photo by Alex Lear







My body is scarred.


A thirty-eight bullet blotch on my left knee. A twenty-five-cent, quarter-sized, raised, keloid on the back of my left shoulder from falling out of a tree when I was a pre-teen and a piece of cut branch pierced deep into my flesh. An eight-inch-long appendectomy line diagonally crosses my lower abdomen. Plus, there are other scarifications I’ve picked up along the sixty-three-year life-way I’ve traveled.


And, of course, a series of stories accompanies each mark. I could narrate my autobiography just by relating the tales of how each wound came to be.


For example, there is a cut on my left hand. I was fighting with my brother when we were both young. If I remember correctly we were in junior high school. The two of us were tussling over one knife. He grabbed the handle, I ended up with the blade. You can guess what happened. You know the skin between your thumb and your pointing finger, that elastic part? That’s where I was sliced. I remember I could see the flesh inside my hand. Although it hurt, I was really fascinated by examining the inner workings.


That altercation happened over fifty-some years ago. Although the physical scar is still there, the slicing did not produce any psychological scars. I am not afraid of knives or fights. I don’t hate my brother, nor did I hold a grudge against him.


Although my body reveals the violence I have encountered, my deepest scars are not visible. Indeed, one of those invisible markings runs the length of my mental and will never disappear. I will never forget how seriously I stabbed myself, severing my budding self-esteem.


I was standing in the Manhattan street holding down a parking spot. A car came up. The horn blew. I ignored the sound. The driver blew again. I remained steadfast. The driver lowered his window and shouted for me to move. I didn’t respond nor did I move.


This was in the seventies, four or five of us were headed to The Beacon Theatre to experience a double-bill of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi group and Pharaoh Sanders. As we drove around looking for parking spots, the brother who was driving spotted one on the other side of the street. He told me to get out and go stand in the spot until he could turn the corner and double back. I did as I was requested but I didn’t feel good about doing so.


I had tried to assuage my guilt by rationalizing: maybe that was the way they did things up in New York. I hoped no one would come along before my friend got back. The night was warm. New York City. Anything could happen. How would I handle it if the police came along? Suppose someone jumped out and wanted to fight—not that I was afraid—but as I stood guard the myriad of possible scenarios playing on the screen of my consciousness was interrupted when that young black man drove up.


After I ignored him, he pulled up next to where I was standing and talked to me through his window. It wasn’t a long speech, nor was he cursing at me or even shouting. He was calm and accurate with his words, “Alright, brother, but you know you wrong.”


Those words scalpeled deeply. He was right. I was wrong; so wrong that I could barely enjoy the music because I continually questioned myself: why had I done something I knew was wrong?


That happened close to forty years ago but it indelibly mottled my memory, resulting in a sort of psychic scar. Ever since, whenever I’m asked to do something I know is wrong I don’t just go along with the situation just because it’s a good friend making a seemingly innocuous request, nor do I swallow my moral sense and do a jig because the outcome would be of some immediate benefit to me.


With me, the outcome really doesn’t matter as much as does the process. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Especially, why am I committing an action I know is wrong?


Sure, we enjoy pleasure. We like getting things, consuming things. Let me be specific: we men like sex, crave power, being in charge, in control, but I constantly ask myself: at what price? Can I—my sense of being a man, an honorable human being—can I afford to be the boss if the cost of attaining power is knowingly doing wrong?


Physical pain rarely deters me but the psychic pain of doing wrong terrifies me. That is the pain I learn from; not just on a Manhattan street blocking a parking space but every day of my life, I do my best to avoid the pain of doing wrong.


So, although I have a high tolerance for pain, I have a low threshold when it comes to my personal behavior. Regardless of what anyone else may think of what I do or don’t do, what I think of myself is my compass. What’s ok for them, may be anathema for me.


The scars on my body, hey, that’s life. Life is a knife. Or a gun. An accident, a fall. Hot grease burning the skin in a cooking accident. The unanticipated pain of a hand slammed in a car door. The tooth chipped by a baseball unintentionally thrown in your face. The residue of  childhood chickenpox or an allergy to a food you didn’t know would cause severe rashes. Life, in all its complexities. Life, the myriad of petite disasters that challenge our personal morality and leave behind indelible indications of each encounter.


While we cannot avoid the inevitable markings of life, we don’t need to tattoo our souls with self-inflicted graffiti. My body may be scarred, but I try to keep my soul unblemished.


Regardless of the scars you may or may not see when you look at me, what you don’t and can’t see: my internal moral wall—that is where is posted the most important lessons of my life. Inside of me is all that I have learned. And I guess you can say that I’ve studied myself deeply and tried my best to take note of and respond to both the pleasures and pains of my life.


That New Yorker taught me a key lesson when he told me, brother, you know you wrong. Even after over 350,000 hours of living, that wound remains tender.


Knowingly doing wrong is one pain I just can’t stand.


 —kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear





I Am Ashamed Of Myself

(Post-Katrina New Orleans)



I woke up this morning. I was ashamed.


I couldn't remember what I was doing in 1994. In April. The rainy season. Even if my life depended on it, I could not recall any specifics. I just couldn't remember.


Over 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered then. I don't remember what I did but not having anything that I remember tells me that I did nothing memorable.


I don't even have a poem specifically about the genocide. Did I write a letter, a petition, an article? Did I do anything? It is depressingly banal how often the reality registers: when the good do nothing, the bad do everything.


Why is goodness always cast as a coward? The truth is, if we do nothing, we can not be good. Doing nothing is a collaboration with the worst of ourselves.


Less than four hours earlier at three-something in the morning when I should have been sleeping I had just finished watching Sometimes In April, Raoul Peck's movie about genocide in Rwanda a dozen years ago. I staggered to bed emotionally drained.


I assume while I was asleep my subconscious was taking inventory. When I awoke, a terrible truth appeared: if I did nothing during Rwanda, I had no high ground from which to expect others to do something for New Orleans.


All of the tasks I should be doing but for whatever reasons I have not done, each of them stood at my bedside and took turns whacking at my conscience.


My discomfort was not just Rwanda. Kysha, Robin and I are working on a poetry anthology appropriately entitled The End of Forever. Over the last couple of weeks I have come up missing in action. I am mired in a swamp of inaction, emotionally overwhelmed at times. The book is in the last stages, just a little more effort and it would be finished, but I lay in bed, dilly-dallying for no good reason-I don't know what I'm waiting for and I'm not sleepy, it's just . . .


But the book is not the only thing. More and more people are calling me about LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE. If I push harder I could make more happen, faster. We should have been up and online by now. There are specifics I can not do, technical matters others have to address, but I could put my shoulder to the wheel and make things turn faster. I could, but . . .


My wife is patient with me, never once complaining as I leave the house every evening and don't come back until round midnight, going to spend hours with Doug who is battling cancer and dueling with the after-affects of chemotherapy. Nia and I have not gone to the movies at all this year, and it has been some months since we have gone out to dinner together.


There have been days when I freely gave my full attention to visitors needing assistance with this, that or the other. On more than one occasion I have spent more time with someone I may never see again than I have with my wife whom I see almost every day-you see, I can not even say I see my wife everyday because some days . . .


Do you understand why I am ashamed? Yes, I know that I do so many good things for the cause, but I do not remember what I did in April of that killing season occurring in a ten-thousand-square-mile country of around eight million souls. Count off eight people you know, if they had been Rwandan, most likely at least one of them would be dead-and not just dead, but smashed like an insect. Thus the marauders crowed, explaining why they used machetes: we do not waste bullets on cockroaches.


I have not completed the book we planned to have ready by the end of August. Our LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE website is not fully operational yet. My wife and I eat separately. Do you understand how it feels to see yourself like that?


I tell myself to get up. Get moving. It is another day. We're alive. There's so much we can do. But . . . it's raining outside, just like April in that breathtakingly beautiful land of a thousand hills.


Most of us never know when our end will arrive. I stared at my computer screen as actors under Peck's direction portrayed people who knew they were about to die. At one point I hit the space bar to pause the action. I reached up, wiped my eyes, and then continued watching. If I had been there, what would I have done?


Lying on my side, face to the wall, a hard answer severs my sense of self half-in-two: Had I been in Kigali, I may have done nothing but watch, that is, if I were lucky enough not to be a Hutu hacking a Tutsi, or a Tutsi being hacked, I probably would have been a so-called innocent onlooker... after all, that is what I was as I sat in Houston in my brother-in-law's living room watching on CNN as the Tutsis of my city were abandoned at the Ernest Morial Convention Center.


When we evacuated, our car was full but I left a working automobile behind. I can say: I did not expect the levees to break, I thought I would be back in a few days. I can say if I had stayed I would have been one of the locals, like Malik and Jerome, rescuing people before outside help arrived. But regardless of what I say or want to believe I might have done, the hard question remains. What did I do? When the deal went down, there I sat, just watching.


Now, I realize: every day is April. Whether it's Rwanda or New Orleans, the same question wakes me: what am I doing about it today?


A dozen years from now will I have done anything worth remembering?


—kalamu ya salaam







“That’s stupid,” he told me. “Stupid.” And it was. My younger brother was reading me the riot act. He wasn’t shouting, or even angry; disappointed perhaps, dismayed certainly. He just wanted me to know that I had been stupid.


He was right. I was one of literally thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even millions of poor people who are medically adverse. We avoid medication like it was poison—and given the reality of how the medical community has treated poor blacks in the United States, from Tuskegee to sterilization in South North Carolina, as well as many other examples, we do well to be skeptical. Yet, there is a big difference between skeptical and stupid, and I had eased on across the line.


Now there was no denying, in refusing to take the prescribed medication I had made a bad choice and was paying the price.


I thought I had the flu and severe leg cramps. My shortness of breath was self-diagnosed as just getting old. At 64, climbing three flights of stairs was now a real chore. I would haltingly reach the top and have to lean against a wall, gasping deeply for air. One of my students advised that I take the elevator. Pigheaded as ever, I refused, choosing instead to fight through it by five minutes of deep breathing as I sat sprawled in a chair one-size too small for my bulk.


But then there was this new pain: a hard leg cramp. I have suffered with leg cramps all my life, usually they attacked infrequently, maybe once or twice a year, and usually after some stretching and walking, the pain would subside, but this time not only did the pain persist, there was a heavy swelling that had never happened before.


Later, after a battery of tests, the problem was pinpointed: I had a blood clot in my right leg. That condition in combination with unmanaged hypertension was literally a potential killer. Ironically, we now believe that the blood clot developed during a long drive to and fro from New Orleans to Atlanta. Lionel McIntyre and myself left 5:30am Tuesday morning, spent three or four hours in Atlanta with a mutual friend who was terminally ill, and returned immediately, arriving back in New Orleans 1:30am Wednesday morning.


That was a long period of sitting with no exercise. Wednesday I went to work. Thursday we had half a day of work and I ended up staying home. By Friday I was suffering diarrhea and extreme pain in my leg. I thought I had the flu, so I went into self-treatment mode, plus the coming week was Thanksgiving, so I was off the entire week; off and getting no better. I had promised my daughter if I wasn’t better by the weekend I would call my brother.


“Stupid.” I was stupid for not treating my hypertension three years ago when it was initially diagnosed.


* * *


Keith is the youngest of three Ferdinand brothers. He is a cardiologist who is a nationally recognized expert on hypertension. “Man, why you didn’t keep up with the medication?”


Like most negroes, I had no direct answer. My negligence was more a non-decision than an active avoidance.


The big problem was that Keith was now domiciled in Atlanta, on staff at Emory University. As was the case for the majority of the Black professionals in New Orleans, after Katrina, they had to vacate the premises in order to make a living. The decimation of the black middle class was near complete as the result of Katrina. When doctors and lawyers can’t make it, the system is in bad, bad shape.


Before the storm Keith had a major practice, Heartbeats Life Center, and was treating up to thirty patients a day. I remember Keith having a hard time finding physicians to work at his clinic. Most of the young doctors didn’t want to work the hours that Keith routinely put in. Additionally, few of them were open to explaining procedures and talking with the clientele on a basis of real concern. One of the physicians Keith hired was from Iraq and to this day remains sincerely grateful to Keith for offering not just employment but also an invaluable training experience.


Dr. Gholam Ali left Baghdad in 1997 and worked with Keith before the storm hit in August of 2005. When I called Dr. Ali on a Sunday, he immediately set up an appointment on Monday morning. When we met face to face, one of the first things Dr. Ali said to me was, “give me a hug. You Are family.”


No other medical professional had ever greeted me like that. Dr. Ali gave me a major check up and scheduled me for a detailed sonar exam that afternoon. Once the blood clot in my right leg had been confirmed, I was confined to the hospital from Monday afternoon until Wednesday afternoon. My condition was serious.


While in the hospital I did a cursory inspection of the hospital hierarchy at Tulane  Medical Center. All the janitors were black and poor, both male and female. Most of the clerks were black females. The nursing staff was mixed black and white, with one or two black males. The doctors were a virtual united nations, with the head physicians being mainly Jewish. Those of us who were patients were a mixed lot with one element in common, we all had health insurance.


The At Ensemble of Chicago has a recording titled People In Sorrow, and that is generally the condition of the black and poor in the United States today. Go in Walmart or Dollar General, pass through the emergency ward of any major urban hospital, you will see us, obviously overweight, and as we age, more and more prone to chronic illnesses.


Although far too many of us inhabit this social space, one category you really don’t want to fall in is black, poor and no health insurance. Indeed, were it not for my brother Keith and excellent care from Dr. Ali, I just might be among the deceased. My case was that serious.


* * *


A couple of months back, I was talking with Ariel, a Students at the Center staff member who graduated from high school in 2009.


In 1974 brother Hodari Ali and I were delegates to the Sixth Pan African Congress in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. We spent a weekend hanging out in Zanzibar. My Swahili was rudimentary, Hodari was conversational. We had a wonderful experience walking around the ancient, island city. Since that time we had seen each other maybe two or three times, but our faces always lit up when we came in contact. I had just received word that Hodari had died.


Ariel gently questioned me as I explained to her that it seemed like every two or three weeks I receive word that someone I know had died. “How does it make you feel?”


I looked at her and gave a typical Kalamu answer. How does it make me feel? One word was sufficient: “Next.”


And that was the end of that conversation.


My dear friend Ed Brown, whom I had driven to Atlanta to see, made his transition one week later, the day before Thanksgiving. I am one of the caregivers for Harold Battiste, a New Orleans jazz icon who produced nine gold records, was the musical director for the Sonny and Cher television programme, and served as a producer/arranger for Sam Cooke. Harold had a medical setback in May 2011. Although everyone avoided saying heart attack, it almost took him out. On October 28, 2011 Harold celebrated eighty years old.


I had committed myself to working with Harold and getting him to that major milestone. In March 2012 I’ll make sixty-five. After that all bets are off.


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear





The Breeze And I


Last Thursday I drove out of town to Lulling, Louisiana, only thirty or so miles upriver from New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi River. I was there to see a neurologist, Dr. Hightower, who was an associate of my brother Keith. Keith is a cardiologist and arranged the visit because he suspected I might be exhibiting symptoms of the onset of Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative illness for which there is no known cure. Additionally, Parkinson’s is idiopathic, there are no known causes of the illness. The best modern science can do is a drug regimen that will offset some of the effects.


In the early seventies I never thought about health issues when we were traveling back and forth all over Mississippi, often racing each other cross the length and breadth of an extremely hostile terrain for young black firebrands such as those of us in The Free Southern Theatre. I remember we were speeding from West Point, Mississippi headed over to Cleveland, Mississippi. Their infamous highway patrol caught me.


“Boy, you know where the courthouse in Oxford is, don’t you?”


“No sir, I don’t.”


“Well, you best go find it and pay this here ticket.”


I found it.


The court clerk was an old, white man straight out of In The Heat Of The Night. He pulled down a big, weathered ledger book. I remember his hand was trembling and the book shook as he lowered it to the counter top. At that time, I saw absolutely no commonality between me and that wrinkled, old presumed racist. Today I realize he probably had Parkinson’s.


I know now what I didn’t know then: all of we humans have more in common than are apparent when we judge each other by easy to discern differences such as gender, race, ethnicity or social behavior. I wonder was the old man’s tremors ever diagnosed or was he doing what I had done, simply accepting the inevitably of the shakes and coping with it as best he could.


How long would I have gone without professional attention had not my physician brother spotted something and had he not been able to track down a neurologist to check me out. We’re over five years after Katrina and medical care in New Orleans is still very much a spotty proposition, particularly for specialties and for mental health. I mention the latter because so many of us are suffering various stages and/or severities of depression. Our vary states of dementia, from mildly retarded to full out, bona fide crazy, often inhibit us seeking help for preventable and/or curable illnesses.


Worst than the paucity of health care in post-Katrina New Orleans was my general antipathy toward hospitals and medication, and it’s not just me. I recall Keith was hospitalized once with a fever and the physicians couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. He had an infected appendix but the protrusion had lodged behind a rib bone or something and was not detected by normal x-rays. They wanted to do exploratory surgery. Keith nixed that. I think they finally found it when they did a CAT-scan x-ray or something like that and with a proper diagnosis, the doctors were able to operate before Keith’s appendix burst.


Also influencing my attitude was the way my father died of a mysterious illness. Friday evening he was talking. Friday night he slipped into a coma. Sunday morning he expired. Keith said when he arrived from out of town early Sunday morning there was not one doctor present who could tell him anything definitive about what was happening with daddy.


My father was not into taking medications. I’m like him. I don’t even take aspirins, but even if I was to seek treatment, without Keith’s expertise and assistance I probably would still be waiting for an initial screening. When obtaining health care is difficult, many of us just shuffle along, self medicating ourselves with over the counter pain killers. Worse, we generally ignore early signs of trouble and don’t seek treatment until we have some kind of major incident or incapacitation. And don’t even bring up the question of health insurance—if you’re poor and don’t have good health insurance, you can’t afford to get sick. It’s depressing.


Lucky for me my wife had Blue Cross insurance from her previous job as an X-ray technician at Veteran’s Hospital and my physician brother had excellent contacts, so I was able to receive first class health care shortly after a potential problem was spotted. My relatively stable mental state is due in part to the social safety net surrounding me.


It was a warm, late fall day in December and I was driving out to see a doctor. The temperature was inching up towards the high sixties, too warm to be considered a proper late autumn by New Yorkers but just the way we like fall and winter in the Crescent City. The drive over went well. I had music I’d burned to CD and when I got really close to the destination, I called for the final directions. I had just passed the non-descript gate and had to double back half a block.


Keith had seen a tremor in my right hand. Of course I had noticed it before but at sixty-three, I just passed it off as one of the many physical breakdowns that occur with getting old. I paid it no mind because the malady was infrequent and not serious enough to prevent me from using my hand.


From somewhere in my stored memory cells an image came to mind: a cut kite, fluttering downward. We used to have the kite patrol, a bunch of us adolescents on our bikes chasing after kites that broke away or were intentionally let loose. We would tear off, racing to see who would be the first to find the errant kite.


Back in the late fifties flying kites was a big thing in New Orleans. Most of us made kites. And even a lot of the adults would join in the fun. Miss Vivian who lived across the street from us and who sold chickens that she raised in her back yard would cross the street to the empty lot that was next door to our house to join the fun.


Sometimes we would make spending money by helping Miss Vivian slaughter young chickens but I didn’t have much stomach for it, so after two or three times I just stopped going. I hope my hand never goes spastic like those headless chickens whose wings beat against our pants as we held them still after Miss Vivian had sliced off their heads.


We had cut down most of the trees in the lot and that’s where we played baseball and football instead of in the street like we did when we played two-handed touch with the big boys. Lionel could throw the ball with some degree of accuracy damn near the full length of the block, three quarters of the block easy. But the street was no good for kite flying because car antennas and kite strings didn’t go well together, so when it was kite season, we generally stuck to the empty lot.


A white man whom I never saw or met owned the empty lot between our house and the corner house and refused to sell it to my father. Eventually, my father bought the corner house, which was on the other side of the lot between the two properties. My daddy’s father stayed by himself in the corner property until Betsy, when my grandfather drowned after retreating into a closet as the water rushed in.


My brothers had tried to go get him but they said the water came up too fast, and wires and trees were knocked down and all kinds of stuff was flying through the air. I believe Keith almost got hit, or was blown over, or something, and my father called Keith and Kenneth to come back. My family spent that night in the attic of our brick house before somebody in a boat carried them down to the roof of Hardin Elementary School in the next block from our house, the same school where my mother taught third grade. At that point my father must have deduced that his father was lost to the storm.


I was in the army in Texas when the hurricane hit. Kenneth says my daddy didn’t talk about his father drowning. They didn’t find the body until the following week, after the water had subsided and they were able to get into the house. Maybe it was even two weeks later. I know now that daddy was deeply affected—how do I know?


To quote my brother Kenneth’s favorite explanation for a lot of the behavior of we three brothers, “it must be genetic.” Over twenty years later I’m still deeply affected by daddy’s death even though on the surface I seem to have made peace with my father’s departure. I can talk about his transition without wincing or crying aloud. Such stoicism is typical of we Ferdinands, we take our blows and move on without lingering over the pain.


I don’t much remember my grandfather. I recall visiting him before he moved in after our family purchased the corner property. I have a deep but extremely fuzzy recollection of how my father would go check on his father when the old man stayed in some musty, two-room apartment. I believe it was somewhere in the upper ninth ward but I don’t accurately recall. My grandfather liked those old, big, square soda crackers—much thicker and more puffy than the thin saltine crackers like the ones we ate with cheese.


After grandpa relocated on the corner, my brothers and I would take turns crossing the lot to bring dinner plates to him in the evenings. He didn’t talk much. I don’t think we ever had an extended conversation beyond “here’s your dinner. You need anything else?”


I don’t have any image of my mother ever going over there, nor even my daddy spending any significant amount of time talking with his father on the porch or anything. I didn’t have words for it but it seemed to me my grandfather wanted to be alone, wanted to live hermit-like. I don’t even remember a radio over there. My father loved listening to the radio but wasn’t crazy about television. We used to watch the Gillette Friday Night boxing matches but that’s about all I remember my father regularly watching on television. I’m beginning to think solitude runs in my bloodline.


My grandfather was a big, red-bone man. Didn’t look much like my father. My daddy’s mama had died when he was very young, maybe five or six. From the one picture we found of her, years later, she was a dark-skinned woman—we couldn’t really make out her features on the blurry photo. Daddy undoubtedly took after her in appearance. I don’t think my daddy remembered his mother. In fact, my daddy didn’t even know exactly when he was born. The courthouse out in Napoleonville, or was it Donaldsonville, had burned down and the records were lost and none of the family knew for sure. So much history gets lost in the wind.


Even when the wind is blowing real hard, a kite doesn’t fall like a plane with engine failure, or even a balloon that springs a serious leak. The kite just sort of slowly flutters downward until caught in the branches of a tree or on a power line, occasionally on the roof of a house, seldom settling on the ground.


There were a lot of trees all over the Lower Ninth Ward when I was growing up in the fifties. It was sort of like living in the country. Indeed, we had a real farm with cows, horses, pigs and stuff in the next block before the city bought the two block stretch and built a school in the late fifties or early sixties. I never got to go to Harden Elementary because I was too old by the time it opened. It’s funny the bits of unconnected things you remember when you plummet your past.


I never made a box kite. I had wanted to, like the kites I saw in a book, or even construct one of those Chinese dragon kites, but I got so wrapped up in building fighter kites with razor blades embedded in the frames. We would crash the kites into each other trying to see who would have the last kite flying. In fact, now that I think about it, chasing down kites that had been knocked out of the sky was how the kite patrol started.


A red kite descending against a blue sky towards a not too distant green tree line. That’s what I think every time I remember my hand trembling until I dropped my fingers down to the desk top or atop my knee. It seems Keith’s suspicions were on target. Dr. Hightower—what a name, I wondered during the drive over whether he would be a black man. Leslie Hightower. I was willing to bet he was a brother. I was right. Anyway, after the check up, I listened with equanimity, even cracking a joke or two as Dr. Hightower delivered his preliminary diagnosis. I indeed was exhibiting symptoms of the onset of Parkinson’s Disease.


It’s days later I can’t resist the urge: from time to time I hold my hand out to see if it’s shaking. So far, every time I’ve checked it’s been relatively still, but I take note whenever I feel a brief tremor and it reminds me of catching a falling kite whose string has been cut.


—kalamu ya salaam

22 december 2010


photo by Alex Lear








Recently on Twitter, a student called me a walrus [Darian said my teacher(Kalamu) looks like a big ass walrus with one tooth. Smh cuz he right.].


a big old, one-tooth walrus. I smiled. That was a nice succinct image: something both strange and known, mysterious and by implication “knowing,” as in: I knew something and the observers knew I knew something without necessarily knowing what it was I knew or whether what I knew was valuable (to me, to them, or to anyone). A walrus.



I remember when I consciously became me, i.e. when I made the intellectual decision to pursue being “me,” which after all meant not so much deciding “who am i?” but rather really meant, without either self-flattery or sentimentality, identifying “who have I been”: what made me, who made me, how family life and growing up where I grew up shaped me and how I responded to the shaping, like how certain tree branches made better bows that others and how to know when you had a good bow, a stretch of wood that was limber enough to bend but resistant enough to snap back and power the arrow where you wanted the arrow to go, as far as you needed the projectile to fly and with as much force as you need the missile to hit the intended target, like that, and then after identifying the antecedents, i.e. all the forces and influences that shaped me, then the really crucial part was deciding who I wanted to make me be


Who? Given the material that was me, who would I make me be/come? Hence, I was both the sculptor and the piece of wood or metal, or the lump of clay, except my material had a mind and part of my mind wanted to be what I was, while another part of my will wanted to be something else, and the most fierce battle was always internal, always the struggle to stop being who I was and give birth to who I wanted to be



another student responded [I remember ribbin his funky az].


Reminder: don’t take yourself too seriously.



I was always overweight as a child, sometimes slightly, a few moments grossly, but normally always a little more so than those around me.


Being different always makes a difference.



The moment I consciously decided to be me was precisely the moment I decided not to be someone else.


I was walking quickly thru the chill toward the dorm door, a walk I would make at least a couple of hundred times more, even trampling through snow. I was seventeen. Snow was new to me. Just starting college. I’m from New Orleans, a city on the river, near the mouth of the Mississippi; a place where it is perpetually green, seldom snows, and even in winter grass grows. I was going to school in Northfield, Minnesota, not too far from where the Mississippi river starts its southward flow. And as I reached for the handle on the door, which was mostly super thick glass with a heavy metal frame, I saw a reflection of myself.


On the back of one of his early Columbia albums, I believe it was Miles Ahead although it could have been Porgy&Bess, Miles had his sweater thrown over his back with the arms of the sweater tied around his neck. Cool ass miles. I liked that. (You can understand how that iconic figure danced in the stunted style consciousness of the southern butterball that was me.) So, on my own for the first time, with no parent to correct me when I made whatever I considered to be hip sartorial decisions; no questioning why you wearing “that” whatever color or cut that particular clothing happened to be; no one to tell me what to put on or what to take off; in my mis-shaped budding self-development, I had my sweater thrown casually (or so I hoped the thing appeared casual)—you know I never could wear a sweater loosely around my middle with the arms tied dangling from my waist, my waist was too big and my arms too short for that—and, of course, I had the cotton sleeves tied around my neck, and sort of half-hoped, half-thought of myself as Miles without a horn.


Which was when I saw the reflection. I wasn’t Miles. But more importantly, I also recognized that the reflection wasn’t “me” either. My reflection showed me a fake, a not very good imposter, failing to be both me and failing to be Miles.


And in one of my most lucid and unforgettable moments over this sixty-some lifetime, I let the handle go, yanked the sweater arms from around my neck, gathered up the sweater into my left hand, reached out and opened the door with my right. I had said to myself: that’s not me.



Me trying to be what I am not, is not me. I wanted to be an authentic me more than I wanted to be a look-like someone else, even someone else whom, for whatever reason, I admired.



the first actual life-step in becoming ourselves (i.e. the first doing as opposed to the first thinking about doing) is to recognize what we are not and consciously step away from whatever that is, whatever behavior, affectations, gestures, way of talking, whatever.


A baby has to learn that the self is not someone else, not the mother whom you love to snuggle up to; not the blanket, the red-stripped ball, the stuffed animal, the bottle, none of that is you.


Not all the pictures that are presented to us of what we ought to be or what we desire to be; not the movie actors with whom we are smitten, or of whom we are jealous or envious, or whatever; not the entertainment stars, the musicians and athletes. Moreover, if you are not actually them, they are not you. That social equation is axiomatic, you are not someone else and someone else is not you.


And here, of course is where it gets tricky, because here is where desire enters the equation and the capitalist manipulation of our minds in America. In America we are taught we can be anyone we want to be.


And that is just not true.


Sure, we can be/come a lot of things but not “anything” we desire, especially given how our desires are so easily manipulated, or as George Clinton in one of his more perceptive moments (he has had more than a few moments of enormous clarity mated to an ability to pithily verbalize the insights gained from clarity), anyway, what uncle George said was: mind your wants because someone wants your mind.


Someone wants your mind. Why?


Why do we want to control the minds of others?


The Last Poets said, the white man’s got a god complex. Is there an innate human desire to control others? I don’t think so. Instead I think there is an innate human desire to control, how that desire is manifested is the crucial question. Some people want to control others. Some people work really, really hard at self control. Other people focus on controlling things: a juggler practicing at keeping thirteen navel oranges or brown chicken eggs rotating through the air without dropping any of them. Artists honing their craft so they can manipulate their mediums and their instruments in order to produce artistic work that is a striking creation.


Which all, I guess, brings us back to the god complex: the human desire for control can also find outlet as the human desire to create. With our people, this desire tends to morph into spontaneous, artistic expression regardless of what we’re doing. Creating beauty and goodness on the fly, in the moment, with whatever is available. Like Stevie said: you gots to work with what you got.


What did I want to control, want to create? My question, and at one level or another, the question for everyone is: who do I need to become in order to do what I want to do?



The only exception to my overweight years on earth was for about three years during the mid-seventies when my diet and exercise regime was so fierce I looked like a shrunkened me. I remember my mother telling me I had lost enough weight, to stop. I was running five miles a day, a strict vegetarian (including no milk or milk products), routinely working 15 or 16 hours in every 24, plus listening to music and engaging in all kinds of political activity literally all over the world.


My passport picture from then makes me look like a refugee from the Congo who had been a guerilla soldier upcountry in the bush.


My clothes looked like they were hand-me downs from an elder uncle several sizes larger than me.


I had the gawky, elongated stature of a giraffe.



Those of us born on the margins of society, whatever may define our marginality, it could be weight, it could be race, it could be religious beliefs, it could be gender, sexuality, whatever, those of us born on the margins of our society have both a challenge and an opportunity.


For us, the outsiders, the question of self-identity (which is always simultaneously a question of recognizing who we are and deciding who we want to become), for us identity is invariably a choice between assimilation and iconoclasm, either conform to the norm, which by nature we are not, or resist our society’s normative and create our own personal norm. Or as Charlie Mingus accurately called the state of desired existence: myself when I am real.


Like Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Pops, Trane, so forth and so on. To be ourselves invariably for those of us lucky enough to be both born on the margins but reared in a society of plenty, a society that can support its citizens both materially and spiritually (whether the society does or does not do so is another question, I’m saying instead that the society has enough water, enough food, enough open space and green space in both the raw material sense as well as in the intellectual and spiritual sense) plus enough so-called weird people so that there can be a community of weirdoes, a society within which one can strike out on one’s own but at the same time find like-minded individuals, i.e. forge a sub-culture, a movement, a self-identifying group or organization or club or social society.


In New Orleans we have bands of musicians; Mardi Gras Indians; social, aid & pleasure clubs.


My mother belonged to a bridge club (most of the members were school teachers) called the OGG’s. They took to the grave with them the meaning of the initials.


When I was in junior high school we had “the fun club,” a grouping of us who would pool our money and throw a Sunday afternoon party each month rotating like a full moon rising at the houses of our different members.


And, of course, from high school on I had political organizations, beginning in 10th grade with the NAACP Youth Council and reaching its apogee in the seventies and early eighties with our pan-afrikan nationalist organization Ahidiana, which ran an independent school (pre-school thru 4th grade), a book store, a printing press, a performance group (the Essence of LIfe), and over-arching political formations (ranging from an annual black woman’s conference to day-to-day community organizing around social issues, particularly police brutality and related social equality struggles against the status quo).


Later my social activity was a writers workshop, the last and most successful of which was the Nommo Literary Society.


The current and perhaps final of these social formations is Students at the Center, a writing program that functions in the New Orleans public high schools.


Which is where in 2011, well over a decade after I started in the fall of 1997, I daily teach young people on the cusp of adulthood, the time when they are most rebellious, least likely to take directions from an adult elder, and at the same time they are in a position to tremendously benefit from adults honestly sharing life experiences with them as these young people set out on their own self-determined paths.



The trick is to guide by inference, by sharing learned life lessons and experiences, but staying out of the way, a long way out of the way. Not to befriend as much as push and boost. Push them out of their mental nests, pick them up when they fall, and throw them back up in the air, with but one simple instruction: fly.


I once admiringly wrote of the elders who preceded me: they made me strong enough and taught me how to run, but they never told me where to run to.



For we elders, especially we male elders, we must always, always resist the urge to become sharks feeding on our youth, whether it’s basking in their easy applause and adulation, or more sinisterly physically consuming their youth in our own vain effort to hold on to youthful energy, intelligence, beauty.


We adults should be a sanctuary for youth, a safe place where the young can both explore and be themselves, seek and search for the selves they desire to become; experiment; fail and succeed; discover and get reinforcement; we should be foundation, but we can not be them, and we should love them at a distance.


I was lucky to have elder teachers who understood how to love me without seeking to be a peer friend, especially not a friend with benefits. But of course the beauty and innocence of youth is a hard temptation for old people to resist.


It’s hard not to be a shark when there is so much lovely flesh swimming nearby. Even harder not to set up aquariums for personal enjoyment. Not to collect favorite students within the prison of our personal delights.


Seems like life is a constant battle to socially do the right thing, to set a moral example of what a good person is: a human being who respects all other life forms and strives to leave the world better and more beautiful than when we were born.



I am constantly learning, literally. I hear people say the cliché: learn something new every day. But in order to learn we must study, have a hunger to know what we don’t know, and teach what we do. I believe learning is not complete until we teach, either directly or by example.



The walrus reads, studies life. A shark stalks, eats life. We can choose.



I have decided to spend the last years of my life working with young people. That’s how I became a walrus.


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear








I met myself coming around the corner one day, and I almost didn’t recognize me.


We so seldom see ourselves as we actually are. Even in a mirror we often see what we hope to be or what we fear we are, exaggerating both flaws and beauty. But when we see ourselves in the faces of others, then we really see.


Would you know yourself if you saw yourself the way others see you?


Of course, when we are young—or at least when I was first moving beyond my teen years—it never occurred to me that the past had anything deep to do with me personally. My father was from the country. I was from the city. I didn’t really see how his life was shaping my life. One African proverb says you can’t truly judge the man until the man has reared a child. So when can you truly judge the child?


Somehow, in the way most of us in America have been acculturated, I thought of myself as distinct from my parents. I did not consciously know their ideas about life except by inference in terms of what they encouraged and/or discouraged in me, and therefore I was blissfully unaware that much of my own ideas were shaped and influenced, if not outright determined, by the ideas my parents held.


When my mother was battling Hodgkin’s disease, she would have her three sons take turns driving her across the city to the hospital that was located in the next parish to the west of New Orleans. During these long drives for chemotherapy treatment she would talk to each of us, not about anything in particular, but many years later I realized she was consciously spending her last days conversing with her sons.


I’ll never forget how well she knew us, how after hurricane Betsy hit my mother had written a long letter to her youngest sister, my aunt Narvalee who was by then living out in California, a single mother with one child, my first cousin Frieda. My mother was a college graduate and a third grade school teacher. I knew she could write, but she opened her letter saying if she could write like Paul in the bible or like me, Lil Val. Wow, my mother admires me as a writer.


That was in 1965 three years before I joined the Free Southern Theatre and became a professional writer. By 1973 she was dead. If she saw me now, would she still admire me; would I remind her of the young man she loved; or would I be so strangely changed that she would know who I was but not know the me who came to be over the intervening years between now and when she last saw me back in the early seventies? I wish I could see me the way she would see me if she looked at me today, she who knew me before I knew me.


Have you ever had a long talk with someone who knew you well but had not seen you in over ten years? Say, you’re having a quick drink with Gilbert after seeing him at Walgreen’s; he was purchasing a prescription for diabetes medication and you were getting a refill of blood pressure medicine. Gilbert was your best friend from elementary school with whom you used to share lunch. You and Gilbert had even planned and literally started to run away together just for the romanticized adventure of two adolescents exploring the world away from the dictates of parents.


Or maybe you are hugging Eric and laughing with your arm still around his shoulder and he is playfully punching you in the chest the way y’all used to do while playing sandlot football games on the crisp autumns of weekends decades ago, and Eric would laugh at something you said and retort, “boy, you still talking all that shit.”


Or maybe it was Woodrow you encountered.  He was coming out of Picadilly’s, and you were going in planning to meet your wife for dinner. Woodrow was someone you used to laugh with pulling pranks in high school and now, even though he walks with a cane and has only half a head of hair, Woodrow gains your admiration as he tells you about the business venture he’s started. His enthusiasm is contagious as he describes all the wonderful skills and information he’s learning. His eyes are animated as he leans into you, one hand familiarly resting on your right shoulder as he describes the joys of getting into a whole new area and keeping up with thirty-year-old guys who are not even half his age.


Or you see Sandra in some office hallway, she who could outrun a cheetah back in eighth grade. She is still slim and vivacious. She greets you not only with a girlish giggle and bubbly “hello” but waves a well-manicured hand at you while balancing a cup of steaming coffee in her other hand; she’s married and has a beautiful diamond ring that literally shoots off a flashing rainbow of refracted lights as she waves good-bye. Seeing her brisk walk and the swing of her lithe hips makes you self-conscious about all the weight you’ve gained.


I temporarily quieten some of my concerns about who really knows me by insisting people who have not seen me in years can not really know me. The two questions—who knows me and do I know me the way other people know me—take turns as the focus of my mind.  Then I wonder how much of me today is the old me that friends knew decades ago.


The old folks say it’s easy to change your mind but hard to change your ways. Is the way I am today more or less the way I was way back when, and if so where did that constant part of me come from? Was I born the way I am, or are all of us shaped by our interactions with and responses to our nurturing environment?  Over a life time do we remain essentially the same or is it possible to fundamentally transform ourselves?


The things we think about can surprise us. Where did that come from, we ask ourselves while looking around to see if anybody saw us thinking these crazy ideas.


I remember riding a subway in Manhattan. I hallucinated for a minute and thought I saw my mother and father at a train stop, standing close to each other. My old man handsome, with a dimpled smile and a seriousness dripping from his eyes, his dark head held high; my short mother looking up, her eyes shining. He had one hand lightly on her waist, and she was leaning into him, two hands caressing his chest. I had never seen my mother touching my father like that, never thought of them as head-over-heels infatuated with each other. But there they were.


Suddenly I started wondering about what momma and daddy were thinking and feeling, how it was to be young and black in the late forties. How did fighting in two wars affect him: once in the pacific and later in Korea?  Before she died, my mother’s younger sister told me why we used to alternate going by the Robinson’s on Mardi Gras one year and the Robinson’s coming by us the next. Frank Robinson and my father were best friends, and daddy asked Mr. Robinson to look out for mama while daddy was in the war. I wonder now how it was to be a pregnant woman with two small children and her man returning to war after surviving World War II.


I can’t believe how dumb I was to ignore them. How could I be so uninterested in the roots of myself. Even though in my early manhood years I served in Korea on a missile base located on a remote mountaintop, I never really discussed Korea with my father. Like most youth, I was too self absorbed to want to learn anything about my origins or any of me that wasn’t actually embodied in my physical person.


When I was still in elementary school I gave a Frederick Douglass speech and won a prize in a church contest, and later in junior high school, playing Crispus Attucks, I jumped out of a closet—well, actually from behind a curtain—hoisting a sword fashioned from a coat hangar, proclaiming “I’m a proud black man who is willing to fight and die for my freedom.”


I liked that kind of black history but ignored my father’s fight to be hired as a laboratory technician at the Veterans Administration Hospital. He wrote letters all the way to Washington. DC, kept arguing his rights and finally a directive came down to hire him. They did, but they wouldn’t promote him even though he was the best lab tech they had, so good that he was the one training the college interns, some of whom were hired after his training and even promoted because they had a degree while he languished in lower grade positions because he had no sheepskin. I never heard him complain about mistreatment—was I deaf or did he just silently suffer, nobly carrying on despite slights heaped on him?


Now that I’m old as history, now that my teenage years are on page five hundred-and-something in the American history book, the textbook someone had thrown on the floor, in the corner of our classroom; now that what I went through does not seem relevant to what teenagers today are going through; now I want to know my father’s history, I want to embrace my mother’s hardships.


There they were again and again, at each train stop. That must have been me my mother was carrying in two arms, gently bouncing up and down. I had on a funny, green knit hat swallowing my big head. I am the elder of their three sons.  Should I get off and at least walk close to them, hear what they are saying to each other?  Look, my mother is talking to me.  What was she saying? Before I can muster the courage to stand up and go eavesdrop on my parents, the train pulls off. I am strangely more anxious about how I bungled the chance to get to know my parents when they were standing at the last stop than I am curious about what I will see at the next stop.


But the next stop is my stop. I get up and wait at the door as the train jerks to a stop. The door abruptly opens.  People pour in and out of the train simultaneously. As I push through the throng, I look up and down the platform. They are not there. My parents are gone, or more likely, never were here. I feel alone, making my way in the world.


I promise I will never forget my parents as young lovers. I was so fortunate that they were my fate—Inola and Big Val. My mother, a school teacher who never forced me to do homework and who did not even try to dissuade me from taking an F in high school one trimester because I didn’t want to do an assignment a teacher forced on me. My father forcing us to grow food in the city and pick up all the trash on our block to keep it clean but who never once tried to discourage us from picking up the gun in the sixties—that was my brother on the cover of Time magazine brandishing a shotgun during the take over at Cornell University. Big Val and Inola always encouraged us to fight, and they never made us conform to anything.


It is obvious to me now, but I have not always recognized this truth: I can not fully know myself if I don’t intimately know my past, intimately know the forces that shaped and influenced me, the people who gave birth to me, and especially the culture and era within which I lived. My head was spinning as my mental fingers tapped the codes of past experiences into the calculator of my consciousness. I was literally engrossed in my own world.


So there I was coming around the corner thinking all these thoughts, totally unaware that I was about to really peep who I was; suddenly I see someone I grew up with. That person looks old as they hug me, greet me, and playfully say, heyyyy man, long time no see. They enfold me in a long, warm embrace, holding the me they remember. I am struggling to remember their name.


In that moment I see both their obvious joy and also see how much they have changed, how they have aged. I wonder what they are doing, what is their life like, what part of the city they live in, what kind of work they do, all the personal profile sort of information. That’s when I had this weird desire; I wanted to be able to fully embrace myself and know myself the way this old friend thinks they know me, and I was really curious to know myself from the perspective that my parents knew me.


I wanted to know all of me, and that’s the moment when I had a news flash: now that your life is almost over, who are you really?


Am I only who I think I am or am I really the complex summation of all that I have also been in relation to others and in response to the world within which I have lived.


As I walked to my car I had a funny thought: my mind is not me. My mind may in fact be the biggest impediment to me getting to know me. Maybe my mind is the least reliable map of who I have been, a distorting lens when it comes to recognizing the self.


All personal intentions aside, all individual desires sublimated, all intellectual self-reflections and second guesses ignored, is it possible for any of us to truly know ourselves without the help and input of others who know us? Is it possible to move beyond letting our minds judge who we are? Would it be too overwhelming to consider letting the world we live in judge who we are? Can we shed the shackles of our own mind and be both free and fortunate to see ourselves the way others see us? And if that portrait was actually presented to us, would we recognize ourselves? 


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear







Black writers write White. This is inevitable for those of us of the African Diaspora who unavoidably use the language of our historic captivity as though it were our mother tongue when in actually English (Spanish, French, Portuguese or whatever European language) is our father tongue, the language of the alien patriarch who negated our mothers' tongues and mandated we use an other tongue; a white tongue in black mouths.


I believe our music is our mother tongue when it comes to representing the full and most honest spectrum of our thoughts and feelings, our responses and aspirations, our dreams and nightmares concerning who we are and the conditions with which we struggle. At the same time, the father tongue/imposed language is the lingua franca of our daily existence. This mother tongue/father tongue dichotomy represents the articulation of our classic double consciousness. When we make our music, we are our own authorities and our own creators and innovators. When we write the English language, the social authority of the language is vested in the dominant culture.


The language of our dominating step-father is a language that has not only historically degraded us but is also a language which demands conformity to alien values. Moreover, the words of the “King's English” are often incapable of expressing the complexities of our values and realities, especially those values of positive “otherness.” For example, what English words are there that give a positive description for spiritual beliefs outside of the “great religions of the world” (all of which, incidentally, are male-centered, if not outright patriarchal—think of bhudda, krisna, allah and his prophet muhammad, etc. not to mention jehovah and god the father, son and holy ghost)? All of other terms, e.g. animism, ancestor worship, voo-doo, traditional beliefs, all of them have a negative or “less than” connotation.


When we consider the specifics of our history in the Western hemisphere, the negativity is increased in terms of words to describe our reality. There are literally no English words for important segments of our lives. But beyond the negative of our resistance to exploitation and oppression, significant aspects of our existence are “undefined” in standard English, either because similar concepts do not exist or because our concepts are oppositional. In this regard, the Black tendency to coin new words is not just slang, creating words is a necessity if we are to reflect not simply our reality, but also our worldview and our aspirations.


At the same time, Black culture is by nature adoptive and adaptive. We can take anything and make use of it in our own unique way. Thus, the fact that English is a foreign language does not stop us from shaping and literally re-structuring how we use the language to make it work for us. This adaptation of a language we have been forced to adopt is however for the most part an oral activity. When it comes to writing, there is less latitude in the restructuring process. If we wrote the way we talk, few people would be able to read it, sometimes not even the authors, partially because the standards for writing are much more rigidly enforced than the standards for talking, but also because although we can make sounds and use gestures when we talk to give specificity to our utterances, this specificity is lost in the translation to text.


Just as there is no way to accurately notate Black music using standard western notation, there is no way to accurately translate all aspects of Black life into text because, in the words of musician Charles Lloyd, "words don't go there." For technical and/or social reasons, writing the way we speak is then: either impractical, impermissible or just plain impossible.


Yet, this impossible dream—writing Black in a White language—is precisely the task of the Black writer. The limitations of language are merely that: limitations to be overcome. Indeed, although undeniable in their negativity, the limitations of language are actually the least of our problems with writing.




The more we learn about writing, the dumber we get about ourselves.Unless accompanied by a critical consciousness, the formal act of learning to write at the college and graduate level alienates us from the majority of our people. An overwhelming percentage of the examples we are given of great writing inevitably come not only from outside of our cultural realities, many of those examples are often literally apologia for racism, sexism and capitalism (or colonialism). The very process of learning to write well is a process of not simply studying others but indeed a process of adopting the methodologies and values of an alien culture, a culture that has generally been antagonistic to Black existence. As a result, almost by definition, anyone the mainstream considers a good Black writer is either culturally schizophrenic or at the very least ambivalent about the values exhibited by the majority of Black people not only in the United States, but indeed in the whole world.


If any of us spends six or more years intensely studying how to write in an alien language, then, to one degree or another, we can not help but be alienated from our origins if our origins are outside of the culture that we have been taught to master as a writer. One sure indicator of this bi-polar state is the references we use in our work. In general three groupings will stand out: 1. Greek mythology, 2. western canonical writers (Shakespeare to Raymond Carver), and 3. western philosophy (with a notable emphasis on modernity in terms of Freudian psychology, existentialism, and post-modern individualism).


While I do not argue that any of these three groupings are irrelevant to our daily lives—after all we are partially a social product of western culture even as we are marginalized or otherwise shunned by the American mainstream, nevertheless, I do argue that to elevate these cultural references to the major tropes, images and structural devices of our writing implicitly alienates us from those aspects of our own existence that are based on other cultural values and realities.


Indeed, at one level, to engage in intellectual argument via writing reductively requires us to drag into our text words of Latin origin. We can not even restrict our word choice to simple Anglo-origin words, but are forced instead to use multi-syllabic words whose origin is twice removed from our reality. (A quick perusal of the vocabulary used in this essay will illustrate that point.) In any case, the upshot of all of this is that the more we master literacy, the more non-Black our expression becomes because the formal mastery of literacy is synonymous with covert indoctrination in western views and values. This is the dilemma of academic study that all writers of color face.


So profound is this dilemma that many of us who have mastered writing become so alienated from our "native" selves that we are unable to move an audience of working class Black people whether the audience members are reading our books or listening to us recite. How odd then, for example, to be a Black poet with an MFA in creative writing and be unable to rock a Black audience. But then one of the purposes of our education was to teach us to act like and fit in with people who historically achieved their success by excluding and/or oppressing and exploiting us.


Please do not construe this as an argument against MFA writing programs or against studying writing in college. I strongly believe in the value of study both formal and informal. The question is do we go to school to learn how to do what we want to do, ever mindful of the institutional objective, which is to make us like them, or do we go to school to prepare ourselves simply to fit in, to get a good job, to be recognized by the mainstream as a good writer? Or, to put it in other terms (community to student): "we sent you there to bring back some fire, not to become mesmerized by the light show!”


This brings us face to face with a profound fact of the Black literary tradition—almost without exception, those Black writers who have made the greatest contribution to our national literature were either self-taught or were consciously oppositional to the mainstream in both their content as well as in their use of language. Think of a Dunbar despondent that he was never accepted for writing in straight English; other than dialect poems his most lasting contribution are poems such as The Caged Bird Sings and We Wear The Mask, poems which focus on the dilemma of alienation. Think of highly educated W. E. B. DuBois whose great body of work is a veritable arsenal of charges against the west and is a celebration of Black life and resistance to oppression. Think of Langston Hughes, Richard Wight, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka—all of them self taught. Think of Francis Ellen Harper, an activist author; Ida B. Wells, an activist author; Toni Cade Bambara, an activist author; all of them autodidacts.  Or if we want to consider those who were specifically educated as writers think of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, Pultizer prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks, or Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander; all of whom focused their magnificent and often iconoclastic work on the lives and struggles of working class Black people. These and many others are the great writers of our literary tradition.


Just as not one great musical innovator within the realms of blues, jazz, gospel and Black popular music has become a great creator primarily as a result of formal musical education, in a similar vein not one major Black writer who has been college educated has made a profound impact on our literature (or in American literature as a whole for that matter) unless that writer has consciously taken an oppositional stance. This is no accident. Indeed, throughout our history thus far in America, opposition to the mainstream has been a prerequisite of Black greatness in any social/cultural endeavor. Whether this will continue to be the case remains to be seen.


It is too soon to tell whether what is sometimes referred to as the "New Black Renaissance" in Black literature will produce major contributions to the historic continuum of Black literature. While it is true that popular production is at an all time high, as the case of romance writer Frank Yerby demonstrates, there is a big difference between popularity and profundity, between best sellers and classic contributions to the tradition. Frank Yerby dominated the bestseller lists for romance in the fifties, yet his work is hardly read and seldom referred to today. Will many of today's bestsellers be subject to the same popularity vs. profundity syndrome?


Capitalism materially rewards commercial success and, in the process, emphasizes the entertainment values and minimalizes the political values of the work. Art becomes a spectacle and/or product for distribution and sale, rather than a process and/or ritual for community upliftment. Indeed, there are those who argue that that an emphasis on political relevance is an artistic straight jacket. My response is that the diminution, if not total negation, of relevance is a hallmark of commercialism, a philosophy that is best summed up in the adage: everything is for sale. I am not arguing against entertainment. I am arguing for relevance and for the elevation of people before profits, community before commercialism. Or to borrow a phrase from Jamaica's Michael Manley: "We are not for sale."


When the Bible asserts, What profits it a man to win the world and loose his soul?, a fundamental truth is raise. Do we understand that soul is a social concept, that our existence as individuals is directly dependent on social interactions? The writer who is alienated from self, invariably argues for the supremacy of the individual, the right to write and do whatever he or she wants to do without reference to one person's affect on or relationship with others. Whether pushed as good old American, rugged individualism or post-modern self-referentialism, the outcome remains the same: alienation from community and schizophrenia of the personal self.


Unless we consciously deal with the question of alienation, we as writers will find ourselves unconsciously and subconsciously at odds not only within our individual psyches but with our native (i.e. childhood) and ethnic community howsoever that community may be defined. This fundamental fact is not a problem peculiar or exclusive to Black writers, it is a problem for all writers in America. 




Whom we are writing for determines what and how we write. Writing presupposes audience, assumes that the reader can understand or figure out the message or meaning of the text. Some writers write for the approval of other writers, others seek to impress critics, many attempt to capture a popular audience of book buyers. Those are but a few of the many audience segments that influence, if not outright determine, the nature of writing. In ways often transparent to or not consciously acknowledged by the writer, the tastes and interests of the presumed audience actually shape the writing. Choices of subject matter and vocabulary, style and genre are all interconnected to the interpretative abilities and desires of the presumed audience.


The authority of the audience as auditor is particularly important for writers who are peripheral to or marginalized from whatever is the mainstream of the language that the writer uses.


All writing also brings with it a tradition. Over time standards of literacy develop. The writer then may seem to be a Janus-figure: glancing in one direction at the audience and trying to shape the writing to appeal to or at least be understood by the assumed audience, and glancing in the opposite direction trying to match or exceed the prevailing literary standards. For writers of color in the United States the very act of writing alienates us from our native audience most of whom are not readers grounded in the literary traditions of the text's language.


I would argue that the truth is that every writer goes down to the crossroads—and not once or twice in a career, but each and every time we write, whether consciously by choice or de facto as a result of the particular spin we put on the style and contend of what we do. We choose between speaking to the truths of our individual and collective existence or serving mammon by scripting products for the commercial mill. We choose whether to pander to our audiences by concentrating on pleasure and thereby winning applause and popularity, or to prod and push our audiences to recognize the reality of our existence and to struggle to improve and beautify the world within which we live. In this regard, a more important metaphor for the Black writer is Elegba, the trickster Orisha of the crossroads.


In the final analysis, writing is a conversation, and even if we can not tell the pilgrim which way to go, certainly we should tell the pilgrim from whence we have come, what brought us here and what is the nature of the "here" where we now find ourselves. Moreover, the point is not simply the content. The point is also the conversation. Not just what we are saying, but also with whom we are speaking, to whom we are writing.


One of the sad truths of Black writing is that most of us are employed to be guides (some would say pimps) of Blackness. In order to succeed in mainstream terms, serving as a translator of Black life, explaining the exotica (inevitably with an erotic twist) to the non-Black mainstream is almost unavoidable. But who will explain Black life to Black people? Who will break down the whys and wherefores of our daily existence in a language that our mothers and fathers can understand and appreciate, that our children can embrace and learn from?


The question of audience is seldom raised directly in school but is implicitly dictated by the writings suggested as models. When was the last time our people were validated as the authority for our work, not simplistically as the consumers to buy our books or CDs, not duplicitously as the voters to determine a popularity contest, but sincerely as the validators who determine the ultimate relevance and value of our literary work?


I believe the question of audience is a dynamic rather than static question. I believe in audience development. I believe that we must both reach out to our people and we must teach our people, we must embrace our people and we must challenge our people, we must elevate our people and we must critique our people, and ditto for ourselves and our peers. I believe in cycles rather than linear development. I believe in constantly doing one's best rather than achieving perfection by creating a masterpiece or two. There will always be contradictions, but the motion of our work need not be in a negative direction.


Writing is often defined as a lonely profession. I do not believe it has to be that way. Part and parcel of developing audience is developing community—as writers we need to create networks and organizations of support for one another. We need to model audience development and not simply leave it to retailers and investors to market us while pitting one writer against another. In order to know what to write about in terms of defining, defending and developing our communities, we must actively be engaged in defining, defending and developing community. If we can not develop community among our colleagues, how then will we be in a position to realistically inspire and/or instruct our audiences?


The question of audience is the ultimate question in our quest to contribute to the development of a Black literary tradition. I do not believe in racial essentialism nor in racial proscriptions. Just because one is a Black who writes, that does not mean that one's work has to be part and parcel of the Black literary tradition. I believe that Blackness is color, culture and consciousness, and that color is the least important component. Cultural awareness and practice is important, but consciousness—choosing to identify with and work on behalf of Blackness—is the ultimate sine qua non.


Each of us can choose to reject an allegiance to Blackness howsoever “Blackness”  might be defined. We have the right to identify with any one or even with a multiple of human social orders. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Blackness among African Americans is the rejection of Blackness as a defining marker of self-definition! Moreover, I do not denigrate those who choose social options that I reject—everybody has a right to define themselves. However, for those of us who are writers and choose Blackness, I suggest that we have chosen a difficult but exhilarating path. We have chosen to pass on the torch of that old Black magic, a firelight that started the saga of human history, a mighty burning whose bright Blackness continues to stress the sacredness of love, community and sharing.


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear 






I never cared too much about haircuts, I mean about styling my hair. Just cut it off. My younger brother used to brush his hair for hours until waves appeared atop his closely cropped scalp. He used to say he wanted to make the girls seasick just by bowing his head in front of them. I’d smile and laugh silently to myself; he did have a lot of waves, plus he had deep dimples and a charming smile. I on the other hand wore glasses, scowled more than I smiled and was most content when my nose was stuck in a book or I was laying in the backyard contemplating a leaf, oh, except for that summer Geneva—at least I think it was Geneva—was staying with a family that lived on the next street over and our back yards were separated by a small empty lot from the side street and she would come outside sometimes and play in the wading pool the neighbors had in their back yard and she would be in a bathing suit and, why is it young boys freshly moving through puberty have voyeuristic tendencies, anyway I could contemplate a blade of grass for ten or fifteen minutes and not get bored. Who needed to spend hours brushing one’s hair?


Our barber was a friend of the family named Mr. Loomis who ran an unofficial barbershop out of the front room of his home. He had a steady clientele and since most of his customers knew each other and all lived in the isolated part of the city below the Industrial Canal, there was always a jovial atmosphere. People joked, discussed the latest needs, gossiped about the last predicaments of particular individuals—yes, men gossip, except it’s usually in the form of giving advice to the fool who was present about what said fool should have done about so-and-so situation or so-and-so acquaintance.


I walked in the barbershop with my lip stuck out. My father behind me. I’m sure both of my brothers were present but I don’t really remember. What I remember is my father had whipped me and then made me go with him to get my hair cut. The whipping had not dissuaded me. I am generally immune to punishment. If I decide I want to do something or not do something, punishment is not going to be a deterrent. But as determined as I was, my father was even stronger than I. I could deal with his belt but then after the whipping he had the power to direct my behavior.


My father made me walk back out Mr. Loomis’ door and come back in and this time speak to everyone in the room. To this day, regardless of what is happening with me personally, I can carry on with the task at hand. Thanks, daddy.


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear







>>No writer is an island.<< No writer creates alone. Even those who withdraw from human contact -- the Salingers and O'Toole's of literature -- are actually shaped by their social development, or more precisely, in the cases just cited, by their social deficiencies. No matter how technically brilliant such writers may be, unless under-girded by social exchange and observations thereon, their writing will not stand the ultimate test of greatness: is the work relevant across time and across cultures?


In order to achieve both linear (across generations) and lateral (across cultures) greatness, writers must be both immersed in a specific era/culture and conscious of that era's relationship to other eras and other cultures. It is not enough to report on or even analyze the news of the day. The ultimate meanings of human existence transcend the specifics of any given moment.


In practice achieving greatness means moving beyond topicality, requires that we insightfully deal with how and why humans are shaped by social and environmental forces, and deal with how we respond to our specific shaping processes.


>>As writers, our goal is the expert use of words<< to convey ideas and information, emotions and experiences, dreams and visions. On the one hand we must study, and study hard, the development of our craft, but, on the other hand, we must never forget that craft without content is meaningless. Beyond the craft/content argument is the more important question of writing for whom? Who is our audience? Are we connected to others?


An audience is the single greatest determinant of the shape and relevance of one's craft. How is this so? This is so because as writers our whole craft is based on communication and, quiet as it is too often kept, communication requires an audience.


Some of us insist that we write to please no one but ourselves. But does that mean we write for an audience of one? No, it does not. When we write only with ourselves in mind, we are implicitly trying to communicate with the social elements that shaped our being. Indeed, who does not want to be understood by their parents, their children, their siblings and peers? Besides, if we were writing literally only for ourselves as an audience of one, we would have no need to share our writing, no need to publish or recite our writings.


In the contemporary United States, "audience" has been collapsed into the concept of consumers, people who literally buy whatever is marketed. That is ultimately a very cynical approach to determining who is one's audience. To write for and about a specific audience does not necessarily mean writing to sell to that audience. What it does mean is using the culture of the intended audience as the starting point (and hopefully an ending point) for our work.


Writing well in English presupposes that we deal with the history of English-language literature, a significant part of which includes use as a tool in the historic process of colonizing people of color. As able a craftsperson as Ralph Ellison was, craft is not what distinguishes "Invisible Man." Rather, Ellison's insightful handling of an investigation of the anti-humanist effects of exploitation and oppression on those who are victimized by a dominant and dominating society is the significance of that novel.


Ellison, understands at a depth few others have so thoroughly presented in the novel format, that both those who fight against their subjugation and those who are not even conscious of their condition are twisted by social forces. However, Ellison's novel is not merely a political screed because Ellison is more concerned with the range of human responses to social conditions than he is with advocating a specific social order. Moreover, far more than many books that on the surface seem to be more political, Ellison's novel is grounded in the cultural mores, the folklore, of mid-20th century African American life. Invisible Man can not be fully appreciated without an appreciation of Black culture.


A horrible truth is that too many of us are unprepared to write significant literature because we have no real appreciation of our audience as fellow human beings, as cultural creatures. We know neither history nor contemporary conditions. We talk about "keeping it real" but have no factual knowledge of reality. Thus, we glibly bandy generalizations, utter hip clichés as though they were timeless wisdom, and inevitably offer instant snapshots of the social facade as though they were in-depth investigations of the structure and nature of our social reality -- in short, we lie and fantasize.


Moreover, unless we consciously deal with our conditions, we end up replicating our oppression in our literature. When we are poor we write admiringly of being rich -- when we get some money, we write guiltily about poverty. What is this madness? This is the psychology of the oppressed captivated by their own oppression.


If this analysis sounds extreme, run the litmus test of examining works of popular literature and see if this is not the case. Look at the rap videos, notice the lifestyles portrayed. Look at the movies. At some point, we need to be aware that videos, movies, televisions, all of those media employ scripts -- these scripts are our popular literature. The absence and/or low level of craft in popular literature, both in publishing and in electronic, broadcast and video mediums, points to one of our real problems -- many of the people who are scripting for the media, can't or don't write well.


Moreover, I understand that the majority of scriptwriters for Black-oriented projects are not Black writers, however, the lack of Black writers in the dominant and dominating mainstream media underscores rather than invalidates my premise. A major part of our problem has nothing to do with craft and everything to do with consciousness — our consciousness and the consciousness of our fellow humans in the United States of America.


Our daily lives are shaped by our social conditions and the consciousness that emerges from those conditions. A significant percentage of writers who are craft conscious are also writers who are psychologically alienated from their own culture. Indeed, for the person of color, the act of acquiring education and expertise typically is also an act of alienation. It is unfortunately generally true that mainstream training in craft is simultaneously a directive to distance one's self from the culture and consciousness of our Black communities. Explicitly, to become professional means to emulate the other and eschew the Black self, the working class self, and, for women, to an even greater degree than many may realize, becoming a professional also means eschewing the self-actualized female self.


Thus, it is no surprise that once we become professionals, we insist on the right to be seen as autonomous and self-defined individuals who desire to live beyond the restrictions of race, class and/or gender. Indeed, we are often proud as peacocks strutting around glorying in our individuality -- look at the beauty of my butt feathers! We disdain groups, assert that organizations stifle our creativity. Meanwhile, people who are organized control the production and distribution of our creative work.


The status quo system loves those of us who think we can make it as individuals precisely because individuals are dependent on the status quo for life support. When you don't have a community of friends and comrades, you end up going to your enemy for supper and shelter, both literally and metaphorically.


>>The challenge for conscious and self-identified writers is both external and internal.<< External to the individual, we must build community by working with and achieving an understanding of the people with whom we identify. Internally there is the individual quest to develop a craft that reflects and projects our individual feelings and ideas about ourselves as well as about the world we live in. This struggle for social and artistic development is not an abstract concern. In practical terms such development requires that we who identify ourselves as Black writers:


1. Study Black music and Black history.


Music because Black music is our mother tongue -- the language through which the deepest and most honest emotions of our people have been expressed in the rawest and most "unmediated" manner. More than in any other sphere of social activity, African Americans have determined our own musical expressions and have communicated with the world through that form of expression.


History because if you don't know yourself you will inevitably end up betraying yourself.


Is it possible to write without a working knowledge of Black music and history? Of course it is. Is it possible to produce great literature without such knowledge? Probably not, and certainly none that would be considered Black literature. Ultimately, all literature is a product of culture, whether that culture is one's indigenous culture or an adopted culture.


2. Study the craft of writing.


One certainly would not claim to be a carpenter without learning how to build, nor a farmer and be unable to raise crops. Moreover, we also need to tackle the development of our own approaches and the development of a theoretical foundation.


During the Black Arts Movement, this process was called the Black aesthetic -- the development of an aesthetic is still needed. Craft is the concrete manifestation of philosophical aesthetics. If we don't consciously shape our own aesthetics, our craft will invariably and often in a contradictory and conflicted manner reflect someone else's aesthetic, generally the aesthetics of the dominant social order.


3. Join with like-minded colleagues.


We should join writers associations, guilds, organizations, both formal and informal. Workshops are important in one's formative years. As one develops, peer associations become extremely helpful both in terms of career development and in terms of craft development. We literally find out what's going on by being in touch with others. We become inspired and get ideas from interacting with others.


The internet is a major source of community activity for young writers today. There are on-line workshops, resource web sites, informational web sites and specifically, a number of Black oriented literary web sites. A young writer who is not on-line is literally "out of it" -- outside of the ebb and flow of ideas and information. With the advent of public access through libraries, arts organizations, schools, and relatively inexpensive commercial services, there is no excuse for not being on-line.


>>Writing is not just the words on the page.<< Writing is documentation of social praxis. There is both an art and a science to writing, a feeling and a thought.


Not only is no writer an island, it is up to each one of us to develop as social creatures (i.e. men and women) and as professionals. For our ancestors, for our selves, for our children and those yet unborn, let us as writers come together and create a literature that is as persistent and profound as our people who outlived centuries of chattel slavery, segregation and degradation, and who stand now on the verge of creating a new definition of what it means to be a free, proud and productive people.


—kalamu ya salaam

ESSAY: DO RIGHT WOMEN - Black Women, Eroticism and Classic Blues

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 Pearlsauthor 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."

Ma Rainey & Her Georgia Band

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 contend 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. 


Bessie Smith

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-matriachal." 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). Theologian James Cone, a Christian man, had sense enough to sustain 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