cluttered Soniat Street coffeehouse where he had brewed coffee, staged plays and poetry readings and, on special occasions, made croissants.

Borsodi, 64, paused long enough to grab a scrap of paper towel and dash off a four-line poem about Maddy, his and Rittvo's hefty cocoa-colored dog. Then the gray-haired man with the trademark wispy beard that hung nearly to his waist climbed into his dark-blue Nissan truck, painted with flowers, and was gone.

His next stop was the Hale Boggs Bridge over the Mississippi River at Luling. Parking on the shoulder of the southbound lane, Borsodi walked to the middle of the span and jumped. His body was found four miles downriver on Wednesday, said Maj. Sam Zinna, chief of detectives in the St. Charles Parish Sheriff's Office.

"When I saw the truck had gone, I knew," Rittvo said.

Although the autopsy said the cause of death was drowning, Rittvo and other close friends had no doubt that the suicide was a response to untreatable cancer. It had spread throughout his body, including his bones. The pain was so acute, friends said, that Borsodi recently had gone from one friend to the next, asking for help in killing himself.

"He wasn't grandstanding. If he was in pain, he probably was thinking of getting the job done the best way possible," his friend John Koeferl said.

Borsodi's suicide, friends said, was a consistent act for a man who had spent his life well outside the mainstream.

"Robert constantly said that he belonged to slower times," said Christina Miller, a former companion. "He really felt people have forgotten how to communicate with each other. That was his thing: To communicate with each other on an intimate level is something profound."

Borsodi eschewed such modern trappings as air conditioning and e-mail and seldom bought anything new. He grew a beard, Rittvo said, because "he just got sick of shaving when he was 45."

Those who knew Borsodi trace his eccentricities to his childhood. He was the grandson of Ralph Borsodi, a self-taught philosopher whose antidote for the Depression's economic misery was a series of small, nearly self-sufficient communities.

Ralph Borsodi brought up his grandson after Robert Borsodi's parents divorced.

Borsodi prepped at Choate, a New England boarding school, and had a Yale degree in drama, but made a point of downplaying this pedigree. When he applied for work as a carpenter to help him keep a string of coffeehouses open in California, Washington state and, finally, New Orleans, Borsodi, who was right-handed, filled out the forms left-handed "so people would think he was an illiterate Joe and not overqualified," said Linda Cicada, his companion for 11 years and the mother of his son.

Borsodi operated coffeehouses on Danneel and Freret streets before buying the Soniat Street duplex in 1993. He never advertised for the coffeehouse known as Breezy's, and never charged admission for the plays he staged in a tiny, sunken area Rittvo referred to as the "Theater in the Hole."

"It was a warm and very welcoming atmosphere," said Peter Cooley, who participated in several of Borsodi's poetry readings.

Cooley, a Tulane University professor, said Borsodi was a unifying literary force because he brought together white and black audiences.

"It was a place everyone went to," he said.

During summers, Borsodi hopped freight trains, staying on the road for months at a time and sending back hand-drawn postcards.

And when it was time to move on, Borsodi did just that, regardless of whether he was heading for the freight yard or walking out of a relationship.

"When he left me, he walked out in the middle of the night and left me a note: 'Linda -- Had to go. Robert.' " Cicada said. "He didn't tell us where he want. He had to go, just the same way he had to jump off a bridge."

He and Christina Miller were living on the West Coast in the mid-1970s and hating it when, Miller said, she suggested moving to New Orleans, a place she had liked to visit while growing up in Florida.

So they drove across the country in a station wagon named Queenie, arriving in New Orleans during a storm "when the sky turned green," Miller said.

Borsodi opened his first coffeehouse at 5104 Danneel St. and his second at 5104 Freret St. During his first 15 years in New Orleans, Borsodi made enough money to buy a former crack house on Soniat Street and convert it into a coffeehouse, his friend Brad Ott said.

That last establishment, in a prim row of duplexes, would look familiar to anyone who went to college in the 1960s or '70s. The floor sags, and the dark walls are covered with postcards, street and business signs, yellowing business cards and concert schedules with edges so old they curl. The only indication that the year is 2003 is that some of the newer additions to the collection of business cards have e-mail addresses.

Also stapled to the walls are quotations Borsodi liked, coming from such diverse sources as the writers Isak Dinesen, Edgar Allan Poe and George Bernard Shaw and the rock band Little Feat. Just inside the door, written in fading ink, is Borsodi's statement of purpose for his coffeehouse: "There should be some common ground somewhere, after all, where free spirits can gather and not seem peculiar and out of the way."

"He just had his living room," Ott said, "and he welcomed everyone that would sit down."

A memorial service will be held, probably in late December, but the date and time have not been set.

____________

John Pope can be reached at jpope@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3317.

*   *   *   *   *

 

No Bean Counter

For one former customer, a trip to Robert Borsodi's place

 was about much more than coffee.

By Robert Kehew

The lingering image is of a man behind a counter, his head wreathed in steam, slowly turning. He would smile with recognition. You would converse -- about art, the neighborhood, an upcoming poetry reading -- with the flow of conversation punctuated by gnomic aphorisms and Zen-like utterances. Then at some point you would be handed a coffee.

Robert Borsodi was a purveyor of coffee. He owned a succession of coffeehouses, first along Route 1 of Big Sur country in California, and then, for the past quarter century, around Uptown New Orleans. Borsodi's coffeehouse moved from Danneel Street to Freret Street to, most recently, Soniat Street. Yet to limit our understanding of what he did to a bare transaction of java-for-dollars would be to severely truncate our appreciation of what Bob Borsodi was all about.

Bob's coffeehouses were special places. At the Freret Street establishment where I was once an habitue, everything bore the unmistakable stamp of his personality. Dog-eared chapbooks by obscure poets drooped from the shelves. Whimsical cut-outs from magazines had been laminated to the table-tops (the clown table was much in demand for Sunday brunch). In an amusing touch, someone had painted on the hand-made ladder that led from the public space to Borsodi's private quarters the label "stairway to heaven." Yet in reality there was little distinction between public and private space here, for the coffeehouse was Borsodi's living room -- or more precisely his salon, a welcoming place where you were his guest and friend.

It is also important to note that, at Borsodi's Coffeehouse, no one ever rushed you. My God, no. At Borsodi's, if there was any rushing being done, it was the customer prodding the owner. Bob was not one to be overly concerned with giving you food before change, or to devise ways to speed up the turnover rate of his tables. For one whose name is so inextricably linked in memory with a caffeine-delivery device, Borsodi was surprisingly slow-moving. Yet as one got to know him, one realized that his magisterial pace was not due to a slow body rhythm, but rather to a philosophy of life. He thought people should take time -- in life in general, and over coffee at coffeehouses in particular.

In such an atmosphere, good conversation and even creativity could luxuriate. Borsodi's Coffeehouse was a haven for napkin-scribbling artists. Bob held monthly poetry readings and mounted the occasional theatrical production. On one occasion I played a bit role in a scene from something from Moliere. Borsodi directed this production and played a role himself: that of a none-too-polished fencing instructor. I remember there was a certain dramatic effect that he wanted to bring off when he made his first rapier-swinging entrance. This effect was constantly eluding him throughout rehearsal. But I can recall his smile of satisfaction at the premiere, when he made his dramatic entrance, and managed to achieve the elusive effect, a very audible burp, at just the right time.

In addition to cultural refreshment, there was also useful advice to be had at Borsodi's. I am thankful to Bob Borsodi for the knowledge that, when hoboing across the country and needing to jump onto a moving train, you must always make sure to run and grab and get a secure grip on the ladder with both hands before trying to swing your legs up. Also, a length of two-by-four is good for propping the door open, which prevents the door from slamming shut and condemning the occupant to slow dehydration and death. But in addition to such practical bits of information, there was also wisdom to be had at Borsodi's. By gentle example rather than insistent precept, Borsodi revealed that living a life is more important than making money; that the expression of individuality counts; that reflection and relationships and fun all require adequate investments of time.

Holder of a degree in drama from Yale, Borsodi found his niche in the arts, not in front of the footlights, but rather behind the scenes. His role lay in providing the space within which the strutters and fretters upon the stage could be conceived. Borsodi's Coffeehouse joins the honor roll of the great coffeehouses of the world -- Trieste in San Francisco, Tryst in Washington, D.C., La Luna in San Salvador -- where great, unexpected things can happen. In today's world of mass-produced coffeehouses, this role has become increasingly important and endangered. Robert Borsodi provided the environment within which life and art could flourish. With his loss, the world is left a bit more impoverished.

*  *   *   *   *

Now living in Arlington, Va., Robert Kehew took his coffee at Borsodi's Coffeehouse on Freret Street from 1982 to 1986. He is currently editing an anthology of poems by the medieval troubadours in verse translation, which the University of Chicago Press plans to publish next fall.

posted 23 December 2003

*   *   *   *   *

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*   *   *   *   *

Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered

the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It

By H. W. Brands

In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar's astonishing rise to become the world's principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar's changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America's economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan's bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar's dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today. He concludes with a sobering dissection of the 2008 world financial debacle, which exposed the power--and the enormous risks--of the dollar's worldwide reign.  The Economy

*   *   *   *   *

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. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

*   *   *   *   *

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 6 March 2012

 

 

 

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