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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



—kalamu ya salaam


Janis Joplin/poor white-refuse

refugee running for cover of rock,


like a baby with an hereditary

birth defect, i didn't ask

for this white skin privilege;

this maximum security

with guards everywhere

and the wall so far off

so high, so hard to scale

minefields of twinkling consumables

studding the distance between

me and the rest of humanity,

a spiraling bob of drugs at the top


and i ain't asking for no

mercy neither, no pity, none

of yall tears, anyway,

i'm going to kill myself

or at least die trying


they say i'm so wild

cause all what i need is a man,

a real man, a hard on

but like once a man was in me

and said "god, you so ugly

i can't look" but so what

is his opinion anyway but

a thirty second commercial

he thinks he's a man

he thinks niggers stink

he thinks i'm a piece of meat

he's my father, my brother

and this is no gentle incest

nor any human touch


so i will do these insane acts

i will sing in the night

say what i want

drink and be driven crazy

put a tombstone

and real flowers on

a black woman's grave

and have no regrets, no



—kalamu ya salaam





By Kalamu ya Salaam


Popular literature is about topical issues. Serious literature is about ideas and mythology (i.e. explanations and beliefs that explain the how and why of one's humanity). Pop ages poorly precisely because it is about the here and now. Serious writing is often not fully appreciated until years after it's appearance.


In the realm of novels, most Black novelists have been relegated to the realm of pop/topicality. Richard Wright and James Baldwin are considered the apogee of the issues approach, and resultantly often criticized for being propagandists rather than pure (i.e. "serious") novelists. Toni Morrison has managed to transcend the ghetto of topicality on the basis of the reach of her craft, yet even she is sometimes excluded from the ranks of the "great" novelists of the western canon. The only Black writer to be critically admired without reservation is Ralph Ellison who published but one novel during his lifetime, "The Invisible Man," a book that the "regulators of serious literature" considered the zenith of Black fiction.

Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray 

In 1999 two major events are in the offing: the posthumous publication of an unfinished novel by Ralph Ellison, and the publication of correspondence between Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison as edited by Murray. My bet is that second book will be the one to read.


Although Murray and Ellison were comrades in the struggle to elevate the thinking and literature of Black folk, Murray is the one who has made his mark as a critic, and as such, Murray is the one who asks challenging questions and poses imaginative paradigms for understanding and addressing literature. As the book of letters between he and Ellison reveals, we may think of Ellison as the towering giant, but Murray has all the elements of the mythical trickster who is overlooked even as he is overcoming.


Albert Murray was born in Nokomis, Alabama in 1916. He grew up in Mobile and graduated from Tuskegee Institute, where he subsequently taught literature. He is a retired major in the U.S. Air Force. His books include The Omni-Americans and The Hero and the Blues, collections of essays; South to a Very Old Place, an autobiography; Stomping the Blues, a history of the blues; Train Whistle Guitar (a National Book Award Nominee), The Spyglass Tree and Seven League Boots, novels; and Good Morning Blues —The Autobiography of Count Basie (as told to Albert Murray).


This interview was conducted by telephone.


KALAMU YA SALAAM: You are both a writer and what is popularly called "a public intellectual" but you come from what the young folks would call "the old skool..."


ALBERT MURRAY: To young folks, everything is old. The airplane, the atomic bomb, all of that is old to them. Everything is old if you're just born, but what you must remember is that everybody is born out of date, behind the times. All these things are here and they don't know about them, so their whole mission in growing up is to come to terms with things that are already here. What exists represents reality, not just "oldness" and reality means actuality, a response to your surroundings, your environment, your setting. The whole business of education is learning how to cope with the situation that you were born into and to reduce that to saying "that's old" is puzzling to me. What have eighteen year old and twenty year old people done to modify society, what have they done to modify the way people live?


SALAAM: They have in terms of popular perception. For example, when you look at the award programs, you see young musicians breaking all kinds of records and you see them proclaimed as major forces who have changed the face of music.


MURRAY: The popular perception is actually based on promotional copy. They are just interested in selling a product. They don't care whether the work is good, bad, or indifferent; whether it is banal or truly exciting. What they want to do is sell it. They are not interested in accepting the challenge of music, they just want to make something that you can say is music and that will sell. If it sells they give them a prize, a golden disc or a platinum disc. But that's a hysterical approach.


If you are not sufficiently historical in your perception of actuality then your daily life is going to be hysterical because you respond to everything that comes up as if it's new and a lot of that stuff, all you had to do was check up on it and you would have known that it was going to happen.


SALAAM: You have just completed a book of correspondence with Ralph Ellison. This is a genre which is different from fiction or essay in that when the letters were written they were not intended for a public audience but rather were meant as a private conversation. What did it feel like as you went back over those letters and began looking at them from the standpoint of making a public statement?


MURRAY: When Ralph passed, I was one of the participants in the memorial ceremony at the Academy of Arts and Letters. I decided to resurrect Ralph's presence and give people some feeling for the person who was my very close friend. I went through some of the letters that I had and made a few excerpts. There was a very good response to that. The Ellison estate asked me how many of the letters I had saved and wondered if they could get copies of them. The actual letters themselves belong to me but I don't have possession to the extent that I could publish the material.


SALAAM: The letters were your physical property but not your intellectual property.


MURRAY: Right. The estate asked me to pull the letters together to add to the Ellison papers at the Library of Congress. In pulling them together I decided that they would make a fine little book. I was going to call it "Works in Progress: Ellison on Literary Craft and American Identity." I prepared the manuscript and when Callahan, the executor, read the manuscript he said this is a fine volume but I miss your voice. What is it that you are saying that is turning Ralph on like this? I said, man, I don't remember that. I haven't seen those letters in forty years. He said, I will check Ralph's papers to see if he had kept your letters. He dug up the letters and sent them to me. He said, I hope you agree that this would make a more interesting and more complete book if we made it an exchange of letters, and I hope you will go along with that. I said, well, let me read them. I don't know. When I read them I thought I could go along with it. I then prepared another manuscript.


The letters reveal Ralph's personality like it is revealed no where else because his letters to other people are formal and straightforward, but our letters covered a wide range of expression. Ralph talked about what he was doing, for example, he talks about finishing Invisible Man and what the problems were finishing it. He talks about a manuscript of a novel I had. We discussed literary things and social things. We discussed other writers and critics. I was thinking about a lot of those things. I wasn't writing yet, though I was planning to write.


SALAAM: Do you think there is a difference between writing letters and talking on the phone in terms of the final product...?


MURRAY: Not too much because we actually talked to each other in our letters. That's what is somewhat different about his letters to me and his letters to other people. We talked through letters, it wasn't just business.


I didn't really know Ralph at Tuskegee. He was an upperclassman and he was a guy I liked, the way he dressed. He was very independent. Then I found out that he had read a number of the books that I was planning to read. When I checked the books out of the library I found he had read them. When we got together in New York during the war is when we became good friends.


SALAAM: This may seem obvious, but people born after say 1960 might not be aware of the library signature cards in the books.


MURRAY: That's right. They had a card that you signed and you could see who had read the book. Often, I would see that Ralph was the only guy who had read the book before me, other than sometimes one of the faculty members who might have been doing graduate work. We read the same copies of T. S. Eliot. We were reading all of that very literary stuff. Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, Return of the Native and all of that. I went to college to be a "college boy," to get an education in those things. I was keeping up with Esquire magazine and what Hemmingway was writing, what Faulkner was writing. I also wanted to know what the novel had been before. And then there was that famous Eliot essay: Tradition and the Individual Talent. He was talking about the nature of tradition.

 Albert Murray Hero

Tradition is that which continues. Tradition is not that which is old but that which survives. It's a stream of human consciousness. Eliot was saying that if you write something, even if it's but four lines, it should be informed, as far as possible, with the whole history of poetry. I understood that. I was telling my friend Wynton Marsalis when we were talking about jazz, if you have four bars, it should be informed by the whole history of jazz. That's when you are doing your do. Otherwise you'll spend a lot of time trying to reinvent the sonnet. But if you know what's in there, what the tradition is, then you are the cutting edge -- that's what the avant garde means: the cutting edge that is going to continue tradition, but you're going to redefine it because your sensibility is different. The combination that exists in your mind that you are operating out of is different from anybody else's although it should be informed by everything that went ahead of you.


SALAAM: Do you think that your aesthetic and Ralph's aesthetic were informed by your dual interest in literature and music?


MURRAY: Definitely. Ralph majored in music but I came to the musical metaphor after I got out of college. My thing was to read all the books I had not had time to read when I was in college. The big thing that happened to me was the discovery of the great writer Thomas Mann. I noticed that the great German composers -- and there were none greater at that time -- those composers gave Mann a basis for organizing literary statement. Mann was talking about dialectic orchestration. He was talking about using leitmotif like Wagner did. I said, that's a way of organizing literary statement. So, where's mine? That brought me back to the idiomatic experience that I was a part of and I was looking for a way to make my idiomatic experience a part of the fine art experience. How do you process that, extend, elaborate, and refine that so that it becomes universal in terms of its impact. So I said, "what is it?" and that's when I hit upon the blues and jazz. I said oh yeah, they have a prelude and a fugue, I'll have a vamp, and then a series of choruses, then I'll have a break, etc. The first character that I wrote was a guitar player called Louisiana Charlie. When I was writing him, when he would throw that guitar over his shoulder and hop a freight train, to me that was how I could do all these other resonances. As many resonances as possible; he was Orpheus. He's got on overalls, he talks the down home talk but the dynamics, ah, that's not a new story. You have to find out the old story and then do your variation on it. See? Orpheus when to hell and back, well sometimes he would go away to the penitentiary and then come back. Then I understood when Mann was talking about leitmotifs, I could talk about riffs.


I came straight into the blues and it's extension, jazz, whereas Ralph was into formal European music that you get when you go to a conservatory. At that time Tuskegee had a conservatory and it was head by William Dawson. Ralph was stictly majoring in music, but I associated him with having those books rather than his trumpet. I saw him directing the band in the grandstand during football games. I called him the student concertmaster. He was a special student at Tuskegee. He stood out. I never saw him play in any of the jazz bands however.


By the time Ralph and I really got together after he was out of school, I was more involved with jazz and jazz musicians than he was. Because he was from Oklahoma, Ralph knew about the Blue Devils and guys like Jimmy Rushing -- they kept in touch for a long time -- but Ralph was not keeping up with the music. So when it got to be bop time I was making the rounds but Ralph wasn't. I would go to school at NYU for graduate classes at night and after classes I would go up to 52nd street. Ralph was home working on Invisible Man. Ralph was a little skeptical of bop. He kept an eye on it. He appreciated the general aesthetic revolution, but he didn't go to hear it as much as I did.


"Art is a process through which raw experience is rendered into aesthetic statement."


I was interested in the dynamics of the creative process. Although I didn't want to be a musician as such, I wanted to be as close as possible to how the stuff was put together and how the musician thought. So much of what musicians such as Ellington thought fit right into what I wanted to do with the language. The more I knew about the music, the more I could extend that aesthetic into verbalization.


Everything I write tries to make the language swing like jazz. The Invisible Man is more discursive than any of my books. Ralph liked all the stuff I liked, but he was really strong on Dostoyevsky. I was strong on Tolstoy. I was very much into Mann. Mann was not one of Ralph's guys. We were together on Faulkner. I think Ralph accepted the challenge of Faulkner. Ralph was so impressed wih the heroic dimension that Faulkner gave to his negro characters, Ralph thought that he would have to do that too. My own personal thing was to say: the brown-skinned American never sounded better than in Duke Ellington and never looked better in print than in Albert Murray's writing. That was my challenge. That is what all my aesthetic emphasis adds up to. I have never thought of myself as a victim. I have always thought of myself as someone of high potential that I had to live up to.


In fact, my central image is a rabbit in a briar patch, which explains everything I have written. You're in a jam session situation where you are improvising all the time, at the same time you can improvise better if you have a rich background. I want my knowledge to sing and swing, to evoke, to put you there. Music makes what you want to move. I want my novels to make you want to walk that way, want to be that way, want to react to experiences in that way. That's a legitimate aesthetic objective. Art is a process through which raw experience is rendered into aesthetic statement.






By Kalamu ya Salaam



1.—The mountain village


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


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


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


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


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


     It's funny how stuff can catch up with you years later, and only after rounding a bunch of corners does the full impact of an experience become clear. I mean more than a delayed reaction, more like a delayed enlightenment. I remember one of the cats we used to hang out with. He was a real deep dude and sometimes he would sit on his bunk holding court while we played an all night game of tonk on a make shift card table constructed of two wooden footlockers stacked one atop the other and a big bath towel (to keep the cards from sliding when we slammed our winners down) serving as playing surface. Some argument or the other would come up and we'd all look to Unk to settle it — his name was Samuel, which naturally got shortened to Sam, and since we were in the army, Uncle Sam was almost inevitable, which in turn got transformed into "Unk” by one of them country dudes out of Alabama with a molasses slow drawl — early one morning when we was mustering up for roll call, Hezakiah came strolling up in a lean back amble, his fatigue cap rolled up in his back pocket (which he knew he should have had on his head the minute he stepped out doors), Hezakiah (whose named didn't get shortened) fell in next to Sam and, with a glee-filled slap on the back, greeted Sam with a loud, long, hearty, albeit southern-slow "what's happening Unk?" It was just the way Hezakiah said it, cracked everybody up and from that day ‘til Sam went back states-side, everybody called Sam by his new handle: "Unk."


     Anyway, I don't even remember what the particulars was that we were arguing about, but I do remember, just like it happened yesterday, that when we turned to Unk for his Solomonic judgment, he pulled a draw on his pipe and casually dropped a gem.


     "Don't neither one of you ignant motherfuckers know what the fuck you talking about.”  Unk looked to his left, "Billy, you just plain dumb‚ and country, and cause the only schooling you ever had was how to hitch up a mule and how to pick cotton, I wouldn't expect you to have no real learning.”  Unk looked over to the other combatant, "And, Jones, you from the big metropolis of southside Chicago, but you dumb‚ too.”  Then Unk inhaled a long draw on his pipe, took the pipe out of his mouth, studied his cards with feigned seriousness, casually blew the smoke through his nose, and continued just like he had never stopped talking.


     "Billy, he ain't never had the advantage of schooling but he got brains.”  Then Unk turned his full attention to Jones, who was sitting to his right, "You had the advantage of schooling but you ain't got no brains, which is why you just dissed that deuce and let me go on out. Read um and weep gentlemen. Tonk!”


     As he collected his pot, Unk continued the lecture. "Let that be a lesson to all yalls. If you got to choose between an ignorant motherfucker and a stupid motherfucker, choose ignorance. Cause stupidity, just like ugliness and diamonds, is forever. Whose deal is it?”


     Billy picked up the cards and started shuffling. Unk was on a roll and, with a two beat paused punctuated by his cackling laughter, Unk just kept on talking right through Billy's fast shuffle which ended with the deck sitting in front of me for my cut. "You know what I mean,” Unk turns to me, "cause at least you can enlighten an ignorant dude, but a stupid motherfucker, huh, you wasting your goddamn time. Cut the cards, man.”


     Except I never could figure out how it was that Unk fell in love with Jenny, what with her being a prostitute and all. I mean like on the serious side. Got so, he paid her a $100 a month, and she wouldn't even much look at nobody else. I could understand her, cause Unk was her ticket to ride. Anybody in her position would want to get to the states.  But why would somebody like Unk want to bring Jenny back with him to the states?  It was deep, too deep for me to figure. I wasn't sure whether my inability to comprehend where Unk was coming from was cause I was ignorant or cause I was stupid, so I never did say no more to Unk about it.


     When Unk's time was up, the money was on him leaving Jenny behind, just like did ninety-nine percent of the GI's who fell in love in Korea. To no one's surprise, although there was some awfully sentimental moments, Unk went back and Jenny stayed behind.


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


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


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


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


     Just like when we was in Soulville we was off duty, well it was the same way for them. And I guess without the stain and

strain of a cash transaction clouding the picture, we all got a chance to see a different side of each other.


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


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


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




     2.—The border town.


     There was no Soulville in Juarez, Mexico, which was the service town at my next duty station at Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Tay-has, as the Mexicans say it, actually North Mexico.

The stolen land. Well, actually, all this land is stolen land, but that's another story, right now, I'm just telling you why I ain't going back in there no more.


     As clear as it was that the relationships between the indigenous women and us Black men was a business, the exchange of sex for cash, still, in Korea, there had been a human side to it, a side which had some of us falling in love, and most of us, to one degree or another, made aware that there was only a very thin line between us. But Juarez was different.


     Different in that it was brutal and inhuman. I remember my first and last trip to get laid. It was such a downer that I came close to making up my mind then and there, that I wasn't going back anymore. At first I thought my problem simply was that I wanted more than a quick fuck.


     Life is so funny. We be changing and growing up, but because it's us, and because it happens day to day, we don't notice it much. I hadn't noticed how Korea had helped me grow.


     I immediately noticed the obvious changes in some of the other guys who I had shipped out with to Korea. They had been assigned to different bases up and down the peninsula, and now it was like a whole year later. We was running into each other and swapping lies about our tour in the land of the rising sun.


     The growth process was most noticeable in the guys who came from the small southern towns. By the time we hooked back up, everybody was slick in their mannerisms and modes of dress.

Shit, if Korea didn't do nothing else, it had us all dressing like hep cats. Even Roger, who I never saw hanging out much, had brought back a silver-gray, sharkskin, tailor-made suit from Korea.


     Within a year we were all either actual or aspirant pool sharks. We all drank like crazy and acted like today was our second to last day on earth. I saw it clearly in them. I don't know if they saw the same thing in me.


     I don't know how much I had changed or what I looked like, but I do know that there was some things I just couldn't deal with and at the top of the list was Juarez pussy.


     When you find yourself doing something you don't like doing even though you thought it was something you wanted to do, you get real philosophical. So standing in this dark, dimly lit room where the only light was shadows, an old hag, which is not an exaggeration, holding out her deformed hand for the money and then afterwards asking to see my dick to make sure it wasn't infected or something, and feeling it expertly for blemishes and sores, standing there under than short arm interrogation, Louis Jordan's song was beginning to sound in the back of my brain: "if I ever get out of here, I ain't never coming back no more.”  At least I think it was Louis Jordan who sang that, maybe it was me making it up and kind of attaching it to something that I half remembered Jordan singing. Whatever, the point was the same. This shit was awful.


     After I passed the test and made the requisite payment, I

was led into a smoke drenched haze that set my nostrils to flaring under the sharp assault of musky odors in the room which was an even darker room than the dark room of shadows I was just in, a room so dark that til this day I can't tell you what the woman I fucked looked like, or, for that matter, whether she was really a woman, or for that matter whether I really fucked her, or him, or whatever or whoever it was in that lightless hole.


     Memory is never accurate. Memory is colored by feelings and limited by awareness, especially when you are dealing with an emotionally charged situation. I guess you can tell I been spending more time in the library than across the border, more time reading a book than drinking in a bar. I'm not ashamed to say that I never went back even if it do mean that I wasn't a man like the other men who went over to Juarez all the time.


     I still went over there, but for the most part all I bought was cheap liquor. Boy, one time it was so funny. Between four of us, we collected about twenty dollars, made a quick run and came back with two shopping bags full of rum and brandy. We sat in the deserted, Sunday evening barracks and drank, and drank, and drank until we literally couldn't drink no more.


     I never will forget the feeling. I mean we were so stoned that if you had made a movie of us, it would have been the perfect thing to show to kids to scare them off drinking. At first we were just drinking and telling tall tales, lies and what not. Then we was drinking and thinking that we was talking — you know like in that routine Richard Pryor does when first he's talking mucho shit, then he's mumbling, and then his mouth is moving but he ain't saying nothing, then he's nodding, and then all of a sudden his head snaps back and his eyes buck-wild wide open and he shouts "was I finished?", well, we was like that.


     The "high point” of that particular session happened towards the end when one of us, I forget who, I know it wasn't me, at least I don't think it was me, but one of us was sitting with our legs crossed and then, boom, just keeled over and fell on the floor. I remember thinking that who ever it was was on the floor. He had fell out. And nobody laughed or nothing. Nobody moved. He had fell out on the floor, the rest of us had fell out sitting up. I mean at that point we was so cool and so stoned that literally the only move any of us could make was to keel over.


     Eventually, I gave up that kind of drinking after I got puking drunk on wine one night. But all of that was something I learned over time, this Juarez pussy thing was instant.


     I don't know why I even went through with it. I mean even after I had paid my money I could have left. It wasn't nothing but five or six dollars or so, but you know, the thing about being a man is that once you start something you supposed to see it through. No, I'm lying, what the deal was is that I kept thinking that somewhere in the process there had to be some pleasure. After all it was like the old joke between the two

privates who was arguing about whether fucking was fifty-fifty pleasure and work or whether it was more work than pleasure. A old master sergeant comes along and settles the argument by telling them, there wasn't no work involved in fucking, it was all pleasure, cause if there was any work involved in it, the officers would make the privates do it for them, and wasn't no officer asking no private to do his fucking for him.


     So, I believed that there had to be some pleasure somewhere and I was going to find it.


     But you can't find what ain't there. There was no pleasure, only a deeper and deeper disgust with myself. She said something. I don't remember whether it was in English, Spanish, Splanglish or what. I don't know what it was we did it on. It wasn't a bed.


     This wasn't anything but unadorned sex and the basic sex act itself. No petting. No caressing. No talking. Not even no real touching. I came as fast as I could to get it over with. And left in a hurry with my head down, truly ashamed of myself.


     I never went back.




     3.—The desert shack.


     Masturbating was better than Juarez. I saved money, it was cleaner and I didn't feel guilty afterwards. Still, being that I was what we used to call a "cock-strong” twenty years old, there was the undeniable desire, indeed, there was almost a driving compulsion, to fuck. I found myself wishing for Korea sometimes.


     At that point, I really wasn't opposed in principle to participating in prostitution, just opposed to what I perceived to be the degradation of Juarez compared to the "enlightened” prostitution of Korea. Sometimes it takes us a while to get our ethics straight. I was ready to do it as long as it didn't repulse me, and I wasn't really thinking about the women.


     The women who were the "same-o, same-o” as me. In fact, the Mexican women were darker and often looked more like sisters than did the Korean women. But I wasn't ready yet to see women in the same way I saw men. So even if we were the same color and suffered the same racism, when it came to the particulars of their situations, I didn't really see and understand the particulars of the suffering of women.


     I remember Yoko Ono saying — I believe it was Yoko, or somebody associated with the Beetles — that women were the niggers of the world. To me that seemed like an over simplification of a complex condition, meaning the complexity of racism rather than the complexity of being a woman. I never even thought of how complex it must be to be a woman. But, like the song say, if you live, your time will come.


     Sometimes we have to learn the hard way.


     We were at a party somewhere in New Mexico. I don't even remember how we got there. By then I had wheels and one of the three of us that hung together had heard about this party and suggested that we ought to go, said there was going to be some sisters there.


     Now, you have to be in the army, stationed in a place where Black women (who would associate with soldiers) are few and far between, to understand what it meant to go to a party where there was going to be Black women there. I mean you'd drive to another state for a party like that. Which is what we did.


     The party was a small, house party and there were some women there — two in particular. One was plump and one was tall. Skee-zazz, whom we sometimes called "Lil Man,” cause he was short, decided to pair up with the plump girl and I went after the tall one.


     The rap on soldiers was all we wanted to do was fuck and after that forget it. Of course that's an over generalization, but it's not too far from the truth. But on this night whether we finally fucked or not, we were having a good time. The liquor was flowing. There was some food there. And whoever was responsible for the music, had a bunch of good jams.


     We drank, we danced, got sweaty, talked, slowed dragged and belly rubbed. As the night wore on, this tall sister got to looking more and more outrageously fine to me.


     My rap was kind of on the weak side and I hadn't really developed no game. I mean I did my share of bullshitting with

the guys and stuff, but as far as talking a girl out of her drawers, you know like when you meet somebody cold at a party or dance or something, and then get them in bed four or five hours after you just met them, I had never done that.


     Skee-zaz˙ was in the corner laying down his line and giggling through his teeth, flashing his big dimples. Me and Tall Girl was talking about something, I don't know what. I think what was saving me was that I could dance. So, when a good jam came on, I would jump up and talk shit, clear out space on the floor, cut the fool and give everybody a good laugh. I think on that night nobody even came close to some of the moves I was laying down.


     There's something intoxicating about dancing when you get into the flow of the music. Everything I could think of, I was able to do with a panache that only, say, James Brown would have been able to match. I guess being in the army and being in good shape helped a whole lot. But I know the real deal was having this big, tall, fine, healthy Black woman smiling at me as I whirled and twirled, talked shit and popped my hips was the real spur to my confidence.


     That particular warm New Mexico night it was getting so I couldn't do no wrong. By about one a.m. when peoples started drifting off, I knew it was time to make a serious move. We was slow dragging on some number, my hands was crawling up and down Tall Girl's torso — I can't tell you her name cause I don't

remember her name, besides, names ain't important on one night stands — I gave Skee-zaz˙ the eye and he winked back at me.


     Skee-zaz˙ had his bottom lip tucked into his mouth and was squeezing his eyes shut with exaggerated concentration while he rocked his head from side to side. Tall Girl was saying something in the general vicinity of my ear. I nibbled a reply on her neck. She kind of moaned a little. My left hand was resting on the top of her butt, rotating in synch with her rocking from side to side.


     "How you getting home?”


     Tall Girl answered me. I didn't hear her answer. I really wasn't listening to a word she was saying. My radar was locked in on the target and I was close enough that my heat seeking missile was about to explode with a direct hit. It didn't matter to me what she thought.


     "Say man, let's go,” Skee-zaz˙ commanded with the terse finality of a general ordering troops forward into battle. Our foursome stumbled out into the star encrusted desert night way out in lost-found New Mexico. Shit, I didn't know where I was and didn't care. I had this fox on my arm and I was about to get laid.


     I don't remember what Skee-zaz˙ and Plump Girl was saying. Knowing Skee-zazz, he probably had a drink in his hand and was laughing into his fist, his characteristic gesture when he was having a good time, bent over slightly at the waist and then abruptly rearing back hollering, "Stop, stop, stop” as he laughed full out, holding his balled up hand to his lips like he was drinking an imaginary bottle.


     I was cooler than that. I had Tall Girl on my arm and probably was asking her to stand still a minute, stepping back and framing a shot with my "air camera” and then waving the make believe picture back and forth until it dried Polaroid style and then looking at it with intent interest and pronouncing, "Just like I thought, this proves it, your smile put the moon to shame.”  And then Tall Girl would blush with her mouth of twenty-five or so gold capped teeth — she was missing a few but that wasn't no big deal to me, and she obviously didn't feel uncomfortable about it cause she laughed with her mouth open and didn't hide her smile with her hand or turn her head away the way people who are self-conscious about their bed teeth do. I liked that she was comfortable with her self.


     There was no question about where we was going. Skee-zaz˙ and his pick-up was in the back seat, I was driving, and Tall Girl was sitting there beside me with that tight green dress riding up those long, luscious legs. Skee-zaz˙ leaned forward and touched my shoulder in pretentious imitation of what he though a rich man did with his chauffeur, "Aug Jeeeeee-veeeesssss, take us...” and then he turned to the girl, "where you live baby?  Is it alright if we go to your place?”


     "I stay with my sister. Yeah, I guess it'll be ok. But I

got to ask her when we get there, you know.”


     "Yeah, yeah. Yeah.”


     "Well,” I said.


     "Well what motherfucker,” Skee-zaz˙ said impatiently.


     "Well where the fuck am I going?”


     Skee-zaz˙ turned to the girl again, "Where we going baby, what's the address?”


     The plump girl said something. Skee-zaz˙ relayed the info, "yeah, that's where we going. Just drive motherfucker. We'll tell you where to go.”


     I pulled off.


     The plump girl said something. Skee-zaz˙ hollered a loud guffaw,  "Hey, Doc, you going the wrong way. You got to turn around.”


     After I dropped Skee-zaz˙ off and we had agreed that we would rendezvous in two hours or so, I turned to Tall Girl and just smiled.


     "What're you smiling at?”






     "Cause you make me feel like smiling,” and I put my hand on her thigh above her knee. She didn't move it. "Come on, tell me how to get to your place.”


     Tall Girl lived way out in the desert. I'm sure it wasn't really that far out, but it was at least two or three miles away from where I had dropped off Skee-zazz. Fortunately, these one horse towns don't have too many streets to get lost on. It was mostly straight shot highway.


     When I pulled up to what looked in the dark like an adobe style blockhouse, the first thing I noticed was there was no lights on nowhere and it was deathly quiet. As I rolled my window up and stepped out the car, I heard my footsteps and Tall Girls footsteps making a real loud crunching sound in the sand of the walkway leading up to her door.


     Like a friend pulling my coat, I had an eerie intimation that perhaps this wasn't going to turn out like I thought it was going to. For some reason I just got the impression that this house was a one room hut and there was some kind of faint, familiar odor which I couldn't identify.


     Although it wasn't as dark walking up to her front door as it had been in that room back in Juarez, and although Tall Girl's crib‚ was far more substantial then the hooches back in Korea, still I had this strange, but brief, deja vu premonition that I had been through this scene before. Just then a coyote howled from not too far away. Tall Girl paused briefly when she heard the canine's call. On cue, my arms flew around her waist and pulled her to me. We kissed. Then she stepped back to dig her keys out of her jacket pocket, which was when I noticed that she didn't have a pocketbook with her.


     I imagined by now that Skee-zaz˙ was humping and pumping, and I intended to be doing the same in a few minutes. Tall Girl started talking some talk about having a good time and thanking me for bringing her home and shit. The missile had left the launcher. I didn't want to hear no stalling and side walling.


     Inside her place was a musty aroma really different from the night air we had been breathing. The house really wasn't hardly nothing more than a front room with a open kitchen behind it and what must be her bed room off to the side. I didn't see where the bathroom was. Maybe it was out back.


     I was trying to follow Tall Girl without bumping into anything. She was bending over something and then I saw she had a child laying on a cot. I said to myself, "Goddamn girl, you left that child here all by herself.”  Child didn't look like it could have been no more than three or four years old. Fortunately the child was sleeping.


     After pulling the cover up around the child's shoulder and passing a kiss with her hand from her lips to the child's head, Tall Girl said "Thanks.”  Again.


     Fuck that I thought. We was going to fuck or fight. I put my hand on Tall Girl's butt. Just wanted to make sure she understood where I was coming from.


     She squirmed away.


     I followed her into her bedroom. There was this big bed and another child sleeping in a crib.


     I started to hit myself with the heel of my hand upside my head. Wanted to make sure I wasn't dreaming.


     Tall Girl kicked her shoes off.


     She left her two kids sleeping to go partying. Goddamn what kind of mother was she?


     The sound of her zipper brought me back to my senses.


     She had on a black slip.


     What if the child woke up while we was doing it?


     She sat on the bed.


     I kissed her and felt up her right breast.


     She lay back on the bed. "I'm on my period.”


     Meaning what?, I started to ask. I was still thinking about those kids. How she could just leave them out here in the middle of nowhere. Then I thought, if that's bad, then how is it you can be here trying to fuck this woman, why you want to fuck her if you think she's so trifling?


     Ignoring both my question and her statement, I kissed her again. Maybe she was just saying she was on her period to get out of fucking. I reached my hand under her slip, up between her legs, and felt the lump of a sanitary pad sitting like a stop sign at the fork in the road.


     "Please...” and she just looked at me, didn't try to move my hand away from between her legs, didn't even try to turn away or nothing. She just looked at me.


     I was rubbing her thigh and at the same time I could see her eyes searching my face. Her brown pupils moving back and forth in the moonlight. Didn't say nothing else. Nothing more.


     I didn't know which of us was more pathetic.


     My eyes were growing accustomed to the surroundings. I couldn't help not see that baby in the crib. I couldn't help not think about it. I was close to getting some pussy. But at what cost?


     We stayed like that for almost a minute. It got so quiet I could hear the child's light snore of contented sleep. It was clear Tall Girl wasn't going to stop me if I really wanted to do it, yet the more I thought about it the madder I got with myself. What was I doing laying next to this menstruating woman, a woman whose name I couldn't remember, a woman I never wanted to see in life again. It was too much. I couldn't do it.


     I got up.


     Stood over her for a few awkward seconds.


     "Thanks.”  She sat up. I didn't say nothing. As I started to turn to leave, Tall Girl said, "I really did had a good time.”


     I realized just then that she was thanking me for not forcing myself on her. "I would offer you a drink or something, but I don't have nothing,” she said matter of factly without a trace of self pity. That's just the way it was.


     "Yeah, that's ok.”  Then there was another anguished pause. I didn't know what to say, "well, see you around.”  I took my keys out of my pocket. We both knew that we would never see each other again.


     I walked out, or rather, to tell the truth, I stumbled out. I don't even remember what else I said, or even if I said anything else to Tall Girl. When I got to the car, I realized that I had been almost holding my breath on the way out. The smell was the same smell I had smelled in Juarez, in Korea, the smell of poor women at the mercy of men, men like me, men like Skee-zazz, like old sarge, like any of us, no matter whether we was a private or a general, poor women at the mercy of men.


     Tall Girl, I thought to myself, you sure got a hard row to hoe, and you can't even afford to get your head bad and forget about it. There she was, lying on that bed, not wanting to fuck but resigned to the rules of the game. I wondered what I would be like if I had to let somebody fuck me every time I just wanted to have a good time.


     I turned around in the middle of the deserted street. I took my time driving back to retrieve Skee-zazz. A lot of thoughts was tying up in my head. Although I probably did the right thing, I felt bad because I had come so close to not doing the right thing.


     It looked like it took me twice as long to get back to where Skee-za˙ was at then I remembered it taking when I had dropped him off, and even so, I still had to wait outside til almost 5:30 before he came out.


     Although I had rolled the windows up, locked the door, let the seat back, slouched down deep and pulled my black leather lambskin cap over my eyes, I didn't really sleep. I kept hearing Tall Girl saying "Thanks” and seeing her large eyes looking at me.


     Later, on the ride back to the base, Skee-zaz˙ told me how he had "got them drawers. She kept saying, no, no, no. But I just pulled them drawers off her and got me some. I told her, I said, baby, if you didn't want to fuck, you shouldn't fucked with me. Them bitches know how the game go.”


     I told him about Tall Girl being on the rag.


     He said that wasn't nothing, I should have just pulled that rag out of there and gone ahead and got that pussy. "You should have got that pussy, man. That was your pussy. Yours for the taking. Betcha, if I would have been there, rag or no rag, she would have been fucked.”


     I was confused for a moment. Skee-zaz˙ was from Newark and could be cold blooded as a knife in the back. Sometimes he didn't have no respect for nothing or nobody.


     I kept vacillating between being satisfied with the decision I made not to fuck Tall Girl and the desire to be more like Skee-zazz. To young men there's something attractive about being a barbarian, something manly about being a ruthless hunter and a stone killer, just taking whatever you want regardless of what it is or who it belong to, which is why, I guess, "to Bogart” was a major verb in our everyday vocabulary. Skee-zaz˙ and Humphrey Bogart would have fucked Tall Girl, maybe I was being too southern, too soft. I don't know.


     When you're growing up, sometimes the hardest decision to make is the decision to be yourself, especially when being yourself causes you to have to put principle above pleasure.


     So here we are, driving through the New Mexico night back to El Paso discussing whether to fuck or not to fuck. I didn't say nothing about how the place looked. I didn't say nothing about the kids. I was just mad with myself cause I was in the middle of some trifling shit that I finally decided I had no business being mixed up in.


     That was it. As we crossed the state line I made a pact with myself. I wasn't going to buy no more pussy in Juarez, or no place else for that matter, for the rest of my life. And I wasn't going to be taking advantage of no women who were so poor they didn't have nothing but they bodies.


     For the rest of my natural born life, as much as I could help it, I wasn't never going to take advantage of a poor woman just for some pussy, and it wouldn't make no difference if she was yellow, black, brown or white.


     It would be over seven months later, not until I returned home and had been mustered out the army, before I made love to a woman, but that's a nother story, for another time.


     I guess I must have been thinking real hard to myself and ignoring Skee-zaz˙ cause the next thing I knew, Skee-zaz˙ was sitting with his head thrown back, snoring loudly as I drove back to the base.


     Directly in front of me, in the east, the sun was coming up. A new day was on the way.



For the women of Vietnam, patiently threading together their

share, and more, of Third World struggle & solidarity 

the eerie bright light

that shatters morning

dawn is the illumination

of bombs


death dropping like

acid rain from unseen

obscene clouds,

a deadly dew

dispensed by invisible

high flying arms


and so began the days

when Nguyen was new,

barely born between naplam runs,

anti-personnel explosives spewing

sinister silverous spikes

with thorny barbs which savagely

struck and cut, searing

into innocent flesh

embedding shrapnel into pliant

pre-pubescent sides, into

soft kidneys and slender

bamboo colored thighs like

gleaming iron fish hooks

piercing a jaw, lancing a gill

or slicing an eye


but who cares now

that the war was lost so

long ago

the high-tech cameras

no longer transmit onto tv sets

into our living rooms

the pain, the unsmelt

stench of flaming bodies or

the barely believable screech

of street side summary executions

as bullets shattered the skulls

of black haired suspected cong

so who cares now

the killers are back home

here in america

where we do not see nor feel

the innumerable silent shells

waiting to explode

upward maiming a peasant's crouch

as ox drawn plow contacts

nor do we cross

oranged wastelands where

nothing green can grow

who cares, now that

the dear johns and joes

are gone, to the victors

have gone the spoilt


who remembers those naked little girls

running down the highway their mouths

silently stretched open in pain

those little girls who are

no longer girls but women now

women whose wombs may never conceive

women who can not dance without pain

women whose scars will not heal

women who can not give birth without surgery

women whose ears can not hear subtle string music

women who can not remember ever having rest

         filled sleep during long quiet summer

         nights nor sense the tenderness of a lover's

         cautious touch caressing what's left of a breast


who cares?


as you struggle in your homeland

a place bombed almost back

"into the stone age"

patiently reconstructing human beings

out of the survivors of war

a prostitute becomes a nurse

an orphan a teacher

a cripple becomes an administrator

and a blind woman an interpreter


Nguyen, it is the work of you

and people like you

which gives soft/strong certainty

to worldwide efforts at

social reconstruction


Nguyen, knowing you helps us

know that we are more

than our past,

less than our future,

neither animals nor gods

but oppressed people who can grasp

tomorrow's dawns and create new days

from bomb cratered yesterdays


in the face of pessimism

your graceful smile

thaws our war hardened hearts


i salute

you who continue, all of you

who inspire hope, whose recovery

encourages all of us victims

to rise and fly like phoenix

ascending out of occidental ashes


i salute

you who move as in a morning sun

rising side by side, always rising,

never stopping, always rising, softly,

always, certainly, softly,

as in a morning



—kalamu ya salaam



i do not usually explain my poetry but this post is special. the context of the poem is important to me. 'morning calm' was written in the late seventies/early eighties and originally conceived as part of a collection of poetry to complement the essays i wrote and published under the title of 'our women keep our skies from falling.' 


the plan was to publish a small book with both the poetry and the essays together but, as with so much in life, that never came to pass.


i served in the u.s. army 1965 - 1968, the viet nam years but i did electronic nuclear missle repair in korea. korea was a major awakening for me about the international aspects of our struggle. i learned a lot from the women in korea, most of whom were prostitutes who lived in a small village just outside the gates of our mountain top base. 


i came out of the army fired up and ready to rumble, seeking far more than civil rights. by 1974 i was a delegate to the sixth pan-african conference in dar es salaam, tanzania. the chinese were already working in tanzania. does anyone remember the tan-zam railroad and the effort to break apartheid's economic strangle hold on central and southern africa?


three or so years later, i led a delegation to the people's republic of china. twenty educators and activists from around the united states spent over two weeks traveling throughout china and engaging in serious ideological sessions with chinese comrades. again, my consciousness was raised.


the more i learned about the world and the more people i met who were struggling for self-determination, self-defense, and self-respect, the more i understood that our struggle was truly a global struggle and not simply a racial struggle, or even mainly a pan-african struggle. eventually, i moved away from advocating nationalism as a solution to the issues our people faced. i also became very, very clear that sexism and attendant ills (such as homophobia and heterosexism) was a serious issue that had to be fought both internally and externally.


'morning calm' is then a reflection of my global consciousness and of my anti-sexism advocacy. in 2010, far, far removed from when i wrote this poem i teach vietnamese students in high school. a few of our students were born in viet nam, most of them deal in various ways with the issues of assimilation and retaining their culture, especially their language. this poem was written for the women who are today the grandparents, aunts, and perhaps a few mothers of our students... 


one other thing, as i have said numerous times, i use music as my literary model. the rhythms and internal structure of this poem are based on john coltrane's version of 'softly, as in a morning sunrise.'


a luta continua (the struggle continues)...







by Kalamu ya Salaam

Hey, everybody, let’s have some fun.

You only live but once, and when you’re dead, you’re done.


Pleasure is essential to life. Indeed, the desire to fulfill the pleasure principle is the fundamental hunger of life. Even at the basic survival level of food, we prefer down home cooking that gives us pleasure to dishes that solely give us nutrients. The first law of human nature is survival. The second law is find a way to enjoy surviving!


While we all know the pursuit of pleasure can lead to excesses such as greed, gluttony and hedonism, we all also would prefer a smile to a scowl, a caress to a slap, a kiss to a moral lecture. Most of us would prefer to enjoy ourselves rather than grimly go through life rigidly disciplined. Why is this?


Pleasure is essential because life is hard. A grain of sugar (or a proverbial “taste of honey”) is never so sweet as when savored by a tongue accustomed to a poverty enforced regimen of starch and vinegar. Those who have had the harshest experiences possess the deepest appreciation of pleasure. Moreover, for those who live a life of toil rather than leisure, pleasure is not just a salve soothing over hard times, pleasure is also a necessary encouragement to optimistically face the future. Or, as the blues bards sing: I believe / the sun gonna shine / in my backdoor someday. We face the future because we believe there will be some pleasure to be gained by holding on, otherwise, why stay alive?


In the United States, the pursuit of pleasure is very often linked to popular music, and, in turn, the popular music of the United States is Black music and/or musical forms (such as Broadway show tunes, Country & Western, or Rock & Roll) that are strongly influenced by Black popular music.


This little essay will talk a bit about the function of Black popular music, specifically Rhythm and Blues (R&B)—and by extension Rap music, in modern American society. I understand that not everyone will appreciate popular music in America as being one and the same with Black music. Some argue that music has no color. Others argue that Black music is not the only popular music of America — such people, of course, deny any connection between country and western, for example, and Rhythm & Blues, or between bluegrass and traditional jazz. While I respect everyone’s right to their own beliefs, that right in no way negates an accurate appreciation of reality.


In reality there is no popular music in America that did not come from Black music or that is not strongly influenced by Black music. For example, the very notion of a backbeat and of swing is proof of the Black origins of popular music. If the rhythmic emphasis is on two and four, rather than one and three, better believe “Negroes” had something to do with it.


I use the term Negro both ironically and seriously. Ironically, because currently we former Negroes no longer use that term to identify ourselves, preferring African American or Black, and yet both African American and Black are ambiguous with respect to identifying us as specifically and/or exclusively coming from the USA; in reality all Blacks who are born and reared anywhere in the western hemisphere are African Americans. Moreover, just as African does not identify where in Africa our ancestors came from, American does not identify where in the western hemisphere we come from unless one assumes the great nation chauvinism which claims that when we say American we are ipso facto talking only about the United States and that anywhere else in the western hemisphere is not America.


I use the term “Negro” seriously to specify that we are talking about those of us in the African Diaspora who were culturally shaped by and in turn have shaped and/or significantly influenced the culture of the United States of America. The term “Negroes” differentiates us from Afro-Cubans, Brazilians, Haitians or others “Blacks” born and reared in the Western Hemisphere. Negroes initiated the backbeat and the concept of swing in music. Samba, zouk, calypso, etc. do not have a pronounced backbeat, and those forms which do, such as reggae, do so as a direct result of the influence of “Negro” music. The upshot of all of this is that when we abandoned “Negro” we actually muddied the water of self-identification, even as we thought we were making things clearer. In one sense we were clearer in identifying with Africa—which “Negro” obviously does not since there were and are no “Negroes” in Africa—but in another sense we confused the issue of the specificity of our Americaness by simply saying America. The irony is that we dropped one label and picked up another in an effort to be clearer, but our new term is actually more ambiguous than the older term even though the older term had its own limitations.


Although this is an obvious aside, it is an important digression in that it helps us understand how it is that our music can be identified primarily as “Black” music within the USA and primarily as American music outside the USA. Now, let us return to the main thread of our discussion.


Essentially, modern American pop music all started with the ragtime craze and minstrel music. We may not know Scott Joplin, the greatest composer of ragtime, but we do know Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”


The invention of popular American music is distinct from the various popular ethnic musics—e.g. the polkas of the Polish peoples; the ballads of the English, Irish and Scottish peoples; the martial music of the Germans—the John Phillip Sousa inspired marching bands that still parade through downtown Main Street in the American heartland; the light opera of the Italians; all of these ethnically identified musical forms merged into and were subsumed by the wave of popular music unleashed by newly emancipated enslaved Africans (who by the turn of the century had officially become “citizens,” i.e. products of the American social matrix).


When people argue the existence of American popular music they are really acknowledging the disappearance of distinct European ethnic musical forms and the emergence of a unique music. By the twenties (which, incidentally, immediately follows World War I, the historical starting line for the rise of America as an international superpower), American music (i.e. “jazz”) sweeps Europe and the rest of the world for the “second” time. Before jazz, there was the ragtime craze and there was the near insatiable appetite for Negro spirituals. All of this was represented as “American” music, a music which did not exist anywhere else in the world unless exported by the U.S.A.


Added to this, is the technological dominance exerted by American “inventions” and “improvements” on twentieth century technology. Specifically, the phonograph (1917 was the first jazz recording, 1920 the first blues recording) and the cinema. Although photography was not invented in America, Hollywood is purely American in its exploiting of the technology. Moreover, the first “talkie” and first film musical was “The Jazz Singer” (1927) starring Al Jolson, a man of Jewish heritage performing in black face.


To raise the ante a bit, during the period of American ascendancy as a world power, Euro-ethnic immigrants signified their transformation into “Americans” via their (re)presentation of “American” music, i.e. music which had been initially created by “colored people.” What do I mean? I mean the Berlins, the Gershwins, the Goodmans, the Whitemans, not to mention Bing Crosby who started off singing jazz or Gene Autrey who sang blues! Check the records. To be an American was to be able to make or emulate some form of Black popular music.


The three major musical branches of “American music” were jazz, blues and gospel, and the three major musical roots were ragtime, minstrel and Negro spirituals. Everything we know as popular America music either came directly from these six elements or was indelibly influenced by those roots and branches. I do not claim the Broadway musical is “Black” but I do claim that the origins of Broadway  music is directly inspired and influenced by ragtime and the minstrel tradition. The contemporary dominance of “rap” is nothing but a reoccurrence of the dominance of jazz and before that the dominance of ragtime. That is the history of American music in a cursory but not inaccurate nutshell.


“Black” is not solely a racial designation. For the purposes under discussion here, Black is a cultural designation that refers to a very broad, but nonetheless, specific cultural aesthetic. This aesthetic is sometimes misleadingly labeled “always for pleasure.” Actually, this music is produced by the same people who literally slaved to build America. Clearly there is more to “Blackness” than the unbridled pursuit of pleasure. At the same time however, in the case of what is popularly known as R&B, undoubtedly and unashamedly, pleasure is the primary purpose. And that’s good.


Acknowledging that pleasure is good is a given among those of us who like our good times hot and loud, but the philosophical goodness of pursuing pleasure is alien to the traditional, Anglo-oriented status quo of America. Engaging the body in dance and celebration specifically for the pleasure of the experience is a concept both integral to African-heritage aesthetics and as foreign to Anglicized, puritan philosophy as is the distance between tepid clam chowder spiced with only a pinch of salt and cayenne flavored filé gumbo.


Music, song and dance is the holy trinity of the Black music aesthetic, and R&B/Rap, in particular, is the paragon of pleasure seeking within the context of Black music. Plato never trusted music precisely because music foregrounded emotion and backgrounded cognition. Christian ministers were always condemning Black popular music as the “devil’s music” pointing out that such music inflamed pagan passions. When we say that “music” is the first aspect of the eternal triangle, we mean that music communicates at a visceral level, connects through sensations, feelings. Popular music is then a music you don’t have to think about, in fact, any thinking you may do is incidental or secondary. The first commandment is what is real, is what is felt. This only makes sense, when you consider that feeling precedes thinking—before you can think about the world, you must “feel” the world, or, as we commonly say in New Orleans, “I feel to believe.”


The second commandment is “sing,” express yourself lyrically. Singing represents your conscious thoughts about the world presented with emotional ardor. When we sing we are not only making music, we are also expressing our thoughts, and regardless of how base or ordinary the thoughts may be, and regardless of how emotionally charged the music may be, all popular music expresses thoughts as well as feeling. R&B is primarily a vocal music, i.e. the lyrics are sung, whereas jazz is primarily an instrumental music. In the early days of jazz, the music was both sung (vocal) and played (instrumental). In fact, jazz introduced “scat singing,” which was a new way to vocalize music. But when jazz ceased being popular music, the emphasis swung heavily toward instrumental music.


The vocal element, is then, a key element in popular music. It is significant that R&B/Rap has lyrics, significant that you can “articulate” (emotionally communicate) your thoughts and feelings without the need of an instrument other than your own body. Popular music is then literally “self”-sufficient—the body is the only vehicle absolutely required for presenting both sensation (feeling) and cognition (thought), whereas jazz is almost impossible without instruments, without the use of material objects (instruments of “noise making”) outside of the performer’s body. Moreover, it is extremely significant that jazz instrumental techniques mimic the human voice rather than some abstract pure tonality. The jazz “vocalization” emphasis for the playing of instruments points to jazz’s origin as popular music based in an African aesthetic. This vocal-orientation is a major demarcation between how one plays jazz and plays Euro-centric musics. “Vocalness” is then the second element of the tri-part focus.


Thirdly, R&B/Rap has a strong beat, it is dance music. The emphasis on dance is significant. Indeed, the birth of R&B happened precisely at the same time that jazz ceased being dance music. While I do not argue that dancing is necessary to receive pleasure from music, I do recognize that at the popular level in America, pleasure in music is equated with dance. Initially, R&B was nothing more than a branch of post-World War II jazz that emphasized lyrics (often humorous and/or bawdy) accompanied by a dance beat. A founding figure of this development was saxophonist / vocalist / bandleader Louis Jordan. Indeed, initially this precursor of R&B was sometimes known as “jump jazz,” a term which made the dance connection obvious.


America’s fascination with Black dance forms began with the “cakewalk” during the ragtime era and escalated from there. When we investigate the background of dancers whom are considered 100% American such as Vernon and Irene Castle, who made a career out of teaching popular (i.e. “ballroom”) dance in the twenties, or movie idol Fred Astaire, we find that they were not only directly influenced by Black dancers of their time, indeed they often studied Black dancers, both directly (as in were mentored by) and indirectly (as in imitated).


If not directly descendant from or primarily influenced by Black dance, all forms of popular America dance have an ethnic origin outside of American—need we point out that Cajun culture is French influenced? Although a case can be made for square dancing, even that has been transformed by Black contact as any quick perusal of country cable television will demonstrate. When we see contemporary country and western dance, what we are looking at is “cowboys” doing line dances whose structure and moves are clearly based on Black forms of dance. They don’t call what they do the “electric slide” or the “bus stop” but the resemblance is both obvious and unmistakable. In fact, if we look back to the late fifties/early sixties we find the immediate precedent for contemporary line dances, the “Madison” dance craze touted by Time magazine complete with a chart demonstrating the steps.


Musicality, lyricism and a dance beat are the triumvirate of essential ingredients in all popular American music.


One of the most significant “American” shifts in the Black music aesthetic is the separation of secular and spiritual forms of music, a separation which is reinforced by the mutually exclusive association of dance with secular music. Thus, although Black religious music (spirituals and gospel) clearly qualify as embodying the concepts of musicality and lyricism, spirituals are not dance music, and ditto for gospel (a music form which developed in the 1920s epitomized by the work of composer/pianist Thomas Dorsey and vocalist Mahalia Jackson). The recent attempts of Kirk “Stomp” Franklin and others within contemporary gospel notwithstanding, churches do not allow dancing.


This is a European splitting of the celebration of the body from the celebration of the soul. Moreover, because all Black dance celebrates the erotic, and because Christianity posits the body as sinful (as in “original sin”) there is a further demarcation and separation. But an African aesthetic does not consider the body sinful, nor does our aesthetic consider the erotic to ipso facto be lewd. Thus on the one hand dance and popular music are generally considered beyond the pale for good Christians, and at the same time within the Black community there is a constant cross-genre traffic.


Many of the major R&B artists originate in and get their basic foundation in the musical liturgy of the Black church and then cross over to the secular side of the street to become popular, secular music entertainers. These musicians carry the gospel way with them, for while gospel may have eschewed dancing, gospel retained a direct identification with emotionalism and with trance, which is a transformation of the body into a vehicle for sacred expression. We call it getting the holy ghost. While the number of R&B artists who started off as gospel artists is too many to shake a stick at, it is important to mention that it was Ray Charles who brought not just the expressiveness but adapted, on a wholesale level, the specifics of gospel and injected it into what was then newly emerged as R&B. For all practical purposes, if Louis Jordan was the John the Baptist of R&B, Ray Charles was the “Jesus” who had thousands of disciples, both male and female, who followed in his wailing footsteps.


At the same time that gospel was used to develop the “soul sound” of R&B, Black religious music was, and is, constantly re-energized by injections of Black secular musical forms. Gospel as we know it initially was spirituals “jazzed up.” In the twenties when Dorsey and Jackson first introduced this music they were accused of bringing he devil into the church and were actually forbidden to sing “gospel” in some churches because the church elders insisted that what they were really singing was the “devil’s music.” Mahalia Jackson’s retort is classic: Well that’s the way we sing it in the south.


What is even more significant than simply “jazzing up” gospel music, and also even more significant than injecting “rap” into gospel music, is the Afro-centric reintroduction of the drum into sacred musical liturgy. If any one factor represents both dance and Afrocentricity, it is the drum. That the drum is not only accepted, but is increasingly a mainstay of religious music, signifies a move toward the merging of secular and sacred music into an aesthetic (holistic) whole that is a hallmark of the African way of life.


In a very important and Afrocentic sense, music that does not merge both body and soul, feeling and thought, is not complete. Music that is truly a people’s music (i.e. truly “popular”) ought to contain and celebrate both elements as part of a continuum rather than separate one aspect from the other. What we are witnessing, whether we realize it or not, is the push and pull of African aesthetics toward wholeness.


The sound of Blackness is the aesthetic of psychological freedom. Understanding its psychological impact is the key to appreciating the attraction and importance of R&B specifically and Black popular music in general. This music is both a music of freedom and of honesty.


The freedom to acknowledge one’s self, body and soul, to say that I exist and I matter, and all of me matters, my physical and emotional as well as my mental and spiritual capacities — admittedly, the spiritual aspect of a music of pleasure is usually limited, but that part is there also. And the honesty to admit that the reality of the self, the spectrum of concerns we inhabit, is a spectrum whose poles are good and bad, beautiful and ugly. We all live on and in that sphere, and the extremes are never fixed—each quality is relative. What is good, bad, beautiful, etc. at any given moment changes as we change.


There are no absolutes except life itself, and even that is speculative, i.e. is there life after death? Many people don’t realize that all of this is contained in going up to Slim’s on Saturday night and dancing until you fall out and, hopefully, landing in the embrace of a special someone’s arms.


What is important to understand is that many of us have been taught that we are ugly, that the physical is sinful, that physical pleasure is wrong, and yet, through the magic of music we resist such teachings with a philosophy that refuses to separate feeling from thought, body from soul. When we dance we are arguing that life is wholistic.


R&B/Rap is philosophically important. To prioritize pleasure, a pleasure that we can produce and reproduce without “buying” something, is extremely important to maintaining mental health. To understand self-production as an activity that each of us can engage, rather than an artifact we own or purchase, such as an article of clothing, or a fat bank account, or even a fine physique; this understanding is key to why we persist in singing and dancing to the music. We do so because ultimately we can not exist without recreating our sense of self, our awareness of our own beauty and goodness.  And that is why we could, indeed “had to” sing a song in a strange land.


In our communities, aesthetic (a sense of beauty and goodness) awareness is generally an unconscious awareness, nevertheless, such self awareness is absolutely necessary to life, for we can not go on if we do not believe that there is some good, some beauty within us. That screaming and hollering that the singers do, those songs that move us so, all of that informs us that within each of our lives there has been some good, some beauty, even if only momentary and fleeting, even if we are crying and moaning because that good thing is now gone, even if we believe the exquisite moment shall never return, we are still emboldened by the fact that we can stand and proudly proclaim, “I have had my fun / if I don’t get well no more.”


Finally, fun is subversive, especially when one is the object of oppression and exploitation. For when the sufferers find a way to have fun, we not only momentarily transcend our suffering, we affirm that there is a part of us, an enjoyment within us which we share with our fellow sufferers that is beyond the reach of the overseer, the master, the banker, our creditors, the boss, the hoss, and any damn other person or thing that is intent on making our lives miserable. This subversive factor is the ultimate meaning of R&B/Rap, and is also the source of why the music is always damned by the psychological gatekeepers, i.e. ministers, politicians, educators & status quo intellectuals. When social pundits argue that R&B, or Rap, or any other contemporary popular music is a morally corrupting force, or that those forms “are not music,” that our music needs to be censored if not actually prohibited, then what they are saying is that we have no right to decide what to do with our own bodies for good or for ill.


R&B asserts that “I’m three times seven / and that makes 21 / ain’t nobody’s bizness / what I do.” The ultimate determination of self is the right of self expression, and those who would limit, circumscribe, prohibit, or otherwise legislate our self expression are the very same people who have no problem with capitalism (and if they were alive during slavery time, ditto, they would have no problem with slavery). In fact, during slavery time there were those who tried to stop enslaved Africans from singing and dancing. The power of popular music is that it asserts our existence centered in a pleasurable self-determined celebration. When we holler, “let the good times roll / laissez les bon temps roullez,” we are actually uttering a war cry against psychological oppression. And when we produce our own popular music and dance outside of the purview of the status quo, then we are (re)creating the/our “living self.”


There is more, of course, just as surely as Sunday morning follows Saturday night, but that more is for another time. Right now, I just wanted to share with you the “psychological significance” and “aesthetically-African origins” of popular American music; in other words, I just wanted to tell you why it is so important for us to have some fun!





Men With Guns







my fingers hesitate, but i must tell someone, and who better than you, even though, i’m sort of sure, I mean, i’m pretty sure, you’re not expecting to hear from me. you know, the way we left, or at least, the way i left. maybe one day before we make thirty you will forgive me... i hope you’re willing to read this ... anyway, stop distracting me. oops, i’m sorry. i didn’t mean to say that.


i’m blaming you again for my own in-discipline. remember, how once i jumped on you for sleeping to quietly? you woke up and asked me what i was doing, and when i realized i had spent 20 minutes just looking at you sleeping, i got angry at you... anyway, how are you?


sometime back i filed some photos for the christian science monitor. was supposed to have two shots but it got cut down to one (kalamu re-ran the article on, you can search the archives for “black diamond” and read it). i’ve attached the two photos.


i think i did a pretty good job even though no one photo can tell it all. plus, you know, i don’t know that photography (or anything else) is capable of telling the whole story over here. remember we talked about what photographs can do, about why i continue as a photographer, why i think i can make a contribution being a revolutionary photographer. yu said a picture of a gun can’t shoot shit. and my reply: but a picture of a woman with a gun can make a man shit. lol. rotglmao (that’s, rolling on the ground laughing my ass off). smile, that’s just my macabre humor at work.


what’s that blues line: laughing to keep from crying? except, i really felt like crying after that shoot. you’d have to be here, i guess, to feel me, except if my pictures are strong enough to make you feel... i’m talking in circles again, huh?


we were in this encampment at a village caught in the middle. d, there’s nothing left. the guerillas invited us in to report on what happened. the journalist i’m traveling with is interviewing guerilla women, including one named black diamond. she’s only average height, robust but not big. a plain, oval-shaped, dark face. could be any woman in this area. except she speaks with fierce intensity. not shouting or loud, but not soft either. and, like, everything she says sounds like a command that everyone follows without hesitation. of course, i took some shots of her, me kneeling and angling up, making her look like a giant.


while the interview continued i looked around for something else to shoot. there was nothing. devastation is not dramatic unless you can find a small something that will hit home to the viewer, but there’s nothing  we would recognize as a destroyed home. and... d. are you still reading? i hope so. i’ve got a whole half hour of internet access. it only took me about ten or twelve minutes to file photos. my batteries are charging now, and i have about fifteen minutes left, so that’s why i’m rambling...


i’ma be honest: i miss you. but i know you know that cause whenever we argued and I threatened to leave, you used to all the time say, you know how you drawl, dawg, you gonna miss this bone when i’m gone... “dawg!” d. was that your hip way of calling me a bitch without saying the word? did you think i was acting like a bitch cause i didn’t want to commit to a long term relationship? ... i didn’t mean to bring that up.


this girl was standing by a tall, slender tree, one arm around the trunk. ther was something, like, I had this feeling she had been watching me for a long, long time. she did not avert her gaze when i glanced at her. just stared back. instantly  i knew she had seen a lot of stuff, there was no innocence in those eyes. no curiosity. just witness. her eyes were like my camera.


i held my camera up and pointed it toward her to ask permission. she didn’t respond. just kept looking. my hand flew to my mouth covering my lips, you know the gesture i do when I’m embarrassed, you always used to point that gesture out to me. i thought about you at that moment and how you would always say: ask for what you want, don’t be embarrassed by your wants.


so, i said, “photo”? no response at first, then she raised her free arm and hugged the tree like it was a best friend. i started to try and quickly frame that shot but before i got the camera up all the way she said, “yes, mam.” her english was clear and her deference made me hesitate.


“what’s your name?” I asked.


she replied, “kuji.”


i told her my name and fired off two quick shots. i wanted to talk but couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say, so i asked her age?




“you live here?”


“no. i am with the freedom fighters.”


i took another shot, she was holding her hands clasped in front of her.


“how long?”


“for life.”


“no, i mean when did you join the freedom fighters?”


“when i saw captain diamond.”


d. i’m running outta time (you know how long it takes me to type, how I usually send postcards, but we have not had easy access to the mail, except the office email is working fine, thus, this email but no postcard, you unnerstand?), anyway, i will just tell you what kuji told me. kuji is a war orphan, her mama was beat to death, never met her father, her twin brother is missing and she dosn’t have anyone else. she said she used to go to school in the city and one day they all had to leave suddenly. their teachers put them in the back of a truck trying to escape, but the truck was attacked and all children jumped out running, except kuji climbed a tree and she saw one of the guerillas catch a teacher. kuji heard the woman screaming and saw the man grab her red hair, that’s what kuji said, “red hair.” the teacher tried to run but tripped. the man grabbed her by hr blouse. the cloth ripped. kuji said, “she had one of them white straps holding her breasts” and the gurilla he grabbed that and it broke. and then he kicked the woman and jerked her by her arm and dragged her into a hut. after a while, kuji said, black diamond came with some other women guerillas and then the man came out with his gun in his hand, saying something kuji could not hear. when diamond tried to go inside, the man stepped in front of her. dimond pushed the man aside and went in. she came out quickly and walked straight up to the man and before he could do anything, she hit him with her gun. twice again. and ordered one of her soldiers to take his gun.


d. it was extraordinary to hear the pride as this young girl described this. kuji’s eyes were shining while telling me what had happened. kuji says, the guy and black diamond started shouting. diamond turns to the other guerillas and they discuss what to do. that’s when kuji climbed down and told them what she saw. they asked her questions and the guy questions. the man said kuji was lying. she said, I’m scared but i’m not lying. and than the man tried to grab her and shouted, “this kid is lying.” and i said, i mean, kuji said, i no lie! that’s when diamond ordered, let me see your dick. show me your dick! we will see if you have been with a woman just now. the man grabbed himself and shouted no. long story short, black diamond shot him. and proclaimed, we are fighting so that men with guns can never hurt us women again. death to thugs!


d., i got to go. i wish i had got the picture when kuji repeated diamond’s words, holding her little fist fiercely above her head: death to thugs! if you saw all the mad violence i’ve seen here, you would understand a teenage girl being proud of helping to kill a rapist. or maybe not, but anyway, life’s truly tragic here and probably it will take more women killing a bunch a men in order to put an end to all the killing and raping women suffer.


those are hard facts, but what else can anyone do? war is hell and women are heaven.


let me know how you like the article. i’m thinking about doing a book about the women over here and maybe i will call it, death to thugs.


gotta run. ciao (mein). ;>)


—kalamu ya salaam






You are a fresh flower

bursting boldly

into a hard world

with a softness

strong as steel


Reaching for sunlight

you raise yourself

up from down under

out of the degrading dirt

society has so routinely

dumped on women,

you have transformed

manure, muck and mire

into fertilizer


Spring self assertedly

past winter weather

you bring a sweet fragrant

incense and inspiration

into musty places

stale with the stuffiness

of misogynic sexist

status quos


You blossom, you bloom

you expand and grow

raising beauty

to a bedazzling higher

and healthier level of

light, life and love


Grow on Black rose

Black woman grow on!


—kalamu ya salaam


“You Get Used To It”

Musical composition ("I Remember Clifford") by Benny Golson

Short Story by Kalamu ya Salaam


Kalamu ya Salaam – vocals

Stephan Richter – clarinet

Wolfi Schlick – tenor

Frank Bruckner – guitar


Recorded: May 31, 1998 – Munich, Germany



(you get used to it)


they used to call me brownie—clifford brown. i don’t have a name now, at least none that you all can translate. i guess you can call me the spirit of brownie, except that’s so limiting and in the spirit world there are no limits. can you understand be everywhere all the time at the same time? never mind. this is about to get too out for you to dig.


when the accident happened, i had nodded off. i mean the ’56 pennsylvania crackup, not the one in ’50 that had me hung up in the hospital for a year. dizzy came and visited me, encouraged me to resume my career when i was released. not that one. instead i mean the big one where i woke up dead.


max and newk, they were in the other car, which had gone on ahead. so when they heard we had died, well, maxwell really took it hard. i guess because he knew richie’s wife shouldn’t have been driving because richie had only recently taught her how to drive—recently like a matter of weeks.


but when max, who was six years my senior and had seven on richie, tried to intervene, richie sounded on him. you know how we young cats asserting our manhood can run guilt trips, “max. max. why you always treating me like bud’s baby brother? i play as much box as earl does, more, ‘cause bud is so inconsistent, and me, i’m always there.”


which was true. he was on time, all the time. “plus i arrange and compose.” and he would touch his thick glasses in a disarming gesture that belied the stern words he was declaiming. “i’m a grown man, max. a grown, married man. i got a wife, a woman, a life, a man. why are you second guessing me on who can drive and who can’t drive? why you treat me like a boy?”


it was such a drag, such a drag seeing youngsters straining to act so old. but you know, like richie was carrying a gorilla on his back. what with richie tickling the ivories and being the younger brother of earl bud powell, the reigning rachmaninoff of jazz piano. i bet you if my older brother played trumpet and was named dizzy, i would play bass or drums. but then again, being who i was, what choice did i have but to play what i played or else not play at all? no one chooses to be born who they are.


but anyway, max, max starts drinking to get drunk. and drinking and drinking. no even tasting the liquor, just pouring it in trying to kill the pain. richie’s gone. his wife was gone. i was gone. max is whipping himself like a cymbal on an uptempo “cherokee”—ta-tah, ta-tah, ta-tah-tah, tat tah! and newk, newk just disappeared, was up in his room, standing in the middle of the floor, going deep inside himself trying not to feel nothing.


max was in his room drinking and crying, crying and drinking. and newk, in a room above max, was silent as a mountain. i had to do something, so i played duets with newk all that night. all night. we played and we played. and we played. all night. i was willing to play as long as newk was willing and newk stayed willing all night. it was like he was a spirit too, but that comes from being a musician. when you’re really into the music you get used to going into the spirit world all the time and bringing the peoples with you. that’s the real joy of playing, leaving this plane and entering the spirit world.


as much as me and newk played that night, that’s how much max drank and cried. finally, i couldn’t take it no more and i had to appear to max. i stepped in the seam between worlds. i was like translucent. that was as close as i could come to having a body but i was solid enough for max to peep me, and i spoke… well not really spoke, kind of sounded inside max’s head while i was shimmering in the shadows of that gloomy hotel room.


“max, it wasn’t your fault, man. you can’t live other people’s lives. you’ve got to sound your own life.”


i couldn’t find the words to tell max how it was. we all live. we all die. the force that people on earth call god, gives us all breath but also, sooner or later, takes that breath away. in time, god gets round to killing each of us. whatever we do in between, we do or don’t do.


and max starts bawling even louder, talking about how i was too good for this world, how my example helped all of them clean up their particular indisciples. he was moaning, you know, crying and talking all out his head at the same time. crying pain like a man cries when he’s really broke down.


if i had still been alive i would have hugged him but i was dead and that’s why he was crying. so finally, all i could do was tell him the truth. “hey, max, it’s alright, max. it’s alright. get yourself together and keep playing. i’m cool where i’m at. it’s alright!


the next morning, when they left, max and newk got in the car and didn’t say a word. for the rest of their lives they never talked to each other about that scene. we all have different ways of dealing with death, even those of us who are dead.


and there it is. life is always about decisions and consequences made within a given set of circumstances. you can’t change the past. you can’t foresee the future. all you have is the clay of today to shape your existence. no matter what particular condition you are in, you can only do what you can do. you can only go with the flow of where you are at, and work hard to blow the prettiest song you can conceive. that’s all any of us can do in however many choruses we get the chance to take while we’re alive.


besides, believe me, death ain’t no big thing. you get used to it, after a while.


—kalamu ya salaam


Nineteen Years, 364 Days Later...

(Dedicated to Mtume ya Salaam)


When he beeped me, I called him back immediately on my cell phone even though I was within blocks of returning home from overnighting one of those endless required reports (what a waste of money, there's nothing in most of my reports they don't already have, but, hey, like my man always says, they don't pay you to complain).


I had mastered the fine art of silence and of saying yes even when my “yes” only meant: yes I hear you and I'm just saying yes right now until I can figure out how to not do whatever it is you're demanding I do.


I'm a quick study, so it didn't take me long to learn that you get the best advice on how to survive from survivors: Kid, there's nothing more effective than silently doing your job. Learn to listen more than you speak, be quiet when people are talking in front of you about stuff you're not supposed to hear in the first place. Pay close attention when people are talking about you but not to you. And always resist the temptation to point fingers when someone is trying to dump their boo-boos on your back.


"You know, kid, they say you never see it coming and you don't. I guess they consider me a geezer who is in the way of pushing up the bottom line. They probably think I don't get it anymore..."


I had to admit to myself that there was something a bit unseemly about a fifty-something family man promoting adolescent singers and rappers, but, hey, his job description doesn't call for him to pick them, but simply to promote whomever the company is pushing.


"...And then again, maybe they have a point. We used to promote music, now we promote what they call talent. Some teenager who shaves once a week and sleeps with a different woman every night, if not every hour, or some young girl who wears designer lingerie for her public appearances and in-store autograph signings while giving interviews talking about getting respect. But you know all this."


He paused just as I pulled into my driveway. Like he and I joked one evening after an in-store with a female singing group whose talent quotient was strictly physical but who had a producer who knew how to cover up their thin vocals with phat beats: what this company is really looking for is a way to make records without having to bother with musicians at all.


"Man, I just wanted to make twenty."


He wasn't whining, he was just talking out loud, trying to clear his head, which had to be screwed up at the moment. He's 54. Been with the company since '77. He's seen a lot of money change hands under the table, a lot of overnight reversals in taste, and bunches of head honchos, HNICs, and industry hit men come and go. He's also seen how unpredictable popularity is. He says they used to laugh at that girly-voiced, skinny kid who wore leopard-skin bikini briefs as a fashion statement. Who would have thought he would go platinum and end up taking a name no one, himself included, could pronounce? In a similar vein, my man remembers Luther believing that he would never make it as a lead singer because he was shy, fat and gay--of course, he never called Luther gay. Being a pro, one doesn't say gay in public, cause outing people is not kosher, even when being gay is obvious. But, anyway, back when Vandross was first making his move from singing jingles, doing beaucoup backups for superstars who could barely carry three notes in a row without veering off key, and was occasionally getting to do leads with a no name, one hit group, Luther's physical attributes were not exactly the right combination for an aspiring R&B male icon slash sex symbol. But, just goes to show you, in this business, what counts is what sells. Period. And nobody really knows what will sell before it sells, which is why the company releases so many new acts who blithely cross from crass copycats to bizarre copycats in an attempt to make it by being different--now I sound like I'm whining.


At first I thought the industry was anti-music and make-a-buck- anyway-you-can oriented because 45-year-old, white, all-American business types were in charge, but since being here I've seen what happens when we get in. I can now definitively declare without fear of contradiction: when it comes to running the music industry, Negroes are just as fucked up as white folks and maybe even a little worse. The new black music division boss is an under thirty, gold earringed, dreadlocked, Howard grad who is well connected. He talks the talk, wears the gear, and has a string of hit records happening.  He could do whatever he wants to do, so what does he do? He hires Nintendo-playing underlings who order employees old enough to be their fathers to get some girls for the night--"not no whores like last time, some nice girls."


I guess that's the difference between working in promotions and working in sales. In promotions you have to be a pimp and a babysitter. I'm lucky, I'm in sales, so I get to be a shyster and a liar: "How does it sound? Oh, it'll definitely go platinum inside a month. You better order at least fifty, seventy-five to be on the safe side." I guess it wouldn't surprise anyone to know that a couple of weeks ago I put in my application at the post office. Needless to say, however, you never reveal a job jump until both feet are firmly on the ground somewhere else.


"I guess I'm going to get me a good lawyer."


He pauses, I’m using my hunched-up shoulder and my head tilted sideways to vice the small phone to my left ear. I don't say anything.


"With any luck, maybe I'll be able to swing a deal. I talked with the attorney who got a lifetime salary payment as a settlement for his client in that age discrimination suit the company settled out of court. Remember I told you about that? He says I've got a good case, especially since I kept records of everything. I've got every piece of paper anybody ever sent me and every response I made."


While I'm listening, I'm looking at all the junk on my home office desk. I used to be inclined to deep six most of this shit but my mentor has taught me the prudence of a four drawer file cabinet. I've got a good forty minutes of paper shuffling ahead of me.


"Man, it's incredible. The deal was so foul that the secretary, who gave me the papers and stuff, she was crying. She advised me to see a lawyer before I signed anything. I should of known it. Like I told you, I was expecting it, but then when I didn't have but five days left before I made twenty years..."


He exhaled loudly and I could hear the frustration leaking out of him. Out the clear blue, I suddenly remembered how a guy who had made promotions man of the year was terminated less than two years later and then brought back when a couple of major radio stations absolutely refused to play the label's product unless he was rehired. The company called him and said there had been a mistake. I heard that the only thing the guy said when he got the phone call was: oh, you mean you meant to offer me a raise rather than an involuntary retirement? And the caller says, yeah, that's exactly right. So, maybe the fat lady has a couple of more songs to sing before she's through. However, I don't hear any hope in his voice as he continues in a slightly bitter but resigned tone.


"I mean after Monday and Tuesday passed, and I only had to go to Friday to make twenty, I let down my guard and started thinking I had it made, you know. And then Wednesday they send me a ticket to jet to headquarters for a meeting on Thursday. I'm figuring it's a new act they want us to push or something. I mean who flies somebody cross country to New York to let them go?"


I couldn't say anything. The answer was obvious. Then he told me the guy never looked him in the eye the whole time. Some 26 year-old executive, sits a man down and tells an experienced worker who has been through countless ups and downs with the company that there has been some structural adjustments and that there's no job left for him. And that it just wasn't working out. It! What the hell is “IT”? Nineteen years, 364 days later and you're let go because “it” is not working out?


What would you do if “it” happened to you?


—kalamu ya salaam