SHORT STORY: HEAVEN? - WordUp - kalamu's words

photo by Alex Lear






When we got to heaven, we were surprised. God was slouched off to the side, unconcerned by the chaos swirling around him. Bored even. Would have been absent mindedly looking out of a window, but there was no window, only a horizonless expanse of conflict raging back and forth. We checked our cosmic map and guidebook: that was god, this was heaven.

The distant noise of battle: grunting, groans, screams, moans, drifted toward where we stood shocked with our mouths hanging open. Suddenly Jesus appears.

"Reinforcements. And not a moment too soon," he says, rushing up to us. "Come ye to the mountaintop and let us smite down Satan."

God groaned, "Ha. This madness will be going on for eternity. But he..." (pointing to Jesus) "...never listens. What makes him think he can control Satan. I created the little monster and even I can't do anything with him."

You looked at me out of the corner of your eye. I caught your vibe. Yes, it was just like kids on earth. Some yearning to burn, some yearning to save.

"Let's bounce," I said under my breath out of the side of my mouth without moving my lips much and not loud enough for Jesus to hear.

"I'm good to go," you replied in a whisper.

Jesus raised his hand to signal to us the direction to where the quartermaster was issuing heavenly bodies, angel wings and battle rations. But we were already backpedaling like MJ doing the moonwalk.

Although we didn't have our earthly bodies, we still had the common sense our mamas birthed us. I let the unneeded orientation guidelines slip out of my consciousness as we headed back through the pearly gates.


—kalamu ya salaam




photo by Alex Lear












"I put his head sort of on my lap. I just hoped and prayed he was still alive. It was hard to tell. He was having difficulty breathing. And other people came and they tore open the shirt. I could see that he was hit so many times."


This is a description of the death of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, bka Malcolm X. Who said these words?


A. Betty Shabazz, Malcom's wife who was present with their children when Malcolm was assassinated.


B. Gene Roberts, an undercover police agent who had infiltrated Malcolm's organization and was attempting to save Malcolm with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.


C. Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese-American member of Malcom's organization who was present in the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965.


If you have seen Spike Lee's movie Malcolm X you will be forgiven believing the answer is A-Betty Shabazz. If you have seen the death scene photo of a man leaning over Malcolm desperately trying to revive him, it is understandable that you believe it is B-Gene Roberts. But actually, the correct answer is C-Yuri Kochiyama, a follower and supporter of Malcolm X.


Why did Spike Lee lie?


Yes, I said "lie"! What else would you call it? Photos from the grisly death scene clearly show Malcolm's head cradled in Ms. Kochiyama's lap. Spike Lee's colorful and fictionalized pseudo-biography brazenly liquidates Ms. Kochiyama and replaces the truth with a lie. It's a lie because Spike Lee knew better and chose to misrepresent the truth. Spike's lie is particularly troubling when we consider 1. Lee argued a Black director should do the Malcolm X movie because no White director could honestly portray the real story of Malcolm X, and 2. Lee had been active in fanning the flames of Black/Korean clashes and antagonisms in New York.


Spike said Malcolm was a Black man and in the process of zoot suiting and focusing on the Nation of Islam, Spike completely ignored the internationalist that Malcolm became, as a result, one could see the movie and never know that Yuri Kochiyama was a welcomed and active member of Malcolm's organization, the OAAU. Although Spike Lee is not an elected leader, he is, unquestionably, revered as a major force in the imaging of Black people and has often cast himself (or agreed to be cast) as a spokesperson for a "Black" point of view.


Malcolm died trying to tell us something important, trying to lead us away from a morbid fascination with color and a limited conception of our struggle. Using the camera, the editing booth and deliberate falsification of facts, Spike Lee re-assassinated Malcolm X the internationalist. Why? Who knows. Spike may not know. But I'm willing to bet that a racial focus devoid of progressive politics had a lot to do with Spike doing the wrong thing.





Why do we lie about the truth of our existence? Because, even as we oppose racism, we often end up believing in racial essentialism.


Black people in America are victims of racism. The majority of us -- particularly our "appointed" leaders -- manifest a terminal case of internalized oppression. Far too many of us are incapable not only of loving ourselves as "mixed-race" human beings (or, mulattoes) forcibly born out of the crucible of chattel slavery, but also are incapable of relating to other so-called minorities without exhibiting a warped and essentially racist assessment of people of color. 


Misled by leaders (most of whom are media created) who don't proactively lead but who rather pander to mass prejudices and misconceptions, the bulk of us USA Blacks tend toward a twisted and self-destructive color-based antagonism toward other socalled "minorities," or, in an equally self-destructive manner we advocate a mole-like insistence on color-blindness that liquidates diversity in the name of some idealized humanism. Both self-centered chauvanism and romantic humanism are manifestations of White-supremacy victimization. This skweded perspective of other ethnic groups is particularly troubling in terms of Black/Asian relations. 


A graphic illustration of where the "I'm human not Black" system-induced viewpoint leads us is the movie "One Night Stand" starring Wesley Snipes. In the movie, Wesley's character is a West Coast-based advertising video director who is in New York to see a former best friend who just happens to be White and dying of AIDS. The character has a one night stand with a blonde rocket scientist and returns home to his Asian wife and two lovely mixed-race children (I'm not making this up!). The movie ends with spouse-swapping; yes, Wesley's character gets the White woman and his Asian wife gets with the cuckolded White husband.


What's wrong with this picture?


The main thing is that neither the Asian wife nor the African American husband exhibit any cultural self-awareness as people of color. They are portrayed as individuals who are culturally White and who just happen to have been born people of color. Although their race is obvious, they are oblivious to the culture of their people. They go through life neither identifying with other people of color nor advocating Black or Asian culture. This acceptance of racial difference but liquidation of cultural differences and distinctions, and avoidance of active identification with other people of color, is not ethnic diversity. This is white supremacy under the guise of "humanism" and "racial tolerance."


The deal is that you can approach ethnicity as a racial matter or as a cultural matter. If we focus on race and create a fetish out of color, regardless of what we may think, we are essentially adopting a White supremacist point of view which out-and-out propagandizes that blood is the essential determinant of human existence. Of course, when it comes to Black manifestations of White supremacy's racial essentialism, there are two approaches. One is that Black is intrinsicly good, moral and beautiful because of color and the other is that White is intrinscicly good, moral and beautiful because of power.


Those who argue the "scientific" melanin thesis, i.e. essentially people born with melanin are better (more moral and beautiful) than people born without melanin, have simply flipped the racist script, including the pseudo-scientific justifications. Indeed, some even argue that Whites are a separate species from people of color, hence, the Yacub-derived theories that Whites are grafted or manufactured people and not human beings like people of color. Those who are entranced by political (actually, economic and military) power basically believe that, since Whites are at the top, being White is the best one can be. In either case, there is a basic assumption that things are the way things are because of some sort of racial essentialism, some immutable result of racial origins and existence.


I would be the last to argue that melanin does not play some role in the human make up, but a determining and essential role? I think not. In any case, regardless of whether I'm right or wrong, what does this have to do with Black/Asian relations?


I think the basic problem is that we Blacks have become Americanized in our social thought via our formal integration into American society, an integration which earnestly began in the mid-seventies and has accelerated ever since. We have become nearly as jingoistic and racist as the dominant society which shapes and influences our pysches -- which may be why "skin creams," i.e. lye-based cosmetics which purportedly lighten the skin, and "hair relaxers" are reported to sell more today than they have ever sold. In terms of our relationship to other people of color -- whether continental African, Asian, Hispanic, or Native Americans, many of us are as racist or as color-blind (and, as I argue above, the willfull ignoring of real differences is also a form of racism) as the average American, if not more so. Indeed, as far as our attitudes towards others go many of us might best be defined as brown-skinned rednecks!


While it is common to hear Blacks argue that we are the most oppressed people in American history -- as if that were some sort of badge of honor -- nevertheless, what we don't often do is acknowledge the depth of our wretchedness as the most oppressed. If we are the leading victims of racism, it follows that we and those who create and maintain this barbaric system are the most affected by the system. No one else is as mesmerized by the splendour of the big house as are the master and his most loyal slave; the master out of material self-interest and the slave out of vicarious self-interest, i.e. psychic identification with the master. 


This brings us to the recent rise of Black American jingoism -- recall the excessive flag waving of the Black atheletes at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, particularly it's sharp contrast to the Black Power salutes of the 1968 Olympics in Los Angeles. Admittedly, 1968 then is not 1998 now. Admittedly there are major differences in the conditions our people live and struggle under. However, what is remarkable is the embracing of America as though Black churchs were not being burnt to the ground, multinational corporations were not superexploiting Third World labor, African American males were not being systematically victimized by the criminal justice system, etc. etc. Judging from the mindless rah-rahing of how great America is, one would not know that our communities and neighborhoods have been devastated by drugs, riddled by bullets, sickened by disease, and dumbed-down by educational neglect, and, oh yes, that the best and the brightest have left the least and the darkest to fend for themselves in the concrete jungles of urban America. Can anyone really argue that America is the greatest country in the world if one looks at the living conditions of the majority of people of color in the United States?


We have boarded the bus of mindless patrotism and ride in the front. Regardless of where the stop is, whenever we step off the bus we step off, and proudly so, as full-fledged American patriots with all the racism that such blind patrotism implies. I'm waiting for the melanin experts to explain the ultra patrotism of American Blacks in embracing the twin evils of racism and captialism -- is it because being Black we do it better than the Whites who introduced it?


No, our skin color is neither the most important part of our oppression nor are color-based proposals the solution to our problems. Moreover, the more important truth is: if we are the most oppressed, we are also the most affected by oppression and, psychologically speaking, that effect has been overwhelmingly negative. Indeed, Black racial chauvanism is simply a manifestation of the pathology of oppression, and is, in the final analysis, nothing more than a variation on the classic white lie of racial superiority.





My first encounters with Asians happened in 1966 when I was in the U.S. Army stationed on a Nike-Hercules nuclear missle base, atop a mountain near the DMZ. The base was remote and the nearest city was a day's truck ride away. On one peak there were missles and on a close by peak there was the radar site. In the valley was the garrison area and a small Korean village separated by a dirt road, barbed wired and armed guards. The village's main function was to supply cheap labor and cheap thrills to the U.S. soldiers stationed there. I wrote a short story which heavily drew on my experiences and the experiences of my fellow soldiers during my army years. At that time the only locations for the Hercules missle were the U.S., Germany and Korea. By general consensus, the "brothers" loved Korea and the Whites loved Germany. The following excerpt from the story illustrates the social education I received in Korea.






It was raining by the bucket fulls.  The door to Soulville, which is what we called our collectively rented hooch, was open and it was early afternoon.  Rain softened daylight streaming in.  And warm, a typical summer monsoon day. 


 Em, which was the only name I knew her by, was near me.  She was reading the paper. I had a Korean bootleg Motown record spinning on the cheap portable player plugged into the extension cord that snaked out the window to some generator source that supplied this small village with a modicum of juice.  Did I say village?  The place was erected for one reason, and one reason only, to service the service men stationed on the other side of the road, to supply the base with cheap labor and even cheaper pussy.  I know it sounds crude, but that's the way occupying armies work. 


 I had never fucked Em, and, as it turned out, never would.  I remember one wrinkled old sergeant, a hold over from World War II, talking on the base one day about Em sucking his dick, but that was not the Em I knew.  Somehow, the Em I knew, the woman reading the paper I couldn't read because I couldn't read as many languages as she could, somehow, the lady who put down the paper and, as the rain fell, calmly carried on a conversation with me, clearly that Em was not the same Em that the sergeant knew. 


 It would be many, many years later before I realized that sarge never knew Em.  How can one ever really know a person if one buys that person?  If you buy someone, the very act of the sale cuts you off from thinking of that someone as a human equal.  Sarge simply consumed the pleasure given by a female body to whom he paid money, a body which kneaded his flesh and opened her flesh to him, made him shudder as her thighs pulled him in or as she sucked him.  A business transaction.  Nobody buys pleasure in order to get to know the prostitute.  In fact, the whole purpose of the deal is to remove the need for a human connection while satisfying a desire. 


 I didn't think like that at that time, laying in the hooch with my boots off, day dreaming as I gazed out into the rain, my chin on my arm.  In Soulville, just like in all the other hooches, which were usually little more than a large room that doubled as both a living room and a bed room, we took our boots off upon entering.  Even now I like to take my shoes off inside.  At the time it was a new thing to me, a difficult thing to get used to, especially with combat boots rather than the slip-ons which most of the Koreans wore.  But that's the good thing about going to a foreign country: learning something that you don't already know, something that you can use for the rest of your life. 


 It's funny how stuff can catch up with you years later, and only after rounding a bunch of corners does the full impact of an experience become clear.  I mean more than a delayed reaction, more like a delayed enlightenment...



 ...My reminiscence was broken by Em's hand on my arm.  I looked over at her.  This wasn't no sexual thing.  We both knew and observed the one rule of Soulville: no fucking in Soulville.  Soulville was a place to hang out and cool out.  We put our money together and rented Soulville so as anytime day or night when you didn't feel like being around the white boys, if you was off you could come over to Soulville and just lay.  And you didn't have to worry about interrupting nothing.  It didn't take long for all the girls in the village to know Soulville was like that.  So a lot of time was spent in here with Black GIs and Korean women just talking or listening to music.  It was the place where we could relate to each other outside of the flesh connection. 


 From time to time we had parties at Soulville.  And of course, some one of us was always hitting on whoever we wanted for the night.  But when it came to getting down to business, you had to vacate the premises.  We had had some deep conversations in Soulville.  One or two of the girls might cook up some rice or something, and we'd bring some beer or Jim Beam -- although I personally liked Jack Daniels Black, Jim Beam was the big thing cause it was cheap, cheap, cheap -- and, of course, we brought our most prized possessions, our personal collections of favorite music. We'd eat, drink, dance and argue about whether the Impressions or the Temptations was the baddest group.  As I remember it, there wasn't much to argue about among the girl groups, cause none of the others was anywhere near Martha and The Vandellas.  Soulville, man, we had some good times there. 


 Em was getting old.  She had been talking about her childhood and stuff.  And when she touched my arm and I looked over at her, I could see a bunch of lines showing up in her face.  Most of the time, when you saw the girls it was at night or they had all kinds of make up on their face.  But it was not unusual for some of us to sleep over at Soulville and if we were off duty we'd just loll around there all day.  Early in the morning we would hear the village waking up and watch the day unfold.  Invariably, one of the girls would stop by to chat for ten or fifteen minutes.  Or sometimes, two or three of them would hang out for awhile. 


 On days like this one, you'd get to see them as people.  Talking and doing whatever they do, which is different from seeing them sitting around a table, dolled up with powder and lipstick, acting -- or should I say, "trying to act" -- coy or sexy, sipping watered down drinks through a straw and almost reeking of the cheap perfume they doused on themselves in an almost futile attempt to cover the pungent fragrance associated with the women of the night. 


 Just like when we was in Soulville we was off duty, well it was the same way for them.  And I guess without the stain and strain of a cash transaction clouding the picture, we all got a chance to see a different side of each other. 


 I started wondering what it must have felt like to be a prostitute, a middle aged prostitute getting old and knowing you ain't had much of a future.  A prostitute watching soldiers come and go, year after year.  What it must have been like to have sex with all them different men, day in and day out and shit.  Especially for somebody like Em who spoke Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese, and could read in Korean, English and Chinese.  I mean, from the standpoint of knowing her part of the world, she was more intelligent than damn near all of us put together. 

Her touch was soft on my arm.  I looked down at her small hand, the unpainted fingernails, the sort of dark cream color of her skin.  I looked up into her face.  Her eyes were somber but she was half smiling. 


 "Same-o, same-o."  She said, rubbing first my bare arm and then her bare arm.  "Same-o, same-o." 




Like most of my peers, my first encounter with Asians was a politically unconscious encounter. Although, I may like to think otherwise and understandably was reluctant to publicly admit it, I was an armed agent of imperialism -- no matter that I told myself, for example, that I was in Korea to avoid going to Vietnam; no matter that I tried to have more respect for the Korean people than did the White soldiers on the base; no matter that I understood that there was a connection of color between myself and the Koreans. Just like a Japanese-American friend whom it turns out was born in an internment camp during World War II and who served in the U.S. Army at the same time I did, regardless of all the historical and individual contradictions I had with America's domestic and foreign policies, regardless of my personal beliefs or how I dressed up my involvement, the reality was that I was a soldier in the Army, a collaborator with the dictators of democracy. Although I had my rationalizations, and though my "reasoning" did have some merit, there is a big difference between admitting one's contradictions and lieing to one's self about the existence of those contradictions. That's what Em was telling me -- prostitute to soldier, we're same-o, same-o.





My second major encounter with Asians was a horse of a different mule. In 1974 I was a delegate to the fifth Pan-African Congress in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I was an active organizer in my home community of New Orleans and considered myself a Pan-Africanist. Upon arriving in Tanzania one of my first quests was to stand on the TanZam railroad, a vital rail linkage between Zambia and Tanzania which gave land-locked Zambia seaport access for copper shipments. The railroad was built through the lead partnership of the People's Republic of China. During that time I also had the opportunity to visit Zanzibar and there took a tour of a cigarette factory which was built and transitionally managed by the Chinese. I spoke to none of the Chinese managers or workers, but I watched and wondered.


Our relationship to "foreigners" is inevitably a major barometer of our political consciousness. By 1974, the internal clash among Black radicals between the philosophies of Black Nationalism and Marxism was at an all time high. By then Amiri Baraka, the former chief propagandist of Kawaida-style Black Nationalism had declared himself a marxist. Also, within the Black power movement, the teachings of Chairman Mao were widely studied by nationalists and marxists alike. Moreover, struggles around the Vietnam War had also come to a head. Within this social context, political considerations were primary, and alliances between ethnic groups were forged for purposes of collective struggle against racism and capitalism. This was a high point in inter-ethnic alliances, not because of liberal "we are all humans" sentiments, but because of militant political calls for Third World liberation abroad and Third World self-determination at home. Hence, even though he has never been a marxist, Haki Madhubuti (formerly Don L. Lee) named the press he co-founded "Third World Press."


Less than two decades ago, we were identifying with people of color rather than antagonistic towards people whom many of us now contemptuously regard as competitors for "our jobs" and replacements for White neighborhood merchants who price gouge us in corner stores where we are charged a nickel to change a dime. What the Third World had in common was not really color, but rather anti-colonial struggle, and we within the United States were equally, if not moreso, colonialized subjects. Within that context, identification with the Third World was led by a political understanding which in many ways was much more mature than the good old boy "buy American" rhetoric we mindlessly spout today.





This same political concern with the Third World led our nationwide grouping of Black Nationalists, all of whom operated independent Black educational institutions for young Black children, to organize the first all-Black tour to China in 1977. We worked in cooperation with the marsixt-led U.S. China Friendship Association. During the course of the year long organizing to arrange the trip and raise money to make the trip we encountered, confronted and attempted to change anti-Asian sentiments in our community without liquidating our basic Black nationalist stance. In fact, at one point there was a concerted efforted by some members of the Friendship Association to force us to exclude Maulana Ron Karenga from our twenty member delegation. We took the stance that the make-up of our delegation was an internal matter not subject to the dictates of outsiders and if it meant that we had to forgo the trip then so be it. After some weeks of high level wrangling, our delegation proceeded as originally planned. We spent 18 days traveling throughout China and happened to be in Beijing (then Peking) when the rehabilitation of Deng Shao Ping was announced.


Although there was a massive demonstration in the city center by literally millions of people supporting Deng, I remained skeptical of Deng's line. Deng had argued that it doesn't make a difference what color the cat is as long as the cat catches the mice. Some of us argued that "color" (Deng was referring to ideology) did make a difference because if Black cats never learned to catch mice, Black cats would continue to be dependent on White cats for food. At the same time, I was not inclined to simply dismiss the Chinese view out of hand because by then I realized that there was a lot more to Chinese ideological developments than initially met the eye.


While we were in Beijing some of us met Robert Williams who was recuperating from an operation he had returned to China to have. When Nixon visited China and officially reopened diplomatic relations with the Chinese government, Robert Williams parlayed his knowledge and acceptance within the Chinese government into an opportunity to return to the United States. Williams made the tradeoff after over a decade in exile, being on the FBI's most wanted list, and on the CIA's hit list for his international activities which included publishing The Crusader, a militant newspaper, and, while in Cuba, broadcasting an incendiary radio program known as Radio Free Dixie. Indeed, our delegation had a photocopy of the issue of Dan Watts' Liberator magazine whose cover featured a famous photo of Robert Williams standing with Chairman Mao. 


Robert Williams was overjoyed to see us in Beijing -- we were the first Blacks he had seen take an organized and direct interest in China, and Williams asserted it was extremely important for Black people to get involved in international affairs separate from America's foreign policy. Of course there were truckloads of Chinese-influenced Afro marxists back in the states, and of course some of the Panthers had passed through China, but most of these people came as individuals or as marxists in small, clandestine, and racially integrated groups. We were the first Blacks to enter as an organized body representing a broad grassroots constintuency from across the United States.


We spent over an hour talking with Brother Rob as he patiently encouraged us to develop an internationalist viewpoint. What I remember most is Robert Williams telling us about his stay in North Vietnam and how at a state dinner he rose to propose a toast to the Vietnamese people. Brother Rob said the Vietnamese made him sit down by responding that it was they who should be toasting him and the valiant struggle of the Afro-American people. 


The North Vietnamese told Robert Williams that the Black power struggle greatly helped them understand that the United States could be beaten and that the urban rebellions, particularly in Detroit where the U.S. Army Airborne had to be sent in before "order" could be "restored," had given the Vietnamese the idea to stage the Tet offensive which was psychologically the major turning point of the Vietnam conflict. The reverberations of the Black Liberation struggle were felt not only internally, but also worldwide. From the Free Speech Movement, emergent Feminism, Vietnam antiwar demonstrations, gay rights and other internal struggles to the international arena, our struggle inspired and encouraged sundry peoples and interest groups who had their own particular battles with oppression and exploitation. These were heady and exciting days of political discussion, analysis and planning. 


At our previous stop in Sian, China after over a week of inquiries, our delegation had engaged in a major ideological discussion with political theoricists of the Chinese Communist Party. I distinctly remember that these particular individuals in their mannerisms, dress and general physical appearance "looked" different from the majority of Chinese we had up to that point encountered. These men may have had "peasant" roots but their current status was cloistered within a circle of folk who "thought" for a living; they were part of the policy-making and implementation apparatus. They frankly stated a line I had never heard before: If the capitalist want to bring on world war three, so be it. Such a war would only hasten capitalism's demise. 


These men with the confident-quiet of an armed but not yet exploded bomb calmly ran down their view of progress: Since the 1950s, America has been engaged in conflict with Asia, and has been steadily losing ground. First came Korea, and there was a stalemate. Then came Vietnam, and America lost. Should America decide to take on China the result would be more than simply another American loss. What would happen would be China's ascendency. The Chinese had the atomic bomb, there would be no more one-sided nuking of "yellow peoples" as happened in Japan during World War II. Also, the Chinese had constructed underground cities -- literarlly factories, housing, and shelters for not just a handful of select leaders but for masses of Chinese people. They knew that America was not similarly prepared to withstand nuclear war. They were prepared. They were not afraid. They didn't want to have a war, but if it came to that, so be it. Needless to say, we had not been prepared to argue world politics at that level.


For the Chinese, the subsequent disentegration of Soviet Russia far from reputing communism and the Chinese view, actually was just another wrinkle in the fabric of Eurocentric capitalism's eventual demise. The Chinese had long ago split with the Soviets and saw the Soviets as state capitalists who were hopelessly emotionally immeshed and ideologically interwined with the Western world. For we Black nationalists struggling to conceptualize and actualize some form of a Black nation in America, these discussions were eye-opening developments. When we returned to the United States we organized forums and community meetings to report on our trip to China. The general headline we used was "Black Nationalists in Red China." That was my second major interface with Asians.





My third encounter was the development in 1991 of a partnership with Chinese American baritone saxophonist and composer, Fred Ho. We knew of each other's political work and first met face to face in Houston, Texas. This meeting was arranged by a mutual friend Baraka Sele, who was then a producer with the Houston International Festival. Both of us were booked on the festival and Baraka arranged for us to all go to a dinner together. Fred and I talked. I knew his music from recordings. He had read some of my poetry. We talked that "yeah, let's get together and do something some time" talk in which one usually engages acquaintances at festivals and conferences. However, we took it further than wishful talk. We stayed in touch and decided to start working as a duo.


We had two denominators in common. First, we both had a long history of political involvement and were active as socially committed cultural workers who elevated our political concerns over the economic concerns of making it commercially within the system. Second, we both have a deep love for music and are heavily influenced by Black music. 


When we got together we were able to work as a true duo rather than as one backing up the other. The music was not background for my poems and my poems were not just hooks for Fred to string together saxophone solos. At the same time, Fred and I were not always in total agreement on political and aesthetic matters. We debated each other. Fred remains a marxist and I, more than ever, am an advocate of socially committed, politically progressive Black culture. I no longer consider myself a Black nationalist.


Fred and I work together not because of color, nor because of some trendy concern with multiculturalism or pie in the sky "rainbow coalitionism." We work together because we are politically attuned to opposing the racist/capitalist/sexist status quo. We are searching to develop ideas, institutions, and ourselves as individuals who work to establish egalitarian and just social formations at every level of our existence, emphasizing both the personal one-to-one and the ongoing development of multi-generational organizations which work with young people to help uplift and empower our people and each other. 


Our duo, the Afro Asians Arts Dialogue, has performed from Atlanta to Wisconsin, California to Maine and a number of places in between. The majority of our performances are sponsored by Asian student groups and by Third World/Minority offices on college campuses. We have yet to be booked by a Black student organization. Fred and I talk about why Black groups shy away from booking us. The answer is simple: the currents of Black struggle are at an all time low. Our heroes are atheletes and entertainers, politicians and academic "public intellectuals," all of whom directly depend on the status quo for their money and status. The bulk of our leadership lives in the big house and dreams of sleeping in the master's bed.





Nationalism is a bankrupt concept. While we strive to become fully integrated into America, the fact of the matter is that the working class masses of us are more isolated, more exploited, and more hopeless than we have ever been. The nineties wave of drug culture, or what we used to call "biological warfare," is nothing new. The "opium wars" in China are a precursor of the inner city "crack" epidemic. Whether we talk integration into America or separate development in Black countries such as those in Africa and the Caribbean, as reality has demonstrated neither option in and of itself is the solution for our people here in America.


We can argue about the causes of our oppression and exploitation but the effects are real and deadly. Moreover, the major issue to deal with is our collusion with capitalism and hence our own resultant racism. Do you think Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods could get away with endorsing Nike if the shoes were manufactured in Haiti or Senegal for ridiculously low wages under neo-slave conditions? Unfortunately, the answer is: Yes -- if our leadership continues to be apologists for capitalism and mesmerized by glitz. 


The truth is we are doing the same thing that White American workers historically did, we are being bought off by a combination of materialism and isolation. And while we are busy ideologically waving the American flag, capital recognizes no national boundaries. The globalization of economic exploitation by structures such as the multinational corporations, the World Bank, and, the most famous of all maurauders, the IMF (officially the International Monetary Fund, unofficially the International Mother Fucker!) is the current form of economic exploitation.


Asia will unavoidably be the dominant battlefield of the 21st century, especially India -- the world's largest English speaking country -- and China. Which is not to say that Africa is insignificant or irrelevant, far from it. Africa will remain a major site of ongoing struggle and will remain particularly relevant to the future of Black people worldwide precisely because, as a result of disease (particularly AIDS) and famine, and as a legacy of the slave trade, in the 21st century Africa will be severely underpopulated. That is an important point to keep in mind. the needs of Africa notwithstanding, I believe Asia will be the major arena of future north/south, east/west clashes. 


Only those of us who are prepared to relate to the whole world will develop and prosper. Everyone else will be left behind to wallow in their own parachialism. For too many of us "integration" has meant, as James Baldwin so prophetically argued, rushing into "a burning house." But the future is not White. The sun will set on Europe, and when the new day dawns, global cooperation will be the order of the day. Now is the time to prepare for that future.


Why do we lie about telling these hard truths? Our leaders lie to us for the benefit of short term material gain -- a salary, proximity to power, a high ranking career, a lucrative endorsement or consulting contract. 


Exploited as both labor and capital, we were money -- our physical bodies. If anyone should understand the evils of capitalism, we, the descendants of ensalved Africans, we who were America's first form of venture capital, we should understand. 


Moreover, in contemporary terms, when we advocate "free enterprise zones," "Black capitalism" under the rhetoric and rubric of small business entreprenuership, or preparing ourselves for "good jobs" we are merely adding another brick in the wall of our people's economic and political disenfranchisement. Business per se is not the problem (buying, selling and bartering existed long before capitalism). The elevation of an economic bottom line to the top priority of all our endeavors is the problem. 


I do not believe that everything in America is wrong, nor do I believe that there is no hope. I do believe that this society is in the midst of a major meltdown and that in the next millenium we will look back on this stage and wonder why we couldn't see the problems for what they actually were. America is imploding. While this is certainly the most militarily powerful country of the 20th century, military power is no real measure of social wellbeing. 


When we closely examine the social conditions of all people in this society,  the conclusion that there are serious problems is obvious. This grand experiment called America was seriously flawed from the beginning, based as it was on the liquidation of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, all justified in the name of life, liberty and the pursuit of (material/economic) happiness. The main reason people came to and continue to come to America is because of the perception and the opportunity to make fortunes, but all such fortunes are made at the terrible expense of various peoples (mainly, but not exclusively, people of color) worldwide. 


The problem is that the center can no longer hold. The world can not and will not continue to provide over sixty percent of its resources to a country which has far less than 10% of the world's population. There will be a change. The course and results of this change are what is in question.


In the here and now, the solution is for us to open our eyes, travel the world and begin to find out for ourvelves what is going on. The solution is to begin to think and act and live globally. The solution can be found by living harmoniously while putting ethics, and not economics, in the lead; by emphasizing cultural integrity rather than racial purity; by advocating and maintaining alliances with peoples of color and people of good deeds whomever they may be. 


Korean shop keepers, Vietnamese merchants, Chinese restauranters, none of these are our real enemies. Multinational corporations, the American government, academic citadels, none of these are our real friends.


For particularly revealing insights on how America actually works, and insight into how minorities in high positions don't and can't make a major difference in the economic and political wellbeing of the masses read two books: Diversity in the Power Elite -- Have Women and Minorities Reached the Top? by Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff, and Who Rules America Now: A View for the 80's by G. William Domhoff. Many of us have never faced the truth about the society into which we are born and a society whose existence we accept as the work of "God" rather than the machinations of classes and interest groups often operating out of pure greed and material self-interest. Without serious study, we are not even prepared to argue our beliefs or make accurate analysis of our problems. For far too many of us, the popular media is the sum total of our education and understanding of both world affairs and the realities of American life.


You can believe the ideals, myths and outright lies if you want to, but I'll take a hard truth over a soft lie any day of the week. The truth is we are knowingly lied to everyday of the week by those who have a stake in the status quo. What we really need are leaders who will call into question all our beliefs and challenge us to address the pressing, very real and very difficult situations that confront us instead of advocating a mixture of metaphysics and fatalism, a mixture of traditional "put it in God's/Jesus' hands" and "there's no way like the American way." If those options are the solution, how is it that after nearly five hundred years of "one nation under god" we have the problems we have today?


  The bulk of our socalled leaders lie about telling the truth because they are not our leaders but rather hand-picked and specifically groomed judas goats whose main task is to quietly lead us to economic and political slaughter. Regardless of what our leaders believe and what god they pray to, the results of their actions define them for what they are. And that's the truth!






photo by Alex Lear





Miles Davis

(featuring Kenneth D. Ferdinand - trumpet) 


Greta Garbo is credited with saying "I want to be alone." Except I'm sure by "alone" she meant: away from you lames. I want to be where I can be me and this place is not it. Then she would blow some smoke, or pick her fingernails, or do something else nonchalantly to indicate her total boredom with the scene. Miles on the other hand never had to say it. He made a career of being alone and sending back notes from the other world, notes as piercing as his eyeballs dismissing a fan who was trying to tell him how pretty he played.


Here this man was: Miles Dewey Davis, a self made motherfucker, a total terror whose only evident tenderness is the limp in his smashed-up hip walk, like he can't stand touching the ground, the cement, the wooden floor, plush carpet, whatever he is walking on. This man who, considering all the abuse he has dished out to others as well as all the self abuse he has creatively consumed, this man who should have died a long, long time ago but who outlived a bunch of other people who tried to clean up their act. This pact with the devil incarnate. This choir boy from hell. This disaster whose only value is music, a value which is invaluable. If he hadn't given us his music there would have been no earthly reason to put up with Miles, but he gave on the stage and at the studio, he gave. If there is any redemption he deserves it.


As for me, I admit I don't have the music, but so what? Perhaps in time you will understand that I really don't want to be here. I don't want to be loved or to love. I...


Perhaps you will understand that once you don't care, nothing else matters. I don't need a reason why to hit you. Why I'm letting you pack and split without a word from me, without any "I'm sorry," or anything else that might indicate remorse or even just second thoughts about what I've done. Instead, I'm cool.


Just like Miles could climb on a stage after beating some broad in the mouth, I cross from the bedroom where I knocked you to the floor and go into the living room and put "Round Midnight" on. The unignorable sound of Miles chills the room. I stand cool. Listening with a drink of scotch in my hand, and a deadness in the center of me. Anesthetized emotions.


As you leave you look at me. Your eyes are crying "why, why, why do you treat me so badly?" I do not drop my gaze. I just look at you. Miles is playing his hip tortured shit. You will probably hate Miles all the rest of your life.


You linger at the door and ask me do I have anything I want to say. I take a sip nonchalantly, and with the studied unhurried motion of a journeyman hipster, I half smile and drop my words out of the corner of my mouth, "Yeah, I want to be alone. Thanks for leaving."


And I turn my back on you, trying my best to be like Miles: a motherfucker.


—kalamu ya salaam




photo by Alex Lear





haiku #58


black people believe

in god, & i believe in

black people, amen





haiku #93


may the life i lead

help others live, may my work

help beauty be born





haiku #96


our bodies teach us

take nourishment from the good

& shit out the rest





haiku #100


what we know limits

us, wisdom loves everything

not yet understood




—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear




Just Like A Woman


         You know I ain’t scared of nothing. Not nothing. Mainly cause I been tried, tested and found true. I been stabbed. I been shot. I ain’t never been poisoned but I done slept in the same cell with the most vicious bunch of cut throats in the world, thanks to old cigar smoking Judge Shea who sentenced me to a double dime on accessory to armed robbery. I wasn’t armed but I was there when we stuck that store up when Peety popped the dude upside the head with the gun, I just stepped politely over the blood and tears flowing on the floor, and went on about my business of rahzooing the cash register. We had sense enough to shoot out the video camera eye, but not sense enough to take the video tape before we left. Aw well, you know, you live and learn. Time ain’t nothing but a classroom, and either you learn and move on, or you stay stupid and just keep doing time. I did a dime and loose change behind some stupid shit.

         You know the joint is good for getting your head together. It didn’t take me long to realize that sticking up poor people was both stupid and evil. First they ain’t got nothing much and second why take anything from somebody who ain’t got next to nothing? You hear what I’m saying? I view the joint just like grade school, you do that shit once and you ain’t never supposed to return. Me, myself, I ain’t never going back to the joint, twelve years is a motherfucking-Ph.-motherfucking-D. Besides them young thugs what’s showing up now in the slams is straight out ignorant ass fools, you know what I mean?

         As I look round this funny ass hole in the wall, it seems to me that everybody in this motherfucker done been up on the yard except for that pretty boy sitting over there checking out every hard leg what walk up in here, I guess he know how long he would last in the joint, and then again, some of them living better in prison than they ever could live out here in the world cause there ain’t no big time faking and fronting up in the joint. Damn near everybody is ether sticking and getting sucked or else sucking and getting stuck, so you know, you kind of get used to men being women. Dudes like pretty boy is a prize that brothers fight and die over everyday. Lil dude like him get a big time murderer to be his old man, ya know, a cat who got more time than Methusaleem, or whatever that old dude in the bible was called, anyway, they get sponsored by one of them kind of dudes who ain’t gon never see the sun shine again.

         Being in the joint is just like anything else after you get used to it, it becomes your life. The joint be your life just like being in the world is somebody else’s life. You do what you got to do to live. And you do whatever you can do to enjoy your life, you know what I’m saying? At first it be different, but after you spend a bunch of years doing it with dudes, you get used to it. Some people don’t, but most people do. It ain’t no big thing, not like it seem…

         Well ain’t this a bitch, here come Popeye Henry. How in the fuck did he get out? And who that woman he got with him? She look too fine to be Popeye’s squeeze. She must be a whore and he must be buying his first piece since getting out. The motherfucker acting like he don’t know nobody, strutting around with that real pussy by his side.

         “You want another beer?”

         “Yeah, give me another one.”

         “We don’t give nobody shit around here. You can buy another one.”

         “I got money, motherfucker…”

         “Man, have some respect for your mama. Call me Mr. Motherfucker.”

         Me and Euclid the bartender been going at it for over two hours now. Euclid’s a funny ass motherfucker. He claim he got his name cause he was conceived in the back seat of a Ford when his mama was in high school and she opened up a book that was on the floor and picked the first name she saw. Ain’t that some shit?

         You don’t talk much, do you? You ain’t said a word since we been sitting here.

         Aw shit, now look at this. Look like Popeye and that broad got some kind of major static happening.

         “…I can say whatever I want to say.”

         “See how much you can say with a fist all up in your big ass mouth.”

         Oh Popeye, that ain’t no way to treat a lady. Boy, you know I taught you better than that. “Henry, my man, why don’t you cool it.” She must not be no whore he just met, cause I don’t believe he giving her enough money to take a ass whipping like that.

         “Who that dipping they lip in my business?”

         Look at him fronting. He ain’t even so much as looked over here to see who it is sounding on him. Reaching his hand up in his coat like he packing and I’m supposed to be scared or something.

         “It don’t matter who it is, right is right, and right ain’t never wronged nobody. Just cause you got a beef with your lady, you ain’t got to go upside her head.”

         “Fuck all that shit. A man take care a business wherever the business is.”

         Now where this motherfucker get off challenging somebody’s manhood. See, before I went to the joint I would have been all over that nigga talking that murder mouth shit. But like I told you, I don’t plan on going back, and seeing as how I’m still on parole, I don’t need to be getting into no fight behind somebody else funny business. Except, you know, I know this nigga. We did time together up on the yard. I know him in ways he don’t want nobody to know. Maybe he didn’t recognize my voice.

         Now look at this shit. He hitting her again just to show me he can hit on a woman. Hey, man watch my back. I don’t want no heat slipping up on me while I’m dealing with this roach-ass nigga.

         “Miss, you ok?”

         “Steve, this ain’t your business man.”

         So, you did recognize me. You just fronting but I got something for your fronting ass.

         I look at the woman, and she don’t say nothing. “I said, are you ok, lady.”

         “Hey man…”

         “I’m talking to the lady, Henry. Not to you.”

         “Yeah, but that lady is with me.”


         “Meaning, this ain’t none of your business.”

         “I’m alright,” she finally says cutting the silence of me and Popeye squaring off like some typical Saturday-night, two-dudes-fighting-over-a-bitch shit.

         I can hear the place get quiet. There’s always this silence before some shit jump off, sometimes the silence is less than a second, sometimes it be a minute or two, but there’s always this point where it could go any which way, and it’s like everybody be holding their breadth. And waiting. The dangerous quiet. That’s when you got to act fast.

         Popeye slips his hand back in his pocket. Knowing this nigga, I’m sure he got a shank, might even be packing a piece. I turn my attention away from him, hoping to cool the scene out, “What’s your name, baby?”

         She looks at Popeye when I ask her that. “I’m Marlene.”

         Popeeye glares at her. “What difference it make to you what her name is?”

         Look at this motherfucker fronting. “My name is Steve. Me and Henry go back a long ways. We did time together. Did you tell her about me, Popeye?”

         “She know I did time. I’m just saying that was then, this here shit is now. And I don’t appreciate…” I watch him make exaggerated hand motions in his pocket. “…you butting into my business.”

         “When you got out?”

         He don’t answer me. After we exchange snake eyes for a minute or two, I let it drop and head back to my seat. From over my shoulder I hear the ruckus. “What the fuck you looking at him for, bitch?” And I hear him slap her again. I know Popeye is just acting out on account of he just got out the joint, and he sitting up in here with a bunch of motherfuckers who been up in the joint, so he trying to prove that he’s a man and not a turned out, jailhouse bitch, but he ain’t got to be beating all over that broad to prove he a man. I can’t stand to see no shit like this go down, so I got to do what I got to do.

         “Popeye,” I say to him as I turn around and walk up in his face. “When you was my woman in the joint, did I treat you this way?”

         Henry don’t say shit. He kind of shrink back into himself a little, take his empty hand out his pocket, don’t say shit, and just walk away straight out the door. Marlene looks confused as a motherfucker.

         But, see Popeye should have been cool from the jump and I wouldn’t have had to call him out on that mishandling a woman shit. It reflects bad on me for him to act like a thug. Right is right and wrong ain’t nothing nice. And, like I said, ain’t nothing wrong in doing right cause right ain’t never wronged nobody. You know what I mean?

         “Hey, Euclid, sell me another beer, mister motherfucker.”


—kalamu ya salaam

First published in KenteCloth: Southwest Voices of the African Diaspora edited by James Mardis.



photo by Alex Lear




[This is a section introduction for The Long Ride, our Students At The Center history of social struggles in New Orleans written by students. A free PDF download is available at <SACNOLA.COM>.]




There are many, many ways to teach creative writing, but at the high school level the pedagogy is usually based on developing technical skills with an understandable emphasis on genre, form, grammar and vocabulary. SAC has a different approach.


For us “creative” does not mean simply doing something different or idiosyncratic. Although we certainly do encourage experimentation, we do not believe in arts for arts sake as a guiding principle. We believe in the student as author, i.e. an active thinking person who observes and questions their own existence and the whys and wherefores of the world within which the author lives.


Our goal is to encourage students to become active agents in identifying and analyzing their world, which includes their own dreams and speculations. We do not specifically offer lessons in poetry, fiction, journalism per se, rather we offer a topic and the student can choose a genre, an approach. This may seem to limit what a student learns, but our experience is that once we engage the student in the process, not only does the student learn faster, but inevitably the student wants to learn more.  There are numerous books that teach form and genre, but few, if any, of those books are written for the average student in a New Orleans public school.


The Long Ride is a major project that calls for student writers to “Imagine” themselves within history and to write from their own perspective about factual events that took place before the student was born. We are fortunate in New Orleans; much of our history is documented. We are unfortunate in that 99% of the documentation is from the perspective of our historic exploiters and oppressors-after all those in power write history not simply to explain themselves but also to justify their actions.


The SAC approach is both deconstructive and reconstructive. We know that the bare facts are not only incomplete and sometimes misleading, we know that the bare facts are selective and thus we encourage not simply a reversal of perspectives, rather we suggest that our students question every historical fact and also, and more importantly, insert themselves into the process of interpreting history. So we break down the written history; we do research and critique what we find; we question what we find and speculate about what is missing; and then we rebuild history using our own perspectives and emotions.


Ask yourself a couple of simple questions: what did it feel like to…, what do you think is missing…, what would you do if… This is not formal history writing but rather creative writing at its best.


This chapter on Reconstruction focuses on a critical period in American history. Neither before nor since have Black people in America had such a rich and engaging connection to and with America; never before were we so fully engaged as human beings in the process of developing American society. During Reconstruction we had more elected leaders, owned more land, had more businesses, etc. than in any other period of our long ride to and through America.


This book, and particularly the work of Maria Hernandez, who is an American born daughter of Cuban parents, is an early example of the SAC approach to combining history and creative writing. From Maria's example, we SAC staff members are learning how to develop a bold and relevant approach to teaching creative writing. Maria learns how to write. We learn how to teach writing. This is the praxis of a liberatory pedagogy.


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear

[This is the afterword for a Students At The Center publication, Ways Of Laughing. The photographs are also from that same publication that features student essays. The book is available as a free PDF download on <>]





I have been writing professionally since 1968 when I joined The Free Southern Theatre. Over the years while continuing to write in all genres including award-winning radio production work, I was a community activist and organizer around social issues. Today, in addition to moderating e-drum, a listserv for black writers, and Breath of Life, a music blog, I am the co-director of Students at the Center (SAC), a writing program that works in New Orleans public high schools.


I am in the classroom daily, interacting with, teaching and encouraging high school students. This collection grew out of my work with students at three specific schools. Frederick Douglass, which had the dubious distinction of being academically ranked as the worse high school in the state, was our home base prior to Katrina. McDonogh #35, which is where SAC was founded in 1996, was the first post-Reconstruction high school open to Blacks in New Orleans in 1917.  Eleanor McMain Secondary School, which we went to after Katrina, is considered one of the best public high schools in New Orleans.


Although there are differences in the composition of the student body at each school, there is also a surprising amount of overlap in the social background of the students. After Katrina the differences between the schools was both sharpened and rendered moot. McMain and McDonogh #35 are both trying hard to live up to their reputations for academic excellence while at the same time working with a less selective student body. Traditionally, both of these schools had high admissions standards but post-Katrina they are no longer the first schools of choice for academically advanced Black students. At the same time Douglass is on the verge of being closed essentially because the Recovery School District, which had taken over running the school, could not effectively administrate and educate.


Because of strong differences with the Recovery School District administration at Douglass, SAC is no longer teaching there—the principal refused to allow us to conduct an Advanced Placement English class because he didn’t think Douglass students were capable of that level of work.


This principal was a post-Katrina import from Georgia. He had no confidence in the students. The school atmosphere continued to deteriorate. The last we heard the plan was to turn over to KIP what was once a neighborhood school with a long and storied history in New Orleans. In a nutshell that’s the unfortunate story of public education in New Orleans—those who need education the most are receiving the least. The prevailing power-brokers have virtually given up on offering a quality education to all students.


The alleged success story of the charter movement notwithstanding, the hard fact is that impoverished Black students are neglected, mis-educated, and far too often shunned off into incarceration rather than provided quality education.


SAC does not romanticize poverty. We know first hand how difficult it is to teach students who have been systematically denied quality education, students who also have serious social and economic issues to deal with outside of the school setting. At Douglass 20% of the student body was classified as “special ed.” One out of every five students had a serious learning disability that had been identified—and that doesn’t even address the needs of those whom have not been diagnosed.


Regardless of status, we knew our students were able to learn and develop. We recruited and trained SAC students to help their peers. We start with oral intensive methodologies and then moved to writing-focused lessons. Lesson prompts and assignments were based on student experiences rather than the examples of the state mandated texts even though the mandated texts were used.


For example, when we teach Gilgamesh, we emphasize the process of becoming human by interacting with another human and ask the students to talk and write about times when they became human through their relations with someone. When we teach Beowulf the question is: what’s worth fighting about and the prompt is discuss a time when you stood up and fought for something. Student life experiences become the platform for appreciating texts that are outside the student experience.


The essays in this collection did not just fall from the sky. The student writers didn’t just happen to think about these issues. They were encourage to examine their lives and to express themselves howsoever they thought appropriate—we set no limits or boundaries. But more important than individual freedom is the development of community in the classroom.


The key to achieving a high level of personal expression is creating a classroom environment of mutual respect and support. To share one’s deepest feelings and complex personal experiences in a public space is not easy. We as teachers write and express ourselves, participating as part of the class rather than positioning ourselves above the students. In our “Story Circles” we share our experiences. We write personal essays and take the advanced placement pre-tests. We also encourage people to embrace rather than judge each other; to discuss how the ideas were written rather than whether we agree or disagree with the ideas. The idea is to improve our communications skills and not to correct or reject the individual who is expressing an experience or emotion.


In this way our classroom becomes a sanctuary where one can find an opportunity to release. The essays included here are but a few examples of the depth of work produced in SAC classes.


* * *




The idea for this book originated in a class at Douglass. Inspired by my students I wrote the poem that gave title to this collection. That was back in 2006, right after Katrina.


The oldest essay in this collection is by Rodneka Shelbia. I Ain’t No Little White Girl is from the pre-Katrina days at Douglass. The most recent essays are by Dominique Townsend and Shardae Womack. Both their essays were written and shared in our 2009 summer workshops. Dominique and Shardae are 2006 graduates of McMain and SAC staff members who go into the public schools weekly to work with high school students.


I specifically wanted to cover a wide range of experiences written at varying levels of complexity and literary expertise.


* * *



Back in 1959 when I entered high school is when I first fell hard in love with art. The object of my affection was photography. I’m still in love. Since seventh grade I have owned a camera. My industrial arts teacher, Mr. Conrad initiated me into all aspects of photography. From taking pictures with available light to intensive darkroom work, I enjoyed it all. At Rivers Frederick Junior High School my nickname became “the picture man.”


Half a century later I use digital photography and video cinematography as part of SAC. Three of my students have majored in film in college following their SAC experiences. Alex, whose essay leads of this collection, is a professional photographer as well as a film major in college.


The transition to digital photography has its challenges. Auto focus, point and shoot digital cameras are easy to use but limited in their flexibility. I don’t use flash or artificial light. I’m severely myopic and have trouble focusing but my old eyes are often better than the results I get with digital autofocus, which means that I have to struggle to get the camera to record what I see.


In addition to presenting their personalities, I like working with strong contrasts of dark and light, negative space and dominant subject focus, plus using the eyes or mouth as the focal point of the portrait.


The issues of depth of field and capturing detail in high contrast situations are technical matters that are actually secondary. They are just technical issues and not content issues. In much the same way we teach writing—technique is important but in the final analysis, content is always the key issue. I try to convey the personalities of the subjects and not simply take a technically exact reproduction.


Of course it helps when one knows the person one is photographing, also important is that the subjects trust the photographer and are willing to let their emotions show.  My goal was to present photographs that are as strong as the content of the writing.


* * *

Finally, there is a larger issue which is not obvious. In the first decade of the 21st century book publishing has gone through a major transformation. Indeed, some argue that the book is dead. The truth is far more complex. More books than ever are being published but the computer and other aspects of digital technology have completely changed the publishing game. Today anyone can publish a book and traditional book publisher are finding near impossible to make money the way they formerly did.


I believe the book will become an art object rather than the universal media for the dissemination of information and entertainment—that function is now dominated by video.


This particular book is available in two forms. In the traditional hardcover book format we are using this book as an SAC fundraiser. People who want to support our work can do so by buying this art object. In the new media format we are making the contents of this book universally available on the web as a free e-book download.


In other words, you can buy the book to support SAC and you can read and or download the book for free to share in the experiences of SAC students.


Welcome to the future.


—Kalamu ya Salaam

New Orleans – August 2009



photo by Cfreedom







"Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it" —Frantz Fanon


Laika Fatien is an artist, not a politician, neither a sociologist nor a psychiatrist. As an artist she is some of all the aforementioned and greater than any of those professions because as an artist she offers honest and insightful vision of the here and now without illusions or pretensions, while at the same time providing inspiration to push into unknown, but not unknowable, futures.


The emphasis in this collection is on Laika the lyricist rather than the vocalist. This set is not simply an emotional outpouring of song but also a meditation on contemporary life. The assertive opening selection, “Essence” (based on Howard Brooks’ “Isle of Java” musical composition), sets the tone for a fearless forward march that never retreats into sentimentality or melodrama.


Unlike far too many contemporary offerings, Laika thankfully does not emphasize unrequited love. Constantly bemoaning what was lost does not befit an artist who is striving toward future gains.


Notice, I identified Laika as an artist, not as an entertainer. If she were simply an entertainer, she would only be concerned with the here and now, with the anesthesia of momentary feeling good, or the panacea of temporarily feeling no pain.


If Laika’s goal were merely to make her audience smile and laugh and forget, Laika would not be concerned with the sources of discomfort and disorientation, and she certainly would not be concerned with how to change distressing conditions.


Laika has decided to share her views and values, and thus has created a recording that is both bold (most vocal jazz records stick with the tried and true and seldom fit new lyrics to jazz standards) and reassuring (although it is definitely a break from the ordinary, we can easily hear where Laika goes). This work is firm in its convictions and fluid in its expression. The mark of all meaningful artistry is going beyond common boundaries.


Ms. Fatien has rejected making entertaining, pleasant music. Entertainment is a surrendering to the status quo, an acceptance that since we can not control our lives, we must find ways to painlessly endure our social conditions. Surrendering to the status quo is the central position every true artist refuses to occupy. Artist point outward, away from the center of acceptance and towards the uncertainty of creating one’s destiny.


Fate is what happens to us beyond our control. Destiny is what happens to us as a result of the choices we make. We are fated to be born where and when we are, our destiny is determined by what we do with our fate.


Laika had no maps to tell her how to proceed, how to sort out her sanity amid the confusion of daily disorientation—I know, I know, this does not sound like musical commentary, but what else is music but self-expression?


The most potent music comes from the search for self and the honest reflections of the twists and turns of that journey, as well as the unfettered announcement of was found on that journey.


The old order is one of binaries (black, white; old world, new world; male, female; native, foreigner; etc.), our new existence rejects easy categories. Today is a disordering of yesterday; where previously there were definite identities within which we attempted to fit ourselves, currently there are no certainties. The new world is one of hybridity.


Is Laika a jazz artist, or a popular artist? To even ask for a specific category based on previous assumptions is to misunderstand. Her music is a recognition of change and contradiction, an embracing of both merger and separation.


Listen, you are not hearing simply one thing but rather a multiplicity of realities, with diverse elements coming to the foreground at different moments, and different textures providing the background as she moves from song to song.


She does not sing in her first language. She speaks a French hybrid and sings an international English.


For some of us, this mixed expression is too chaotic to cope with; we prefer something that comforts us rather than confronts us. But if one is an artist, one’s destiny is found in how one deals with the hand fate has dealt. To fully actualize our futures requires both bravery and imagination. We must be willing to search for the unseen and forge forward even as we might fear we are stepping off into an abyss.


Artistry is flying when the ground of old certainties falls away. Perhaps that is why I love Laika’s interpretation of Jackie McLean’s “Appointment In Ghana.” Laika calls it “Watch Your Back.” There is always some high sheriff sent to arrest us and return us to the restrictions of normalcy. But we have an appointment with the future—and some of us have vowed we will not be late.




Is all the chaos & contradictions

Within which we were spawned

A mother from here, a father from there

Siblings scattered everywhere, are we

Supposed to simply end up where we started


No, our lives are what we make

Despite what others try to shape

When we are sure we don’t have to shout

Our calm will be perceived as a storm

On the wings of our self-directed struggles

We will be borne to worlds leagues away

From where we were born


If we raise our eyes and look high

Above where we are, deep into the depths

Of our existence we will see


 —kalamu ya salaam


photo by Cfreedom





i spend a lot of my me time in my car, second only to working on my imac at home. maybe i should add the me time i spend sleeping, the time that includes dreaming; my subconscious working through past events, projecting scenarios on the screen of my slumbering brain and the waking me sometimes moved enough by the movie to applaud, occasionally disturbed to the point of questioning myself, questioning what in the world could i have been thinking of. but in general, other than sleeping and working at the computer, both of which are satisfying, although neither of which bring happiness in any extraordinary way even though both of which make it possible for me to keep on living and keep on being productive, nevertheless, other than computer time and sleep time, what invariably brings happiness moments is being in the car listening to music as i drive somewhere.


sometimes there is someone in the car with me and i am sharing songs currently high on my radar, songs i am enjoying but usually i am alone, driving back and forth between my home in algiers and the two schools, mcmain and #35 where i teach.


i realize that most of my day to day happiness happens when i am alone, which is not to discount the deeper moments i have sharing with others but rather which is to acknowledge that most of the time i am by myself when i am smiling.


i imagine i am not the only one who defines happiness as those small moments i spend with myself when i am smiling as some music moves me while traffic swirls around me. i see people dancing in their seats in the next car over; someone’s profile as their head bobs to a beat i don’t hear; the rear of a car turning a corner, it’s back windshield visibly vibrating as the rap music is turned up so loud the pimped out vehicle virtually bounces down the street; or is it the tarnished, old tercel i drive and me checking the rearview as i change lanes while admiring a particularly beautiful turn of music?


the last one of those moments i remember is tuesday evening, driving across the crescent city connection, the weather was beautiful, it was early afternoon around five p.m., harold batiste was in the car with me, melissa walker was on the stereo, the light was falling between the girders, a fascinating falling cataract of luminous blocks of metallic bright light coloring the steel and concrete, i wanted to shoot a movie of that moment. both harold and i were smiling at how beautiful the music was, or was it how beautiful we felt in each other’s company on that late summer afternoon and melissa was merely providing a soundtrack for the happiness of two old men still able to secure small moments of happiness?


i should write a poem and entitle it: the beautiful fullness of life is sometimes best tasted in the miniature of a fleeting moment.


—kalamu ya salaam




photo by Alex Lear




That’s Christmas


We sat silently at the table. Keith, the youngest of us, was maybe five, six at the most, I probably was around eight, sneaking up on nine. My daddy had said go by the table in the front room and dutifully we waited quietly.


There was no tree in the living room, no lights around the windows, no radio on playing Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song—a song that unfailing marks time for me ever since I was driving back from a holiday party my senior year in high school and the song came filling the car with a strange sentiment, which in years ahead I would easily identify as a combination of desire and satisfaction. Nat’s voice had a very reassuring quality, and at the same time the music made you want to have someone near to share that moment, someone you could touch in an intimate albeit unembarrassing way, like her hand between your legs or vice versa, and catching green lights all the way on the slow drive home.


When my daddy walked in the room we all looked up, certain that this was an important moment. My daddy was a man of few words, he didn’t joke around and when he told you to do something, well, as young as we were we understood.


It was maybe a week before Christmas. In future years by then we would have already strung lights around the grillwork on the front porch and on the edge of the roof fronting the sidewalk, and during the holiday seasons when we went all out, we would put color-coordinated blinking bulbs in all the windows facing the street, but at that moment there was only the lonely dining room ceiling light illuminating the bare table and the close-cropped heads of my father’s three sons as our giant of a man stood in front of us.


I don’t know where my mother was. She wasn’t in the room. Was she even home? I don’t remember.


Maybe I looked up at the fixture, a sort of frosted glass plate that muted the harsh illumination, the same kind of covering I broke one day while bouncing a rubber ball in the room. Boom, it shattered and a falling shard cut my top lip—the scar is still there, you just don’t notice it because of my heavy mustache. 


Then my father pushed his hand into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, opened the leather, extracted three five-dollar bills, gave one to each of us, said “that’s Christmas,” turned and walked out the room.


Nothing further was said. No lecture. No sugar-coating the naked truth. We continued celebrating Christmas for years after that but inside each of the three Ferdinand boys there was a calculator that added up each sentiment, every desire, all our feelings as part of the emotional audit we routinely did at key moments for the rest of our lives.


Thanks to my father, my brothers and I viewed Christmas and everything else in life with cold, clear, unsentimental eyes. We could and often did go through social feel-good motions but the mask of mythology had been ripped off our eyes early in our lives when our father taught us the true meaning of Christmas: give what you can and move on.


—kalamu ya salaam