People don’t know

How hard it be

To be something

Other than what the system




To be something other

Is a dangerous

Extremely isolating



People will look at you and ask

(in all seriousness)


So what do you do?


And when you say:

I be something else


So few will accept/understand

That something else

Is cool to be


People will fail

To understand how

Being something else

Is an honorable life profession

Especially when we are

Walking through the valley

Of death






Look at this


‘s face



future tomorrow

might bring


which, of course,

in her case will be

partially shaped by the fierce

of her tender spirit


hard shell

soft center

her spirit is


must be strong

to keep from being eaten

by isms/schisms

by enemies of life

enemies of light

enemies who are

afraid of our dark


check this woman

facing us

with music

facing us

with example

with wise words

warm words

soft/strong song

encouraging us

we don’t have to

break down

we don’t have to

be silent

we don’t have to

9 to 5

we don’t have to

back down







Whatever it is

Jhelisa is


Whatever it is

That won’t let her be

Stupid Silent Submissive

While struggling

Within the storm

Of human destruction

Humans destroying humanity

Each other



Whatever it is

That teaches a sister

That encourages a sister

That enables a sister

Whatever it is


I say: Ashe

Jhelisa is






And we are the better

Because Jhelisa is



—kalamu ya salaam


She Said She Looked Forward To Meeting Me, However

(for Patricia Smith after reading her Coltrane love poem for some fortunate fellow named Bruce)



we met when you sent this poem to me / wasn't written for me / but / there it was / in front of me / quivering / just a tease of vibrato / a tremble / like the flesh does / in memory / of really being moved / yes / like that / and to imagine / we'd never touched / never breathed the same room air / just shared a strange love / (well not so strange, really / cause we are from the same / universe / which is different / from the dirt these earthlings cling to) / we are from / the region of music / where / as prez so presciently noted / there is no noise / only melody / & rhythm / all the rhythm we can use / i salute you / sista / we've met / just ain't never touched / before / on this plane / but obviously / in the world / from which we both came / we must have been / at least close cousins / if not twins / or lovers


—kalamu ya salaam


in the custody of love


eat of me, drink

my brilliant eyes

and ecstatic grin

i was traveling the road of normalcy

lost to love when i detoured

deep into your mountains, there

i experienced both eagles and turtles

the savor of wild berries

blazing in my mouth,

i am breathing so hard, so hard

my heart is trying to escape confinement

at certain moments beneath your interrogation

i scream out every secret i know

strip off all my acquired manners

and dive into your eyes

reborn in a fusion of flesh

and sharp emotions rising

like a rainbow in the desert

unbelievable, miraculous

satiating, your wetness

all over my face, i leave you

i'm babbling and

dazed out of my senses

drunk from our sacred feast

dancing down the street

the smell of love all in the air

around me


—kalamu ya salaam


W.E.B. DuBois:

More Man Than Meets The Eye


W.E.B. DuBois was one of the most prescient American intellectuals of the 20th century. We know, honor and respect his achievements and are often awed by the depth, breadth and sheer volume of his work as a scholar, editor, man-of-letters and activist. Certainly his Souls of Black Folk is one of, if not indeed, the most frequently cited book published in America.


DuBois' Souls of Black Folk gave us two definitive and classic concepts: 1. double consciousness and 2. that the problem of the 20th century would be the color line.


There is no other intellectual who can match DuBois in addressing the issues and concerns germane to Black folk in modern America. Indeed, the very weight and wonder of DuBois' work contributes to a romanticizing, and often a misunderstanding, of DuBois the man. The general picture many of us hold of DuBois' personality is that of a proper, indeed almost puritanical, highly educated egg-head who was a bit aloof and even contemptuous of the common, working class African American. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, and partially because of a skewed appreciation of DuBois' talented tenth formulation, we often think of DuBois as a bit of an elitist snob. Nevertheless, a close reading of DuBois reveals a man who enjoyed life and was surprisingly down to earth as well as radical in his personal views. This is the DuBois I respect and admire.


Here are a few aspects of DuBois that offer a fuller view of both the man and his views on life. Debates around sexism and gender politics continue to rage among our people today. How many of us are aware of DuBois' progressive and insightful stance on women's rights.


In his book Darkwater published in 1920, the year before women's sufferage became the law in America, DuBois' essay "The Damnation of Women" offered this radical reading of gender politics:

All womanhood is hampered today because the world on which it is emerging is a world that tries to worship both virgins and mothers and in the end despises motherhood and despoils virgins.

The future woman must have a life work and economic independence. She must have knowledge. She must have the right of motherhood at her own discretion. The present mincing horror at free womanhood must pass if we are ever to be rid of the bestiality of free manhood; not by guarding the weak in weakness do we gain strength, but by making weakness free and strong. [page 953]

Even in the 21st century these remain progressive positions; imagine how radical they were 80 years ago! But then DuBois was always clear that we are engaged in a social struggle and not simply an intellectual quest; education is necessary but not sufficient, we must have action.

We have all heard or read DuBois' famous propaganda quote taken from the October 1926 issue of The Crisis:

Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent. [page 1000]

I would add that DuBois understood that while all art is propaganda, not all propaganda is art. All art carries and proposes ideas and ideals, an ideology and worldview, thus, whether explicit or implicit, overt or covert, there is a propaganda aspect to all art. DuBois was a man who had been educated at Harvard and in Berlin, a refined and well bred intellectual, but he was no advocate of art for art's sake. While it is no surprise that DuBois believed in the power of art and that he favored a partisan art, what we sometimes forget is that this great educator and intellectual was above all an activist who dedicated his life's work to the cause of freedom, justice and equality.

While some choose to emphasis the propaganda element of DuBois' work as a critique, I think DuBois' emphasis on the artist as activist gives us a deeper understanding of the man—for he was no mere mouthpiece for someone else's ideology, here was a man who committed himself to creating the world his words envisioned. DuBois was then a man of praxis and not simply an intellectual who stood apart from the fray of social struggle commenting from the safety and security of the ivory tower.

A third aspect of DuBois that is fascinating is DuBois' views on sex. Listen to DuBois in his February 1924 Crisis review of Jean Toomer's book Cane—and we should remember that when Cane first appeared it was barely noticed and shortly went out of print. Cane's status as a classic required a long gestation period, and yet, DuBois early on understood the gender significance of this innovative work.

The world of black folk will some day arise and point to Jean Toomer as a writer who first dared to emancipate the coloed world form the conventions of sex. It is quite impossible for most Americans to realize how straightlaced and conventional thought is within the Negro World, despite the very unconventional acts of the group. Yet this contradiction is true. And Jean Toomer is the first of our writers to hurl his pen across the very face of our sex conventionality. [page 1209]

But wasn't DuBois "straightlaced and conventional" in his views on sex? There has been a misreading of DuBois. His views on sex when examined closely suggest a serious reevaluation of DuBois and offer us clues to reinterpret and better understand some of DuBois' reactions and positions, specifically with respect to the publication of Fire by the young writers of the Harlem Renaissance and DuBois' often ad hominem quarrels with Marcus Garvey.

Writing in his 1968 autobiography, DuBois candidly notes:

In the midst of my career there burst on me a new and undreamed of aspect of sex. A young man, long my disciple and student, then my co-helper and successor to part of my work, was suddenly arrested for molesting men in public places. I had before that time no conception of homosexuality. I had never understood the tragedy of an Oscar Wilde. I dismissed my co-worker forthwith, and spent heavy days regretting my act. [1122]

Evaluating his own sexuality, DuBois writes:

Indeed the chief blame which I lay on my New England schooling was the inexcusable ignorance of sex which I had when I went south to Fisk at 17. I was precipitated into a region, with loose sex morals among black and white, while I actually did not know the physical difference between men and women. At first my fellows jeered in disbelief and then became sorry and made many offers to guide my abysmal ignorance. This built for me inexcusable and startling temptations. It began to turn one of the most beautiful of earth's experiences into a thing of temptation and horror. I fought and feared amid what should have been a climax of true living. I avoided women about whom anybody gossiped and as I tried to solve the contradiction of virginity and motherhood, I was inevitably faced with the other contradiction of prostitution and adultery. In my hometown sex was deliberately excluded from talk and if possible from thought. In public school there were no sexual indulgences of which I ever heard. We talked of girls, looked at their legs, and there was rare kissing of a most unsatisfactory sort. We teased about sweethearts, but quite innocently. When I went South, my fellow students being much older and reared in a region of loose sexual customs regarded me as liar or freak when I asserted my innocence. I liked girls and sought their company, but my wildest exploits were kissing them.

Then, as teacher in the rural districts of East Tennessee, I was literally raped by the unhappy wife who was my landlady. From that time through my college course at Harvard and my study in Europe, I went through a desperately recurring fight to keep the sex instinct in control. A brief trial with prostitution in Paris affronted my sense of decency. I lived more or less regularly with a shop girl in Berlin, but was ashamed. Then when I returned home to teach, I was faced with the connivance of certain fellow teachers at adultery with their wives. I was literally frightened into marriage before I was able to support a family. I married a girl whose rare beauty and excellent household training from her dead mother attracted and held me. [pages 1119-1120]

Here I find the clue to DuBois' disgust with Wallace Thurman and with the journal Fire. DuBois was no prude about heterosexuality, but instead was, in his early years, intolerant of homosexuality. Furthermore, DuBois' arguments with Garvey were probably colored by the fact that DuBois had engaged in an interracial romance and thus was surely at odds with the Garvey racial essentialist position, much in the same way forty-odd years later, a number of critics were at odds with the Black Arts Movement, their opposition fueled in part by their advocacy and practice of interracial relationships clashing inevitably with the strident rejection of White women that was a sine qua non in the Black Arts Movement.

None of the above noted attributes of DuBois the man are quite as radical, however, as DuBois' stand on religion.

My religious development has been slow and uncertain. I grew up in a liberal Congregational Sunday School and listened once a week to a sermon on doing good as a reasonable duty. Theology played a minor part and our teachers had to face some searching questions. At 17 I was in a missionary college where religious orthodoxy was stressed; but I was more developed to meet it with argument, which I did. My "morals" were sound, even a bit puritanic, but when a hidebound old deacon inveighed against dancing I rebelled. By the time of graduation I was still a "believer" in orthodox religion, but had strong questions which were encouraged at Harvard. In Germany I became a freethinker and when I came to teach at an orthodox Methodist Negro school I was soon regarded with suspicion, especially when I refused to lead the students in public prayer. When I became head of a department at Atlanta, the engagement was held up because again I balked at leading in prayer, but the liberal president let me substitute the Episcopal prayer book on most occasions. Later I improvised prayers on my own. Finally I faced a crisis: I was using Crapsey's Religion and Politics as a Sunday School text. When Crapsey was hauled up for heresy, I refused further to teach Sunday School. When Archdeacon Henry Phillips, my last rector, died, I flatly refused again to join any church or sign any church screed. From my 30th year on I have increasingly regarded the church as an institution which defended such evils as slavery, color caste, exploitation of labor and war. I think the greatest gift of the Soviet Union to modern civilization was the dethronement of the clergy and the refusal to let religion be taught in the public schools.

Religion helped and hindered my artistic sense. I know the old English and German hymns by heart. I loved their music but ignored their silly words with studied inattention. [pages 1124-1125] 


This short passage contains so many iconoclastic concepts that one is forced to completely reassess DuBois' character. Clearly his scholarly stint in Germany (1892-93) was critical to the development of DuBois as an intellectual "free thinker." The Germany connection helps clarify what seems to be a major contradiction. In the Souls of Black Folk, DuBois starts each chapter with a quotation of music. The book also contains the magnificent essay, "The Sorrow Songs." Souls would seem to indicate that DuBois was an ardent Christian, but perhaps it was not Christianity that DuBois was extolling but rather cultural theories exemplified by the German philosopher Herder who asserted that national cultures are based on folk culture. DuBois was celebrating the cultural mores of the folk rather than focusing on the religious specifics of Christianity.

In any case, DuBois the man was not a Christian moralist and haughty social snob. DuBois was a complex and challenging Black man who advocated and struggled for radical change on behalf of his people. DuBois was far more than generally meets the eye when we think of this great intellectual and activist.



*All quotes are from DuBois Writings (The Library of America, 1986).


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Lynda Koolish



—Kalamu ya Salaam


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Let the congregation respond: aché.







Birdland, NYC June 30, 1950

Charlie Parker – alto, w/Fats Navarro (aka “Fat Girl”) - trumpet, Bud Powell - piano, Curly Russell - bass, Art Blakey - drums.


I see no one from the bandstand where I stand I see no one, a little to the side from me next to me but a ways off  Fat Girl giggles silently, shows his famous smile to someone in the audience I do not bother to look at, deep Bud Powell sits astride a piano and waits to slaughter any key I call or do not call any key it is not really a wait because there is no expectation on his part, he is supreme supremely confident and wildly cool, cracks no smile, his eyes half closed do not even let on that he is here, he sits there like he is not here, who is on bass?, I sense Bu ready to blow, Bud starts without asking, without saying, we blow the head, god, Blakey drops bombs better than anybody, no not better than Max but better than anybody else, head time, I will give you something to play Fat Girl, play this play this play this play this and behind my solo play whatever you think.


Now.  How do you, do I, does anyone take a sunset and make it more beautiful, beautiful than the beauty it is in both the now and in the eternity and in the medium of expressing this searched for more beauty that the artist seeks not through thought but through god.


Once you have witnessed a sunset's beauty that beauty will be in you not just the memory but the beauty will be in you as long as you are you, the artist seeks through god.


Thought is being.


God is creating.


Man thinks.


Gods create.


Are we men or gods?  Can we be both or merely one or the other?


Artists are men who aspire to be god so they create work more beautiful than original beauty, more beautiful than the idea of beauty, more beautiful even than the ideal of beauty, more beautiful than a thought of beauty.


Things are ugly.  Things are beautiful.  Things are things.  Ugly and beauty are not things.  The most lasting beauty is that beauty that lasts only as long as it is beautiful and than submerges into the listener's head, damn, Blakey plays beautiful music is the only art that dies the moment it is created and must be constantly created over and over in order to and over to live I need music I need music I music I create I music I music create I need create I need I I need music.


Records.  Tapes.  Are not music they are a representation of music, merely an approximation of what music sounds like when sounded.  Limited approximations.  Very limited.  So limited that everytime you play them they sound exactly the same but music never is exactly the same not music every time it is created especially when it "sounds" the same, our stomachs have different contents even when we listen to records, on some days we play records and don't even hear them on other days we play a record and hear things we never heard before even though we've listened to that record fifty, forty, a hundred, once before, in fact usually the first time we hear it we don't hear anything but our reactions so busy reacting we are paying attention to our reactions that we don't hear what is going on on the record imagine and that is only a reaction to a record so how can we really hear music? we can't, we can watch it with a distant eye, see what it does to us too does to others observe the various parts or we can experience it, submit to it, be a slave to the rhythm become the music rather than the listener to the music rather than merely try listening to what we can't all hear can't hear all of anyway.


Or we men.  We are men can be gods.  What gods do is make men aware of godliness and make men aspire to godliness and create beauty and men aware of beauty if they are really men want to create beauty and show beauty to other men want to be gods too.


To help a person move from someone who is just here occupying space while the sun shines, moon moves, crickets and cars cry in the twilight with yellow beam eyes and warm houses flow and row on row of apartments with radioed music, move from just being, attaining no more consciousness than a rock or grass receiving a dog's golden shower letting everything wash over us and not understanding who what when, why or where because the newspapers are words of men who want to be men and not men who want to be gods, beauty, gods helping persons move to gods ahhhhh.


Art.  Art animates.  Art is the breath of gods, moving, art moves us from witness to participate outside to inside creating pass passive recipient to active conspirator when we look at Picasso's bull's head without seeing the handle bars and the bike's seat we have seen nothing but when we see both the handle bars & the seat as well as the bull's head then we have seen everything for art tells us that it is possible for everything to be everything for the inanimate to become animate or rather for the inanimate to animate within us whatever potential we have to create, god is bull's horn from man's bike handles without man making bull without god making bike handles with both being beautiful, Stravinsky would dig this if he could hear, god, Blakey is beautiful for the blind to see for the unknown to become knowable to know what you did not know you knew for Monk to take three notes three notes three notes you have heard before and before and before and sound completely like something you don't know not by changing the notes but by changing the way those notes are perceived that is what we mean by genius or how to make us see the extraordinary qualities of things, common things extraordinary in common like life how to make life extraordinary.


—kalamu ya salaam

Now.  Fat Girl.  Let's hear what you have to say...




By Kalamu ya Salaam


here is my initial reaction:


>>it is difficult, if not impossible, for me to respond to this play, mainly because i am not interested in responding to racist fantasy. of course, that statement raises the question, what do i mean by "racist!"?


>>from my perspective, this is a play repeating and reinforcing the notion "it's in the blood" and the white supremacist thesis that there is a major bio/psychological species-difference between black and white. this is a play that ignores history to present fantasy. it is a play that offers decontextualized research masquerading as historical fact. it is a play glorifying the white male penis and its desire for the "color struck" mulatto female vagina. it is a play about the "tragic mulatto" who was historically a person created in the main by white male rape and extra-legal liaisons. it is a play about fantasy and sublimated desire, a dangerously well-crafted artwork that is attractive in its production values but repulsive in its meaning. it is ultimately a play about celebrating racist patriarchal power relationships, rather than human relationships.


>>i could go point by point through the play—the assumptions, the mixing of time periods, the ignoring of historical accuracy—but to argue at length only dignifies an object that does not deserve serious scrutiny.


>>towards art for life,


>>kalamu ya salaam<<


the above response is pretty standard political rhetoric, standard in that, like all political rhetoric, what i say is absolute and not relative, is abstract and not concrete, is general and not specific, and, ultimately, addresses what i “think” while avoiding how i feel.


but i decided not to stop with a rigid position, i decided to enter into conversation with myself, to engage, at an emotional level, an issue which is difficult to definitively grasp. i have decided to talk a bit about this: “as a black person who is a heterosexual male, what is my relationship to black women and to white women,” and see where that takes me.


but first a definition. mulatto can specifically mean the child of bi-racial parents (one of whom is black and one of whom is white), or mulatto can generally mean anyone of a mixed racial (again, the emphasis is on black and white) background. i use mulatto in the general sense. mulatto also connotes a person who appears to be closer to “pure” white than to “pure” black. moreover, in america, mulatto is not about whites mixing with other ethnicities, e.g. native american or asian. in the final analysis, when we say mulatto, we are talking about a white-determined, american preoccupation with the intersection of race and sexual desire.


once, when i was in my twenties, an elder woman said to me: i don't know why a man would need to go outside our race to find a woman because we have any kind of woman he might want among us. we were passing a bus stop. we were in new orleans.


the physical variety of skin tones, body types, hair textures, even eye colors among "black" women in the crescent city requires at least a computer monitor that can display 256 colors to even come close to the physical spectrum they represent including blond hair, blue eyes and thin frames. (i know, somebody is about to ask “but if she has blond hair and blue eyes, how can she be black?” well, you see, blackness is color, culture and consciousness; in very important ways, blackness is not simply nor solely a biological absolute but is also and more importantly a collective experience as well as a personal choice.)


my first wife was reared as what some would call a “creole” because of her light skin and the catholic/french-speaking heritage of her family. we had five children whose skin tones range from cinnamon to nutmeg, all of them have thick curly "naps." and they were reared to consider themselves and all of their friends, family members, and acquaintances as black regardless of the shade of skin.


however, unavoidably there have been bumps on that road of intra-racial equality. one daughter remembers her shock when she heard her mother say she wished her children had been darker. the shock was because my daughter never thought of herself as light-skinned and was taken aback that a lighter-skinned mother thought her darker-skinned daughter was "light" or at least "lighter" than the mother had wanted the daughter to be. later in brasil that same daughter is told that she is a “mulatto” and there is a double shock.


i have fought against reducing the human spectrum to absolute biological colors and defining individuals by their biology but, just like my daughter, i too have been affected by the race-based ideologies of this society. only as i have grown older have i realized that much of what i thought was just my personal taste as a young man was in fact an unconscious adoption of prescribed notions; race-based notions that “black is beautiful” inverted but did not deeply and thoroughly address, for beauty like biology tends toward diversity rather than absolutes.


although i have had dark-skinned lovers, the truth is that the majority of my lovers have been my skin color (which is dark brown) or lighter. this fact forces me to ask, is the female mulatto intrinsically more attractive than either the white woman or the black woman?


based on what i have witnessed in my life i say, yes, “mulatto” women have proven to be more attractive to men than have been dark-skinned women; moreover, judging mulattos more attractive than dark-skinned blacks is generally the rule for both black men and white men (even a casual perusal of rap and pop videos will support this conclusion—ironically, you will probably find more dark skinned women in pop videos than in rap videos). this preference is a socially induced preference, the result of being reared in a racist society that unceasingly prioritizes the male consumption of both a euro-centric definition of physical beauty and a male-dominant definition of female sexuality.


within a racist society, the female mulatto represents the highest taboo. she is usually envisioned, to one degree or another, as having the looks of the white woman and the sexuality of the black woman. but racism also splits sexuality into the too often mutually exclusive duality of procreation and pleasure. it is easy to see how a racist dichotomy could lead to white procreation and black pleasure.


the assumption of the play is that the mulatto woman is the object of desire, but the american truth is that the mulatto woman exists because of white male attraction to black women, not to mulatto women, not to women who look white, but to black women. black women. black. women.


as to the inverse, i.e. are black women fixated on white men? i don't think that is true in america. indeed my experience has been that while a brother might be proudly defiant or defiantly proud of his “snaring” a white woman, black women who are with white men tend to pursue their lives quietly, almost apologetically. part of the reason is that in this society women have been reared to please others, not to offend others, especially family and friends. part of it is that both the reality and the mythology of white male rape of black women is so painful, so long standing, and yes so real, that a black woman who chooses to be with a white man seems (at least at first glance on the sociological surface) to be a traitor to her own history and to her people's history.


so while we might have the same result, i.e. an interracial union, the dynamics are very, very different depending on the "color" of the male and the "color" of the female in such a union. i don't believe the play addressed any of those dynamics even though ostensibly the psychology of the creole is a major plot element.


while color continues to be a major divide between the races and a major psychological issue within the psyches of many black people, inter-racial sexual relations is all a very tiresome and ultimately wasteful concern, especially when divorced from class and gender issues.


interestingly enough, even though i am speaking as a black man, as far as the play was concerned, i did not exist. the non-creole black man literally plays no role in this production while the creole male was merely a foil to be ignored or, when he got in the way, eliminated. for as long as i, the black male, am not thwarting the actions of white men, and as long as i am not running around raping and killing white women (à la o.j.) i am acceptable (à la the o.j. of the glory days). there is a reason that othello remains relevant to this society.


although “marie christine” is male-centered, this play is not about black men and the views of black men, whether well balance or deranged. regardless of it’s other themes, this play is specifically about the color fetish of white male sexual desire. one would think that by now, this concern would have been worked through, but not so. even after close to five hundred years of white male-dominant contact, their mulatto fetish does not seem to be diminishing. so what's up with this need to consume women of color (check the liquor, cigarette and fashion advertisements, not to mention tanning and lip enlargements)?


to be clear, i am not saying every white male wants a black woman. i am saying that a major fetish in the arsenal of american sexual desire/fantasy is the sexual consumption and/or domination of a black woman. that is a norm that may be completely absent in some white men and totally present in others, but to one degree or another is a part of most men’s sexual fantasies.


moreover, the dominant influence of male sexuality in determining and/or shaping mores and behavior in this society is much larger than most of us are generally willing to admit. for example, white women are constantly dealing with questions of sexual adequacy vis-à-vis black women, hence the seldom discussed rift between heterosexual black women and white women on gender issues, a rift acknowledged but not explored in the play.


suffice it to point out that, unavoidably, there is a major tension around physical attractiveness whenever white women perceive themselves to be competing with black women. although color complicates the attractiveness issue, ultimately, in this patriarchal society, the question of women making themselves sexually attractive is driven by a socially perceived need for male protection and support even when there is no actual need for that protection or support, in other words, the female is “encouraged” to feign a submissive posture in order to attract the desired male.


thus, the bedroom becomes the most complicated room in the house. the social emphasis on sex is complicated by the moral emphasis on monogamy and the racial emphasis on purity. given that this is a male-dominated society, sorting through all of this is both complicated and easy. complicated if one chooses to avoid discussing the intricacies and intersections of color, class and gender, easy if one acknowledges the brutal fact driving and dominating american social interactions: the white male’s insistence on sexual conquest.


i'm simply saying men like to copulate (i would say "fuck" but given mainstream tastes, the use of an euphemism is preferred if not outright required in public discourse. moreover, the need for euphemisms reflects the american inability to admit sociological realities, but that's another discussion for another time. why else would viagra... need i say more?).


but let's get back to the issue at hand: racist obsession with black female flesh. i think white men want it both ways. they want to have the bread of propagating the white race, hence a "white wife," and they want to feast on the cake of black sensuality, hence a black or "mulatto" concubine, kept woman, or prostitute.


on the other hand, without “white wives,” the white race would, in a matter of a few generations, blend into the general colored populations of the world. from a racist position, that would amount to racial suicide. or, to flip the script: as i joke with fellow blacks whenever someone expresses a deep distaste for interracial unions, i ask, what would you rather see, white babies or mulatto babies?


i'm sure to most whites that is a shocking statement, but it's a factual statement. white people can not spread out all around the world, have human interaction with all the peoples of the world, and remain "pure white" unless they enforce a racist system that values white purity over racial diversity. my position is that i support racial diversity over the essentialism of so-called purity whether white or black, indeed, realistically what other position could i hold given that the overwhelming majority of african americans are of mixed heritage?


the natural result of human intercourse unfettered by racist ideology is diversity. indeed, race mixing has been and will continue to be the inevitable result of multi-racial societies in modern times, racially supremacist ideologies notwithstanding. yes, even under the most racist system, if the system is also patriarchal, you can bet that there will also be race mixing, because by definition, within a patriarchal system to be a man is to be able to consume any and all women.


if american history proves nothing else, it proves that white men are going to be white men and that there will continue to be a fascination among them about black women, and this sexual fetish will manifest itself, consciously or subconsciously, in the artwork of this country, especially that artwork which reflects the dominant ideologies regardless of the particular ideology, gender or race of the artist unless that artist consciously, honestly, and fearlessly decides to confront just what it means to write yet another play about a tragic mulatto.


Kalamu ya Salaam is a 1999 literature senior fellow at the fine arts work center in provincetown (massachusetts) and founder/director of nommo literary society, a black writers workshop in new orleans. salaam can be reached at kalamu@aol.com.





the essay above was commissioned by the lincoln center to appear in their theatre program guide. it did not appear.


when i was first asked about writing the essay, i asked: are you sure you want me to write for you? the editor assured me that she knew my work and did indeed want my participation. true to her word, once i turned in the essay, the early stages went remarkably well. the editing process was straightforward and helpful. everything seemed to be everything.


then, while i was in residence at the fine arts work center, less than two weeks before the issue was to go to press, i received a call from the editor's boss. seems the galley copy was circulated to the cast of the play, and… well, here's the relevant text from the formal letter i received about the decision not to print the essay:


>>Dear Kalamu,


Josselyn indicated that you'd like us to write to you as a follow up to our phone conversation of two weeks ago. I'm happy to do so.


We decided not to run your article "A Rambling Response to the Play "Marie Christine"" because the artists of the play felt your preface to the article would hurt the perception of the show. As you know, we inquired whether we could run the main body of your article alone, and when you declined, we decided not to run the piece at all.


I'm sorry this worked out this way, since we all liked the body of the article very much.




Anne Cattaneo

Executive Editor<<


she's right, it was my call to say run the whole thing or don't run it at all. publication in new york never hurts, especially if the publication is from lincoln center. moreover, offending editors is a risky proposition; as huge as new york may be, the publishing circles are really not that large. it didn't take me long to reach the decision i did, and so here we are, another failed attempt to bridge the gap.


on the one hand i fully understand that publishing the above essay in the official program would have been daff—if i were them, i certainly would not have done it, but then again, i certainly would not have been producing that play either!


i know there are many other black writers who would have been tickled to write a non-offensive essay for lincoln center. however, my position is simple: i'm not the one.


to me, the play was offensive, and to respond politely and inoffensively to such a play just is not an option. ultimately, what liberal america wants is to be integrated and at the same time continue perpetuating their fantasies. i don't know who called the final shots. i don't know who strongly objected to my article, but i do know, i sleep well at night. i do know they are clear that there is at least one intelligent black person who finds their play offensive and is willing to tell them so in a forthright and unambiguous manner.


none of this is life or death serious, and in the grand scheme of my career and the careers of the cast, crew and creators of the play, this little incident is but a minor skirmish. nonetheless, this was, in my opinion, a battle that had to be fought.


some of us are not glad just to be accepted into the mainstream. some of us are not for sale. and we will speak up, even if the "we" is just one writer refusing to co-sign patriarchal fantasies about mulatto sex.


in the final analysis, it is these quiet battles, the ones outside of the limelight, the ones that others may never even know happen, it is these principled engagements that will determine how far we have come and how far we have yet to go before we can honestly dialogue across the racial divide without biting our tongues or censoring our thoughts.


a luta continua (the struggle continues)…




photo by Alexandra Lear Jones



By Kalamu ya Salaam


            This topic requires us to ask a question first, not just the obvious question of “What is an African centered education”, but what is required is posing the even more profound question: “an African centered education for whom and for what purpose?”

            I do not presuppose that a hypothetical African centered education is in and of itself of major value unless we know whom and what we are speaking about as both the subjects and the objects of that education, and unless we are clear on what is the purpose of such an education. My contention is that audience and purpose are the two least discussed sides of the African education triangle, whose third side is the content or curriculum of African centered education. Except for a brief comment at the end, I will focus my presentation on the questions of identity and goals.


            The dominant society Euro-centric educational modality presupposes that their education system is good for everyone, and if not good for everyone in the abstract, is de facto required of everyone over whom they have dominion, which is a large percentage of the world. Second, the dominant society presupposes that their education is a requirement of civilization. Unfortunately, many of us who reject Euro-centric educational information, often adopt Euro-centric educational methods and philosophy. We presuppose that audience is not a major question and that a dominating intent is a given.

            In addition to defining African centered education in terms of philosophy and curriculum, when we address this issue of African education it seems to me to be important for us to also clarify who the “we” of African education is and what is our purpose in obtaining an African centered education. Answering those two concerns, i.e. the identity of the audience and the intended goal of achieving education, will enable us to realistically define “African centered education” grounded in the context of functionality rather than abstracted into the context of rhetoric and fantasy.



            Let us first, then, consider the question of the identity of our audience, which, of course, presupposes, that we identify ourselves. First of all, my concern for Africa is defined by Africa the people and not simply Africa the land. Wherever we are and whatever we do, taken in its totality, that defines what Africa is.

            Our ancient civilizations are important but they are not the sole criterion. Indeed, to the degree that our traditional life did not enable us to withstand the blows of the empire, to the degree that our traditional gods did not enable us to reject the missionary impulses or at the very least incorporate the new god into our beliefs rather than having the new god dictate the rejection of our traditions, to the degree that our traditional values and beliefs collaborated with the European invaders, to that same degree I suggest there are African traditions which, at best, need to be modified and, perhaps, even ought to be discarded.

            My first position is that I celebrate people and my second position is that I am critical not just of my historic enemies but also I am, and indeed must be, self critical.

            I do not buy the myth of race, the myth of racial universality, the myth of dualism, i.e. a thing, a person, an action is ipso facto either good or bad, and is not subject to transformation nor contextulization. I believe in the traditional African dialectic which recognizes that everything is contextual and all things are capable of transformation.

            Moreover, I believe, nationalism as currently practiced is not only a dead end in terms of social development, I believe nationalism as currently practiced is ultimately a socially negative philosophy that inevitably invites the demarcation of territory and the raising of the flag of individual ownership of the earth.

            There are no African countries in Africa. Each one of those countries are European defined entities which, at best, are administered by Africans, and usually Africans who are European educated. In fact, the concept of Africa as we speak of it, is itself a European concept, a bundling together of various peoples and beliefs under a racist label to facilitate colonialism. There will be no true African nationalism until the nation states of Africa are redesigned to facilitate the development of African people rather than maintained as a leftover form of colonial domination, forms which were established to serve the interest of English, French, Portuguese, and to a lesser extent German and Belgium colonizers.

            So I suppose, now is as good a time as any to deal with the question of what do we mean by African. What is an African? Is this a racial definition? Is this a cultural definition? Is this a political definition based on historical relations of the last five or six hundred years?

            Obviously, whether we want to or not, we must confront this issue of self definition head on. For example, are mulattos, i.e. mixed blood Africans, any less African than those who are unmixed? Be careful how you answer, because it is not our way to exclude. If we look around the room it is obvious that we African Americans are a mulatto people -- not by choice in most instances, but regardless we are mixed. Does that make us as a mulatto people any less African than continental Africans?

            The first task of an African centered education is to help us define what being African is. I believe that Africans, and all other people, are defined by color, culture and consciousness.

            Color is a racial definition, race in the sense of breeding population, a group of people with common genetic roots. I also believe that rather than create sub-categories, and sub-categories, and breakdowns to the point of absurdity such as quadroons, octoroons, etc., we should acknowledge quite simply a normative standard. For me, African is inclusive. One can racially claim Africa if some (although not necessarily all) of one’s ancestors are racially African and if one chooses to continue that racial identity. My qualifying “and” quite simply recognizes that if a single person who is racially African decides to dissolve him or herself into another group, be they Asian or European, then, over generations, the individual’s Africaness will cease to be an issue. In fact, my caveat is that color is not an individual definition but is a group and generational definition.

            Culture is a way of life, again defined by normative or group standards. The culture one exhibits is the culture that defines the person. We can learn, understand, and relate to many different cultures, but in the final analysis it is our social living which determines which culture we are. Most human beings are born into a culture, but it is also possible to adopt a culture, and over generations become native to the adopted culture.

            Consciousness is the critical element, particularly in the context of liberation. We must be aware of our people and culture, accept our people and culture, and immerse ourselves in our people and culture. Awareness means more than simple experiencing. Indeed one can witness and not understand, just as one can understand without being a witness. The best is to both witness, i.e. experience, and to understand, i.e. critically reflect on the culture. Given the reality of colonialism and neo-colonialism, it is impossible to be African in the modern world without being socially conscious of what it means to be African, what racism means, what colonialism means. To be African is to be self-reflective.

            Thus I define African in terms of color, culture and consciousness.


            African Identification Within The Context of the United States.

            I believe that there are three major categories of social identification for African Americans in the context of the United States in the last quarter of the 20th century. First there is the question of race, and more precisely, the question of racism. Racism has undeniably affected every area of our lives, and to the degree that an education does not address or avoids addressing the reality and effects of racism, to that same degree such an education risks being irrelevant, regardless of its nomenclature or subject matter. So then in a modern context, an African centered education will analyze and offer methods of coping with, if not out and out destroying, racism.

            Second there is the question of class stratification and class identification. Class stratification refers to a person or group’s economic identity vis-a-vis the economic or productive forces of that society. It is not simply a question of income. It is also a question of where one fits in relation to maintaining the economic status quo. A professional, a public school teacher or corporate secretary, may make a smaller hourly wage than a carpenter, but the professional has had to undergo specific social training in addition to skill development.

            The professional is expected to be more “civilized,” more “mannered” than the laborer. What does that mean? It means quite simply that part of being a professional is identifying with and adopting the social values of the dominant society. Indeed, the professional is responsible for propagating those values. In many ways the professionals are priests of the status quo. So then when we talk about a class analysis, income alone can be misleading. We should make an analysis of the relationship to and function on behalf of the economic status quo. An African centered education must attack capitalism, the economic philosophy which elevates the bottom line (or material acquisition) as the measure of social development rather than social relations within a society as the measure of social development.

            Third is the question of gender relations. I believe that the establishment of the patriarchy, i.e. male domination of women, was the first battle waged by Europeans in their attempt to colonize the world. Indeed, their whole mythology begins with overthrowing the matriarchy wherever it existed. Greek legends of the gods, Zeus raping Europa, or giving birth to a female god sprung from his forehead, are all nothing more than mythological rationalizations of patriarchal domination.

            Christianity and Islam continue this trend introduced by the Greeks. Christianity goes so far as to propagate the myth that a man is a “mother”, specifically that Adam, a man, through the intercession of god, gave birth to Eve, a woman. Furthermore, most classical Christian theology does not recognize women as fit to act as intermediaries to and representatives of god. Islam’s virulent strain of misogyny is even more oppressive. This question of gender relations also raises the issue of heterosexism in the form of violence against homosexuals for no other reason than homosexuals are different and not like normal people. An African centered education would elevate matriarchy and attack patriarchy.

            Although anyone of these three strains could be explored at some length, that is not the focus under consideration here. I simply wanted to identify, the three major lines of social demarcation in the contemporary context.

            Before moving on, I do think it important to point out, that one can be anti-racist but be capitalist and sexist, or could be anti-capitalist and be racist and sexist. I am saying that a progressive position on one side of the triangle, does not guarantee a progressive position on the other sides -- and, yes, I am defining as progressive, ideological and social struggle around anti-sexism and opposition to heterosexism, particularly opposition to so-called homophobia.



            Finally, on this question of relevance, my basic contention is that in order for an African centered education to be meaningful it needs to be focused on development, meeting the needs of the working class masses of our people, both the employed and the unemployed, rather than focus on the career development of African American professionals, particularly those professionals whose day to day work is within the context of predominately, dominant culture, educational and business institutions. Moreover, African centered education should definitively be opposed to the development of a Black bourgeoisie, a Black class of owners who profit off the exploitation of the African masses.

            If an African centered education does not specifically address itself to the needs of our people then it has failed to be relevant to the struggle although it may have great relevance to individuals in their quest for tenure, for promotions, and for political office. As Sonia Sanchez so eloquently noted a number of years ago in evaluating a position put forth by some well meaning brothers, we should respond to all advocates of ungrounded and non-contemporary Afrocentricity with this phrase: “Uh-huh, but how does that free us!”

            How does that free us is precisely the question to ask -- especially when we are clear on who “us” is. I am not interested in joining any atavistic, nostalgic society that knows more about what happen four thousand years ago, four thousand miles away than it does about what happened forty years ago within a four mile radius of where we meet today. The purpose of calling on our ancestors is to sustain life in the present and insure life in the future, and not simply nor solely to glorify the past.

            Our people have very real needs today. We are faced with very real problems. For instance, as quiet as its kept, African American women are quickly becoming the number one victim of AIDS. This coupled with the dramatic rise in breast cancer deaths among African American women suggests a fundamental area of struggle far more important than arguing whether Alice Walker is dipping her nose in other people’s business in her crusade against female sexual mutilation.

            At the same time, I must note, that quite clearly, a contemporarily grounded African centered education would not only support the struggle against female sexual mutilation, it would also offer an analysis of that phenomenon and point out that sexual mutilation is strongest in those area of Africa where Islam is the strongest. Part of what we are witnessing is the brutalness of male domination of women, regardless of the fact that, on the surface it may seem like, women are willingly participating. We African Americans surely can understand self collaboration in oppression, we who have a long and regrettable history of house negroism.

            I reiterate the need to be self critical and the need to be grounded in the lives of our people. Far too many Afrocentrics are petit bourgeoisie professionals who are based at predominately Eurocentric educational institutions. Far too much of the focus of contemporary Afrocentrism is on the long ago and far away. Where is the community base? Where is the focus on the needs of the community? To a certain extent, much of what we see in some narrow Afrocentric theorists is an attempt to compensate for years spent suffering under the constant and withering intellectual onslaught of formal education teaching Black professionals that Black people are intellectually inferior. After one has invested so many years in academe, one sometimes spends an equally inordinate amount of time researching to prove to Whites that Black people are not only as smart as Whites, but indeed that we were the world’s first smart people. “Uh huh, but how does that free us?”

            The issue is not about proving anything to Whites. The issue is meeting the needs of our people, being grounded in our people. Furthermore the inordinate amount of energy devoted to the study, praising and admiration of African kings and pharaohs displays a serious sense of inadequacy and disdain for the common woman and man. What difference does it make to me how smart the leader was if the majority of the people are kept in ignorance? I don’t care what the priests knew about life, what did Ayo and Kwaku know, what did Bertha and Joe know? I don’t care how intelligent and spiritually refined the royal order was, what were the conditions, relative level of educational achievement and qualitative life of the people who were like you and I? Tell me about the lives of the masses, what we didn’t, what we did. Let us learn from our mistakes and build on our achievements in the context of building serious social relationships among ordinary people rather than this almost mystical interest in kings and things.

            I agree with Amilcar Cabral that the focus of the African professional ought to be to commit class suicide. Rather than identify with the dominant society via a focus on developing professional skills for the purpose of being a more productive professional or for self aggrandizement, professionals ought to focus their skills on the uplift and development of the African American working class (whether actively employed or unemployed). This is what DuBois had in mind as a mission for the so-called “talented tenth.” Today, too many who would qualify as talented tenthers on the basis of education have deserted the mission, and it was the mission, and not the level of educational attainment, which defined the talented tenth in DuBois’ perspective.

            Mission fulfillment is not a question to be taken lightly, because it is no small nor straight forward task to work in the interest of one’s people if most of the work opportunities are controlled by our oppressors and exploiters, and if the remuneration, both monetarily and socially, are so meager when one works in a predominately and/or all Black setting, that one is not able to sustain one’s self. We are faced with the task not only of waging political struggle but also we must engage in the very real struggle of economic support for one’s self and for those whom one has the responsibility of sheltering, rearing, or otherwise nurturing, not to mention economic support of the struggle itself. There is a subjective reality of survival involved in committing class suicide. But greater than the subjective question of individual survival is the objective question of group direction.

            The upliftment of the masses does not mean that our task is to turn our brothers and sisters into “junior Europeans” (to quote Kgositsile). The upliftment of our people does not mean that we are trying to civilize anyone, or to teach them how to wear business suits and ties, or to show them how to pay taxes and speak properly. In fact it means quite the opposite. The upliftment of our people means securing and returning to the hands of our people the power to define and determine our own lives. Upliftment quite simply means to end outside domination and exploitation, and to reintroduce our people as the subjects, the makers and shapers of their own destiny.

            In order to fulfill this mission, the petit bourgeois, the professionals, the educated, will have to physically and psychologically reintegrate themselves into the day to day life of the people who they hope to uplift. They will have to speak to and with working people about an expanded sense of the world and our ability to actively participate in building the future. Additionally, they will also have to listen to and respond to the concerns, aspirations and ideas of the working people. In short they will have to be organizers who both bring information and skills to serve our people as well as receive sustenance and inspiration to keep on developing. In short we are talking about the particular (the professional) and the general (the people) engaged in a dialectic of self-development and self-empowerment that neglects neither and enriches both —properly speaking a European language is not a prerequisite of this process.

            I hope that these observations with regards to goals and identity vis-a-vis African centered education make a contribution to the ongoing discussion and struggle to achieve peace and liberation for people of African descent wherever in the world we are today! In closing, please allow me this one additional observation.

            African American cultural expression, particularly African American music, on a world level is the single most influential force in contemporary African life. Moreover, among African Americans, our music is also the most expressive language of our community. The emotions, thinking, and soul of our people are expressed through our music. Indeed, before our writers and other intellectuals are able to articulate our realities, the essentials of that reality have been expressed in the music. Assuming that this assessment of our music is true, the question must be asked: how come many of us Black intellectuals can’t or choose not to sing, dance or perform our music? How come we don’t write about our music, do serious studies of our music which are detailed and insightful rather than non-serious miscellaneous general platitudes? If our music is so important how is it that in practice we devote so little attention to the study, documentation and propagation of Great Black Music? How come we don’t advocate the economic control of our music in terms of our own actual participation in the dollar and labor investment in the development of recording companies, distribution companies, production companies, and critical journals? If we are truly African centered, beyond listening to watered down versions of our music on the radio and owning five or six records, how come our personal libraries are so lacking in recordings, not to mention books on and about, our music? How come we are becoming experts on and conversant in Egyptian hieroglyphics but can’t tell the different between the sound of Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker, not to mention have never actually listened to Robert Johnson or Rev. Gary Brown? How come we ignore our music? Could it be that we are not as African in the day to day expression and understanding of our culture as we talk and dress like we are?

            That’s just a little something to think about. I encourage questions and dialogue both now and after this particular session. I encourage sharp criticism of the system and sharp self criticism. I end with this poem.


There Is Nothing Inexact About Misty

(For Erroll Garner)


saints transform the world with the insistent

art of their actions


anviling the mundane inertia of america

into an ephemeral spiritual sublimity


unclogged by bathetic sentimentality but

nonetheless full of feeling, after all


which is more important: rocket science or creative

music emoting the ethos of its era?


far more valuable than scientific esoteria

is the subtle articulation of sensitive souls in motion


nakedly singing world witness, propelling

us to dare transformation into what does not now exist


to demystify technology, be unintimidated by history

& as adventurous as a kitten up a tree, look at


the lyrical possibilities of your life,

if you are brave and disciplined enough


to openly express your total self

secure in the primal knowledge that


no matter how high

you go or don’t, ultimately


all life is really

about is how deep you are



Fireman's Ball

By Kalamu ya Salaam

glistening in the heated night glow

yr arced torso radiates


the sculpted bronze intensity

of an earth toned ewe passion mask


yr hypnotic breasts

are brown mesmerizing eyes, yr nipples


dilated pupils aroused into

elongated surprise


yr navel a heavy




with every sharp breath


& listen

that dark forest, yr sideways mouth


silently chants the sacred syllables

of my secret name


as i plunge into the discovery

of its musky depths


unable to stand

i joyously recline


jumping in the happy immolation

of yr explosive flame





Kalamu ya Salaam – vocals


Stephan Richter – bass clarinet


Wolfi Schlick – tenor & reeds


Frank Bruckner – guitar


Roland HH Biswurm - drums




Recorded: May 31, 1998 – Munich, Germany



(a poem for chilean/spanish/sister comrade

Beatriz Allende, whose death

12 Oct. 77 has been classified

as a suicide) 



8 Oct. 1967


bullets in him

the doctor is dead


Che Guevara is dead

is dead


they said

"raise his head,

cut his hands,

let the whole world watch"


11 Sept. 1973

the poor are pushed back into their "places"

the proletarian palace is pulverized

the bespectacled physician/president

    with the incongruous hard had on

    is finally finished off, at last

chile is cold again, again a safe

haven for pullers of fingernails

and militant mutilators of genitals,

of generations


pentagon generals politely applaud

wall street winks, sighs

deep in IT&T

a brief missive settles

"START. Business as Usual.



5 Oct. 1974

the news probably came

glaring over a short wave

dressed in nothing

but the brutal bottom line


the much sought

finally caught

terrorist "revolutionary"

Miguel Enriquez,

Secretary General of the

Movement of the Revolutionary Left

(MIR) the outlawed and

banned communist group

has been shot

dead in Chile






11 Oct. 1977


looking back in stoney silence

Beatriz does not turn


a woman

surveys the casulties

entombed in her mind:


is this maddening life-extinguishing

exile what I was reserved to

be a showpiece of a rusted revolution

a woman who vainly waits, keeping female

faith in a stone that's gone to dust like

our male seed scattered

revolutionary cemeteries have created

an incredible metamorphosis

I too have become a man

or what you mean when you

say "man," have already

done all that our men do

except die -- I am dying,

but I have not died yet

but, yes, like all the others

I'll gladly drink my bitter cup

spare me nothing


a woman?

yes/no, a mother, a

physician, a lover, a

revolutionary, a

flesh, a mind, a

feeling, a deed, I

don't mind dying

if that's what it takes

to continue, Che continued

Allende my sire,

Miguel my guide, and

now, and now I


outside somewhere someone is waiting

for me to speak, it's rally time again

bring out the bereaved widow

of socialism, not I any longer,

not I, now


it's my turn to continue

I must continue on

and meet this end


—kalamu ya salaam