photo by Alex Lear





Horace Silver


            Where is the orange pumpkin face with the lit candle inside? Where the wide snaggle tooth smile like the one Ma'dear used to beam at us? But she also used to bust our butts and that warm smile would turn to a grimace just like the one you got now, and just like I never pleaded with Ma'dear to slack up on whipping us, I'm not going to beg you to stay.

            You used to glow radiant like you were plugged into god's bright light when you first came here in that happy yellow dress I liked to see you wear. Although you arrived in December, in winter, your aura was so unwintery, plus you had yellow shoes with spaghetti straps. From the beginning you were always munching fruit.

            "You like jazz?" I asked. You nodded. I gestured toward the sofa and dropped a record on my system. You sat listening attentively to Horace Silver blowing the "Tokyo Blues." I don't know why I chose that album to play to you, or why I asked did you like jazz, or even why I invited you over.

            You were so thin, thinner than any woman I had ever been with at that time. I don't even like thin women, so I mean you were already way ahead of the game. Maybe it was the geisha girls on the cover with Horace sitting between them that caused me to pause while flipping through the stack searching for suitably impressive sounds to play. Maybe your bright red lipstick, the rouge tastefully spread on your cheek, and, of course, your quietness reminding me of the way I imagine Japanese women are, and your carefully painted fingernails, and the small amber ring you wore, with matching earrings, your legs crossed listening to "Cherry Blossom," saying you had that record in your collection.

            Before the LP was over you looked up at me. I was standing tall. You smiled and then sat back and looked away briefly, then looked back and gave me a full, big eyed stare like you had already figured what you wanted out of this. I was just steady looking at you, at how small your breasts were and trying to think was this going to be worth my time. If I knew what I know now, I never would have cared about you, but I didn't know. You let me fall in love with you, and now that I do, you don't care.

            I still remember standing in my living room the evening of the first day. It was already December dark even though it was only like a quarter to seven. You were admiring my African sculpture that my sister gave me from her trip to Ghana and I had on a cranberry colored sweater. Horace Silver was spinning exactly at 33 and 1/3 revolutions a minute. The orange lights on the turntable gauge where perfect squares standing still. I remember all that. I just kind of stood there listening to Blue Mitchell's exuberant trumpet calls and was wondering what all this was about.

            Yeah I'm a little upset. I mean I care. Yeah, I would prefer if we worked this out, if you would glow like you used to when you looked at me with your huge brown eyes telling me about some book you had read or how you liked the way I touched you, glow like you did that first evening when I was standing surrounded by Horace Silver's hip sounds washing over us and you returned your face to me and told me, "I don't want anything serious. I want this to be light. I want us to enjoy it. I'll stay as long as it's light."

            I suppose I was supposed to kiss you at that moment, but Horace was playing so beautifully I had to be more subtle than that. So I squatted in front of you, touched your knee briefly and simply said, "yeah, that's what I want too. As long as it's good." I never intended to really, really love you. I mean you wanted it "light," and I imagined this could be very convenient, us seeing each other and seeing other people too.

            I asked you if you wanted something to eat and you held up the apple you were chewing and smiled. You never liked to cooked. I never met a woman like you that was so open about not wanting to cook, about refusing to cook. I cooked more than you did and I can't cook, and my surprise to learn you were a school teacher. I guess I thought all school teachers were also supposed to know how to cook.

            You never corrected the way I talked so I couldn't imagine you an English teacher but I guess you had to be something. I never really knew you before that day you came over and right now I'm realizing that I have never really got to know you since.

            It's only a few months later. The weather has just turned to spring, nevertheless, here you are intoning in that husky voice of yours (a sexy huskiness that first attracted me to you, a voice which initially sounds too deep for such a petit body, that voice which tipped me off that maybe there was more to you than it looked like there was), here you are saying "Harold, it's not light anymore."

            When did it stop being light. It's still light for me. For a teacher you sure do get a lot of stuff backwards. Winter is heavy, spring is light. Look at you right now, you're hunched into that frog position you like so much lately: your heels pulled up on the edge of the chair, your arms wrapped around your legs, your chin on your knee.

            "Is this because I don't want to drive to Atlanta to see Nelson Mandela?" You answer "no," dragging out the short response, but it sounds like yes to me.

            "Was it about that AIDS walk I didn't want to go to and you went by yourself?" You answer me "no" but here we go again, it sounds like yes.

            "Is it because I don't want to use condoms? I mean it's mainly you and me right..."

            You slowly close your eyes.

            "I mean you did say you wanted this to be light, right?"

            I can hear you not listening to me.

            "What do you want? You want us to live together? You already said you don't want to be married. What, huh? I don't understand..."

            I looked at you. You are fading before my eyes. I reach out to touch you, to hold you. My hand goes right through your body and touches the back of the chair.


—kalamu ya salaam



photo by Alex Lear





Emilio Santiago


I woke up, slowly, or I thought I woke up. Maybe I was still dreaming. Next thing I knew I had quit my job at the factory, and at the office, and on the assembly line and I was sitting on the warm ground with my father fishing in City Park. We both had on freshly washed jeans and old shirts. His had a torn pocket and a hole in the left sleeve, mine had chocolate milk stains on it from that morning when I went to drink the milk and missed my mouth.


My dad was showing me things he never showed me when he was alive, or maybe it was things he showed me but things somehow I was unable to see then even though he tried to show me. I smile as I see myself learning stuff from my dad. I was 13 and I was learning how to smile like a man.


When the sun started going down we walked home. He walked slowly enough that I could keep up without rushing. I was holding the poles and the empty bucket, we had released all the fish we caught. Daddy had said there was no need to take what we didn't need, we had food at home. I asked him why had we come fishing then, and he put his arm around my shoulder, loosely around my shoulders, and kissed me on the nose.


Fully awake now, I look over at you. You are still sleeping. The windows in our room are shaded but the morning light is spread around the edges like the crust on bread. You make a very light whistling sound as you inhale while sleeping. I don't want to turn the TV on. I don't want to see anymore hostages. If I turn the tv on I will become a hostage too. What does your mother think of me now? I am in the middle of my life and there are no bells on my shoulders, no post graduate degrees on my wall.


I can hear the traffic in the street outside. Where do people think they are going? I wish everyday I could go somewhere I've never been before, touch the doors of houses I've never entered, walk in the wash of seas that have never wet me. I start to wake you and ask you the last time we walked along in the park wandering hand in hand through the flock of ducks or when was it I most recently kissed you in public. Over all I'm pretty satisfied with our furniture, it's just the nagging thought that we didn't really need a leather sofa and glass topped coffee table to be happy, but it's just a thought.


I see the shape of you beneath the thin sheet pulled up almost to your shoulders. The radio has come on automatically, and as the jazz filters into the room and into my consciousness I realize it's on WWOZ and someone is on the radio saying that this is a gorgeous Monday, that Mondays are the best days of the week. I look at him queerly. The music is nice.


Suddenly there is this sound, this song that doesn't quite sound like the average song, it sounds so, so, so I don't know, so lonely, no not lonely, so incomplete, unfinished. It sounds like he is in my head, or I mean that music is music that is inside me, and somehow he saw it. Did my father tell him to play this music? And then the track is over. I listen for who the artist is and the DJ calls my name, but I never made any music. I never made the music I wanted to, maybe he is trying to tell me something.


The next song that plays is a ballad in some language I don't recognize but I clearly see myself singing this foreign song on a red tiled patio early in the morning with five freshly cut yellow roses in my hand.


I stand up to listen to the music better. Both my hands are on top of my head with my fingers interlaced. I am nude. You wake up. I can feel you watching me. My eyes are closed.


When the song ends you ask me what am I thinking. I tell you I don't know and you kiss my hand, the hand with which I reached down to touch your thick dark brown hair.


Is this still a dream? No, my fingers are wet where you kissed me. The music is filling our bedroom. Maybe I am supposed to be an artist. Finally I tell you as much of the truth as I am able to understand at this moment, "I was just listening to that music and it made me think about a lot of things I've always wanted to do...."


—kalamu ya salaam



photo by Alex Lear






– A Haiku Sequence for Nelson Mandela




haiku #40


nelson busts robben's

rocks like cousin john henry

swinging freedom steel






haiku #54


mandela's teeth cracked

captivity's bones & sucked

resistance marrow






haiku #61


murdered children's deaths

bandoliered cross our chests

we hate apartheid





haiku #112


emerging from jail

their dragon, our butterfly

his smile is so huge


—kalamu ya salaam




photo by Alex Lear




don’t ever grow old


don’t ever grow old, he said.


i had stood aside for the lady i assumed was his wife. with a painfully visible effort she haltingly scooted out of the narrow seat. i had told her, “take your time.” and then, with a tenuous grip on the seat back, he excruciatingly  rose and looked up at me, hesitating. i told him to go ahead. he chuckled, his eye twinkled and he advised me, don’t ever grow old. from behind me a middle-aged lady wryly intoned, what other option is there?


he slowly shuffled down the aisle, i was behind him, taking half steps so that i would not run up on his heels. once off the plane i darted around the old couple, someday i will be old like that but i hope... what do i hope? concerning growing old what hope is there?


i stopped at the kiosk where southwest airlines had complimentary orange juice and donuts. while holding down the tap to fill my cup, this guy approaches, picks up a napkin, and tries to decide what kind of donut he wants.


“you ever wonder what your life would be like if you and carol had got together?”


what? i look up but this guy is not looking at me and doesn’t even seem to be talking to me, even though i clearly heard him. how did he know about carol, about the crush i had on her in 7th grade?


“you know there is a parallel universe, another place where the path you didn’t take continues on. if you want, i can put you on that road.”


i almost spit up the juice. this time i’m sure the guy’s lips weren’t moving, yet i’m also sure i’m hearing strange things.


“but if you go, you can’t come back. you only get one chance to live again. i know you think this is a joke, but it’s not. it’s real.”


at that moment, i thought the strangest thought--what if i could be with any of the women i have ever loved, would i take it?


“i can hook you up with carol.”


i turned away and said in a low voice, no you can’t. carol died of breast cancer about a year ago.


“you’re wrong buddy, what i mean is you could rewind and have a life with carol. it wouldn’t stop her from dying but you would be there until she died and, hey, afterwards, you could marry another love, and...”


i walked away. i am on my second go-round already, i don’t have to travel back to get here. bustling forward, i mull over marrying a previous love and am forced to acknowledge donut man has a point: choosing one love over another is disconcerting.


like the summer i declined to choose jean kelly. at the time, i didn’t even know i was making a choice or, as it were, ignoring a choice i could have made. i simply basked in the moment, giving no thought to what could be. in fact, as many males do, i thought i was fortunate to be able to enjoy without being forced to choose. but then again, if i was not ready to choose, how ready would i have been to deal with the results had i made that choice? i thought about jean because even now, decades later, the residue of her unerasable tenderness continues to reside in the marrow of my being at an address deeper than bone. why couldn’t i then recognize her permanence...?


i guess that guy was trying to offer me a chance to both keep and savor two love cakes from the ingredients of one life time, or..., or maybe i’m being sentimental. i always want every love to be true and lasting; don’t we all? or am i just being male and desiring every woman i’ve every wanted? shit, life is too short and too complex to go back.


i hang a right at the newsstand where literally hundreds of glossy magazines are strung out in come-hither displays featuring all the flavors of the month, particularly the female-fleshy variety.


a security guard gives me a cursory glance. no matter how individual i believe myself to be, i’m still but one of thousands of travelers she scans every day. and then in a flash i know: the most important life choice is not who we hook up with but rather which route we trod. on the road is where we meet our mates, to go one way is to reject another. boy, i can be a philosophizing fool while walking my ass through an airport!


on the down escalator i vainly try to gather up my thoughts. few of the travelers around me look happy. are they scowling in disappointment about dead-ended routes?


the terminal doors open automatically. i step into the dallas morning sunshine, gently sit down the black briefcase that contains my laptop, unsling  my carry-on from my shoulder, and lean back against a concrete column, reprising my monthly waiting-for-my-ride routine.


mr. donut passes without even a glance in my grey-bearded direction. i’m not surprised. when you’re fixated on the past, you don’t recognize the future. on the other hand, to truly know yourself, you must recognize everything and everyone you’ve rejected or avoided.


i probably looked somewhat silly, standing there beaming my crooked-tooth smile at life’s little paradox: all the things we are is also a composite of all the things we chose not to be? is this how it feels to grow old?


—kalamu ya salaam



photo by Alex Lear




Black Women, Eroticism

and Classic Blues




          I'm going to show you women, honey,

               how to cock it on the wall.

          Now you can snatch it, you can break it, you can

               hang it on the wall

          Throw it out the window, see if you

               can catch it 'fore it fall

                    --Louise Johnson


     "I fantasize spanking you. What sexual fantasies do you have?" an ex-lover intoned into the phone receiver.

     As she spoke I remembered a time when we were in one of those classical numeral positions and at a peak moment I felt the sharp smack of her bare palm on my bare butt--not in pain nor anger, but surprisingly, for me, I remember a tingle of pleasure, the pleasure in knowing that I had been the catalyst for her, a person of supreme sexual control, going over the edge.

     After I hung up, I admitted to myself that like many males my main fantasy was to be sexually attractive to and sexually satisfying for thousands of women. I "fantasize" sexually engaging at least a quarter of the women I see, ninety percent of whom I don't know beyond eyeing them for a moment as I drive down some street, spot them in a store, in an office building, in line paying a bill, or walking ahead of me out of a movie.

     I remember in one of my writing workshops in the fall of 1995 I shocked a room of young men by declaring that sexual expression among male homosexuals represented the fullest flowering of male sexuality. Some reacted predictably from a position of virulent homophobia and others were just genuinely skeptical.

     I explained that if he could, assuming that there were no restraints and that it was consensual sex between adults, then the average American male would engage in promiscuous sex every time they felt aroused--which undoubtedly would be often. A major brake on our promiscuousness is the unwillingness of women to cooperate with male socio-biological urges.

     I asked one of the more skeptical homophobes in my workshop, "haven't you seen a woman today you wished that you could get down with, a woman whom you didn't know personally?" He smiled and answered "yeah, on my way to class just now." After the laughter died down, I told him that this is indeed what often happens with gay sex precisely because there is no restraint other than desire and safety.

     American male sexuality is, among other characteristics, a celebration of the moment. Our fantasy is immediate sexual gratification with whomever catches our fancy. Most of the time we deny, transfer, repress, or misrepresent these fantasies. However, in popular music we forcefully articulate the male desire to wantonly enjoy coition with women. Thus, these 90's rap and r&b ("rhythm and booty") records about rampant sex with a bevy of willing cuties is not just adolescent, post-puberty fantasizing but rather is an accurate projection of ethically unchecked and socially unshaped male sexuality--a sexuality which projects the male as the dominating, aggressive subject and the female as the pliant (if not willing) object of consumption.

     Here is a significant cultural crossroads. I hold no truck in prudish and/or puritanical views of sex; while I abhor pornography (the commidifying of sex and the reifying of a person or gender into a sexual object), I am opposed to censorship. The status quo would have the whole debate about the representation of sexuality boil down to either reticence or profligacy. The truth is those extremes are not different roads. They are simply the up and down side of the status quo view which either come from or lead to the objectifying of sexual relations. Objectifying sexual relations is a completely different road from the frank articulation of eroticism.

     Within the American cultural context, this difference is nowhere as clearly presented as in the early, 1920's woman-centered music known as "Classic Blues."





     You never get nothing by being an angel child,

     You better change your ways and get real wild,

     I want to tell you something and I wouldn't tell you no lie,

     Wild women are the only kind that really get by,

     'Cause wild women don't worry, wild women don't have the blues.

                    --Ida Cox


     Known today as "Classic Blues" divas, these women married big city dreams with post-plantation realties and, by using the vernacular and folk-wisdom of the people, gave voice to our people's hopes and sorrows and specifically spoke to the yearnings and aspirations of Black women recently migrated to the city from the country. While many women took up domestic and factory work, the entertainment industry also was a major employer of Black women. In Black Pearls author Daphne Harrison sets the stage:


     Young black women with talent began to emerge from the churches, schools, and clubs where they had sung, recited, danced, or played, and ventured into the more lucrative aspects of the entertainment world, in response to the growing demand for talent in the theaters and traveling shows. The financial rewards often out-weighed community censure, for by 1910-1911 they could usually earn upwards of fifty dollars a week, while their domestic counterparts earned only eight to ten dollars. Many aspiring young women went to the cities as domestics in hope of ultimately getting on stage. While the domestics' social contacts were severely limited, mainly to the white employers and to their own families, the stage performer had an admiring audience in addition to family and friends. (Harrison, page 21)


     The Classic Blues divas who emerged from this social milieu were more than entertainers, they were role models, advice givers, and a social force for cultural transformation. Ma Rainey is considered the mother of the Classic Blues. "She jes' catch hold of us, somekinaway." scripts poet Sterling Brown in giving a right on the money description of the cathartic power of Ma Rainey's majestic embrace which wrapped up her audience and reared them into the discovery of self-actulization's rarefied air. "Git way inside us, / Keep us strong" (Brown, pages 62 - 63). Birthed by these women, we became our selves as a people and as sexually active individuals.

     Twenties Classic Blues was the first and only time that independent African-American women were at the creative center of Black musical culture. Neither before nor since have women been as economically or psychologically "liberated".

     In a country dominated by patriarchal values, mores and male leadership (should we more accurately say "overseership"?), Classic Blues is remarkable. Remember that although slavery ended with the Civil War in 1866 and the passage of the 15th amendment to the Constitution, suffrage for women was not enacted until 1920 with the 19th amendment. The suffrage movement, which had been dominated by White women, was also intimately aligned with the temperance movement, a movement which demonized jazz and blues.

     Black women were a major organizing and stabilizing force in and on behalf of the Black community between post-Reconstruction and the Twenties. Historian Darlene Hine notes:


     The second period began in the 1890s and ended around 1930 and is best referred to as the First Era of the Black women were among the most active and determined agents for community building and race survival. Their style was concentrated on internal developments within the black community and is reflected in the massive mobilization that led to the formation of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs that boasted a membership of over 50,000 by 1914. ... Black women perfected a "politics of respectability," a "culture of dissemblance," and a cult of secrecy and silence. (Hine, page 118-119)


      But a curious dynamic has always animated Black America--while those who hoped to assimilate, to be accepted and/or to achieve "wealth and happiness" strove for and advocated a "politics of respectability" the folk masses sang a blues song a la Langston Hughes' mule who was black and didn't give a damn, if you wanted him, you had to take him just as he am. In other words, the blues aesthetic upsets the respectability applecart. And at the core of the blues aesthetic is a celebration of the erotic.

     I content that this is a major cultural battle. Eroticism is the motor that drives Black culture (or, more precisely, drives those aspects of our culture which are not assimilative in representation). Whereas, polite society was too nice to be nasty, blues people felt if it wasn't nasty, then how could it be nice.

     As James Cone notes in his perceptive and important book The Spirituals and the Blues:


     It has been the vivid description of sex that caused many church people to reject the blues as vulgar or dirty. The Christian tradition has always been ambiguous about sexual intercourse, holding it to be divinely ordained yet the paradigm of rebellious passion. Perhaps this accounts for the absence of sex in the black spirituals and other black church music. ... In the blues there is an open acceptance of sexual love, and it is described in most vivid terms... (Cone, page 117)


     Many of us are totally confused about eroticism. Most of us don't appreciate the frank eroticism of nearly all African-heritage cultures which have not been twisted by outside domination (e.g. Christianity and Islam). Commenting on "Songs Of Ritual License From Midwestern Nigeria" African Art Historian Jean Borgtatti notes:


     The songs themselves represent an occasion of ritualized verbal license in which men and women ridicule each other's genitalia and sexual habits. Normally such ridicule would be an anti-social act in the extreme... In the ritual context, however, the songs provide recognition, acceptance, and release of that tension which exists between the sexes in all cultures, and so neutralize this potential threat to community stability. (Borgatti, page 60)


     The songs in question range from explicit and detailed put-downs to this lyric sung by a woman which could be a twenties blues lyric.

     When I Refuse Him


     When I refuse him, the man is filled with sorrow

     When I refuse him, the man is filled with sorrow

     When my "thing" is bright and happy like a baby chick, it drives him wild

     When my "thing" is bright and happy like a baby chick, it drives him wild


My argument is that socially expressed eroticism is part and parcel of our heritage. In the American context, this eroticism is totally absent in the "lyrics" of the spirituals (albeit not totally suppressed in the rituals of black church liturgy). On the other hand, Black eroticism is best expressed and preserved in the blues (beginning in the early 1920s) and in its modern musical offshoots.

     Erotic representation is another major point of divergence. Euro-centric representations of eroticism have been predominately visual and textual whereas African-heritage representations have been mainly aural (music) and oral (boasts, toasts, dozens, etc.). The eye sees but does not feel. Mainly the brain responds to and interprets visual stimuli whereas the body as a whole responds to sound. Moreover, textual erotic representation invites and encourages private and individual activity. E.g. you are probably alone reading this--if not alone in fact certainly alone in effect as there may be others present where you are reading but they are not reading over your shoulder or sitting beside you reading with you. Moreover, you most certainly are not reading this aloud for general consumption. If you do read it aloud it is probably a one-to-one private act.

     Aural and oral erotic representation, on the other hand, require a participating audience, become a ritual of arousal. Music, in particular, is not only social in focus, music also privileges communal eroticism. Thus, whereas text encourages individualism and self-evaluations of deviance, shame and guilt; musical eroticism encourages coupling, group identification and self-evaluations of shared erotic values, sexual self worth and pleasure.

     Finally, within the African-American context, sound is used as language to communicate what English words cannot. The African American folk saying, "when you moan the devil don't know what you talking about" contains an ironic edge that goes beyond spiritual commentaries on good and evil. The White oppressor/slave master, i.e. "the devil," does not understand the meaning of moaning partly because of intentional deception on the part of the moaners but also because English lexicon is limited. Moans, wails, cries, hums and other vocal devices communicate feelings, moods, desires and are the core of blues expression. This is why the blues is more powerful than the lyrics of the songs, why blues lyrics do not translate well to the cold page (when the sound of the words is not manifested much of the true meaning of the words is lost), and why blues cannot be accurately analyzed purely from an intellectual standpoint. Moreover, erotic desires, frustrations and fulfillments--the most frequent emotions articulated in the blues--are some of the strongest emotions routinely manifested by human beings.

     In the 1920's mainstream America was nowhere near ready to acknowledge and celebrate eroticism. Thus, as far as most Americans were concerned, a frank and explicit expression of eroticism was shameful. This social "shame" became the singular trademark of the blues. Moreover, the identification of sexual explicitness with the blues was so thorough that sexually explicit language became known as "blue" as in "cussin' up a blue streak" or the kind of  "blue material" which was often "banned in Boston."

     Within the context of American Puritanism and Christian anti-eroticism, it is important to note that "blue" erotic music was first brought to national prominence not by men but rather by women. This privileging of feminine sexuality was an unplanned result of the newly developed recording industry's quest for profits. When "Okeh Records sold seventy-five thousand copies of 'Crazy Blues' in the first month and surpassed the one million mark during its first year in the stores" (Barlow, page 128) the hunt was on. Recording and selling "race records" (i.e. blues) was like a second California gold rush. There was no aesthetic nor philosophical interest in the blues. This was strictly business. Moreover, during the first years of the race record craze, because race records were sold almost exclusively to a Black audience there was less censorship and interference than there otherwise might have been. Black tastes and cultural values drove the market during the twenties. There were both positive and negative results to this commercialization.


     On the positive side of the ledger, the mechanical reproduction of millions of blues disks made the music far more accessible to the public in general, and black people in particular. Blues entered an era of unprecedented growth and vitality, surfacing as a national phenomenon by the 1920s. As a result, a new generation of African-American musicians were able to learn from the commercial recordings, to expand their mastery over the various idioms and enhance their instrumental and vocal techniques. The local and regional African-American folk traditions that spawned blues were, in turn, infused with new songs, rhythms, and styles. Thus, the record business was an important catalyst in the development of blues that also facilitated their entrance into the mainstream of popular American music.

     On the other hand, the transformation of living musical traditions into commodities to be sold in a capitalist marketplace was bound to have its drawbacks. For one thing, the profits garnered from the sale of blues records invariably went into the coffers of the white businessmen who owned or managed the record companies. The black musicians and vocalists who created the music in the recording studios received a pittance. Furthermore, the major record companies went to great lengths to get the blues to conform to their Tin Pan Alley standards, and they often expected black recording artists to conform to racist stereotypes inherited from blackface minstrelsy. The industry also like to record white performers' "cover" versions of popular blues to entice the white public to buy the records and to "upgrade" the music. Upgrading was synonymous with commercializing; it attempted to bring African-American music more into line with European musical conventions, while superimposing on it a veneer of middle-class Anglo-American respectability. These various practices deprived a significant percentage of recorded blues numbers of their African characteristics and more radical content. (Barlow, pages 123-124)


     When the depression hit and Black audiences no longer had significant disposable income to spend on recordings, the acceptable styles of recorded blues changed drastically.


     The onset of the depression quickly reversed the fortunes of the entire record industry; sales fell from over $100 million in 1927 to $6 million in 1933. Consequently, race record releases were drastically cut back, field recording ventures into the South were discontinued, the labels manufactured fewer and fewer copies of each title, and record prices fell from seventy-five to thirty-five cents a disk. Whereas the average race record on the market sold approximately ten thousand copies in the mid-twenties, it plummeted to two thousand in 1930, and bottomed out at a dismal four hundred in 1932. The smaller labels were gradually forced out of business, while the major record companies with large catalogues that went into debt were purchased by more prosperous media corporations based in radio and film. The record companies with race catalogues that totally succumbed to the economic downturn were Paramount, Okeh, and Gennett. By 1933, the race record industry appeared to be a fatality of the depression. (Barlow, page 133)


     The Classic Blues divas founded and shaped the form of Black music's initial recording success in the twenties. By the thirties women were completely erased as cultural leaders of Black music. While there was certainly an overriding economic imperative to the cutback, there was also a cultural/philosophical imperative to cut out women altogether.

     There was no precedent in either White or Black American culture for women as leaders in articulating eroticism. This significant feminizing of eroticism was predicated on an unprecedented albeit short-lived change in the physical and economic social structure of the Black community converging with a period of massive national economic growth and far reaching mass media technological innovations in recordings, radio, and film.

     Despite optimal economic and technological incentives, the twenties rise of the newly emergent Classic Blues diva was no cakewalk, not only because of the virulence of class exploitation, racism and sexism but also because of cultural antagonisms. Regardless of race, there was an open conflict between the blues and social respectability. The self-assertive, female Classic Blues singer was perceived as a threat to both the American status quo as well as to many of the major political forces seeking to enlarge the status quo (i.e. the petty bourgeoise-oriented talented tenth).

     Moreover, unlike many post-Motown, popular female singers who are produced, directed and packaged by males, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Sippie Wallace, and the incomparable "Empress" of the blues, Bessie Smith, were more than simple fronts for turn-of-the-century blues Svengalies. Yes, men such as Perry Bradford, Clarence Williams, and Thomas Dorsey were major composers, arrangers, accompanists and producers for many of the Classic Blues divas; and yes, these women often were surrounded and beset by men who attempted to physically, financially and psychologically abuse them, nevertheless the Classic Blues divas were neither pushovers nor tearful passive victims.


Emerging from southern backgrounds rich in religious and folk music traditions, they were able to capture in song the sensibilities of black women--North and South--who struggled daily for physical, psychological, and spiritual balance. They did this by calling forth the demons that plagued women and exorcising them in public. Alienation, sex and sexuality, tortured love, loneliness, hard times, marginality, were addressed with an openness that had not previously existed.

     The blues women accomplished this with their unique flair for dramatizing their texts and performances. They introduced and refined vocal strategies that gave the lyrics added power. Some of these were instrumentality, voices growling and sliding like trombones, or wailing and piercing like clarinets; unexpected word stress; vocal breaks in antiphony with the accompaniment; syncopated phrasing; unlimited improvisation on repetitious refrains or phrases. These innovations, in tandem with the talented instrumentalists who accompanied the blues women, advanced the development of vocal and instrumental jazz.

     Of equal significance, because they were such prominent public figures, the blues women presented alternative models of attitude and behavior for black women during the 1920s. They demonstrated that black women could be financially independent, outspoken, and physically attractive. They dressed to emphasize their symbolic importance to their audiences. The queens, regal in their satins, laces, sequins and beads, and feather boas trailing from their bronze or peaches-and-cream shoulders, wore tiaras that sparkled in the lights. The queens held court in dusty little tents, in plush city cabarets, in crowded theaters, in dance halls, and wherever else their loyal subjects would flock to pay homage. They rode in fine limousines, in special railroad cars, and in whatever was available, to carry them from country to town to city and back, singing as they went. The queens filled the hearts and souls of their subjects with joy and laughter and renewed their spirits with the love and hope that came from a deep well of faith and will to endure. (Harrison, pages 221-222)


     Never since have women performed major leadership roles in the music industry, especially not African-American women. The entertainment industry intentionally curtailed the trend of highly vocal, independent women. Most of the Classic Blues divas, it must be noted, were not svelte sex symbols comparable in either features or figure to White women. The blues shouter was generally a robust, brown or dark-skinned, African-featured women who thought of and carried herself as the equal of any man. America fears the drum and psychologically fears the bearer of the first drum, i.e. the feminine heartbeat that we hear in the womb.

     Bessie Smith and her peers, were sexually assertive "wild" women, well endowed with the necessary physical and psychological prowess to take care of themselves. Actively bisexual, Bessie Smith belied the common "asexual" labeling of stout women, such as is suggested by Nikki Giovanni in "Woman Poem"


     it's a sex object if you're pretty

     and no love

     or love and no sex if you're fat

          (Giovanni, page 55)


     "No sex" was not the reality of the Classic Blues divas. Yes, many of them were then and would now be considered "fat" but they were far from celibate (by either choice or circumstance). Or, as the sarcastic blues lyric notes:


     I'm a big fat mama, got meat shakin' on my bones

     A big fat mama, with plenty meat shakin' on my bones

     Every time I shake my stuff, some skinny gal loses her home


     In recent years the best description of the liberating function Blues divas served for the Black community is contained in Alice Walker's powerful novel, The Color Purple. Walker's memorable and mythic character Shug Avery is an active bisexual blues singer a la Bessie Smith. Shug instructs the heroine Celie in the recognition and celebration of herself as a sexual being:


     Why Miss Celie, [Shug] say, you still a virgin.

     What? I ast.


     Listen, she say, right down there in your pussy is a little button that gits real hot when you do you know what with somebody. It git hotter and hotter and then it melt. That the good part. But other parts good too, she say. Lot of sucking go on, here and there, she say. Lot of finger and tongue work. (Walker, page 81)


Shug then instructs Celie "Here, take this mirror and go look at yourself down there, I bet you never seen it, have you?" The blues becomes a means not only of social self expression but also of sexual self discovery, especially for women.

     In a life often defined by brutality, exploitation and drudgery, the female discovery and celebration of self-determined sexual pleasure is important. Thus the blues affirms an essential and explicit reversal. We have been taught that we are ugly, the blues celebrates our beauty and this is especially true for Black women.


     I lie back on the bed and haul up my dress. Yank down my bloomers. Stick the looking glass tween my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Then my pussy lips be black. Then inside look like a wet rose.

     It a lot prettier than you thought, ain't it. she say from the door.

     It mine, I say. Where the button?

     Right up near the top, she say. The part that stick out a little.

     I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me. Nothing much. But just enough to tell me this the right button to mash. (Walker, page 82)


     The major characteristic of the Classic Blues is that the vast majority of the songs were sexually oriented and nearly all of the singers were women. In his major study of Black music, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) notes:


     The great classic blues singers were women... Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson note from a list of predominately classic blues titles, taken from the record catalogues of three "race" companies. "The majority of these formal blues are sung from the point of view of woman... upwards of seventy-five per cent of the songs are written from the woman's point of view. Among the blues singers who have gained a more or less national recognition there is scarcely a man's name to be found." (Jones, page 91)


Jones goes on to answer the obvious question of why women dominated in this area:


     Minstrelsy and vaudeville not only provided employment for a great many women blues singers but helped to develop the concept of the professional Negro female entertainer. Also, the reverence in which most of white society was held by Negroes gave to those Negro entertainers an enormous amount of prestige. Their success was also boosted at the beginning of this century by the emergence of many white women as entertainers and in the twenties, by the great swell of distaff protest regarding women's suffage. All these factors came together to make the entertainment field a glamorous one for Negro women, providing an independence and importance not available in other areas open to them--the church, domestic work, or prostitution. (Jones, page 93)


     Ann Douglas, in her important book Mongrel Manhattan In The 1920s, Terrible Honesty identifies the twenties as a period of (quoting from the dustjacket) "historical transformation: blacks and whites, men and women together created a new American culture, fusing high art and low, espousing the new mass media, repudiating the euphemisms of outdated gentility in favor of a boldly masculinized outspokenness, bringing the African-American folk and popular art heritage briefly but irrevocably into the mainstream." Douglas believes the birth of modernism required the death of the white matriarch.


     "The two movements, cultural emancipation of America from foreign influences and celebration of its black-and-white heritage, had for a brief but crucial moment a common opponent and a common agenda: the demolition of that block to modernity, or so she seemed, the powerful white middleclass matriarch of the recent Victorian past. My black protagonists were not matrophobic to the same degree as my white ones were, but the New Negro, too, had something to gain from the demise of the Victorian matriarch."  (Douglas, page 6)


Such anti-matriarch sentiments directly clashed with the reality of female-led Classic Blues.

     We are forced to ask the question: does the freedom of the Black man require the destruction of the Black woman? To the degree that the Black woman is a matriarch, a self-possessed and self-directed person, to that same degree there will inevitably be a conflict with the standards of modern America which are misogynist in general and anti-matriarchal in particular.


     Thanks to the revolt against the matriarch, Christian beliefs and middleclass values would never again be a prerequisite for elite artistic success in America. Nor would plumpness ever again be a broadly sanctioned type of female beauty; the 1920s put the body type of the stout and full-figured matron decisively out of fashion. Once the matriarch and her notions of middle-class piety, racial superiority, and sexual repression were discredited, modern America, led by New York, was free to promote, not an egalitarian society, but something like an egalitarian popular and mass culture aggressively appropriating forms and ideas across race, class, and gender lines. (Douglas, page 8)


     Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, et al may seem to contradict Douglas' thesis but actually the disappearance of big, Black women from leadership in entertainment is proof that Douglas was correct in her assessment of modern America. Among Black people, the Black matriarch continued to reign in the arenas of church, education and community service. However, to the degree that Black people adopt modern American ways to that same degree our culture inevitably becomes "masculinized"     and "anti-matriarchal." This is inevitable because, as Douglas' book demonstrates in great detail, American modernism is based on the refutation of the woman as culture bearer. Yet culture bearer is precisely the role that the Black woman fulfills.

     "The blues woman is the priestess or prophet of the people. She verbalizes the emotion for herself and the audience, articulating the stresses and strains of human relationships" (Cone, page 107) proudly proclaims theologist James Cone, a Christian man who had sense enough to sus out the potency of blues priestesses, a potency which is overtly sexual but which also made strong social, political and economic statements (e.g. "T.B. Blues" by Ida Cox decrying poor health conditions and "Poor Man Blues" by Bessie Smith condemning class exploitation).





     There's a new game, that can't be beat,

     You move most everything 'cept your feet,

     Called 'Whip it to a jelly, stir it in a bowl',

     You just whip it to a jelly, if you like good jelly roll


     I wear my skirt up to my knees

     And whip that jelly with who I please.

     Oh, whip it to a jelly, mmmmmm, mmmm

     Mmmmm, mmmm, mmmmm, mmmm

               --Clara Smith


     In western culture the celebration of dignity and eroticism does not and can not take place simultaneously. From Freud's theories of sexuality which focus for the most part on penile power to the church which goes so far as to debase the body as a product of original sin, there is no room for the celebration of eroticism, and certainly no conception whatsoever of the female as an active purveyor of erotic power. To me, the blues is clearly an alternative to Freud and Jesus with respect to coming to terms with our bodies.

     James Cone correctly analyzes this alternative.


     Theologically, the blues reject the Greek distinction between the soul and the body, the physical and the spiritual. They tell us that there is no wholeness without sex, no authentic love without the feel and touch of the physical body. The blues affirm the authenticity of sex as the bodily expression of black soul.

     White people obviously cannot understand the love that black people have for each other. People who enslave humanity cannot understand the meaning of human freedom; freedom comes only to those who struggle for it in the context of the community of the enslaved. People who destroy physical bodies with guns, whips, and napalm cannot know the power of physical love. Only those who have been hurt can appreciate the warmth of love that proceeds when persons touch, feel, and embrace each other. The blues are openness to feeling and the emotions of physical love. (Cone, pages 117-118)


     Moreover, the fact that Freud's theories find their first popular American currency in the 1920s at the same time as Black women's articulation of the Classic Blues suggests an open contest between widely divergent viewpoints. The Classic Blues offered an unashamed and assertive alternative to both the traditional puritanical views of sexuality as well as alternative to the new Freudian psychological views of sexuality. Bessie Smith and company were battling Jesus on the right and Freud on the left.

     The puritans with their scarlet letters projected the virgin/whore (Mary mother vs. Mary Madaglene) dualism. For the most part, Freud either ignored the psychology of women, thought they were unfathomable, or else projected onto them the infamous "penis envy."

     The period between the Civil War and World War II is the birth of American modernism. It is also the period when the bustle (an artificial attempt to mimic the physique of Black women) was a fashion standard. While it is not within the purview of this essay to address the question of how is it that Black buttocks become a standard of femininity for white society, it is important to at least mention this, so that we can contextualize the battle of worldviews.

     Freud proposed the "id" as the controlling element of the civilized individual. The purpose of Black music was precisely to surmount the "id." The individual looses control, is possessed. This trance state is a sought for and enjoyed experience. Rather than be in control we desire to be mounted, i.e. to merge with and be controlled by a greater force outside ourselves. Blues culture validated ritual and merger of the micro-individual into the social and spiritual macro-environment. In this way blues may be understood as an alternative conception of human existence.

     In a major theoretical opus on the blues, Blues and the Poetic Spirit, author Paul Garon argues


To those who suggest that the blues singers are 'preoccupied' with sexuality, let us point out that all humanity is preoccupied with sexuality, albeit most often in a repressive way; the blues singers, by establishing their art on a relatively nonrepressive level, strip the 'civilised' disguise from humanity's preoccupation, thus allowing the content to stand as it really is: eroticism as the source of happiness.

     The blues, as it reflects human desire, projects the imaginative possibilities of true erotic existence. Hinted at are new realities of non-repressive life, dimly grasped in our current state of alienation and repression, but nonetheless implicit in the character of sexuality as it is treated in the blues. Desire defeats the existing morality--poetry comes into being. (Garon, pages 66-67)


     Musicologist/theologist Jon Michael Spencer takes Garon's argument deeper when he comments in his book Blues and Evil:


Garon was seemingly drawing on the thought of the late French philosopher Michel Foucault, who said in his history of sexuality that if sex is repressed and condemned to prohibition then the person who holds forth in such language, with seeming intentionality, moves, to a certain degree, beyond the reach of power and upsets established law. Sex also might have been a means for "blues people" to feel potent in an oppressive society that made them feel socially and economically impotent, especially since sexuality inside the black community was one area that was free from the restraints of "the law" and the lynch mob.


     In essence, the Classic Blues as articulated by Black women was not only a conscious articulation of the social self and validation of the feminine sexual self, the Classic Blues was also a total philosophical alternative to the dominant White society.

     In this regard two incidents in the life of Bessie Smith serve as archetypal illustration. The first is Bessie Smith confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan and the second is Smith's confrontation with Carl Van Vechten's wife. The Klan is the apotheosis of racist, right wing America. Carl Van Vechten is the personification of liberal America.

     In Chris Albertson biography of Bessie Smith he describes Smith's July 1927 confrontation with the Klan that occurred when sheeted Klan members were attempting to "collapse Bessie's tent; they had already pulled up several stakes." When a band member told Smith what was going on the following ensued.


     "Some shit!" she said, and ordered the prop boys to follow her around the tent. When they were within a few feet of the Klansmen, the boys withdrew to a safe distance. Bessie had not told them why she wanted them, and one look at the white hoods was all the discouragement they needed.

     Not Bessie. She ran toward the intruders, stopped within ten feet of them, placed one hand on her hip, and shook a clenched fist at the Klansmen. "What the fuck you think you're doin'?" she shouted above the sound of the band. "I'll get the whole damn tent out here if I have to. You just pick up them sheets and run!"

     The Klansmen, apparently too surprised to move, just stood there and gawked. Bessie hurled obscenities at them until they finally turned and disappeared quietly into the darkness.

     "I ain't never heard of such shit," said Bessie, and walked back to where her prop boys stood. "And as for you, you ain't nothin' but a bunch of sissies."

     Then she went back into the tent as if she had just settled a routine matter. (Albertson, pages 132-133)


     Bessie Smith was not an apolitical entertainer. She was a fighter whose sexual persona was aligned with a strong sense of political self-determination. This "strength" of character is another reason that singers such as Bessie Smith were widely celebrated in the Black community. Furthermore, Smith not only was not intimidated by the right, she was equally unimpressed with the liberal sector of American society, as the incident at the Van Vechten household demonstrates. Along with his wife Fania Marinoff, a former Russian ballerina, Carl Van Vechten ("Carlo") was the major patron of the Harlem Renaissance. Albertson describes "Carlo" as an individual who "typified the upper-class white liberal of his day." (Albertson, page 138)


     Van Vechten loved the ghetto's pulsating music and strapping young men, and he maintained a Harlem apartment--decorated in black with silver stars on the ceiling and seductive red lights--for his notorious nocturnal gatherings.

     His favorite black singers were Ethel waters, Clara Smith, and Bessie. (Albertson, page 139)


     Van Vechten persistently sought Bessie Smith as a salon guest. She resisted but finally relented after continuous entreaties from one of her band members, composer and accompanist Porter Grainger, who desperately wished to be included among Van Vechten's "in crowd." Smith finally agreed to make a quick between sets appearance. Bessie exquisitely sang "six or seven numbers" taking a strong drink between each number. And then it was time to rush back to the Lafayette Theatre to do their second show of the night.


     All went well until an effusive woman stopped them a few steps from the front door. It was Bessie's hostess, Fania Marinoff Van Vechten.

     "Miss Smith," she said, throwing her arms around Bessie's massive neck and pulling it forward, "you're not leaving without kissing me goodbye."

     That was all Bessie needed.

     "Get the fuck away from me," she roared, thrusting her arms forward and knocking the woman to the floor, "I ain't never heard of such shit!"

     In the silence that followed, Bessie stood in the middle of the foyer, ready to take on the whole crowd.

     "It's all right, Miss Smith," [Carl Van Vechten] said softly, trailing behind the threesome in the hall. "You were magnificent tonight." (Albertson, page 143)


     What does any of this have to do with eroticism? These are examples of Black womanhood in action accepting no shit from either friend or foe. Blues divas such as Bessie Smith were neither afraid of nor envious of Whites. This social self assuredness is intimately entwined with their sense of sexual self assuredness. As Harrison perceptively points out, the Classic Blues divas "introduced a new, different model of black women--more assertive, sexy, sexually aware, independent, realistic, complex, alive." (Harrison, page 111).

     These blues singers were eventually replaced in the entertainment sphere by mulatto entertainers and chocolate exotics, Josephine Baker preeminent among them. Significantly, the replacements for Blues divas were popular song stylists who aimed their art at White men rather than at the Black community in general and Black women specifically. The replacements for the big, Black, Classic Blues diva marked the consolidation of the modern entertainment industry's sexual commodification, commercializing and exoticizing of Black female sexuality.

     Although entertainers from Josephine Baker, to Eartha Kitt, to Dianna Ross, to Tina Turner all started off as Black women they ended up projected as sex symbols adored by a predominately White male audience. In that context, sexuality becomes, at best, symbolic prostitution. The Black woman as exotic-erotic temptress of suppressed White male libidos is the complete antithesis of Classic Blues singer. The Classic Blues singer did not sell her sexuality to her oppressor. This question of cultural and personal integrity marks the difference between the sexual commodification inherent in today's entertainment world (especially when one realizes that the major record buying public for many hardcore rap artists is composed of White teenagers) and the sexual affirmation essential to Classic Blues.

     Another important point is that Classic Blues celebrated Black eroticism based in a literal "Black, Brown or Beige" body rather than in a "white looking" mulatto body. When we look at pictures of Classic Blues divas, we see our mothers, aunts, and older lady friends. Indeed, by all-American beauty standards most of these women would be considered plain (at best), and many would be called "ugly."

     For example, Ma Rainey was often crudely and cruelly demeaned. Giles Oakley's book The Devil's Music, A History of the Blues quotes Little Brother Montgomery "Boy, she was the horrible-lookingest thing I ever see!" and Georgia Tom Dorsey "Well, I couldn't say she was a good-looking woman and she was stout. But she was one of the loveliest people I ever worked for or worked with." Oakley opines


     She was an extraordinary-looking woman, ugly-attractive with a short, stubby body, big-featured face and a vividly painted mouth full of gold teeth; she would be loaded down with diamonds--in her ears, round her neck, in a tiara on her head, on her hands, everywhere. Beads and bangles mingled jingling with the frills on her expensive stage gowns. For a time her trademark was a fabulous necklace of gold coins, from 2.50 dollar coins to heavy 20 dollar 'Eagles' with matching gold earrings. (Oakley, page 99)


     I'm sure the majority of Ma Rainey's female audience did not fail to notice that Ma Rainey resembled them--she looked like they did and they looked like she did. There is no alienation of physical looks between the Classic Blues singer and the majority of her working class Black audience. Physical-appearance alienation of artist from audience is another byproduct of the commodification of Black music.

     What started out as a ritual celebration of openly eroticized life was transformed by the entertainment industry into mass-media pornography--the priestess became a prostitute. Albertson's citing of  a colorfully written Van Vechten assessment of a Bessie Smith performance clarifies the difference between Bessie Smith performing mainly for Black people and subsequent "Black beauties" (including the famous Cotton Club dancers and singers) performing almost exclusively for Whites. Van Vechten not only points out the literally Black make up of Smith's audience, he also points out how Black women identified with Bessie Smith.


     Now, inspired partly by the powerfully magnetic personality of this elemental conjure woman with her plangent African voice, quivering with passion and pain, sounding as if it had been developed at the sources of the Nile, the black and blue-black crowd, notable for the absence of mulattoes, burst into hysterical, semi-religious shrieks of sorrow and lamentation. Amens rent the air. Little nervous giggles, like the shattering of Venetian glass, shocked our nerves. When Bessie proclaimed, "It's true I loves you, but I won't take mistreatment any mo," a girl sitting beneath our box called "Dat's right! Say it, sister!" (Albertson, page 107)


     The implication of such example is psychologically far-reaching and explicitly threatening to male chauvinism, as Harrison explicates:


...the silent, suffering woman is replaced by a loud-talking mama, reared-back with one hand on her hip and with the other wagging a pointed finger vigorously as she denounces the two-timing dude. Ntozage Shange, Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston employ this scenario as the pivotal point in a negative relationship between the heroine/protagonists and their abusive men. Going public is their declaration of independence. Blues of this nature communicated to women listeners that they were members of a sisterhood that did not have to tolerate mistreatment. (Harrison, page 89)


     That these women--big, black, tough, non-virginal, sexually aggressive--were superstars of their era is testimony to the strength of a totally oppositional standard of human value. Their value was not one of physical appearance but one of spiritual relevance. And make no mistake, at that time there was no shortage of mulatto chorines and canaries--Lena Horne, archetypal amongst such "All-American beauties." Nor was there an absence of White male sex-lust for exotic-erotic mulattoes. The difference was that during the twenties there was an unassimilated Black audience which self-consciously embraced/squeezed the blacker berry, i.e. the Classic Blues diva.

     The Classic Blues diva was an extraordinary woman whose relevance to a Black audience has never been approached, not to mention matched. William Barlow's assessment is fundamentally correct.


     The classic blues women's feminist discourse grappled with the race, class, and sexual injustices they encountered living in urban America. They were outspoken opponents of racial discrimination in all guises, and hence critical of the dominant white social order--even while benefiting from it more than most of their peers. They identified with the struggles of the masses of black people, empathized with the plight of the downtrodden, and sang out for social change. Within the black community, the classic blues women were also critical of the way they were treated by men, challenging the sexual double standard. Concurrently, they reaffirmed and reclaimed their feminine powers--sexual and spiritual--to remake the world in their own image and to their own liking. This included freedom of choice across the social spectrum--from political to sexual resistance, from black nationalism to lesbianism. Like the first-generation rural blues troubadours, the classic blues women were cultural rebels, ahead of the times artistically and in the forefront of resistance to all the various forms of domination they encountered. (Barlow, pages 180-181)


     At the essential core of the Classic Blues was a throbbing, vital eroticism, an eroticism that manifested itself in the lifestyle and subject matter of the Classic Blues divas. Although we can analyze in hindsight, the ultimate manifestation of blue eroticism is not to be found nor appreciated in intellectualism but in its funky sound which must be experienced to be fully appreciated. Once again, Alice Walker's The Color Purple is exemplar in portraying the importance of the blue erotic sound--an eroticism best articulated by Black women.


     Shug say to Squeak, I mean, Mary Agnes, You ought to sing in public.

     Mary Agnes say, Naw. She think cause she don't sing big and broad like Shug nobody want to hear her. But Shug say she wrong.

     What about all them funny voices you hear singing in church? Shug say. What about all them sounds that sound good but they not the sounds you thought folks could make? What bout that? Then she start moaning. Sound like death approaching, angels can't prevent it. It raise the hair on the back of your neck. But it really sound sort of like panthers would sound if they could sing.

     I tell you something else, Shug say to Mary Agnes, listening to you sing, folks git to thinking bout a good screw.

     Aw, Miss Shug, say Mary Agnes, changing color.

     Shug say, What, too shamefaced to put singing and dancing and fucking together? She laugh. That's the reason they call what us sing the devil's music. Devils love to fuck. (Walker, page 120)




Albertson, Chris. Bessie. Braircliff: Stein and Day Paperback, 1985 (Originally issued 1972)

Barlow, William. Looking Up At Down. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989

Borgatti, Jean. "Songs Of Ritual License From Midwestern Nigeria" in Alcheringa Ethnopoetics (New Series Volume 2, Number 1). Dennis Tedlock and Jerome Rothenberg, editors. Boston: Boston University, 1976

Brown, Sterling A. The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. Michael S. Harper, editor. Chicago: TriQuarterly Books, 1989

Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1972

Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995

Garon, Paul. Blues & The Poetic Spirit. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975

Giovanni, Nikki. The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni. New York: William Morrow, 1996

Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls, Blues Queens of the 1920s. Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990

Hine, Darlene Clark. Speak Truth To Power. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1996

Jones, LeRoi. Blues People. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1963

Oakley, Giles. The Devil's Music, A History of the Blues. New York: Harvest/HBJ book, 1976

Spencer, Jon Michael. Blues and Evil. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Pocket Books/Washington Square Press, 1982




—kalamu ya salaam


ESSAY + AUDIO: DONALD BYRD / "Byrd In Flight Mixtape" > breath of life


“Byrd In Flight Mixtape”

[Source: Breath of Life (November 24, 2008)]


Some of us used to call it “blue collar jazz,” i.e. jazz aimed at the working folk, people who liked to have a good time in joints, taverns, bar rooms, and assorted other drinking emporiums where the music was part of the overall ambiance. No concerts here. No genteel audiences quietly listening. If the folk dug it they let you know it; they danced, they shouted “amen” (and other more secular epithets of approval). I guess you could label it as party music, music for the good times.

No surprise as dancing and having a ball were literally a foundation of early jazz—a New Orleans secondline is not a concert performance! On the other hand, jazz has always had a strong concert element. The dancers and the listeners have long had strong opinions about what jazz is or should be, and they were often at odds with each other.

Coming out of the sixties, the effort to popularize jazz took an internal split that is not often acknowledged. Far too many assume that Miles Davis was the man who popularized post-Civil Rights modern jazz with Davis’ infusion of rock elements into his music. But there was another trumpeter and within America’s Black communities he was even more popular than Miles.
donald byrd 06.jpg
I know the elevation of Donald Byrd over Miles in terms of R&B-influenced jazz sounds like heresy, but if you check the Billboard R&B charts or the playlists from Black radio of that period, you’ll find a lot more Donald Byrd than Miles Davis. Indeed, ask Blue Note what was their highest selling recording from that or any other period of Blue Note’s famed position as the all-time premiere jazz label.

Would it surprise you to find out that Herbie Hancock played piano in Byrd’s group before joining Miles? Can you believe that John Coltrane recorded more with Donald Byrd than with Miles Davis?

Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II was born in Detroit on December 9, 1932. Historically, Detroit is not only a major city in modern jazz history, politically it’s the mecca of black working class politics. Given his roots, the direction that Donald Byrd took with his music is no surprise.
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Moreover, Byrd is a scholar of the music. The son of a Methodist minister, Donald Byrd graduated from famed Detroit’s famed Cass High School, completed his bachelor’s degree in music at Wayne State University in 1954 and a master’s from Manhattan School of Music. He taught as a professor of music at Hampton New York University, Rutgers and Howard University. At the same time he was successful in academe, he also had a rich career as a hard-bop trumpeter before pushing on into fusion jazz.

Although I like both aspects of his playing, he made a higher mark with his fusion experiments than he did with his straight ahead outings. He really deserves a lot more attention than is usually accorded to his career. I’m just as guilty as anyone else; were it not for Mtume including “Cristo Redentor” in this week’s classic mixtape, I might not have thought to do a Donald Byrd mixtape.

Hear my attempt to rectify Byrd’s omission from the general list of jazz greats. This mixtape is an audio definition of blue collar jazz.

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1. “Flight Time” and 2. “Black Byrd” are two archetypal tracks fromBlack Byrd (1972), Donald Byrd’s most popular album.

The cover demonstrates two aspects of Donald Byrd’s wide ranging interests. One, he offers us a peek at Black history and two, he makes sure we understand that he sees this music as functional, i.e. dance music, and not as music solely to be contemplated in silence. Also, check out that the color palette is red, black and green, the colors of the Black Liberation Movement.
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It is important to note that the Mizell brothers were the producers. Alphonso “Fonce” and Larry Mizell were (surprise) products of the Motown machine. Fonce was part of the team that wrote and produced the early Jackson Five recordings including “I Want You Back,” “ABC” and “The Love You Save.” The Mizell production team, which included a former classmate, Freddie Perren, also did stellar work for flautist Bobbi Humphrey, organisst Johnny Hammond, saxophonist Gary Bartz, L.T.D. (“Love Ballad), and A Taste of Honey (“Boogie Oogie Oogie”).

The Donald Byrd connection is not only Detroit as home base; both Mizells were students at Howard (Fonce studied music under Byrd, Larry majored in electrical engineering). The combination of Donald Byrd and the Mizells was a potent force in seventies jazz.

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3. “just My Imagination” — Places And Spaces (1975)
Here is a roller-skating take on The Temptations hit song. This is precisely the kind of song that soured many hardcore jazzheads in their assessment of Donald Byrd. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy in terms of musical development but it fits right in with the summertime radio format and that was Byrd’s aim.

What is significant about Donald Byrd that other jazz musicians were able to match was Byrd’s comfortable fit into this genre. Byrd is not simply slumming or playing down to his audience. Donald Byrd is actually and intentionally producing music for the freeway and the roller rink, for picnics and just jiving around—not to say that it’s necessary for every musician to produce this kind of music, rather I think it’s noteworthy that when Donald Byrd chose to, he could do produce pop music that was actually popular and not just popular sounding.

4. “Design A Nation” and “Think Twice” — Steppin’ Into Tomorrow(1974)
This is my favorite of Byrd’s funk albums. One of the major reasons I rank it so high is the fluid alto saxophone solos by Gary Bartz. And for sure folk under thirty will relate to Erykah Badu’s version of “Think Twice.” I particularly like the sophisticated changes in the song which are innovative in a pop context.

There is often the temptation to pass this music off as light compared to some of Byrd’s more hardcore jazz efforts as if producing strong popular music is easy. Many jazz musicians tried to produce popular jazz fusion music but none were as consistently successful as Donald Byrd.

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5. “Eldorado” — Blackjack (1967)
6. “Night Flower” — Free Form (1961)
These cuts represent both the apogee and the tail end of Byrd’s hard-bop period and as such give us Byrd on the cusp of turning to fusion. This is jazz, elegant, swinging, lyrical everything one enjoys in a good hard bop jazz recording.

On “Eldorado” the band is Sonny Red on alto Hank Mobley on tenor, Cedar Walton on piano, Walter Booker on bass and the instantly identifiable Billy Higgins on drums.

“Night Flower” is a precursor to Miles’ second great quintet period. Trumpeter Byrd is joined by Wayne Shorter on tenor Herbie Hancock on piano, Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. This is a totally beautiful exposition of an original jazz ballad. Just the kind of music Miles mastered yet here Donald Byrd is presenting two of the major factors (Shorter and Hancock) in Miles’ ascendancy before they joined Miles. Herbie’s piano accompaniment and gentle solo accurately prefigures what he was shortly to bring to Miles. As for Wayne Shorter, his solo is killing. Wayne was already a monster accurately building on Trane’s lyricism and Sonny Rollins’ sense of form.

When someone refers to a jazz song as “pretty” this is exactly what they mean.

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7. “Chant” — A New Perspective (1963)
“Chant” is from the same album that produced “Cristo Redentor.” A New Perspective illustrates another aspect of Donald Byrd. He pioneered using spirituals in a straight ahead jazz context and also was influential in encouraging the use of choral voices in jazz. Here the choral arranger is Coleridge Perkinson. The band is Hank Mobley on tenor, Donald Best on vibes, Herbie Hancock on piano, Kenny Burrell on guitar, Butch Warren on bass and Lex Humphries on drums. The musical arrangements are by Duke Pearson. Were it not for Black Byrd, which came nearly a decade later, A New Perspective would have been Byrd’s crowning achievement.

A trivia note: tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley would go on to hold the tenor chair in the Miles Davis band between John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter’s tenures. If it seems like I’m overemphasizing the concordances between Miles Davis and Donald Byrd that’s because Miles has gotten for more recognition and I want to make sure Byrd gets the credit he deserves.

8. “Places And Spaces” — Places And Spaces (1975)
It’s the Mizell’s again. Larry Mizell is the conductor and arranger.

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9. “Rock And Roll Again” — Steppin’ Into Tomorrow (1974)
Ok, this is the one. This is my favorite funk jazz cut. The tempo is just right and Gary Bartz is outstanding, the spoken word interlude by Donald Byrd is philosophically on point and the doo wop background tickles me no end. Oh, by the way, the whistler is James Carter. I just love the whole thing. Brings a smile to me every time.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

          THE MAN WITH A HORN         


Donald’s version of “Just My Imagination” – which I’m hearing for the first time as I type this – is all sorts of weird: schlocky, schmaltzy and cheesy, and yet, interestingly arranged, creatively conceived and, all in all, well done. Good or bad? I don’t know.

“Black Byrd” is the shit, on some ol’ “laying out on the sofa like it’s back in the day” type of vibe, but we already knew that. “Design A Nation” is creamy like butter and so is the original version of “Think Twice.” I’d been listening to Erykah’s version for some time before I realized it was a cover, and actually, when I did find out it was a cover, it was only because of yet another version of “Think Twice,” this one by Jay Dee (AKA J. Dilla) from his ‘Welcome 2 Detroit‘ album. Dwele’s on vocals on that one and it’s almost as good as the other two versions. The first time I heard the Donald Byrd version was a revelation though. The arrangement is so much more intricate; and then you get Marie Evans’ vocals floating lovely in and out. Very sweet. I like all three. Maybe I should hit y’all with them next week. But what else would I say? :-)

Now “Eldorado” is on more of a straight-ahead vibe that I’m digging. Then there’s “Places And Spaces,” which sounds like an outtake from War’s ‘All Day Music’ LP (that’s a compliment…a big one) and, what can I say, Donald’s the man. The only track I really don’t like is the Rock and Roll funk whatever thing at the end. Sounds like a duet between ’80s-era Earth Wind & Fire and Najee or somebody. Other than that one, thanks for the tracks, Baba. I’m digging ‘em….


—Mtume ya Salaam



photo by Alex Lear   






BLACK POETRY 1965-2000

(notes towards a discussion & dialogue)


What is poetry? That is not a rhetorical question. What it is we are discussing? I define poetry as "stylized language." Within the context of what is generally called literature, I further specify that poetry is language stylized to have an emotional impact on its audience. Within the world of English-language poetry, the chief methods of stylization are: 1. meter and/or rhythm 2. the specific use of sound usually in terms of a. rhyme b. assonance/consonance c. alliteration d. onomatopoeia 3. figurative language, chiefly similes and metaphors.

The canonical standards for contemporary American poetry have their beginnings in England with Shakespeare and their most important developments in the modernist movement of the 1920s (T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams). The fountain heads of contemporary American poetry are considered to be Walt Whitman and Emily Dickerson.

When we look at black poetry, however, we find another, and equally important, source: namely black speech and music, a distinct and distinguished oral and aural tradition which predates America and stretches back to Africa. These two trains are the twin engines of African American, or what I would prefer to call African Diasporan poetry. Most literary criticism gives short shrift to, and very little critical understanding of, black speech/black music as a source of black poetry. Most literary criticism does not consider that our ancestral mother tongues were tonal languages, which to some non-Africans sound like singing rather than talking.

My argument is that the best use of our language is in fact song. Is song, not sounds like song. And this song essence, this musical emphasis informs what we know as poetry. Indeed, while we may be unique in the degree of our congruity of speech and song, within the context of poetry, the fact is, all poetry, I repeat all poetry, started out as sound rather than text, closer to song than to monotone talking.

Moreover, even the paragon of English poetry, i.e. the work of William Shakespeare (whomever he or she, or they, may have been), even Shakespeare was primarily working in an oral tradition using the vernacular of his day. It is not inappropriate to argue that Shakespeare created the English language as a vehicle for literature. During his day, most literature was written in Latin or French. Shakespeare elevated folk forms and the peasant patois of his era to a literary art form. Shakespeare took the vernacular and created high art.

This brings us to the  Black Arts Movement. I know it probably seems like a major stretch to go directly from Shakespeare to the black arts movement of the 1960s, but if you understand that the effort of the black arts movement was to make art based on the speech and music of black people, drawn from the everyday lives of our people and returned to them in an inspiring and potent form; if you understand that the vernacular was the basis for the development of the art; and if you understand that text was not the singular consideration but rather one of a number of considerations, then you can appreciate the Shakespeares of Harlem, of Watts, of Detroit, Chicago, D.C., so forth and so on. And by the way, this artistic elevation of the vernacular is not limited to Shakespeare and the black arts movement.

This same concern shaped the work of the aforementioned founders and fountain heads of modern American poetry. Indeed, this same phenomenon is evidenced in the work of Homer and particularly in the work of Dante, just to name two very important poets from a global historical perspective. While I acknowledge there are other perspectives and considerations, I nevertheless proffer the theory that what was new about the black arts movement was that we were creating our own path rather than following the paths of others.

I also need to point out that the development of the Black Arts Movement had roots and precedents in earlier movements within black literature, as well as roots from outside the black literary tradition. For a general overview of the black arts movement, I refer you to my essay in the Oxford Companion to African American Literature. For a detailed investigation of the black arts movement, I refer you to my forthcoming book: The Magic of Juju: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement.

With that background I will now offer observations for discussion and dialogue. This is not a position paper; this is not an analysis; this is not a summary, but rather is simply a sharing of some ideas and observations toward the development of an assessment of black poetry 1965 to 2000. The black arts movement proper covers the time period of 1965 to 1976. In February 1965 Malcolm X was assassinated and shortly thereafter in March of 1965 a small group of artists and intellectuals coalesced in Harlem to take up work that Malcolm X had outlined in his vision for the Organization of Afro American Unity, the Oaau. Malcolm called for the developed of a cultural center in Harlem.

Amiri Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, Larry Neal, Askia Muhammad Toure, then Roland Snellings, and numerous others responded directly to this call. It is important to point out that the concept for what became the black arts repertory theatre/school did not originate with Baraka although it was named and actualized by Baraka. The specific thrust came from Malcolm X, who in turn was influenced by the teachings of Elijah Muhammad from whom Malcolm had split and from the whole black nationalist tradition dating back to Garvey in Harlem, a movement which Malcolm had studied intently.


Moreover, although looking at the work of key individuals is extremely important, what is more important is to consider the ideas and institutions, the programs and production that is engendered by individuals in motion during a given era. In this case the black arts era is birthed with the death of Malcolm X and makes it's own transition in 1976 when its three major publishing institutions all, each for different reasons, cease functioning. The three major publishing institutions are Dudley Randall's Detroit-based Broadside Press (which by the way re-emerged and continues to operate today); Johnson publications, Hoyt Fuller editedNegro Digest/Black World; and The Journal of Black Poetry published and edited by Joe Goncalves, aka Dingane. Between these three institutions hundreds of poets were published and over thousands of poems distributed in the Black community of the USA and worldwide.
There has been no comparable output of published poetry by any other movement in the history of America. Negro Digest/Black World, with a circulation over 100,000 was the largest literary magazine in American history. White, black or otherwise. Period. Broadside Press with its poetry books, broadsides, tapes and lps, and short lived though very important series of critical monographs is without precedent as a publisher of American poetry. No other press was as influential in terms of poetry.

And finally, although its circulation was not as large, the Journal of Black Poetry which published 19 issues between the mid sixties and the mid seventies, is one of the most vibrant examples of an independently published, non-academic poetry journal in the history of American publishing.

This period also produced three major poetry anthologies: Dudley Randall's The Black Poets, Abraham Chapman's New Black Voices, and Stephen Henderson's Understanding the New Black PoetryBlack Speech and Black Music as Poetic References. Of course, there is also the seminal anthology for the black arts movement, namely Leroi Jones and Larry Neal's Black Fire.

The next major period of black poetry is undefined in terms of a movement per se. This era of retrenchment from the ideals and actualities of black arts poetic production and movement toward, and indeed embracement of, more mainstream modes of poetic production finds its fruition in the work of poet, professor and anthologist Michael Harper. General acclaim given to Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyaaka and to national poet laureate Rita Dove, are both partially the result of the behind the scenes and extremely far reaching work of Michael Harper.

From his position as a professor of creative writing in the graduate program at Brown University, Harper has been able to mentor two generations of poets; champion numerous poets; bring back into print and cause a reassessment of earlier black poets, chiefly Robert Hayden and Sterling Brown; and publish a number of influential poetry anthologies including: every Shut Eye Ain't Sleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans since 1945 (published in 1994) and The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (published Feb. 2000). During this post-black arts period there has been a virtual proliferation of black poets coming through graduate programs in literature. One might call them mfa poets if it didn't have such an exclusive and exclusionary ring to it.

The fruition of Harper's vision is one of the most important developments of the 90s, namely the Cave Canem grouping of poets led by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eddy. Harper and Cave Canem are all academically-oriented, not exclusively so but in the main that is their orientation, and that means they are most concerned with text. Of course other currents were active during this period, and three of the most important figures in late 20th century poetry production in terms of editing, anthologizing, and championing the work of black poets, are Quincy Troupe, E. Ethlelbert Miller and the head of this crew Dr. Jerry Ward, whose 1997 anthology Trouble the Water-250 Years of African American Poetry is a quintessential embodiment of this viewpoint.

Additionally, from a pedagogic point of view, the most important of what I would term the third stream of modern Black poetry is found in the work of Joanne Gabbin with her furious flower conference and the extensions from that conference that include a four-volume video tape series, an online teacher's guide, an anthology of critical essays, and a forthcoming anthology of poetry.

Furious Flower represents an unparalleled summing up of mid to late 20th century Black poetry. Gabbin's vision embraces both trains of African American aesthetics, the text-oriented and the speech/music oriented, and manages to be both compact and comprehensive while acknowledging the strengths and importance of both schools of African American poetics. 

Here is text and context presented in multimedia appropriate for use in the classroom. The importance of the comprehensive third stream (as exemplified by Gabbin, Miller, Troupe and others) on the one hand and the academic poets (as clustered around Michael Harper and Cave Canem) on the other hand, are both eclipsed by the most recent development in African American poetry, namely the spoken word movement which began to dominate the production of black poetry in the late 1990s.

Watershed events in this regard are the nationally released motion pictures: Love Jones (1997) starring Lorenz Tate and Nia Long, and directed by Theodore Witcher, and Slam (1998) starring Saul Williams and Sonia Sohn and directed by Marc Levin. Although this movement was not started by these movies, these two films are collectively responsible for popularizing what is now the most dynamic movement in black poetry. If there is a watershed event it happened many, many years before: September 1979 with the release of Rapper's Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang. This was the beginning of rap recordings.

Rap, as an art form, is the single most important influence on Black poetry at the turn of the century. 1. Stressed the vernacular, and therefore was accessible to young people who were otherwise shut out of artistic production and most of whom (but not all) were excluded from higher education, and thus not likely to be directly influenced by the text tradition in a pedagogical way. 2. Had a strong performance orientation which stressed working with a live audience as opposed to a text orientation. 3. Had a commercial base which stressed popularity often to the detriment of development.

Many, many people in the text and some in the third stream camps are extremely critical of the spoken word movement. They make the mistake of focusing on the movement's obvious shortcomings and ignoring the strengths and potentials. (Read Lorenzo Thomas.) Mention Giant Steps by Kevin Young--all the poets included are mfa poets. The spoken word movement is an American movement and not a black poetry movement in that it encompasses blacks, latino/a, asian, indigenous peoples and whites. The black branch has yet to produce major anthologies or recordings, and thus is not easily available for study and teaching in the classroom.

Major figures of this movement on the black side include: Patricia Smith, Tracie Morris, Roger Bonair-Agard, Reggie Gibson and Staceyann Chin among many, many others. There will be a proliferation of work in this regard arriving soon. There has yet to be an anthology (which will necessarily have to include a cd) that exemplifies this movement. I have not touched on, but do want to mention the whole jazzpoetry movement, championed by Jayne Cortez, Sekou Sundiata, Kamau Daaood and yours truly. This movement works to bring together black speech and black music into a unified artistic whole. Each of the aforementioned have recordings that exemplify their work.

Finally, I want to end with a challenge: 1. Bring back Bam’s  major works Black Fire and Understanding the New Black Poetry, now out of print. If the books were being used in the classroom, they would still be in print. 2. Encourage students to study BAM and study spoken word the way we encourage (by the example of the books we write, authors we assign, and texts we canonize) the study of the Harlem Renaissance. 3. Put together a journal dedicated to the publication and critique of black poetry and black poetics. This activity could be expanded into websites, listservs, cd roms, videos, audio cds and the like. Which institution, which individuals will take the lead in the study and development of Black poetry? 

The further development of Black poetry is what is to be done.

*   *   *   *   *

—kalamu ya salaam






photo by Alex Lear








Sometimes you don't hear them until they come swinging 'round the corner, off St. Philip turning onto Treme headed downtown. Sometimes you be on the telephone and have to cut your conversation short so you can run outside and find out who died or what community event is being celebrated, when and why. Usually it's during the light of day but sometimes it's in the heat of the night when you rise to the occasion, and without a second thought bop down the concrete of your front door steps to slip into the surging sea of revelers streaming joyously down the street. In key parts of New Orleans, seems like sometimes could be any time for the jump up of a second-line. This fertile crescent has got to be the dancing-est city in America.


I cannot ever remember dancing in a second-line and not greeting someone I knew, even if I only knew them by face and not by name. Whether situated next to the bass drum, behind the trombones or in front of the trumpet, or whether prancing on the banquette, you always see someone to greet and smile at (or more likely, smile with) as they squat down and back their thang up, or pogo bounce on one leg carving a sacred circle in the air, or leap like a Masai in time to the syncopated cross rhythms echo-echo-echoing off the wooden faces of dilapidated, but nonetheless brightly painted, shotgun houses built right up close to the sidewalks skirting these narrow streets.


You could live miles away and still find your sister's husband snapping pictures with his trusty Nikon, or your brother's oldest girlchild and her best-est buddy strutting their stuff in those checkered, blue plaid trousers that are the public school uniform. Indeed, isn't that your uncle, your mama's baby brother who got arthritis, tapping his cane in time to the beat while standing on the corner by the sweet shop? And for sure you're in the house of our holy-togetherness if you went to public or Catholic high school with some of these people, or at least danced with the sisters of your former schoolmates at the ILA Hall, the Municipal Auditorium, the State Palace Theatre, or was it on Claiborne and Orleans two Mardi Gras ago? Within this multi-hued gathering of shaking flesh, it's almost a given that someone will greet/touch you with a hug, a kiss, or at the very least an enthusiastic pound of fist atop fist.


Like a primitive two-cell life form, the second-line pulses and throbs, a small band of musicians its nucleus and an ever-shifting enveloping throng of celebrants its connective tissue. Although there are a lot of theories (some very plausible) and no certainties as to the origin of the term second-line, for sure the second-line refers to dancing in the street with a go-for-broke, unabashed shimmy and shake ecstasy. What would make a 38-year-old school teacher get "ratty," hike up her skirt and deftly wave a white handkerchief behind her protruding buttocks with nary an ounce of shame in her game? Nothing but the spirit; and when the spirit say groove, you got to move.


In New Orleans dance traditions are stronger than so-called "social decorum." Here it is customary to prance in the streets while exhibiting a profound interest and demonstrable proficiency in overtly sexually-suggestive body movements. But that's only logical. There can be no family members if there is no sexual activity, therefore, shouldn't we celebrate the creation of family? Even in the midst of grieving over the death of a loved one, a family member, we dance our defiance and celebrate the joy of life. And that is the ultimate strength of the second-line: even at funerals, we literally affirm the ongoing existence of the family. Thus, these jiggling humans are a spirit family of the streets.


What is a spirit family? Well, there is a nuclear family of father, mother and their natural issue. There is an extended family of kin and kind, folk related by circumstance and life struggles. And there is the spirit family, an activity-centered sharing of common cultural values.


What is the nuclear family to ordinary Black people—aka (also know as) the sufferers, the down-pressed workers whose labor has been systematically exploited since our arrival on these shores as chattel, but bka (better, and more truthfully, known as) the transformers and creators of America's most vibrant musical culture, even though seldom officially recognized as such?


What does it mean: father, mother and their 2.5 children under one roof? Coming from traditional African societies built on elaborate, extended linkages between each person, what sense does it make to define one's "family" exclusively in nuclear terms? If you had to deal with masters who treated you with less respect than a bale of cotton or a healthy mule, who regarded you as at best 3/5 human, who bred you like pigs and who callously and methodically separated offspring from parent, how could you maintain the so-called blessed union of man, woman and child?


And yet, there is another dimension. Historical documents indicate that during Reconstruction, Black folk went to extraordinary lengths to identify and find brother, father, sister, mother, husband, wife and all manner of kin. Our interpersonal relationships were always important to us—even when we lacked the social authority to shape and maintain our family structures.


For us family has always been more than the definition of immediate blood. During the first half of the 20th century, the Black family unit included children rescued from the harshness of segregation-enforced poverty, children of relatives and friends taken in and reared inseparably from one's biological brood. Even as adults, it was not uncommon to be adopted cousins, aunts and uncles. Why was this?


We are more than just twisted responses to slavery, more than a limited range of make-do solutions to inhuman social conditions. More of our existence than has been thus far realized is proactive choice and not simply reactive settling for the lesser of two evils. Our insistence on constantly creating family is ideological, not pathological. We bond with each other because we believe in the beauty of community.


The spirit family of the street has many, many expressions in New Orleans. The main folk articulation is the Social Aid & Pleasure Club (SA&PC). Both formally as in dues paying and rule-book following organizations with administrative officers, as well as informally in a grapevine sort of way, at the turn of the century these organically created social formations literally became burial societies and employment agencies, insurance companies and institutions where skills and goods were internally bartered by a money-poor membership who knew that if there was to be a good life for the Black poor in The Big Easy (as New Orleans became known because of its elastic, social safety net that made it damn near impossible to starve to death for lack of either food or pleasure), if we collectively were ever to make any of our dreams real, be those dreams American or otherwise, then we had to pledge allegiance to each other.


The anti-Black, terror campaign which enforced the repeal of Reconstruction and introduced the Jim Crow-era of modern-day Black Codes proved not to be the tomb of Black self-determination as was fervidly hoped for by the racist adherents of American apartheid (which predated South Africa's version). Instead, in its cross-burning fanaticism, hard-line racism actually became a fiery funeral pyre from which our spirit families rose phoenix-like to parade through Black communities declaring that regardless of the strictures of segregation, we could and would take care of ourselves, and would do so with panache.


Plessy vs. Ferguson might ordain that we could not ride first class on public accommodations and that segregation was the way the American South defined equality, but when we strutted up and down our dusty streets, we declared our independence from American conceptions of who and what so-called "Colored people" were. By the twenties, Blacks in New Orleans had reconstructed the course of 20th century American culture. Henceforth, American popular culture could not be definitively defined without referring to jazz and Black-inspired dance—indeed the twenties could not have become the "Jazz Age" had we not created jazz. Moreover this new music, initially spelled "jass," was always accompanied in its home town by body movement, by dancing, by strutting (usually but not exclusively while parading in the streets). Even though in most of America the music became a concert tradition played indoors mainly for listening, in New Orleans the streets remain a natural venue of spiritual expression.


Each of the SA&PCs has an annual celebration of their ongoing existence. At these events, usually held in the autumn, the members step out dressed to the nines in colors that would rival Romare Bearden's celebrated palette. Shoes that can cost more than half the monthly rent. Hats special-ordered from some obscure merchant in a far-off city. And silk shirts dyed a shockingly vibrant hue. I have seen some club members dressed up and standing proudly tall albeit supported by a walker—they ride the route in the club car (a highly waxed, spit-polished maroon Cadillac borrowed from Big Head Willie who run the sandwich shop over on Orleans Avenue), however, their physical infirmities notwithstanding, these stalwarts who have been paid-up club members for twenty-plus years had to be counted in that number of those who were present for the kick-off of the perennial parade.


These are poor people for the most part. Workers who are systematically underpaid their entire lives. Some may ask what they get out of this. But does anyone ask what does a materially empoverished but spiritually empowered mother get out of resplendently dressing her children for church? So what if "Cou-zan Louie" (as cousin Louis is affectionately known in this neighborhood) has been sick, he's part of the family and even though he has to lean on a walker, Louis nevertheless decisively demonstrates where his heart is at when he shifts his once-legendary dance style from the lower extremities of  his youth (wild-ass, crossed and uncrossed, angular leg shakes) to the sloping shoulders of his declining years (twitching mischievously in mini-motions which make him look like he has a massive vibrator hidden in the back of his jacket). Louis has metamorphosed his formerly fleet, foot movements into subtle twists and turns of his gray-haired head. His semi-paralyzed but still vigorous dance is all done with a deft aplomb and twinkling eye that outshines the more athletic achievements of countless younger and healthier people. For "Cou-zan Louie" and thousands like him there is no doubt that our music is medicinal and the conviviality of our camaraderie is rejuvenating.


With names that range from the lofty, such as Olympia, to the obviously near sacrilegious, such as Money Wasters, the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans are institutionalized forms of African secret societies developed for the expressed purpose of building community ("social"), offering mutual support ("aid"), and indisputably having a good time ("pleasure").


Beyond internally cementing the community and keeping alive the spirit of music and dance, the SA&PCs of New Orleans also functioned as a cultural calabash which contained Afro-centric aesthetics and philosophy. To this day, New Orleans remains America's most African city. You can not live in New Orleans and go untouched by the spiritual, aesthetic and philosophical power of Blackness. For example, here, even members of the Jewish community use a brass band to accompany the carrying of the sacred Torah during rare, outdoor religious ceremonies.


In addition to the SA&PCs, another Afro-centric spiritual franchise is the Mardi Gras Indians, whose exquisitely-colored, hand-crafted suits explicitly honor a tradition of united Black and Red resistance to genocide. Thus, the Mardi Gras Indians stress that our new family is broader than some mythological blood purity—mixing or (to use the pejorative term favored by those who tried to fuck everybody while at the same time contradictorily declaiming the sanctity of the "great White race") “miscegenation” was no problem for us. If we could be Black and Blue, if some of us could flaunt our "roon-ness" (you know, quadroon, octoroon, and so forth), then certainly we could and, given the realities of our history, we should be Blacks who were not only blue and partially White, but also Red too! Without ever cracking a sociology book or doing a statistical genealogical sampling, the Mardi Gras Indians spelled out the broad definition of family, a definition that goes further than blood, a definition that embraces the spirit of life as it was actually lived rather than mythologically romanticized.


What is most admirable about the spirit family of the streets is that it maintains its sovereignty even when there is a lack of formal structure. There is no government agency directing the second-line; no private sponsorships or aristocratic patrons paying for this out of the treasure chests of their pockets. Moreover, the second-line does not request permission to exist. We do it because we want to, whenever we want to.


It doesn't have to be a warm Sunday when the Treme Sidewalk Steppers are celebrating their anniversary, nor does it have to be Mardi Gras day when the Yellow Pocahontas are outshining the sun, no, it could be an ordinary Wednesday afternoon, partly cloudy and neither hot nor cool in temperature, and here they come horns blaring and drums issuing a clarion, centuries old call: "get your black ass on in these streets!"


(I have not described the indescribable music making that accompanies the second-line because words don't go there. No words, nor musical notes transcribed on a page, can capture the excitement this ancient music generates. Sometimes the musicians be teenagers of less than sterling technical expertise but even amid questionable intonation and fractured song structures, these neophyte musicians are unquenchable in their enthusiasm. Other times it be hobbling elder "musicianeers" (as Bechet called them) who have played these tunes for a thousand times or more but who attack each song with a gusto that makes you giddy.


(I will tell you the ingredients, but like listing a recipte for gumbo, that will not tell you how the music tastes—you’ve got to do that for yourself, so anyway, second-line music has a low-frequency percussive rumble that pulses through the physical frame like a muscle spasm, and a brassy sharpness that arouses like blood engorging a person's privates. At a second-line you will not likely hear anything that is memorable as a musical composition per se, and at the same time the whole atmosphere is unforgettable: the dancing, the singing, the way the musicians shake their horns at the vibrating body parts surrounding them, the songs that seemingly everybody knows—look how the people all shout and jump up at the same time as if this were a well-rehearsed, professionally-choreographed Hollywood dance number, which it isn't because, even though after the third "ta-dannn dant" you too are jumping and shouting in unison with everyone else, the truth is that this is only your second time being in a second-line.


(Some of this music is German, some is Scottish, a couple of airs are English folk songs, most of the riffs are Black melodic inventions thought up in the throes of the moment; however, in its essentials, all of this music is African and American; African in it's polyphonic/polyrhythmic erotic insistent intensity, American in its diverse multi-ethnic sources. Here then is another family secret that we shout in the streets of New Orleans: we got some of everything in us and we don't hesitate to musically celebrate our polyglot personalities and backgrounds. Despite the fact that we look like Southern Negroes and Creoles, blood-wise and, to a great extent, culturally we are literally a world family. Our sound encompasses all human sounds.)


Self-absorbed six year-olds strut on the corners convincing themselves they are dancing just like Big Jake, and everybody know can't nobody jook like Big Jake, except maybe Miss Noonay who got more wicked moves than a Louisiana politician lying under oath, anyway that's how them kids be dancing.


There is no television that can teach this. No computer that can buck jump like this. For, like I said earlier, at the core of this spirit is a healthy enjoyment of human eros—in our communities no one is ashamed to shake their thing: "This butt is mine, God gave it to me and I ain't supposed to just sit on it." And like family always do, we encourage the kids to show off and guffaw uproariously as the elders remind us not only were they young once but, more importantly, they still have some youthful vigor in their aching bones and withered flesh.


The second-line is then a way not only of celebrating life, but of building the future. The second-line gives young people something to look forward to as they try to do the dances the adults do, and gives elders a future to imagine as they teach their grandchildren to carry on after the current generation is gone. And that is why Mr. Al is standing in the intersection as the second-line makes it on down the street.


Sporting a bemused, dimpled smile, Al look like Elegba, a cultural sentry doing his duty at the crossroads. Mr. Al does not go inside until all of the children are safe back on the sidewalks and porches, and the procession has turned another corner.


With a certainty that is unshakable, Al knows that the family that dances together stays together, that music and movement are a form of prayer, that with this spirit in us we will never die, never, and that at moments like this, everything was, is and will continue to be jelly, jelly, jelly cause jam don't shake like that.


Let the congregation respond: aché.


—kalamu ya salaam



photo by Alex Lear




I Do Not Protest, I Resist


Like most writers, figuring out how to economically support myself is a major problem. I have worked as an editor, as an arts administrator, and as the co-owner of a public relations, marketing and advertising firm. I have freelanced on projects ranging from $10 record reviews to commissions from publishers. Economy necessity is a major influence on what I write.


I have written commercials whose messages I personally reject like a radio jingle for a Cajun meat-lovers pizza when I don't eat red meat. Of course, like many others, while I try to steer clear of  major contradictions, I have done my share of hack work.


Doing what one must in order to survive is one major way in which the status quo effectively shapes us. As a writer, money making options are surprisingly limited. We all know and face the wolf of survival. There is no news in that story.


But wolves run in packs, and survival is not the only predator. There is also our own desire to succeed—I remember reading about "the fickle bitch of success" and wondering why was success described as a "bitch." I have my own ideas, but that's a different discussion.


Success is a very complicated question. We can easily dismiss "selling out" our ideals for a dollar, but what we can't easily dismiss either in principle or in fact, is that we all want our work to reach the widest possible audience. On the contemporary literary scene, reaching a wide audience almost requires going through major publishers. Participation in the status quo makes strenuous demands of our art to conform to prevailing standards, one of which is that the only overtly political art worthy of the title art is "protest art".


Capitalism loves "protest art" because protest is the safety valve that dissipates opposition and can even be used to prove how liberal the system is. You know the line: "aren't you lucky to be living in a system where you have the right to protest?" Without denying the obvious and hard won political freedoms that exist in the USA, my position is that we must move from protest to resistance if we are to be effective in changing the status quo.


The real question is do we simply want "in" or do we want structural change? Most of us start off wanting in. It is natural to desire both acceptance by as well as success within the society into which one is born. But, in the immortal words of P-funk President George Clinton: "mind your wants because someone wants your mind." Those of us who by circumstance of birth are located on the outside of the status quo (whether based on ethnicity, gender or class), face an existential question which cuts to the heart: how will I define success and is acceptance by the status quo part of what I want in life?


While it is simple enough to answer in the abstract, in truth, i.e. the day to day living that we do, it's awfully lonely on the outside, psychologically taxing, and ultimately a very difficult position to maintain. Who wants to be marginalized as an artist and known to only a handful of people? Given the choice between having a book published by a mainstream publisher and not having one published by a mainstream publisher, most writers (regardless of identity) would choose to be published, especially when it seems that one is writing whatever it is one wants to write.


Without ever having to censor you formally—after a few years of rejection slips most writers will censor and change themselves—mainstream publishers shape contemporary literature by applying two criteria: 1. is it commercial, or 2. is it artistically important. Either will get you published at least once, although only the former will get you published twice, thrice and so forth.


Unless one is very, very clear about one's commitment to socially relevant writing, even the most revolutionary writer can become embittered after thirty or forty years of toiling in obscurity. As a forty-seven-year-old (this essay was written in 1994) African American writer, I know that if you do not publish with establishment publishers, be they commercial, academic or small independents, then you will have very little chance of achieving "success" as a writer.


I sat on an NEA panel considering audience develop applications. One grant listed Haki Madhubuti as one of the poets they wanted to present. I was the only person there who knew Madhubuti's work. I was expected to be conversant with the work of contemporary writers across the board. But how is it that a contemporary African American poet with over three million books in print who is also the head of Third World Press, one of this country's oldest Black publishing companies, was unknown to my colleagues? The answer is simple: Madhubuti is not published by the status quo. He started off self publishing, came of age in the 60s/70s Black Arts Movement and is one of the most widely read poets among African Americans but all of his books have been published by small, independent Black publishers.


Too often success is measured by acceptance within the status quo rather than by the quality of one's literary work. That is why we witness authors proclaimed as "major Black writers" when they have only published one or two books (albeit with major publishers) within a five year period. There is no surprise here. My assumption is that as long as the big house stands, "success" will continue to be measured by whether one gets to sleep in big house beds.


This brings me to the subject of protest art. The reason I do not believe in protest art is because I have no desire to bed down with the status quo nor do I have a desire to be legitimized by the status quo. Instead, my struggle is to change the status quo. For me protest art is not an option precisely because in reality protest art is simply a knock on the door of the big house.


There is a long tradition of African American protest art, especially in literature. As a genre, the slave narrative emerged as an integral part of the white led 19th century abolitionist movement. One major purpose of the slave narratives was to address Christian senses of charity and guilt—charity toward the less fortunate and guilt for the "sin" of supporting slavery.


But even at that time there was a major distinction to be made between abolitionist sentiments and charity work on the one hand, and, on the other hand, active participation in the armed struggle against slavery, which included participation in the illegal activity of the underground railroad and support of clandestine armed opposition. This meant fighting with the John Browns of that era or joining the throng of insurgents storming court rooms to "liberate" detained African Americans who had escaped from the south and were then ensnared in the web of the Northern criminal justice system which continued to recognize the "property rights" of Southern slave owners.


While the issues of today are no longer revolve around slavery, the distinction between protest and resistance, between charity and solidarity, remains the heart of the matter at hand. To protest is implicitly to accept the authority of the existing system and to appeal for a change of mind on the part of those in power and those who make up the body politic. To resist on the other hand is to fight against the system of authority while seeking to win over those who make up the body politic. "Winning over" is more than simply asking someone to change their mind, it is also convincing someone to change their way of living.


In the 50s and 60s a debate raged among Black intellectuals about "protest art". Ironically, one of the chief opponents of protest art was James Baldwin—"ironically" because over the years the bulk of Baldwin's essays, fiction and drama can be read as a "protest" against bigotry and inhumanity, as a plea to his fellow human beings to change their hearts, minds and lives.


When Baldwin started out he wanted to be "free" and to be accepted as the equal of any other human being. He did not want to be saddled with the "albatross" of racial (or sexual) themes as the defining factor of his work. Yet, as he lived, he changed and began to voluntarily take up these issues. I believe life changed him.


The reality is that we can not continue to live in America with the social deterioration, mean spiritedness, and crass materialism which is polluting our individual and collective lives. We are literally a nation of drug addicts (alcohol and tobacco chief among our drugs of choice, with over-the-counter pain killers and headache remedies running a close third). We are suffering horrendous rates of violence and disease. There is a widening economic gap at a time when many of our major urban centers teeter on the brink of implosion: aging physical infrastructures such as bridges, sewer systems, housing; corrupt political administration; and increasing ethnic conflict. Something has got to give.


My position is simple, we live in a period of transition. We can protest the current conditions and/or we can struggle to envision and create alternatives. We can plead for relief or we can work to inspire and incite our fellow citizens to resist. As artists, we have a choice to make. Indeed, there is always a choice to make.


Protest art always ends up being trendy precisely because the art necessarily struggles to be accepted by the very people the art should oppose. Ultimately, protest artists are, by definition, more interested in relating to the enemy than relating to the potential insurgents. This is why we have protest artists whose cutting edge work is rejected by neighborhood people.


Yes, neighborhood people have tastes which have been shaped by the consumer society. Yes, neighborhood people are parochial and not very deep intellectually. Yes, neighborhood people are unsophisticated when it comes to the arts. But the very purpose of resistance art is to confront and change every negative yes of submission into a powerful and positive no of resistance! Our job as committed artists is to raise consciousness by starting where our neighborhoods are and moving up from there.


Resistance art requires internalizing by an audience of the sufferers in order to be successful. The horrible truth is that every successful social struggle requires immense sacrifices, and the committed artist must also sacrifice—not simply suffer temporary poverty until one is discovered by the status quo, but sacrifice the potential wealth associated with a status quo career to work in solidarity with those who too often are born, live, struggle and die in anonymous poverty.


We think nothing of the millions of people in this society who live and die without ever achieving even one tenth of the material wealth that many of us take for granted. We think nothing of those who are literally maimed and deformed as a result of the military and economic war waged against peoples in far away lands in order to insure profit for American based billionaires. Somehow, while the vast majority of our fellow citizens are never recognized by name, we artists think it ignoble to live and die without being lauded in the New York Times.


But if we remember nothing else, we should remember this. Ultimately, the true "nobility of our humanity" will be judged not by the status quo but by the people of the future—the people who will look back on our age and wonder what in the world could we have had on our minds. Protest is not enough, we must resist.




—kalamu ya salaam




photo by Lynda Koolish






The Black Arts Movement


Both inherently and overtly political in content, the Black Arts movement was the only American literary movement to advance "social engagement" as a sine qua non of its aesthetic. The movement broke from the immediate past of protest and petition (civil rights) literature and dashed forward toward an alternative that initially seemed unthinkable and unobtainable: Black Power.

In a 1968 essay, "The Black Arts Movement," Larry Neal proclaimed Black Arts the "aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept." As a political phrase, Black Power had earlier been used by Richard Wright to describe the mid-1950s emergence of independent African nations. The 1960s' use of the term originated in 1966 with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee civil rights workers Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks. Quickly adopted in the North, Black Power was associated with a militant advocacy of armed self-defense, separation from "racist American domination," and pride in and assertion of the goodness and beauty of Blackness.

Although often criticized as sexist, homophobic, and racially exclusive (i.e., reverse racist), Black Arts was much broader than any of its limitations. Ishmael Reed, who is considered neither a movement apologist nor advocate ("I wasn't invited to participate because I was considered an integrationist"), notes in a 1995 interview,

I think what Black Arts did was inspire a whole lot of Black people to write. Moreover, there would be no multiculturalism movement without Black Arts. Latinos, Asian Americans, and others all say they began writing as a result of the example of the 1960s. Blacks gave the example that you don't have to assimilate. You could do your own thing, get into your own background, your own history, your own tradition and your own culture. I think the challenge is for cultural sovereignty and Black Arts struck a blow for that.


History and Context. The Black Arts movement, usually referred to as a "sixties" movement, coalesced in 1965 and broke apart around 1975/1976. In March 1965 following the 21 February assassination of Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) moved from Manhattan's Lower East Side (he had already moved away from Greenwich Village) uptown to Harlem, an exodus considered the symbolic birth of the Black Arts movement. Jones was a highly visible publisher (Yugen and Floating Bear magazines, Totem Press), a celebrated poet (Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, 1961, and The Dead Lecturer, 1964), a major music critic (Blues People, 1963), and an Obie Award-winning playwright (Dutchman, 1964) who, up until that fateful split, had functioned in an integrated world. Other than James Baldwin, who at that time had been closely associated with the civil rights movement, Jones was the most respected and most widely published Black writer of his generation.

While Jones's 1965 move uptown to found the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) is the formal beginning (it was Jones who came up with the name "Black Arts"), Black Arts, as a literary movement, had its roots in groups such as the Umbra Workshop. Umbra (1962) was a collective of young Black writers based in Manhattan's Lower East Side; major members were writers Steve Cannon, Tom Dent, Al Haynes, David Henderson, Calvin C. Hernton, Joe Johnson, Norman Pritchard, Lenox Raphael, Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas, James Thompson, Askia M. Touré (Roland Snellings; also a visual artist), Brenda Walcott, and musician-writer Archie Shepp. Touré, a major shaper of "cultural nationalism," directly influenced Jones. Along with Umbra writer Charles Patterson and Charles's brother, William Patterson, Touré joined Jones, Steve Young, and others at BARTS.

Umbra, which produced Umbra Magazine, was the first post-civil rights Black literary group to make an impact as radical in the sense of establishing their own voice distinct from, and sometimes at odds with, the prevailing white literary establishment. The attempt to merge a Black-oriented activist thrust with a primarily artistic orientation produced a classic split in Umbra between those who wanted to be activists and those who thought of themselves as primarily writers, though to some extent all members shared both views. Black writers have always had to face the issue of whether their work was primarily political or aesthetic. Moreover, Umbra itself had evolved out of similar circumstances: In 1960 a Black nationalist literary organization, On Guard for Freedom, had been founded on the Lower East Side by Calvin Hicks. Its members included Nannie and Walter Bowe, Harold Cruse (who was then working on Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, 1967), Tom Dent, Rosa Guy, Joe Johnson, LeRoi Jones, and Sarah Wright, among others. On Guard was active in a famous protest at the United Nations of the American-sponsored Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion and was active in support of the Congolese liberation leader Patrice Lumumba. From On Guard, Dent, Johnson, and Walcott along with Hernton, Henderson, and Touré established Umbra.

Another formation of Black writers at that time was the Harlem Writers Guild, led by John O. Killens, which included Maya Angelou, Jean Carey Bond, Rosa Guy, and Sarah Wright among others. But the Harlem Writers Guild focused on prose, primarily fiction, which did not have the mass appeal of poetry performed in the dynamic vernacular of the time. Poems could be built around anthems, chants, and political slogans, and thereby used in organizing work, which was not generally the case with novels and short stories. Moreover, the poets could and did publish themselves, whereas greater resources were needed to publish fiction. That Umbra was primarily poetry- and performance-oriented established a significant and classic characteristic of the movement's aesthetics.

When Umbra split up, some members, led by Askia Touré and Al Haynes, moved to Harlem in late 1964 and formed the nationalist-oriented "Uptown Writers Movement," which included poets Yusef Rahman, Keorapetse "Willie" Kgositsile from South Africa, and Larry Neal. Accompanied by young "New Music" musicians, they performed poetry all over Harlem. Members of this group joined LeRoi Jones in founding BARTS.

Jones's move to Harlem was short-lived. In December 1965 he returned to his home, Newark (N.J.), and left BARTS in serious disarray. BARTS failed but the Black Arts center concept was irrepressible mainly because the Black Arts movement was so closely aligned with the then-burgeoning Black Power movement.

The mid- to late 1960s was a period of intense revolutionary ferment. Beginning in 1964, rebellions in Harlem and Rochester, New York, initiated four years of long hot summers. Watts, Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, and many other cities went up in flames, culminating in nationwide explosions of resentment and anger following Martin Luther King, Jr.'s April 1968 assassination.

In his seminal 1965 poem "Black Art," which quickly became the major poetic manifesto of the Black Arts literary movement, Jones declaimed "we want poems that kill." He was not simply speaking metaphorically. During that period armed self-defense and slogans such as "Arm yourself or harm yourself' established a social climate that promoted confrontation with the white power structure, especially the police (e.g., "Off the pigs"). Indeed, Amiri Baraka (Jones changed his name in 1967) had been arrested and convicted (later overturned on appeal) on a gun possession charge during the 1967 Newark rebellion. Additionally, armed struggle was widely viewed as not only a legitimate, but often as the only effective means of liberation. Black Arts' dynamism, impact, and effectiveness are a direct result of its partisan nature and advocacy of artistic and political freedom "by any means necessary." America had never experienced such a militant artistic movement.

Nathan Hare, the author of The Black Anglo-Saxons (1965), was the founder of 1960s Black Studies. Expelled from Howard University, Hare moved to San Francisco State University where the battle to establish a Black Studies department was waged during a five-month strike during the 1968-1969 school year. As with the establishment of Black Arts, which included a range of forces, there was broad activity in the Bay Area around Black Studies, including efforts led by poet and professor Sarah Webster Fabio at Merrit College.

The initial thrust of Black Arts ideological development came from the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a national organization with a strong presence in New York City. Both Touré and Neal were members of RAM. After RAM, the major ideological force shaping the Black Arts movement was the US (as opposed to "them') organization led by Maulana Karenga. Also ideologically important was Elijah Muhammad's Chicago-based Nation of Islam.

These three formations provided both style and ideological direction for Black Arts artists, including those who were not members of these or any other political organization. Although the Black Arts movement is often considered a New York-based movement, two of its three major forces were located outside New York City.

As the movement matured, the two major locations of Black Arts' ideological leadership, particularly for literary work, were California's Bay Area because of the Journal of Black Poetry and the Black Scholar, and the Chicago-Detroit axis because of Negro Digest/Black World and Third World Press in Chicago, and Broadside Press and Naomi Long Madgett's Lotus Press in Detroit. The only major Black Arts literary publications to come out of New York were the short-lived (six issues between 1969 and 1972) Black Theatre magazine published by the New Lafayette Theatre and Black Dialogue, which had actually started in San Francisco (1964-1968) and relocated to New York (1969-1972).

In 1967 LeRoi Jones visited Karenga in Los Angeles and became an advocate of Karenga's philosophy of Kawaida. Kawaida, which produced the "Nguzo Saba" (seven principles), Kwanzaa, and an emphasis on African names, was a multifaceted, categorized activist philosophy. Jones also met Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver and worked with a number of the founding members of the Black Panthers. Additionally, Askia Touré was a visiting professor at San Francisco State and was to become a leading (and longlasting) poet as well as, arguably, the most influential poet-professor in the Black Arts movement. Playwright Ed Bullins and poet Marvin X had established Black Arts West, and Dingane Joe Goncalves had founded the Journal of Black Poetry (1966). This grouping of Ed Bullins, Dingane Joe Goncalves, LeRoi Jones, Sonia Sanchez, Askia M. Touré, and Marvin X became a major nucleus of Black Arts leadership.


Theory and Practice. The two hallmarks of Black Arts activity were the development of Black theater groups and Black poetry performances and journals, and both had close ties to community organizations and issues. Black theaters served as the focus of poetry, dance, and music performances in addition to formal and ritual drama. Black theaters were also venues for community meetings, lectures, study groups, and film screenings. The summer of 1968 issue of Drama Review, a special on Black theater edited by Ed Bullins, literally became a Black Arts textbook that featured essays and plays by most of the major movers: Larry Neal, Ben Caldwell, LeRoi Jones, Jimmy Garrett, John O'Neal, Sonia Sanchez, Marvin X, Ron Milner, Woodie King, Jr., Bill Gunn, Ed Bullins, and Adam David Miller. Black Arts theater proudly emphasized its activist roots and orientations in distinct, and often antagonistic, contradiction to traditional theaters, both Black and white, which were either commercial or strictly artistic in focus.

By 1970 Black Arts theaters and cultural centers were active throughout America. The New Lafayette Theatre (Bob Macbeth, executive director, and Ed Bullins, writer in residence) and Barbara Ann Teer's National Black Theatre led the way in New York, Baraka's Spirit House Movers held forth in Newark and traveled up and down the East Coast. The Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and Val Grey Ward's Kuumba Theatre Company were leading forces in Chicago, from where emerged a host of writers, artists, and musicians including the OBAC visual artist collective whose "Wall of Respect" inspired the national community-based public murals movement and led to the formation of Afri-Cobra (the African Commune of Bad, Revolutionary Artists). There was David Rambeau's Concept East and Ron Milner and Woodie King’s Black Arts Midwest, both based in Detroit. Ron Milner became the Black Arts movement's most enduring playwright and Woodie King became its leading theater impresario when he moved to New York City. In Los Angeles there was the Ebony Showcase, Inner City Repertory Company, and the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles (PALSA) led by Vantile Whitfield. In San Francisco was the aforementioned Black Arts West. BLKARTSOUTH (led by Tom Dent and Kalamu ya Salaam) was an outgrowth of the Free Southern Theatre in New Orleans and was instrumental in encouraging Black theater development across the south from the Theatre of Afro Arts in Miami, Florida, to Sudan Arts Southwest in Houston, Texas, through an organization called the Southern Black Cultural Alliance. In addition to formal Black theater repertory companies in numerous other cities, there were literally hundreds of Black Arts community and campus theater groups.

A major reason for the widespread dissemination and adoption of Black Arts was the development of nationally distributed magazines that printed manifestos and critiques in addition to offering publishing opportunities for a proliferation of young writers. Whether establishment or independent, Black or white, most literary publications rejected Black Arts writers. The movement's first literary expressions in the early 1960s came through two New York-based, nationally distributed magazines, Freedomways and Liberator. Freedomways, "a journal of the Freedom Movement," backed by leftists, was receptive to young Black writers. The more important magazine was Dan Watts's Liberator, which openly aligned itself with both domestic and international revolutionary movements. Many of the early writings of critical Black Arts voices are found in Liberator. Neither of these were primarily literary journals.

The first major Black Arts literary publication was the California-based Black Dialogue (1964), edited by Arthur A. Sheridan, Abdul Karim, Edward Spriggs, Aubrey Labrie, and Marvin Jackmon (Marvin X). Black Dialogue was paralleled by Soulbook (1964), edited by Mamadou Lumumba (Kenn Freeman) and Bobb Hamilton. Oakland-based Soulbook was mainly political but included poetry in a section ironically titled "Reject Notes."

Dingane Joe Goncalves became Black Dialogue's poetry editor and, as more and more poetry poured in, he conceived of starting the Journal of Black Poetry. Founded in San Francisco, the first issue was a small magazine with mimeographed pages and a lithographed cover. Up through the summer of 1975, the Journal published nineteen issues and grew to over one hundred pages. Publishing a broad range of more than five hundred poets, its editorial policy was eclectic. Special issues were given to guest editors who included Ahmed Alhamisi, Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti), Clarence Major, Larry Neal, Dudley Randall, Ed Spriggs, and Askia Touré. In addition to African Americans, African, Caribbean, Asian, and other international revolutionary poets were presented.

Founded in 1969 by Nathan Hare and Robert Chrisman, the Black Scholar, "the first journal of black studies and research in this country," was theoretically critical. Major African-disasporan and African theorists were represented in its pages. In a 1995 interview Chrisman attributed much of what exists today to the groundwork laid by the Black Arts movement:

If we had not had a Black Arts movement in the sixties we certainly wouldn't have had national Black literary figures like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alice Walker, or Toni Morrison because much more so than the Harlem Renaissance, in which Black artists were always on the leash of white patrons and publishing houses, the Black Arts movement did it for itself. What you had was Black people going out nationally, in mass, saving that we are an independent Black people and this is what we produce.

For the publication of Black Arts creative literature, no magazine was more important than the Chicago-based Johnson publication Negro Digest / Black World. Johnson published America's most popular Black magazines, Jet and Ebony. Hoyt Fuller, who became the editor in 1961, was a Black intellectual with near-encyclopedic knowledge of Black literature and seemingly inexhaustible contacts. Because Negro Digest, a monthly, ninety-eight-page journal, was a Johnson publication, it was sold on newsstands nationwide. Originally patterned on Reader’s Digest, Negro Digest changed its name toBlack World in 1970, indicative of Fuller’s view that the magazine ought to be a voice for Black people everywhere. The name change also reflected the widespread rejection of "Negro" and the adoption of "Black" as the designation of choice for people of African descent and to indicate identification with both the diaspora and Africa. The legitimation of "Black" and "African" is another enduring legacy of the Black Arts movement.


Negro Digest / Black World published both a high volume and an impressive range of poetry, fiction, criticism, drama, reviews, reportage, and theoretical articles. A consistent highlight was Fuller's perceptive column Perspectives ("Notes on books, writers, artists and the arts") which informed readers of new publications, upcoming cultural events and conferences, and also provided succinct coverage of major literary developments. Fuller produced annual poetry, drama, and fiction issues, sponsored literary contests, and gave out literary awards. Fuller published a variety of viewpoints but always insisted on editorial excellence and thus made Negro Digest / Black World a first-rate literary publication. Johnson decided to cease publication of Black World in April 1976: allegedly in response to a threatened withdrawal of advertisement from all of Johnson's publications because of pro-Palestinian/anti-Zionist articles in Black World.

The two major Black Arts presses were poet Dudley Randall's Broadside Press in Detroit and Haki Madhubuti's Third World Press in Chicago. From a literary standpoint, Broadside Press, which concentrated almost exclusively on poetry, was by far the more important. Founded in 1965, Broadside published more than four hundred poets in more than one hundred books or recordings and was singularly responsible for presenting older Black poets (Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling A. Brown, and Margaret Walker) to a new audience and introducing emerging poets (Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight, Don L. Lee/Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez) who would go on to become major voices for the movement. In 1976, strapped by economic restrictions and with a severely overworked and overwhelmed three-person staff, Broadside Press went into serious decline. Although it functions mainly on its back catalog, Broadside Press is still alive.

While a number of poets (e.g., Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez), playwrights (e.g., Ed Bullins and Ron Milner), and spoken-word artists (e.g., the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, both of whom were extremely popular and influential although often overlooked by literary critics) are indelibly associated with the Black Arts movement, rather than focusing on their individual work, one gets a much stronger and much more accurate impression of the movement by reading seven anthologies focusing on the 1960s and the 1970s.


Black Fire (1968), edited by Baraka and Neal, is a massive collection of essays, poetry, fiction, and drama featuring the first wave of Black Arts writers and thinkers. Because of its impressive breadth, Black Fire stands as a definitive movement anthology.


For Malcolm X, Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X (1969), edited by Dudley Randall and Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs, demonstrates the political thrust of the movement and the specific influence of Malcolm X. There is no comparable anthology in American poetry that focuses on a political figure as poetic inspiration.


The Black Woman (1970), edited by Toni Cade Bambara, is the first major Black feminist anthology and features work by Jean Bond, Nikki Giovanni, Abbey Lincoln, Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Gwen Patton, Pat Robinson, Alice Walker, Shirley Williams, and others.

Edited by Addison Gayle, Jr., The Black Aesthetic (1971) is significant because it both articulates and contextualizes Black Arts theory. The work of writers such as Alain Locke, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and J. A. Rogers showcases the movement's roots in an earlier era into sections on theory, music, fiction, poetry, and drama, Gayle's seminal anthology features a broad array of writers who are regarded as the chief Black Arts theorists-practitioners.

Stephen Henderson's Understanding the New Black Poetry (1972) is important not only because of the poets included but also because of Henderson's insightful and unparalleled sixty-seven page overview. This is the movement's most thorough exposition of a Black poetic aesthetic. Insights and lines of thought now taken for granted were first articulated in a critical and formal context by Stephen Henderson, who proposed a totally innovative reading of Black poetics.


New Black Voices (1972), edited by Abraham Chapman, is significant because its focus is specifically on the emerging voices in addition to new work by established voices who were active in the Black Arts movement. Unlike most anthologies, which overlook the South, New Black Voices is geographically representative and includes lively pro and con articles side by side debating aesthetic and political theory.

The seventh book, Eugene Redmond's Drumvoices, The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History (1976), is a surprisingly thorough survey that has been unjustly neglected. Although some of his opinions are controversial (note that in the movement controversy was normal), Redmond's era by era and city by city cataloging of literary collectives as well as individual writers offers an invaluable service in detailing the movement's national scope.


The Movement's Breakup. The decline of the Black Arts movement began in 1974 when the Black Power movement was disrupted and co-opted. Black political organizations were hounded, disrupted, and defeated by repressive government measures, such as Cointelpro and IRS probes. Black Studies activist leadership was gutted and replaced by academicians and trained administrators who were unreceptive, if not outright opposed, to the movements political orientation.

Key internal events in the disruption were the split between nationalists and Marxists in the African Liberation Support Committee (May 1974), the Sixth Pan African Congress in Tanzania where race-based struggle was repudiated/denounced by most of the strongest forces in Africa (Aug. 1974), and Baraka’s national organization, the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP), officially changing from a "Pan Afrikan Nationalist" to a "Marxist Leninist" organization (Oct. 1974).

As the movement reeled from the combination of external and internal disruption, commercialization and capitalist co-option delivered the coup de grace. President Richard Nixon's strategy of pushing Black capitalism as a response to Black Power epitomized mainstream co-option. As major film, record, book, and magazine publishers identified the most salable artists, the Black Arts movement's already fragile independent economic base was totally undermined.

In an overwhelmingly successful effort to capitalize on the upsurge of interest in the feminist movement, establishment presses focused particular attention on the work of Black women writers. Although issues of sexism had been widely and hotly debated within movement publications and organizations, the initiative passed from Black Arts back to the establishment. Emblematic of the establishment overtaking (some would argue "co-opting") Black Arts activity is Ntozake Shange's for colored girls, which in 1976 ended up on Broadway produced by Joseph Papp even though it had been workshopped at Woodie King's New Federal Theatre of the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side. Black Arts was not able to match the economic and publicity offers tendered by establishment concerns.

Corporate America (both the commercial sector and the academic sector) once again selected and propagated one or two handpicked Black writers. During the height of Black Arts activity, each community had a coterie of writers and there were publishing outlets for hundreds, but once the mainstream regained control, Black artists were tokenized. Although Black Arts activity continued into the early 1980s, by 1976, the year of what Gil Scott-Heron called the "Buy-Centennial," the movement was without any sustainable and effective political or economic bases in an economically strapped Black community. An additional complicating factor was the economic recession, resulting from the oil crisis, which the Black community experienced as a depression. Simultaneously, philanthropic foundations only funded non-threatening, "arts oriented" groups. Neither the Black Arts nor the Black Power movements ever recovered.


The Legacy. In addition to advocating political engagement and independent publishing, the Black Arts movement was innovative in its use of language. Speech (particularly, but not exclusively, Black English), music, and performance were major elements of Black Arts literature. Black Arts aesthetics emphasized orality, which includes the ritual use of call and response both within the body of the work itself as well as between artist and audience. This same orientation is apparent in rap music and 1990s "performance poetry" (e.g., Nuyorican Poets and poetry slams).

While right-wing trends attempt to push America's cultural clock back to the 1950s, Black Arts continues to evidence resiliency in the Black community and among other marginalized sectors. When people encounter the Black Arts movement, they are delighted and inspired by the most audacious, prolific, and socially engaged literary movement in America's history.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford UP.